Indie games can often be excellent, even if they go unnoticed or unappreciated. I thought I should bring into the light a recent Early Access title, which clearly holds a lot of promise and potential. Maelstrom is in simple words a naval battle royale set into a world of dark fantasy. And a pretty good one, if you ask me. Since this is an Early Access review, it's very likely that I'll do a separate review concerning the fully launched game in the future.
Developer(s): Gunpowder Games, LLC
Publisher(s): Gunpowder Games, LLC
Release date: April 11th, 2018
Platfroms: PC (Mac and Linux planned for the future)
Where to buy: Steam
Genre(s): Battle Royale
About the developers and the game
I'm fully aware that Early Access titles have gotten somewhat of a bad reputation lately, due to some devs abandoning the project in the middle of everything. But I see no immediate reason to believe the people at Gunpowder Games to abandon this project. Here's what I know.
They're an indie group of video game developers set in California. The members of the group are devs who wanted to take a direction of their own separate from their respective companies. At the moment, the group boasts former members from Relic Entertainment, Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games, Insomniac Games and High Moon Studios. And the titles these people have worked on include Overwatch, Company of Heroes, League of Legends, Deadpool: the game, Dawn of War I and II and even Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
In the subject of the game itself, Maelstrom was developed with Unreal Engine 4 and funded via Kickstarter that ran from March 6th to March 27th of 2018. Currently, the game's content is limited, but things will really get going once it is officially launched. The features of the full game were revealed to some extent in last November's update.
The game doesn't have a fully detailed story, but there are elements of it. Apparently, the world of Maelstrom used to be a fairly standard fantasy world, until the oceans of the world began to rise. Eventually, they consumed most of the dry land, leaving only the highest peaks above the water. Needless to say, habitable land has become essentially priceless as a result, which creates opportunities for sea captains, who are paid huge bounties to protect the lands from the enemies. But war between various kingdoms isn't the only peril the surviving people of the drowning world face. Massive sea monsters have risen from the depths to hunt those bold and foolish enough to venture their waters.
Maelstrom features PvP combat on relatively small naval maps with the maximum number of 13 players. Though the maps are small, sailing from one edge to another isn't without obstacles – cliffs and canyons form solid obstacles for all ships. The game has no mechanic for wind, but there are currents that might speed up or slow down your advance, depending on the direction you're sailing. Each map also has several maelstroms, which can also be used to increase your speed. That is, as long as you manage to prevent yourself from getting sucked into the center and to the depths.
As with all battle royale games, the playing field grows smaller over time. Every once in a while, you will see the ominous words: ''The sea smells of death...''. For a while, parts of the minimap will be shown red, indicating how far the dead waters will advance. Here there be monsters, as the saying goes. The dead waters cause the ocean to turn black as tar. Stay in the dead waters longer than a couple of seconds and monsters known as Murkwater Thrashers will send you to the depths in the blink of an eye. If you're playing a particularly fast and agile ship, there is a small chance to actually dodge their attack, but such gambling is almost never recommended. Note that dead waters spread a lot faster, if there are less players remaining on the waves.
The goal of the standard game mode is to sink the ships of all other players. This can be achieved in two ways. The traditional method is to reduce the enemy ship's armor in any of the four quadrants to zero in order to damage the hull of the ship itself, until it eventually sinks. The second method is to keep boarding the enemy ship in order to attack its crew. If the crew of the ship is reduced to zero while boarding, the attackers will begin damaging the ship until it sinks. Since boarding bypasses the armor of the ship, it's particularly useful when dealing with particularly durable vessels. In combat, it's possible to use either iron shot, chain shot or grapeshot for damaging armor/hull, sails and crew respectively. If you're feeling bold, the armor and hull of enemy ships can also be damaged by simply ramming into enemy ships at high speed. Note that sails and crew replenish over time even during combat, but hull and armor are only repaired while not in combat. In addition to other players, there are also several NPC ships sailing around the map. Sinking them will grant bonuses to armor, firepower, speed, repair rate or turning.
The game also includes sea monsters that can actually be fought. Currently, the only such monster is the Brinemaw Leviathan. Killing the Brinemaw gives a big amount of gold, but it's easier said than done. First, the Brinemaws are usually located in relatively enclosed areas, which means you don't have too much room to sail around. Second, they require a lot of hits to take out, probably even if you're playing with a damage-dealing build. And third, if your ship is either a small fragile one or it has taken a notable amount of damage in combat, Brinemaws can take you out with a single hit.
Customising ships and leveling up
Each race has three ships: small, mid-sized and large. However, each ship plays in a completely unique way. For each ship has unique passive abilities, which can further be enhanced by customising the ship to suit the desired playstyle. The customisation is done through hardpoints, mates and captains.
Hardpoints are specific parts of the ship, such as cannons or sails, which give bonuses to the ship. New options are unlocked as you level up the ship. Often increasing some stats might decrease others, though. Mates are specialized crewmen that can be assigned to a ship. It's possible to have the maximum of three mates assigned at any time. Note that it's not possible to have multiple mates of the same role assigned simultaneously, such as two navigators, even if you have several of them available. Also, there are differences between mates of the same role. For example, a powder monkey can either increase your damage or your reloading speed. Captains are exceptional individuals with special abilities called tricks. Each trick has a cooldown timer before it can be used again.
Leveling up is done through gold which is solely acquired by playing. The amount of gold you gain per game depends on how long you survived during the match, how much floating treasure you managed to collect, and how many player ships you sank. The more gold you collect, the more your infamy meter grows. Leveling up unlocks new captains and gives access to more high-leveled mates. And here's the part everybody wants to hear: all the content in the game is unlocked by playing, with no microtransactions of any type. Unlike, for instance, the upcoming Skull and Bones. Hear that, Ubisoft?
Currently, the game features three races: humans, dwarves and orcs. Perhaps I'll write more detailed guides for different ships later, when I've got more in depth to them.
As with most fantasy settings, the humans of the Phoenix Empire are the generalists, with average stats in just about everything. However, the main strength of the humans is in the cannons, for their cannons possess the longest range and a devastating firepower. Also, their advanced ships are swift when sailing the oceans.
Adapting their famed mastery of technology to naval warfare, the dwarves enter the fray in heavily armored steamships. In addition to their heavy armor, their cannons are accurate and pack a serious punch, not to mention some of the dwarven ships have cannons in their fore and aft as well, making them true floating fortresses. In addition, the steamships have the unique ability to move in reverse, and since they have no sails, chain shots are worthless against dwarven ships. All this comes at a cost, however. The steamships are rather slow to turn, and probably lose at maximum speed to the vessels of other races as well. And although the dwarves are tough and resilient fighters, their crews are somewhat small in number, making them more vulnerable to boarding. Particularly, if you're fighting against orcs.
To the orc pirate lords, these dark times are a great opportunity for battle and plunder. And the orcs play definitely in the most piratey way of all. What they lack in solid armor they make up for with agile ships that turn fast, high ramming damage and good boarding, they're the most brutal fighters in the world, after all. And just for the sake of the rule of cool, their ships are pulled by sharks. Playing as the orcs is all about playing aggressive.
There will be several more races in the complete game. The undead, the goblins, the elves and the ogres have all been revealed as upcoming races, with the undead apparently coming along first.
Maelstrom might not yet include that much content, but what it does have is quite impressive. The setting, unique ships and playstyles and really good graphics as a bonus. It certainly has potential to become a great game and I'm looking forward to the finished product. The only downside is that for some reason the game has an extremely small number of active players at any time, meaning most enemies during matches will be bots. Is it because of the negative stigma the Early Access titles have acquired in recent times? I have seen comments where some ungrateful folks are whining about the devs abandoning the game. Ridiculous, considering the last update was in last November. Also, with the successful history of the devs involved, there is no reason to claim they would leave this unfinished.
I am shark god Dakuwanga, and I thank you for reading this article!