The pirate genre has been far from inspirational in the videogame industry. That’s not to say there’s never been a good one. Monkey Island remains a fond memory of the 90s, the Risen series has become something of a cult classic. I would even argue one of the Assassin’s Creed series’ best games is basically just a pirate game. Excluding the odd success though, pirate and naval games have seemingly fallen down the back of the sofa with werewolves, Dead Island 2 and the player base for Fallout 76.
Gunpowder Games is the newest team to step up to the table with its free-to-play naval free-for-all, Maelstrom. It’s an interesting take on the genre, an online, PVP game with naval only battles. With no on-land elements, Maelstrom takes on the unenviable task of making an engaging naval battle system, something plenty of games have struggled with in the past. It’s possibly the whole reason the genre seems to sit stagnant for years. With that said, Gunpowder Games don’t actually do too bad of a job with it.
There’s a couple of online elements that help Maelstrom massively in this regard. Firstly, PVP combat is, apparently, an absolute necessity for making boat-to-boat combat fun for more than five minutes. With no clunky ocean AI to deal with, you’re forced into actually thinking about your approach to battle. I’m not saying you need to be Horatio Nelson to have any chance in Maelstrom, but you won’t get away with simply floating alongside someone and bombarding them with canon fire until they sink. The second aspect that keeps Maelstrom ticking are its monsters. Maelstrom leans heavily into the fantasy element of the ocean. This becomes clear, not only due to the unique ship designs, but because of what lays below the surface too. I didn’t know too much about Maelstrom before I went into this review, so it came as quite the surprise when a Leviathan appeared from beneath the waves to give me the ol’ Titanic treatment.
The element of monsters is an important addition to keep the game feeling as fresh as it does in the beginning. Despite the delightful art on the ships themselves, there’s an uninspiring blandness on the game's ocean maps. Even despite having better naval gameplay than a lot of modern games I’ve experienced, there’s still a repetitiveness to it that would have worn you down eventually. Without those unexpected moments, Maelstrom would likely have just descended into a bland battle royale game at sea. Yet, having played some 14 hours before growing tired of the constant PVP battles, I cannot help but feel that a fully PVE game mode was a missed opportunity. Which isn’t a knock on the PVP system itself, it just needs something more to keep you coming back. Something that keeps the game fresh and can be expanded on. The possibility of ocean-based ‘raids’ is something that could have helped with the longevity of the game - and longevity is something the game is in desperate need of.
Although it did take a while before I found myself getting bored of the PVP loop, the wait times for games became very frustrating early on. Maelstrom comes with two PVP queues, solo and team (3-players). The average wait time for a solo queue was around five minutes, with the team queue usually averaging around seven minutes. It’s not an absolute dealbreaker, but it comes across as a telling sign that the game needs more to bring the players in and encourage them to stay. Mechanically, Maelstrom does a really good job but it is starved for content. The game's Kickstarter suggests Gunpowder Games have potential plans for PVE content in the future, but the game is desperate for it now. There’s limited fun to be had in the PVP of Maelstrom and the long wait times are only going to put more players off.
Maelstrom is a fun game that, as it stands, falls short of being anything remarkable but has a lot of potential to be something truly worth paying attention to. There’s a strong foundation to build a great game on, but that needs to be built before the player base is lost. Despite early game fun and an interesting fantasy premise, there’s a clear lack of variety in the content the game has to offer. Without that variety, it’s hard to see long term enjoyment in Maelstrom’s PVP scene. Especially if the wait times continue to grow.
Maelstrom (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
A solid game at its core but lacks the content remain engaging in the long term.