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Wot I Think: Tempest

Yarr or Narr?

The pirate’s life is a good one. Rum, sea shanties, being trapped in your sinking vessel as it falls victim to a gargantuan sea kraken. Ah, yes, a marvelous misadventure. There’s definitely some appeal to taking to the seven seas and plundering all the gold from unsuspecting merchant vessels, and this is what Tempest [official site], a low-fantasy on the waves, has in mind. But is it a glorious galleon, or a sloppy schooner? Let’s see wot Brendan thinks.

If there’s a land-lubber out there who doesn’t enjoy tales of piracy, I don’t want to know them. As someone who often puts Barrett’s Privateers on repeat, I’m happy to try out games that boast swashbuckling and ship-to-ship cannon fire. But I’m also often disappointed by the result. Videogames about pirates tend to stick close to the same handful of mechanics, while injecting very little character into their typical bearded cast. While there’s plenty good to be said about Tempest, it too has sailed the absolute safest course through the waters of game design.

You start out on a small vessel, after your tutorial ship (the handsome Henrietta) is sunk by a sea monster. Finding this Kraken and taking your revenge on it forms the first big quest in your game but you certainly don’t need to follow it up immediately. One of the good things about this escapade is that the world opens up to you immediately. A world map shrouded in mist becomes clear as you sail through, and later you’ll venture off into other maps entirely, exploring the eastern seas or the ghostly northern ocean. To sail from port to port, you have to trace a line with your mouse, sometimes around rocks, and the ship travels along at speed.

Outside of this map, you’ll be getting into scrapes with other ships. Icons pop up, offering you the chance to attack vessels from a handful of different factions – trade vessels, royal fleets, other pirates, ships of the friendly Protectorate or the magical Seekers among a host of others. Combat is made up of that classic naval tactic of slowly turning your ship and holding your aim on the enemy's vessel until a meter is complete, then firing your broadside cannons, while also trying to stay out of their own firing arcs. Later you get other weapons like mortars or magical artifacts that boost your ship or summon creatures to attack your enemy.

Every ship has three health meters – sail, hull and crew. Different ammo types deal damage to each and, depending on what you want to do, you have to hurt the right thing. Shrapnel takes out crew members and softens them up for boarding, while chain shot tears sails apart and can slow enemy barks to a halt. There are others – bombs, poison, fireballs – but they all do some form of damage to one specific part of the ship. You can also board enemies and use their captured ships for repairs or enlist their crew - but more on that particular 'minigame' later.

Each faction controls multiple ports and offer different benefits. For example, the pirates give you free rusty cannonballs and a discount on repairs, the Protectorate heal your wounded crewmen for free, and the Kingdom let you deposit money in a bank to accrue interest with each passing week. Kingdom is essentially a really lovely bank manager who doesn’t seem to mind that you’re wearing dynamite in your beard.

While you can attack all these reprobates and heroes, you’d be foolish to make enemies of too many of them. The factions have positive or negative attitudes toward you based on the missions you have done for them (quests picked up while in port) and any action you’ve taken against them. Get a bad name for yourself and they will fire on you on sight, meaning if you encounter a brouhaha between other factions, they might turn their guns on you too. You can buy flags that ensure certain groups stay friendly but these don't apply to a lot of quests. Actually let's talk about the quests.

These are often sanctioned sea brawls or repetitive fetchy journeys from one port to another, picking up nothing but flavour text at each stop. Sometimes they can be funny, such as the pirate mission which sees you gather 25 barrels of wine for a party, only to arrive at the island and discover you’ve been conned out of a copious amount of alcohol. In true pirate fashion, you must track down the scoundrels and put them in the sea.

But more often, quests are uninteresting trips from A to B. Some missions come to you over time, rather than being picked up in port, and involve visiting multiple ports with question marks attached to find information about strange goings on. These are the worst offenders, because all you do is go from place to place, reading the same kind of sentence (“I guess nobody knows anything about X here”) at each town. It doesn't help that all of this takes place on the fast travel map because the time it would take to sail anywhere is nonsensical, especially if the wind is against you. An over-reliance on fast travel is a pity in general, but more so here because sailing the seas themselves frequently looks gorgeous and I often yearned for things to simply be closer together.

Cities and ports are more useful for ship maintenance. Part of your role as captain is to hire buccaneers from the tavern (more experienced ones are more expensive, while ‘green hands’ are free), and arm your ship with equipment and upgrades. Gold taken from sunken ships and completed quests buys you cannon balls, new sails, cannon upgrades, and spyglasses for revealing an enemies health meters and weaknesses.

You can also buy firearms for your crewmen. This is probably Tempest’s most promising mechanic and the one that is done the most poorly. Once you’ve softened a ship up (blasted its sails to rags, shrapnel’d its crew to pieces) you can pull alongside and board it. You then get a zoomed-in view of both decks, as the remaining crew of the fighting vessels shoot at each other. Press a button to send your sword fighters swinging over, another to launch poisonous bombs at your foes. It sounds sensible and exciting. But in reality it’s a bit of a mess.

All crewmen have some ‘pips’ above their heads, denoting how much health they have left – but then you’ll see a big “-7” come up in red font on an enemy that has one pip of health left. You’ll see him survive that and you’ll wonder: what the hell is happening here? As it happens, you don’t have much control over the boarding phase at all. You are also told that by clicking an enemy sailor you can prioritise him to be shot at by your gunmen. Indeed, a big red cross-hair appears on the enemies you select. But then your men continue to shoot at whoever they damn well please. There is no tactical necessity for you to be here, nothing you do beyond adding men to the fight has any effect on the outcome. It’s as if the designers saw what boarding a ship was like in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and thought: “wouldn’t it be cool if you just watched the NPCs fight?”

Which brings us to the purpose of crew. When the men here die, there’s no real upset. You just sail to the nearest town and grab another. There are “story” crew – men who come aboard and get you to go on a quest, then inevitably join you for the ride. These men go into slots on your ship, increasing stats like speed or maneuverability or firearm damage. But that’s all they are: upgrades with faces. They don’t die or contribute any personality to the ship. It makes the whole adventure seem so artificial. It becomes about getting a bigger ship, a better gun – not about swashbuckling with your first mate. It’s a lack of character that no amount of flavour text can make up for.

There are times when the unexpected happens, and in these moments you can catch a glimpse of the game’s true potential. In the middle of boarding a ship, for example, I was on the cusp of defeating the last few enemy gunmen, when a huge sea monster leapt out of the ocean and crashed down on both vessels, sinking my enemy’s ship and causing me to loose the sails and run away with my rudder between my legs.

Another time, I docked at one of the most northern towns in the game, and found it frozen and abandoned – a city of the dead. I sent my crew ashore to see if they could find some artifacts and only three of them came back. We set sail and I never returned to the northern cities.

And while these few incidents lose some of their charm when you learn they can easily happen multiple times (the sea monster harassed me non-stop for the next hour, for example) they do add some well-needed variety to things. There are other examples – huge lightning storms, fiery meteorites, naval battles that spring up out of nowhere in the middle of a mission – all of which go some way toward making the high seas feel alive. I could not have defeated the Kraken in my slinky starter ship, for example, had it not been for the pirate and Kingdom vessels which suddenly turned up and started blasting it alongside me. The ability to zoom right down to the deck and see things from a first-person perspective – map and all – is also a great feature. I played like this for most of the game and found that, while it made things slightly harder, it also granted a lot more atmosphere when I was under attack in the middle of a storm.

Yet even these ‘rare’ events become monotonous the third or fourth time they happen to you. And that feeling – of doing the same things over and over - extends throughout the game. When most of your missions have the exact same objective – go here, kill this, board that - the life of a pirate, it turns out, isn’t one of reputation but one of repetition.

There is something here for fans of the genre (if it is a genre). The world is big and each faction has a hefty handful of quests that you’ll need to work to deserve. There's also instant co-op, which means tougher missions, like taking out a well-guarded fort, can be approached with mates. Likewise, the broad strokes of fantasy – the undead, magic artifacts, sea monsters – might be enough to intrigue you deeper into this world of pirates and tradesmen.

However, I quickly got tired of slowly turning a ship until a big translucent bar lined up with another ship. And that one well-worn mechanic is probably 70% of the game. It really leaves me wondering. Why has nobody successfully transferred the shipboard panic of FTL or the crew management of XCOM to a wooden frigate on the high seas? Maybe in the future, some developer will plunder those design lessons, but not Tempest. It’s sailing on, happy to be what it is – another pirate game with a skeleton crew.

Tempest is out now for Windows and Mac.

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