Premature Evaluation: Blackwake

Every week we send Brendan onto the high seas of early access to see what booty he can plunder. This time, the maritime multiplayer mayhem of Blackwake [official site].

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.

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29 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I believe pirates also say “Avast!”, “Hoist the mainsail!” and “I’m only downloading it to try it, if I like it I’ll buy it”.

    Why is it so hard to get a really good pirates/age of sail game? There’s plenty of OK ones, plenty of bad ones, but it’s rare to get a genuinely great one. I’ve been playing a little Blood & Gold: Caribbean! and it’s OK, but feels kinda half-done.

    Anyway, this one looks decent enough, but I’m not keen on getting a multiplayer-only game. I think I’d be in the same boat as Brendan, and lose interest after a few attempts.

    • lancelot says:

      They also say

      “Avast! It’s blocking our exe again!”

      “Split my infinitives!”

      “Check out that booty!”

    • Jonnyuk77 says:

      They also say….

      the night was dark
      the seas were rough
      the port lay straight ahead
      the booze ran out
      the men grew tired
      and this is what they said:
      “captain if you cannot find a place to set her down
      then you’ll be sleeping right along with this vessel in the ground”

    • angrym0b says:

      My favourite is “Well scupper me uppers ‘n’ blower me lowers!”

  2. Scare Tactics says:

    The first 20 hours in, Blackwake got me hooked (!). But yeah, it needs new game modes. Capture the booty mode is being worked on and ought to be ready some time later.

    I’ve been in some really frantic and tense matches. What I like most is that winning/sinking a ship really feels like a team effort, since everyone on board is contributing to the cause.

    I disagree that well fought battles are the dullest. I’ve had the most fun in battles where our ships captains used the fleet voice chat to coordinate their maneuvering. Since the enemy team apparently did the same it became a vicious cat and mouse chase where every ticket counted.

    Must’ve been Natural Selection (2) where I’ve last seen such beautiful emergent teamplay on a higher tactical level.

    • Faxanadu says:

      Here I was coming to mention Natural-Selection, lo and behold, it was already done.

      I would really like to see more games with the commander role. Natural-Selection 2 pulled it off perfectly, so it’s surprising to see so few games trying it.

      A team game gets a whole new meaning when someone goes “c’mon mate stop shooting those rt’s and come help at x” in your ear when you’re not being helpful.

    • caff says:

      Yeah I agree – I was hooked for one weekend playing this solidly. A lot of the players on voice chat were playing along with the roleplaying (lots of “yarr!”-ing) which made it more fun.

      The best captains had a clear voice, willing to test the extremities of the cannon range.

      I also agree with the battle mode needing enhancement. I think more players (64 or 128 player servers?), bigger and more varied ships, and more diversity in the types of combat will help.

      Large scale melee when boarding is fun, but it’s let down by a Skyrim-y feeling when waving a sword at your opponent.

  3. Michael Fogg says:

    Wasn’t there a game with identical concept, except it had flying ships with baloons instead of sails? Probably never made it out of EE? Or maybe it was released and then went nowhere…

    • Rymosrac says:

      Air Bucaneers, originally a UT2004 mod and later standalone game. And then Guns of Icarus for a more steampunk take on the same idea.

      • Sin Vega says:

        Air Buccaneers was great for a while, and from the sound of it, far more chaotic and … well, fun. Unfortunately though, it transformed into a tedious “free to play” thing, adding levels and unlocks and xp and all that rubbish that added nothing to the game but obstacles and obfuscation. This was about 5 years ago mind, so if it’s still going it may well have sorted itself out.

        I was really good at it for a while, my specialty being the kamikaze sneak attack with the tiny chip meant for 1 or 2 people (as opposed to the 10 or so on the largest and, I think, 6 on the medium). It was very much a team game, but if you kept your eye on the game and flow of battle, you could work independently while still contributing plenty to the side. Many’s the time I dropped out of the clouds, or curled in on the neglected side of a galleon busy fighting my friends at the other end, to blast the balloon with napalm at point blank. You’d often die, but critically wounding or outright sinking a hostile ship in the process, bagging half a dozen lives for your one. With good timing and a bit of luck you’d survive too, perhaps by leaping off your boat onto the doomed enemy one just as your cannon lances it with fire, then dashing across the deck and jumping onto a friendly ship just in time to hear the doomed sailors plummet behind you.

        I was never a very good captain/pilot, except for once. Somehow the stars aligned one day, and I led a team of excellent randoms with nothing but the in-game voice barks. That ship we flew took out the entire enemy team again and again, dancing between enemy ships, hailing rockets and skilled cannonball shots on everything in the sky, ducking from side to side, rising to the limit to rain long range rockets until the target close, then dipping at the perfect moment to avoid their shots and plunge suddenly into position for a return broadside. It was a hard game, particularly as a pilot, but when it came together it was glorious.

        There really ought to be more like it. Naval ones are welcome too (and pirate games in general are sorely lacking), but the extra chaos and stunts the z axis brings make things that bit more interesting.

    • Technotica says:

      Do you mean Guns of Icarus Online (Alliance)?
      link to store.steampowered.com

    • skeletortoise says:

      Yeah, I immediately thought of Guns of Icarus while reading this. The difference is the third dimension (obviously) and that, unless something’s changed, it only has 4 players per ship. It also sounds like this probably has more serious/”realistic” simulation of things going on, whereas Icarus is more arcadey and gameified (ie: repairing things by hitting them with wrenches TF2 style, ship health is pretty much just a health bar). It used to be a standard fallback for some friends and I on gaming night when we just want to goof off. Like Brendan says about Black Wake, it really benefits from not being taken seriously and playing comically poorly. Otherwise, it seems like it would be fairly easy to play optimally and then it would be rather dull.

  4. Eightball says:

    So, leave her, Johnny, leave her?

  5. Collieuk says:

    Looks like a fun game but also one where the community will no doubt get more toxic as the months pass and unwelcoming of new players who don’t immediately know how to play effectively. It’s what makes playing more tasked based modes a nightmare with strangers in other games, let alone a game like this. Sounds like it also needs a large player base to keep things interesting and random. I mean the first few months of Chivalry Medieval Warfare was fun and every match was a chance to quote Monty Python Holy Grail but last time I played it was full of stuffy moany types not happy you can’t remember the keys 3 years later. At least it has a FFA mode.

  6. Kommissar Hedgehog says:

    Sad to see RPS aren’t huge fans of this.

    For my part, I find it some of the best MP experiences I’ve had, certainly better than CoD, Battlefield and the like.

    I do sense also that the review unfortunately does a disservice to the dev team that is composed of only two guys primarily.

    A lot of the game rides on the captain, and I have a distinct feeling the reviewer may have perhaps got a few of the captains whose gameplay style is less than exciting (no rams, just gunning constantly).

    From my lofty position as a random commentator on the internet, I can heartily recommend BW as a great change of pace from the usual griefing and other nonsense that goes on online. (You will see it in BW, but you’ll also get some good crews too)

    The game’s biggest issue however is the slow development cycle (see above comment about 2 devs)

  7. PiiSmith says:

    They are adding a new game mode called “Capture the Booty”. It is a capture Flag mode, with more focus to fighting on land, as the booty needs to captured on a island. Maybe this game mode will break the monotony you are experiencing?

  8. Anti-Skub says:

    I really don’t understand what your problem with “it’s better with friends”. Some games are particularly good when you play them with people you know, games that require lots of communication and coordination are particularly satisfying when played with people you know. Something like Trine, Portal, Payday and Rainbow Six are particularly fun when played with people you know.

    You say “but that’s true of all games” but I really disagree. There are lots of multiplayer games where that is not the case. Games like Titanfall and Battlefront come to mind. I often feel like very little is added to the experience by playing with your friend, as your friends presence in your game makes very little difference to how it plays for any of you.

    Then there are games like The Old Republic, that have constant, forced single player missions and class specific stories that split you from your friends, so that attempting to play with friends ends up with you not so much playing together, but rather just waiting for each other to finish their solo instance.

    You get a similar thing in games like Elite Dangerous, that are “multiplayer” but make so few concessions to providing any kind of content that a group can do together that they wouldn’t be better off doing individually.

    Being a good game to play with friends is near the top of my list of things I want from a game, and I just don’t think it’s true that all games are equally better when played this way.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      “I really don’t understand what your problem with “it’s better with friends”. ”

      I don’t know about Brendan’s problem, but my problem is that they require friends. You ever try to get a group of working adults (or worse, working adults with kids) organized for some quick gaming?
      Be prepared to schedule sessions months in advance and have half your participants cancel.

      • Anti-Skub says:

        So just because you don’t have friends that you regularly play games with, no one should make games for those of us who do? Not everything in this world is made specifically for you mate.

      • PiiSmith says:

        Play with your kids. They will have time, when you tell them too. ;)

    • skeletortoise says:

      I agree with you somewhat, but I think you’re being overly generous. Sure, some games are especially made to be better with friends, but that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse any MP game can fall back on. Of course games tailor made for dedicated cooperative play in small groups are amazing with friends and games where that kind of play is unnatural or impossible aren’t. But there’s a gray area between those extremes. Virtually any game where I can be on a server with my friends, no matter how what we’re doing within that server is related, and chat, is substantially more fun that way. This doesn’t make the game especially worthy of praise. There might be more to it than that here, but being on a team with 10+ people means it doesn’t fall neatly into the “made for friends” category at all. And so it makes sense to judge it on it’s merits by hopping into a server, not by what a laugh it is with friends. I have probably a dozen games I’d be happy to play with friends that would be only marginally less fun than just chatting with them while I played that game and they played different ones.

      • Anti-Skub says:

        I wasn’t specifically talking about this game, I’ve seen that “It’s better with friends, but so is everything so that doesn’t count” argument used a few times on this site, I think by Brendan.

        One recent example would be Ghost Recon Wildlands…now I don’t think Wildlands is a good game, but it is quite clearly focused on it’s coop experience, team work and coordination in such a way that you are missing a large part of the experience by playing solo or with randoms who don’t communicate.

        To me it smacks of Yatzee from Zero Punctuation who gives bad reviews to all games that are online multiplayer focused, because he doesn’t like online multiplayer. He’ll play online shooters against bots and then complain it wasn’t fun. Some games are just meant to be played with others, some are specifically meant to be played with friends…I don’t think it’s fair to judge a game if you aren’t playing it the way it’s meant to be played.

        • skeletortoise says:

          Fair point, I think Wildlands is a case where I’m pretty torn between your view and Brendan’s (hence the ‘somewhat’ agree). But I wouldn’t be an irritating contrarian if I just shrugged and walked away. So:

          a) Games ask for it. I haven’t followed Wildlands too closely, but I doubt any of its press information said ‘pretty shit without your bestest buddies playing with you’. I’m sure they said it was an awesome game for coop and either implied or explicitly stated it’s great with AI substitutes too. I’m not sure if it allows for playing with randoms, but if so I bet it maintained that’s pretty much as good as coop with friends. Point being, if games are a hollow shell of an experience without friends, there should be some admission of that by the developers (L4D/L4D2 are good examples of acknowledging this). I’m sure some people thought Wildlands would be just an amazing open world shooter they could roam and have adventures with on their own, and it’s pretty crap to say “that’s not the way it’s meant to be played” when all the marketing for the game probably maintained it was a totally valid and equal way to play it.

          b) Like MajorLag points out, getting friends together isn’t easy. No, that doesn’t mean games shouldn’t be made for just that purpose, but it means we shouldn’t ignore that at any given time most players are not playing the game “the way it’s meant to be played”. I cannot imagine ever buying a $60 game (and presumably my three regular game friends also shelling out $180, cumulatively) for a brand new AAA game knowing full well that it will completely suck except for the 4-8 hrs a month we might manage to play together. So I’d like to know it sucks.

          • Anti-Skub says:

            a) Wildlands entire marketing campaign was 4 player coop based. When it was shown at E3 it was shown with 4 people playing it, the trailers all emphasise team work and playing with friends, they had Youtube campaigns with Youtubers known for playing in groups, etc.

            They might not have said “The single player sucks” in the same way Battlefield doesn’t, but I really think you ought to be looking into your purchases more if you’re buying either game thinking the main focus isn’t meant to be multiplayer.

            b) For lots of people that might be an issue, not for everyone. Me and my friends seek out these games, “Plays better with friends” isn’t a criticism for us…it’s exactly what we are looking for. And quite honestly there are so few good games out there that offer that “fun with friends” focus that aren’t crap…like Wildlands.

            Personally I very rarely buy a full price game that doesn’t have some kind of multiplayer element that’s particularly good with friends. That is the number one thing I look for in a game, and I don’t think it should be used as a qualifier in the way Brendon does, because quite frankly those games that really offer a compelling cooperative experience are few and far between.

          • skeletortoise says:

            Again, I’m with you. This isn’t a clear cut issue but a matter of degrees, and I do think RPS sometimes struggles in the area between single player experience and conventional multiplayer experience. Very few games do provide an excellent 4ish player dedicated coop experience and that’s something I really value, so it’s a bummer they might get shortchanged. That doesn’t change the fact that what is “obviously” meant to be multiplayer might not be so obvious if someone’s not following a game as closely as you seem to be. Which is why it’s nice when either a) the developer is as up front about it as possible instead of expecting people to read through the lines (‘lines’ here meaning lying) or b) a site like RPS makes a point of saying, hey, I played the game this way and it wasn’t great. I think RPS could do a better job of playing some games in all the different ways possible, thus giving the ‘way it’s intended to be played’ perspective, but I certainly wouldn’t want that to overshadow the way it plays 99% of the time. Because like it or not, the vast majority of players at any given time are not going to be able to play in the ideal conditions conceived in the developer’s imagination and I think the priority should be to cater to that perspective rather than the people the game was tailor made for and who have been following it religiously since it was announced. Although, again, I think RPS could find a better middle ground than they have so far.

          • skeletortoise says:

            My $60 point was a little deceptive. There’s no game I can conceive of that I’d pay even half of that for. My game group’s current haunt is the very silly and free GoldenEye Source, where we pretty much just shoot the shit and complain about throwing knives.

  9. rgbarton says:

    Please do P.A.M.E.L.A. next

    link to store.steampowered.com

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