Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Maelstrom Review

Maelstrom, developed by KDV Games and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Terraforming and flooding bring some interesting strategies, superficially unique races, some nice graphics
The Not So Good: Almost completely derivative gameplay with all of the originality of previous titles removed, absolutely awful and terribly broken sound, no tutorial, very small unit and building selection, poor tactical and enemy AI, uninteresting campaigns, unit movement and enemy engagement are unpredictable, complete lack of any defensive structures
What say you? A very disappointing and generic follow-up to the memorable Perimeter: 4/8

One of the most unique real time strategy games is Perimeter, where you terraform an alien world, use basic construction units to morph an army, and protect your base with a giant force field. It was quite original, and I was looking forward to the next title from the developer. Maelstrom takes some of the components of Perimeter and shifts it back to Earth, where water levels are rising (damn you, Al Gore!), people are fighting, and aliens are coming in to take over. Maelstrom is more traditional in its mechanics, making it more accessible to a large audience. Will Maelstrom maintain the inimitability (thanks, thesaurus) of the previous games?

Maelstrom features some nice graphics. The game is rendered in full 3-D and has some pleasant water and special effects. The units could use a small bit more detail, but they look good enough up close. Maelstrom has time of day and weather effects (with a clock to keep track); although it doesn’t seem to have any impact on gameplay, they add a bit of realism to the game. The heat effects, flames, and explosions in the game are quite good as well; if you have a good enough system to see them, the graphics in Maelstrom won’t disappoint. Complementing the lovely graphics is some of the most horrible sound heard in any game in recent memory. The sound is so bad that I wanted to quit the game several times just because of the inane and grating dialogue. The unit acknowledgements highlight the atrocious voice acting in the game: this is the antithesis of Company of Heroes. They are so hackneyed and stereotypical and it’s just painful to listen to. While you can clearly hear the voices at any zoom level, you can’t hear weapon effects unless you are zoomed in all the way (which makes seeing anything impossible). This means it’s extremely difficult to tell if under are under attack until you hear the annoying voice acting. The best part of Maelstrom’s sound is the background music: it’s generic at best, but that’s far superior than anything else in the title. Maelstrom is a perfect example of what not to do with sound design.

Maelstrom takes all of the innovative components of Perimeter, removes almost all of them, and comes up with a very ordinary sci-fi RTS title. The game lacks a tutorial, although they first campaign missions sort of act as one. The manual does give suggestions on what buildings to build and what units to make, and since there are only a handful, learning the game is fairly easy if you’ve played other RTS games. The campaign, where you eventually get to control each of the game’s three races, is completely boring with generic movement and base construction missions. The story is standard sci-fi fare, and with the horrible voice acting, you won’t want to play it anyway. Maelstrom does offer skirmish and multiplayer games to extend the game beyond the campaign. You can set different and multiple winning conditions: kill the enemy commander, destroy the enemy base, or capture all the water stations. Allowing this amount of flexibility is probably the best feature of the game. Battles against the computer are disappointing because of the poor AI: except on hard levels (where I think it cheats with additional resources), they will hardly expand their base or build additional units. Joining multiplayer matches is easy to do, and human competition is always preferred. Multiplayer and skirmish matches could have saved this title, but, as you’ll see, Maelstrom streamlines the gameplay to the point of insignificance.

There are three races battling for Earth dominance in Maelstrom: the Remnants (rebels), Ascension (empire), and Hai-Genti (aliens). There are subtle differences between the races in terms of resource collection and how units are built, but they all behave the same in the end. Each race has a hero unit that you can directly control, although there is no point at all in this, as it doesn’t make them more powerful or a better warrior. The first step in each game is to start collecting resources, and there are three in the game: solar, water, and bio (although they are called different things for each race). Solar energy is collected from sun farms or automatically, depending on your race (and aliens don’t need it at all). Water is collected from stationary water stations, and bio is either automatic or collected from fixed compounds. Since all of the resource points are fixed, most of the battles will be fought for these specific areas. While resource collection is slightly different for each race, the buildings and units are almost exactly the same across the board. There is a headquarters, two unit construction buildings (one for infantry, one for armored units), an upgrade facility, and that’s pretty much it. There is one defensive building in the game for one of the races, which is extremely odd considering how strong the defenses in Perimeter were. Races can terraform or flood the map for defensive trenches or water (about the only hold-over from Perimeter), but a complete lack of defensive structures is very odd. Of course, it makes destroying the enemy base extremely easy if they’ve sent all of their units away (which the AI tends to do a lot). Units are a mix of infantry and armor with low, medium, and high grades that substitute firepower and armor for movement. There is a small selection of units in the game, which severely limits your strategic options. Maelstrom boils down to harvesting resources, constructing units, and taking over the enemy. This entire process takes about 10 minutes, depending on the map size, and the lack of end-game powerful weapons means that stalemate games are a definite possibility. The poor tactical AI doesn’t help matters: units given a move order will continue to shoot while moving, not stopping to engage enemy units or avoid running into a superior force. Also, units can go in the opposite direction, run into mountains, and generally get lost when issued a move order that’s not on the same screen. Because of the poor sound, it’s hard to tell if your units are even engaging the enemy while they are moving until they start dying. Maelstrom lacks the tough strategic decisions that are a part of well-designed strategic games: here, you just crank out forces and storm the defenseless enemy base, and whoever collected the most resources wins.

Maelstrom destroys the solid foundation laid by Perimeter by offering completely derivative gameplay that we’ve seen much better in other RTS games. There’s absolutely no reason to play this game: the AI is horrible, the sound is horrible, the pathfinding is horrible, and your strategic options are severely limited. My dreams of continuing an original franchise have been shattered, as Maelstrom plays just like every other poorly designed RTS game, except with terraforming and flooding that rarely impact the gameplay. When each race has an average of six buildings (six!) and ten units, you know you’re in for a shallow gaming experience. Unless, of course, the units are well balanced and there are important strategies to be used, but Maelstrom lacks both of these important requirements. The lack of defensive structures just shows how little thought was put into making the game a deep strategic experience. You’re much better off playing Perimeter as a lower price than weathering the storm of futility that is Maelstrom.