General game information
Game name: Maelstrom
Release date: April 11, 2018 (Early Access)
Store page: Steam
Genre: Battle Royale
Developer: Gunpowder Games
Publisher: Gunpowder Games
It’s no wonder that after the success of Fortnite and PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS more developers have announced their own takes on the popular Battle Royale genre, but until last week, none had managed to deviate from the basic formula enough to stand out without the help of popular streamers or short lived PR stunts.
PUBG, H1Z1, The Culling, Fortnite, Radical Heights… all of these games (and countless more, either in development or already released) have something in common, which is that they belong to the newly minted Battle Royale genre, and that with the exception of the Auto Royale mode in H1Z1 (added for the game’s 1.0 release, in order to differentiate it from PUBG and Fortnite), their core gameplay loop revolves around players airdropping in a big area and killing other people in order to survive whatever danger forces players to move towards the center of the map. While the concept is sound, and has already created two juggernauts in the form of PUBG and Fortnite, there’s a sense of “been there, done that” after playing a few rounds of every newcomer to the genre. It seems as if the creative minds behind most modern Battle Royale games haven’t yet thought of a way to evolve beyond on-foot battles, and that can be a very bad thing when you are going against titles that have more than forty million players.
When I heard that Gunpowder Games were working on Maelstrom, a ship-based last man standing title, my built-in Battle Royale radar flared up, detecting a newcomer to the genre that might actually shake things up. The basic concept behind Maelstrom shares a lot with PUBG or Fortnite, but instead of embodying a relatively helpless human, we’ll control a powerful warship navigating a treacherous ocean where hungry sea monsters act as the ever present wall of death that forces players towards the center of the map.
Every other Battle Royale trait is also present here, since our objective is to sink other ships while we gather enough supplies and boons so we can become more powerful in a bid to be the last vessel standing at the end of the match. Plundered valuables will let us upgrade and customize our warship at the end of every match (a persistent aspect that separates Maelstrom from the majority of the BR pack), and we can change our captain and mates in order to better suit our needs. There are three different races boasting three ships each, appealing to all sorts of play-styles, with more to come if the game does well enough sales wise.
Combat is way more tactical than the usual shootouts found on most multiplayer titles, with physics based cannonballs affecting long range engagements, and plenty of options for thinking players. Different ammo types can be used to disable certain parts of an opposing vessel, such as their sails, armor or crew, and both boarding and ramming actions are available should one think it’s the appropriate course of action. Every playable race has their own overall play-style (Dwarves favor slower, steam powered ships that will outlast the competition through the thickness of their armor, Orcs prefer fast vessels designed with ramming and boarding in mind, and Humans boast powerful long range weaponry and medium speeds), with our choice of ship affecting our role during the action (light, medium and heavy vessels have their own quirks that must be learned in order to be effective in battle).
Micromanagement is king during every encounter with the enemy, as we have to take care of a number of variables not found in most titles in the genre. Shooting cannonballs at our foes’ general direction is all well and good, but keeping our armor, crew health and hull integrity in mind should always be our paramount interest, since this is a survival game in the end. Successful players will have to master the art of the tactical retreat, knowing when to disengage and pursue other endeavors, lest they bite off more than they could chew.
Doing well during a match will reward us with gold and mates or captains that act as powerful buffs to our warships, unlocking new active abilities, or boosting our ship’s stats. Crucially, however, doing badly during a match will still let us walk away with something, as gold can be found without even having to fire a single shot (or plundered from AI ships that are far weaker than their human controlled counterparts). This creates a sense of progression that can’t be found in PUBG or Fortnite (the former rewards players with “BP” that can be used to purchase lootboxes containing cosmetic items, and the latter offers weekly challenges for Battle Pass owners, but your avatar does not grow in strength after completing them).
According to developers Gunpowder Games, no micro-transactions of any kind will ever be introduced, though they plan to release DLC if there’s demand for more content. Should enough players buy the game, Maelstrom will also be expanded way beyond its current scope, with the ultimate aim of including a fully featured single player campaign.
Of course, even the best laid plans can fail, so there’s no telling if Maelstrom will be able to retain a healthy player base or not. Bots are included in the Early Access release, so even if Gunpowder Games‘ debut title fails to find a niche, it won’t necessarily die. Sadly, the currently available botmatches don’t offer any sort of progression, instead acting as an extended tutorial, or a way to test drive newly bought ships. Something akin to World of Warships‘ co-op battles, rewarding gamers with less cash than “real” battles would have been quite appropriate here, giving players a reason to play against AI opponents during server downtime.
Even at this early stage, Maelstrom feels like a refreshing new take on the crowded Battle Royale genre, bringing good ideas to the field and backing them with finely tuned gameplay.