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Platform

PC

 

Genre

Strategy

 

Publisher

Codemasters

 

Developer

KDV Games

 

ESRB

T (Teen)

 

Released

Q1 2007

 

 

- The three factions allow three distinct styles of play and strategies

- Fun with landscaping (terraforming, flooding Ė yowza!)

 

 

- FPS mode is rough and flawed

- The campaign is unexciting

- Doesnít deliver the graphics youíd expect considering the system requirements

 

 

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Maelstrom

Score: 6.5 / 10

 

I write this review fully aware that Iíve been so spoiled by Relic Entertainmentís recent string of awe-inspiring games that Iíve become something of an RTS snob.  Luckily for Codemasters, developers of new post-apocalyptic RTS, Maelstrom: The Battle For Earth Begins, they seem to have done their homework, picked apart Relicís Dawn of War and its sequels for pointers then thrown in some old-school Starcraft and Command and Conquer for good measure.

 

maelstrom          maelstrom

 

The result is a game that, while it lacks the showstopping appeal of the titles it imitates, has enough complexity and innovation to make it a worthy timewaster Ė at least until the next big thing (ie. hint Ė it rhymes with ďA Dream DemanderĒ) comes along.

 

Maelstrom drops us in yet another post-apocalyptic dystopia.  This time, on an earth royally screwed up by war and irresponsible neglect (they obviously didnít

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watch Al Goreís An Inconvenient Truth) and contested by two human factions, an alien force has joined the party, resulting in a three way struggle for supremacy.  The factions provide an interesting contrast:  in the blue corner, the Remnants, a ragtag combination of former military and organized crime committed to preserving their former way of life.  In the red corner, the Ascension, 

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a body of corporate opportunists interested in transforming the world into an inhuman technocracy (think pre-philanthropy Bill Gates with his own private commando force).  And, in the green corner, the Hai-Genti, who have an even more sinister agenda, involving organic technology and all sorts of icky plans for the poor inhabitants of earth.

 

The campaign that Maelstrom ships with is a little underwhelming with uneven objectives -- sometimes ridiculously easy and other times startlingly difficult Ė and not a a lot of momentum or compelling action.  There isnít much of a story to speak of either, although, in fairness, the whole point of an RTS campaign story (Relic games might be the recent exception) is to provide a pretext for a series of battles.  Though you do get to do more different things in the campaign than in skirmish mode, including a number of stealth and commando missions, I still found skirmish mode much more fun.  (While I wasnít able to check out online play, it also seems promising based on skirmish.)

 

Gameplay isnít as intuitive or fluid as in many better RTS games, with some fiddly control problems (mainly to do with selecting units and moving the camera) and some weird pathfinding (for some reason, a stray soldier often decides to run laps around the nearest building).  But where Maelstrom gets interesting is in how the three factions present three very different systems for base building, spawning units, exploiting resources and teching up, resulting in three vastly different play experiences.  Though it takes a while to get the hang of some of the factions, especially the Aliens, whose reinforcements have to be individually spawned from eggs, there are some intriguing matchups and situations.  Also interesting is the how the terrain comes into play, and becomes part of the battle.  The human faction ability to terraform hills, canals, trenches, bulwarks and dams is matched by the Alienís ability to gradually flood the map, giving them a tremendous strategic advantage since theyíre as mobile in water as out of it.  As derivative and occasionally flawed as singleplayer gameplay is, it has its impressive moments.

 

maelstrom          maelstrom

 

Sadly, what might have been the gameís biggest innovation, the ability to take direct control of hero units in FPS style (close third person, technically), doesnít work all that well, and the result is something that feels like a sluggish FPS from the nineties grafted onto a 2007 RTS.  Also, though base production can be put under AI control, thereís nothing to solve the obvious practical problem of other units sitting and twiddling thumbs while the hero races around being heroic.  A revised system that allowed command controls from the FPS or even easier switching between the hero unit and a wider RTS map might have helped here.  This is a shame, because I know a good FPS / RTS hybrid has been on the wishlist of many gamers for ages.  Another smaller disappointment, despite the fun with transforming the landscape, is that environment isnít the tactical or strategic factor as it could be.  Maybe Iíve been spoiled by Company of Heroesís ingenious use of terrain for cover.  In Maelstrom, when faced with enemies, units line up and shoot back and forth until somebody drops, and it doesnít seem to matter where anyone is standing. 

 

The graphics, though interestingly detailed up close, are at best serviceable, and a little muddy when zoomed out (itís hard to tell units apart in wide shots).  Interestingly, the much less system-intensive Ground Control II from a few years back gives Maelstrom a run for its money graphically.  As well, there are few special animations, making combat not nearly as exciting or immersive as Dawn of Warís, for example.  The sound is fairly good, my only problem being some annoyingly chipper and repetitive voice acting, mainly by the Remnants, whose soldiers feel compelled to holler happy assurances that they are following your orders even when youíre not giving any.

 

As for bugs, the review code I played seemed fairly stable, though I had a few problems with freezes during loading screens.  Loading times are somewhere between reasonably and annoyingly long.  In the game itself I noticed few play bugs, just the occasional slowdown.  Maelstrom is a bit of a system hog, especially compared to some of the previous games Iíve mentioned (Dawn of War and Ground Control II) but most up-to- date systems should be able to handle it at reasonable settings.

 

Maelstrom isnít original or perfect or devoid of problems, but it is innovative and fun, which should be what matters.  And it should provide a nice alternative before that other game (hint:  rhymes with . . .  uh . . . okay, itís Supreme Commander) comes along and wipes the floor with everyone.

 

- John Tait

(March 9, 2007

 

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