Harrrr. Shiver my own timbers. [Aside: What else do pirates say?] Ahoy friendy! If you want to be a true-to-life sea dog just like me, the firey bosom of Blackwake awaits. It’s large-scale naval warfare with crews of up to 16 people. It’s what I’d call a ‘Hall-of-the-Mountain-King-like’, because that’s the royalty-free music that early access games often use in their trailer to invoke a sense of chaos and silliness, a musical composition that has, as a result, become a coded signal for games which are roughewn and therefore “funny”.
And Blackwake can be funny. When you’re walking along deck and you see your fellow sailor blown away in ragdoll glory by a distant and well-aimed cannon shot, it’s hard not to smile at their misfortune, even as you patch up the hole in the deck with your hammer. Even as you too are blasted away into the sea.
As a crewman, it’s your job to do something useful and follow your captain’s orders. They steer the ship, and you’re on red alert. Tasks range from loading and firing cannons, repairing hull damage or sail damage, pumping out water, restocking the cannon supplies, or taking potshots with your musket at enemy crewmen if they are close enough. Should the opportunity arise, you might try to board the enemy. In which case, it’s cutlasses and broken bottles at the ready, because the guns reload at the comically true-to-life pace of a 17th century weapon.
There are a few ship sizes, with the largest being a monstrous galleon packed with cannons below deck. There’s something impressive about looking down this line of guns and seeing a man stationed at each one, ready to fire on the captain’s orders. And there’s something claustrophobic about seeing the same place five minutes later through the blue blur of water as you all swim around trying to patch up the holes that are causing the massive hulk to sink. The battles normally feature three pirate ships versus three navy ships (although there is a 1v1 mode) with the winner being the first to diminish the enemy’s “tickets” in the style of ye olde Battlefield.
At it’s core, it’s a game of teamwork. Of following orders and making sure your manpower does not go to waste. Or, if you’ve successfully nominated yourself as the captain on arrival, a game of giving good orders and not suffering a mutiny (this is just a player-run vote that can happen at any time). It’s also wildly popular. There’s no trouble in finding a game. But there is trouble, for me, in finding a reason to stay once you’ve got the hang of it.
It’s about repetition. I can see the appeal in having one job and doing it well. When you work side-by-side with everyone, sponger I and loader you, you become a small component in a larger machine, ready to fulfill your duty come hell or high water (and the latter is a constant worry). It’s a part of what makes teamwork-based games good, what someone once described as the joy of videogames in it’s purest form – “being assigned a task and then completing that task”. But it’s also what keeps me from enjoying Blackwake as much as my crewmates. I can grab the powder and load the shot with the best of them. But after repeating the same tasks over and over, the fun is destined to dry up like a bone bleaching in the sun.
It feels like there is something missing from these naval skirmishes. Some essence or feature that can throw good teamwork or good captaincy into disarray. Efficiency is how you win the game, it’s what every captain is aiming for, but it’s also what makes the experience of being a sailor less interesting. There’s definitely a strategy to the battles, especially at the level of the cap’n. There are swivel guns that damage sails and slow your targets. There’s different types of shot to load into the cannons, some damaging hull and some damaging crew. There’s a grappling hook that can only be used if the captain gives a direct command to do so via the in-game orders. There’s a method to wearing down the enemy vessel and a method to breaking away from a dangerous chase. There’s good and bad weather that has a real impact on the fighting. When your ship gets rammed, the resulting bedlam is invariably hilarious.
But for all of this, it feels like there’s still a hole in the deck. Maybe some social element beyond a player-run vote, or some motive beyond running down the enemy’s tickets – possibly the least interesting competitive multiplayer design since the vanilla deathmatch. Whatever it is, right now I feel like being part of a well-lubed crew is less interesting than being part of a rowdy crowd of new players. Having a terrible captain who can’t cast off or doesn’t know port from starboard (it me) is funnier than having one who’ll give direct and perfect orders. It makes me vaguely sad that this incomplete leviathan has snuck out of the brine before the happier-looking Sea of Thieves, a game which puts booty, not kills, at the centre of crew-on-crew competition.
It’s also a game of two sides – the captain’s game is about being a good communicator and steering in a clever or lucky enough fashion to land a good broadside while taking little damage to their own vessel. The crew’s game is, well, just to do the same few tasks over and over while trying not to die. The endgame, if there is one, is to become a good captain. But if you don’t like barking orders and bossing people around, it’s not a position you can undertake with any usefulness, and you’ll – understandably – be booted right off the steering wheel.
There’s also a catch in terms of its design. Outside the captaincy, it has been built without any concrete roles. Every crewman can do every job. On paper that means that you can take a role and run with it all match. Become the ammo guy, delivering things to deck. Load all the cannons for everyone else, or man the sails and repair them if they become shot and ragged (a dangerous state to be in, since it slows your ship to a crawl). But in reality, every man really does every job. The captain shouts: “Right side, fire!” and everyone fires the… [checks notes] starboard guns. The captain shouts: “Repair the hull!” and everyone rushes to repair the hull. On a “good” ship there is no specialising or role-playing. In fairness, this fluidity often leads to a more able and efficient crew. But, like I say, that also means that well-fought battles turn out to be the most dull. The weight and clunkiness of your character, always getting caught on objects, and the lack of good “object signalling” and UI, are the types of early access rough edges that don’t help.
There’s teamwork and there’s strategy and there’s silliness here, for sure. But for a game about blowing your enemies away in a cloud of woody splinters, there’s an odd lack of excitement in it for me. This is where people normally yell “you need to play with friends!” but that’s the kind of industry fallacy I’ve always held in high suspicion. Playing with friends improves every videogame. I still suspect plenty of people will happily load cannons and fetch supplies even without crewmates of prior acquaintance. But for my doubloons, it currently feels like a throwaway distraction. An empty hulk, not a soul below.