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Early Access Preview: Maelstrom

PC •

At the intersection of Hornblower-Tolkien cosplay, you find Maelstrom. It’s an enticing clash of high-fantasy and fighting sail, and is exactly the twist a certain type of popular multiplayer game needs right now. Behold, Battleship Royale.

Nobody likes people who graft their preview with a preamble about how the game in question belongs to a genre they can’t abide. Well, here we are, but I hasten to add my inexperience with the Battle Royale concept is throttled not so much by taste, but by a boondocks internet connection. It fluctuates with the phases of the moon, the seasons and its own infernal temperament. Give my internet a banjo and it could damn well play.

Semaphore notwithstanding, intrigue got the better of me when Maelstrom hit on Early Access. Finally, a ticket into the winner-takes-all genre, one somewhat more lenient to the cable-deprived. While I’m still a bottom-bound hors d’oeuvre for salty dogs, the enthusiasm remains for Gunpowder Games‘ brisk, tactical ship-to-ship combat.

As is de rigueur for the genre, sixteen players battle it out around a dense island archipelago, combatants thinning as the zone of play contracts towards the centre of the map. As the match rolls towards the late phase, a black tide rolls in from the horizon and brims with ship-destroying leviathans, safe harbour found only in the complete destruction of all other players.

You WASD about the rolling waves — and Maelstrom’s water is absolutely marvelous — with a mouse-controlled camera helping to select your firing vector. The bays and channels are dotted with little NPC boats that can be sunk for loot and buffs to firepower and speed. Three types of ammunition make combat more than merely acclimatizing to firing arcs and hang-time. Chain-shot and explosive rounds slow opponents and wither crew complements respectively, in addition to the basic shot. There’s also a short-range hook attack for triggering boarding actions and ship-specific special attacks, all governed by cool-down.

The aforementioned water makes all the difference in Maelstrom. Ships rise and fall across the rolling swell, which feeds into timing one’s shot. The crest or trough of a wave can be the difference between overshooting or falling short. Currents and wind also play a very big part, especially when captaining ships with sails. Currents can run in a certain direction, signaled by the movement of froth on the surface. In pursuits, as prey or predator, these little wrinkles can make all the difference in speed and manoeuvring.

At the time of writing, three factions are available for players, each with three classes of ships therein. Human ships, otherwise known as the Phoenix fleet, are an embellished mix of dhow, Portuguese cog and British ship of the line. The Orcs are represented with refreshingly lithe craft, all speed and prow. Dwarves take their inspiration from the Monitor and Merrimac, featured as armoured paddlesteamers – more bunker than ship. According to the road map, a fourth faction in the Undead are planned to be included at launch-proper. These ships are able to be linearly customised with upgrades, as well as able to have crew and captain assigned for a little extra oomph in areas of respective expertise.

There is the option to do free-for-all, or to hunt in pairs with friends. I’ve yet to wolfpack it up, and my dismal K/D ratio would give even the most accommodating admiral pause for thought. However, amid the frisson of last-man cannonade and sail, the community is alarmingly welcoming and seemingly willing to help old codgers get their sea legs.

The atmosphere is what gets me, though. Maelstrom offers a relatively languid pace, especially when compared to its inspirations and contemporaries. That semi-relaxed speed lets one drink in the surroundings as you spawn off the coastal shoals. Ships in the distance, riding zephyrs towards their first hopeful catch of the day. The islands themselves are dotted with little villages, hugging cliffs above a heaving tide on rickety stilts, with stone fortresses looming in the crags above.

This is of course not counting the threat of seaborne leviathans lurking on the horizon, or slumbering in quiet coves. The leashed camera means the scale is preserved as you swan about this dense cluster of islands, the periphery either open sea or tall stone vertices. I wouldn’t say no to a Caribbean-inspired map, replete with steamy tropical inlets and the rotting carcasses of galleons resting in the shimmering shallows, but there’s enough character and detail in the current map as is.

For an Early Access title, this is one of the more polished affairs out. There’s still a barrier to entry, but the cautious captain can at least ride their way up the match ladder to a point. If you like the words ‘Overboard!‘, ‘World of…‘, ‘MechAssault‘ or ‘Armada‘, Maelstrom is a tidy fit. If you’re looking for a more stately twist on the Battle Royale formula, then Gunpowder Games have you covered.

 

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Notable Replies

  1. Pretty, I guess, except the part where the ship comically turns on an axis in the center of the ship like a bad racing game.

  2. Proper depiction of sailing and gunnery is horrendously difficult; when I first heard about this I presumed they wouldn't even bother with wind. I can count on the fingers of one hand the board games that get it right, never mind computer games.

  3. It's very much not Naval Action, and given the brevity of matches and arcade inclinations, all the better for it.

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