Sometimes the key to making a vehicle combat enjoyable in a game is keeping it simple on the surface while layering some complexity underneath. Not every player want to spend 10 hours in a tutorial memorizing every detail of how a vehicle works. That’s where Maelstrom, developed by Gunpowder Games, shines.
Maelstrom is a ship combat game that released on Steam Early Access a few weeks ago, and its exciting, arcade-style PvP ship combat has kept me playing constantly since launch. It is primarily played through 15 player free-for-all battles, where the goal is to knock out your opponent’s ships any way you can to be the last captain standing. You can choose from nine different ships across three fantasy factions, Orks, Dwarves and Humans, and each faction has their variation of small to large vessels.
Each player is plopped onto a sizeable map. there, they must navigate around randomly generated landmarks and hazards while blasting apart fellow captains. In battle royale-like fashion, after every few kills, the map edges will fill with instant-death “dark waters,” forcing players to duke it out in treacherously small areas of water.
Get caught sailing in Dark Waters for too long means this guy will devour your ship with a satisfying crunch.
Controls and combat are fairly simple. You move your ship around with WASD or the left stick and control what cannons fire by moving the camera around. There’s no crew or individual sail management here, which help keep combat fast and snappy. I played with both controller and keyboard just fine which means great things for future console support if the devs have time. Learning Maelstrom takes no time at all, but the real exhilaration comes from mastering the other combat and RPG-style systems weaved into the simple controls.
Each ship comes equipped with three cannon-shot types that can cause hull, sail or crew damage to an enemy ship, which can cripple opponents in different ways. Tapping out an opponent’s sails destroys their speed and maneuverability, making for an easy target for long-range assaults. Crew damage can be especially potent; reducing an enemy crew count below a certain threshold means they can no longer board your ship, and fewer crew members also mean your ship repairs passively at a much slower rate.
Riding the edge of the massive whirlpool (called the Maelstrom) can give a massive boost of speed, perfect for ramming that slow-moving Dwarven ship for huge hull damage.
Factions, ship types, choice of captain and loadout customizations also play a huge factor in deciding your play style and success against enemy ships. Ork ships, for example, often have cannons and abilities that excel in close quarters, while Dwarven steam ships tend to pelt opponents farther away with heavier cannons and omnidirectional fire. Thanks to the number of options available to customize your load outs with, the game feels fairly balanced. There were some problems fairly early in release with setups built around ship ramming and crew damage, but the devs have quickly adjusted those issues in weeks since launch.
What I love most about Maelstrom is the level of care Gunpowder Games put into making it feel like epic ship combat, while still retaining arcade-style elements that keep matches fun and loose. Every cannon shot explodes with a thunderous crack and lands with a satisfying thud of splintering wood. The exaggerated ship designs ooze character and provide an important tool for players since each faction’s style is easily recognizable from a distance. Even losing a match can be a treat, because you can watch the last players duke it out in spectacular fashion from the comfort of a tiny lifeboat after death.
The Gorger is the best boarding ship in the game, and with a good crew and a few loadout tweaks, you can ensure no ship will escape from your boarding hooks unscathed.
What I want to see next in Maelstrom is simply more content. The game surpassed its Kickstarter goal of $10,000 by a little over $6,000, but there were plenty of stretch goals for single player content, new mechanics, co-op modes and a new faction, so hopefully, they are able to add some of those elements during their Early Access period. A single player campaign would be a huge task and I’m not sure Maelstrom even needs it with how fun the core multiplayer gameplay is, but I can understand the appeal. Personally, I think a game like this would actually benefit from cosmetics earned over time or by completing in-game challenges. Gunpowder Games has delivered a rock-solid foundation for fantastic, fast-paced naval combat with the Early Access release of Maelstrom and I’m excited to sink many more hours (and ships) while the team polishes this game for full release.
This preview is based on an early release copy of the game provided by the publisher.