By Adam Smith on May 28th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
The world of gaming moves so fast that writing about Leviathan: Warships feels like an act of retro-archaeology. It came out almost a month ago, which makes it positively ancient in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve been so busy swabbing the poop deck that I’ve only just found time to gather my thoughts.
What is the life expectancy of the average multiplayer game? The figure would be skewed by the heavy-hitters, the Dotas and the Crafts, with their Tithonus-like qualities of endurance, but it can seem like many competitive games are ushered into the world for a weekend only to be forgotten by all but a devoted few when Monday comes around.
I’m hoping that Leviathan: Warships continues to be home to a strong contingent of office chair admirals and perhaps even some train/toilet seat captains who can join battle on their portable devices through the magic of cross-platform play. It’s a solid game of tactical cat and mouse, and far more engaging than might be apparent at first sight. An early word of warning though – the single player/co-op campaign is little more than a learning tool and one whose lessons are best forgotten. Human players are brilliantly unpredictable but the campaign’s approach is to drop in enemy ships one after another, testing patience as tactical prowess.
Frozen Synapse is the most obvious recent reference point, although this is far from being Frozen Fleetzone. Leviathan battles do play out asynchronously though. Each player plans the movement, bearing and equipment deployment for each of their ships, and then submits the orders. Up to four players can be involved in a bout and as soon as all sets of instructions are in, the turn plays out.
Each round only covers a few seconds of action but unless time limits are set, players can tweak their plans until the seacows come home. As long as your opponents are patient, you could submit a move at midnight, watch the results, sleep through the night, go to work the next day, come home, build a matchstick replica of HMS Victory, make a risotto and only then begin to think about the next phase of play. It’s wise to have several matches on the go, although I favour speedy rounds in which hurried commands can lead to inelegant manoeuvres.
Almost every newcomer to the game will quickly realise one thing – unlike the agile squads of Frozen Synapse, Leviathan’s warships are cumbersome objects and collisions can be a frequent occurrence. The fleets, which are constructed using a points system and generally contain less than six ships, begin each battle clustered together. The maps are small, with easily read layouts, containing coves, bays and tiny archipelagos around which to steer and create bottlenecks and ambushes. There is always the temptation to begin by heading forward, full steam ahead, into the fog of war where enemies await, but as behemoths jostle for position with miniature scouts and swift gunboats, the grind of metal on metal signifies disaster.
During my first attempt to secure naval dominance, I managed to ground one of my ships on a reef and two of my larger creations burst into flames as they attempted to embrace one another, done in by their enormous turning circles and sloth-like pace. The interface is simple and clean enough to make such titanic errors very much avoidable but in my eagerness to perform an elaborate and waltzing approach to the fray, I failed to appreciate the perils that arise when controlling such ponderous units.
Ships are, on the whole, slow. They take a while to reach their full speed and once they do, they take a while to reverse their motion. A giant dreadnought, bristling with railguns and heavy cannons, will probably turn about as quickly as a Basset hound in a barrel of treacle. Spend all of your allowance on two or three enormous death-machines and you’ll barely make it a few feet from your starting location before realising that even the islands and rocks are probably capable of orbiting you and constantly slipping out of your range. Designing a varied and adaptable fleet is essential to victory.
At first glance, the options for ship design seem limited. There are three basic guns, from a close range peashooter to a long range decimator, and a collection of more exotic weapons and equipment, including shields, cloaking devices, mines and a terrifying depth charge that summons a kraken to the surface, smashing anything foolish enough to be in the vicinity. The limited options eventually work in the game’s favour though, ensuring that anything haphazardly placed on a ship will have some utility. There’s no deadwood and even the most unlikely combinations can be match-winners as long as they are used effectively.
The key to combat is positioning. Most weapons fire automatically when an enemy comes within their targeting arc, which is dependent on positioning, whether on a central tower aiming front or back, or attached to the ship’s side. Range must be taken into account as well, and the majority of guns have a maximum AND minimum effective range, meaning that ships armed with more powerful guns tend to hang back, although it’s entirely possible to construct hybrids that function at all ranges. I tend to go for the ‘master of one’ approach when it comes to individual ships, with the fleet itself being the ‘Jack of all trades’.
My greatest victory involved three experimental designs – miniature speedboats stripped of all excess weight, including armour, and with only one gun, a short range beam weapon that performs what is effectively a melee attack. My opponent had a series of large ships, none of which had close range capabilities. Using an island as cover, my tiny terrors approached from several angles and hugged tight to the enemy hulls, circling them and striking, like piranha tearing blubbery chunks out of a blue whale.
I had larger vessels equipped with artillery, for long range support, but they barely contributed. If they’d moved close enough to open fire, they would have been annihilated. The little fellows had no such problem, able to duck within the safe zone around the giants before they could be severely damaged.
The problem, from my perspective, is that I’ve already shown my hand. That particular approach will probably only work once, at least without strong resistance, so I need to go back to the fleet management screens and work out some new tricks. I’m already keen to send out the same ships again but with mines alongside their beam weapons, so that they can herd and humiliate oversized opponents, but I’m also perfecting my use of rail guns, which are devastatingly powerful but require a few seconds to fire and rely on manual targeting.
Leviathan is a small game and the limited maps and options may underwhelm at first, but I find it to be tightly constructed rather than limited. From fleet construction to the outcome of individual phases, matches follow the tactical tradition of planning, reacting, panicking and then tearing up the original plans and punching the screen while bellowing. My preference is for 2 vs 2 team games, because the added difficulty of coordinating movements makes for hilarious mishaps and glorious victories, but it’s one of the rare games that I’ll also happily play against strangers.
There’s a distinct pleasure to be found in coming up against an unexpected combination of weaponry and equipment, learning from the defeat and applying the knowledge while creating a new fleet.
I haven’t tested the waters for a couple of weeks now and I’m keen to see if my beam-powered attack squadrons have set a trend, or if they’ll be immediately countered by some new devilry. Considering the size of Leviathan, the random nature of critical hits and the apparent paucity of content, it manages to reward careful planning and deal out unexpected blows, and that’s reason enough to make a few brief daily visits worthwhile.
Leviathan: Warships is available now.