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Maelstrom - Ship Shape for Early Access?

As anyone who remembers my review of Cloud Pirates, has talked to me about the early days of Pirates of the Burning Sea or my love for the original (and mild enjoyment of the remake) Sid Meir's Pirates!, they know... I love naval combat games. 

So I once again broke my vow (second time this year) to buy an Early Access game when I saw Maelstrom. An arcade-style naval combat game with a wide variety of fantasy ships (Human, Orc, and Dwarf currently).

At the heart and soul, Maelstrom is a Battle Royale game where you travel the map killing NPC ships for upgrades and collecting gold. Killing other players nets you their upgrades and half their booty, and as you can imagine, being killed means you lose half your gold and return to the lobby to join a new game. We'll get to what gold does later.

There's no blue fog that drains your health, as the arena shrinks the sea monsters will insta-kill you. 

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of Maelstrom, let me be clear about a strong opinion I have. There is no second launch for a game. Early access launch is launch. Any developer who's hiding behind an Early Access tag, thinking that when its released they'll show how much they've improved and get a second shot is delusional. After 15 years doing game PR I don't say this out of malice, I say it out of fact. So, for any devs reading, make sure your game is prime-time ready when you go public regardless of if its open beta, early access, or just plain old "gold." (remember when we used to call launches that? If not, here's a link)

So lets talk about Maelstrom! I haven't played an arcade style third person naval combat game that does naval combat better since Pirates of the Burning Sea. The feel of the waves and currents, the volley and real aiming mechanics (no point and click to be had) and the overall feel of the ship and momentum make Maelstrom second to none for people who enjoy arcade style naval combat like you'd find in Pirates! or POTBS.

Zoom zoom! Also... more sea monsters.

They made the interesting choice to ignore wind direction and focus on water currents as the primary drivers of how your ship performs outside its normal spec. That's forgivable, as understanding how wind and tacking works can be a bit difficult for non-naval fans. 

That said, Maelstrom suffers from a true swirling mass of problems that are holding it back. These come in two flavors: core mechanic flaws and grind-in-place-of-content.

We'll start with the core mechanic problem. In Maelstrom most combat you face is attritive. Fighting anyone of about equal skill will result in taking more damage than you repair. It's pretty rare to come out of a scuffle unscathed, even after picking up the repair buff that a player drops. Since it is a battle royale, this leads to the second attrition issue. The smartest thing to do is hang back and watch two people fight, swoop in at the end, and kill them both. Meaning early on, fighting is not only negatively impacting your ability to win, but is putting you at severe risk. In essence the first part of the game is, as far as I can tell, a lot of avoiding the thing that makes the game shine: Combat.

At least the pre-match lobby lets you practice your aim... 

This leads into the next core mechanic issue, which is as the map shrinks a-la PUBG, avoiding enemies is no longer an option. That would be fine except for the fact that you'll often see 6-9 ships (out of 12-15) confined to a pretty small space by the end of the game. This results in a chaotic melee that's just not as fun as the spaced out naval combat where outmaneuvering your opponent is as important as outgunning them. By end game it's less about out-thinking and more about hoping nobody notices you. The final phase of the game is almost always the dreaded 3 ship rumble in a tiny spot of ocean. See, the problem with any 3 man FFA without the "insta-kill" power of a rifle shot to the brain is one of the three will end up king-maker. The most common scenario is this: Two of the ships are in good shape, one ship is clearly in bad shape. The bad shape ship is basically going to lose for sure, but they have enough firepower to tip the scale of the fight. So the loser gets to decide who wins, which is not satisfying for anyone. I'm not saying this happens every match, just the majority of them.

This level of chaos hurts the experience more than it helps

Core mechanic problems are, in my opinion, forgivable from the development side. It's usually very hard to see these kinds of things in closed testing, and I think a clever dev team will find solutions to make the game flow better as time goes on.

There's one thing about Maelstrom that really rubs me the wrong way though, and that is the mandatory ship upgrades. Upgrades come in two flavors: Ship upgrades which are specific to the three ships each race has access to (A light, medium, and heavy ship) and new crew members, which are shared across all ships of the same race.

Each component of a ship (cannon, sail, deck, etc) has several pre-defined items you can equip, and that is awesome. It really spreads out the number of builds each ship is capable of. However, what is not awesome is the fact that each ship starts completely naked. Until your ship reaches level 4, purchased through gold you win in each match, every single "upgrade" you buy is just that: an upgrade. Only after level 4 do you begin making interesting choices. Why? Why am I forced to grind a ship that is strictly inferior to someone else's? Why not just give me starting gear and let me unlock interesting choices... or (HOLY COW THIS IS A CRAZY IDEA) just avoid this unlocking concept all together!?

15 hours into the game and I still don't have this (the most widely used) captain.


Similarly each crew member you get, randomly, has a job classification and different stats to go along with it, ranging from 0 stars to 5 stars. I get the Skinner's box approach here, its fun to unlock new RNG crew members as you play, but why not give me one of every basic crew? Why has Malestrom decided to punish new players by not only giving them an underpowered ship, but no crew as well? It's like going out of your way to ensure a high drop-out rate of new players. At this point, crew, captain, and ship upgrades represent a major power increase, so denying even the basics to new players is pretty unforgivable.

Simply put they're hiding a lack of content behind a grind-wall. Oh, you say, but it's Early Access... and so we return to my original statement: There's no second chances in a game launch.

I hope for the best for Maelstrom. There's a fantastic game hidden in here, but until these core mechanics are improved I have trouble saying it'll be smooth sailing for Gunpowder Games' premier title.


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