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Maelstrom: The Battle for Earth Begins

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: KD Labs
Release Date: Feb. 20, 2007


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PC Review - 'Maelstrom'

by Tim McCullough on March 25, 2007 @ 12:22 a.m. PDT

Maelstrom is a strategy action epic which takes place on a devastated future Earth. In the wake of an apocalyptic ecological disaster, the planet is threatened by an alien invasion, thus becoming the battleground as a divided human race fights for survival.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: KDV Games
Release Date: February 20, 2007

It was to be as expected. In a short period of 50 years, the occupants of Earth have practically destroyed their planet. Between the wars and resulting environmental chaos, the Earth has been reduced to a vast wasteland. While two factions battle to gain control of what little of the planet remains, an alien race whose survival depends on seizing the Earth for its own, rises to try and conquer all.

Maelstrom is a sci-fi RTS taking place on future Earth, with three distinct factions fighting for control of the planet and its dwindling resources. The Remnants faction consists of what remains of Earth's population after the governments and corporations have brought it to the brink of destruction. Remnants are adaptors; they move and think quickly, they are tactically superior, but technically inferior to the other factions. The Ascension faction is what is left of a cold corporate machine. The Ascension believes they are the best qualified to act as caretakers of mankind. They are technically superior but lack the flexibility to adjust to quickly changing situations. The Aliens, or Hai-Genti, faction are motivated by their will to survive. With their own planet destroyed, they must now make Earth their own or perish. The Hai-Genti utilize bio-technology to wage war against what they consider to be the simple-minded infestation known as mankind.

Each of the three factions must build up their forces by collecting and using resources. Remnants require the collection of three different resources: solar energy, water and salvage. The Ascension requires solar energy, hydro energy and DNA. The Hai-Genti only require two resources, Mutagen, which is similar to water collection; and Biomatter, which is the equivalent of salvage and DNA. Each separate faction uses distinctly different methods of collection, construction and upgrading, which provides players with a different game to master with each faction. One interesting aspect of Maelstrom is that each faction has only six to 10 base units, but each unit may have multiple operational modes or configurations depending on upgrade paths. This creates an acceptable level of game complexity without creating a more cluttered gaming interface.

Maelstrom differentiates itself from other real-time strategy titles in several ways. KDV Games, the developers of Maelstrom, have incorporated into the game their unique feature known as terraforming — the ability to modify the in-game landscapes in real-time. This feature was originally introduced in KDV Games' other popular RTS series, Perimeter. Maelstrom also incorporates the ability to enter into a first-person mode with certain "hero" units and engage in direct combat. Hero units have unique special abilities and upgrades, including unit healing, cloaking and armor bonuses.

Most of these abilities will apply not only to the hero unit but also to neighboring units as well. Gameplay in Maelstrom is heavily influenced by map environments. Mountainous areas are widely used, as are large areas of water. Although some units can be upgraded to travel over bodies of water, most will slowly deteriorate when attempting to cross them. This is where you will need to resort to using the terraforming upgrade to build land bridges between islands. Although the terraforming is a powerful feature, it does become a bit tedious after extended use. I found that it is often necessary to make several trial and error adjustments when terraforming to make sure your units can navigate over your terrain modifications.

The cinematic opening for Maelstrom has to be one of the best I have come across in quite some time. The deep and commanding narration and strong storyline are impressive for an RTS title. In-game graphics are equally well done, and the small details in the graphic design give the game a well-polished appearance, such as rain, snow, swaying trees, falling leaves and large movable chunks of ice. You can watch buildings and units assemble themselves in detailed logical progressions; at times it almost seems like you are watching an elaborate technical ballet. The menus and simplified icon-based interfaces in Maelstrom do take some getting used to, but are mastered in a relatively short amount of time. Music and sound are well executed in-game, and volume settings are appropriately adjusted depending on the player's present 3D viewing position. However, some of the lip-syncing in the cut scenes is so mismatched it can distract you from the story-telling.

Maelstrom contains a lengthy single-player campaign which is divided into chapters. With the start of each new chapter, you must play as another faction, which allows you to experience both the differences in gameplay and the opposing viewpoint in the campaign story. Liberal use of voice-overs and cut scenes move the story along and add credibility to the mission objectives, which are usually assigned after reaching a location on the map or completing a previous objective. It is not uncommon to receive several new mission objectives while on the same map.

Overall, gameplay is well balanced, although as is the case in most real-time strategy titles, strength in numbers gives a predictable advantage in just about all of the combat situations. The campaign's difficulty level tends to change frequently; some missions seem straightforward while others seem ridiculously difficult. Frequently, you will need to consider your available technologies and work out the single best way to get through the tough spots.

Maelstrom uses both mouse and keyboard controls. The configurable game controls are intuitive and consistent with other RTS games. I did find the unit grouping system to be a bit awkward to use: You select the units to group and then toggle a single icon button to enable or disable the grouping. I would have much rather seen the standard 0-9 control key grouping method utilized, which is a well-tested system which needs very little improvement. In-game, you have complete control over your view in 3D, including a large range of zooming control.

While playing, I did occasionally have difficulty controlling units; sometimes they would not respond, or would respond incorrectly to move orders. This issue is most likely a glitch in the A.I. path-finding routines, which sometimes would activate a bit too quickly when they probably would have worked much better just waiting for additional user input. Fortunately, this little bit of A.I. awkwardness is only occasionally experienced, and not a major distraction while playing the game. Additionally, while playing through the missions, I noticed some map triggering problems, but I was able to work around these issues by approaching the mission locations in slightly different ways.

Maelstrom offers both LAN- and Internet-based multiplayer games for up to six players. To play online, you will first be required to create an account and register your software. Once you are connected, you will be in a lobby area where you can choose to host a game, join a listed game, or quickly join a random game optimized for your connection. Online- and LAN-based games can be played on any of 14 different maps. Game objectives include destroying opponent bases, eliminating commanders and/or capturing water stations. In the event you don't have enough players, as the host you have the option of having teams populated by the computer. Online play is further enhanced by the global rankings system, which allows you to compete with the entire Maelstrom online community. Maelstrom also includes a battle mode, which offers skirmishes using the multiplayer maps offline against the computer.

Even with a few bugs left to be stomped, I would certainly recommend Maelstrom to fellow RTS fans. Maelstrom is an entertaining RTS title with an excellent level of replay value. Although the terraforming can become a bit tedious at times, the campaign missions are engaging and challenging. The battle mode feature will allow you to polish your skills and hone your strategies prior to going online to compete with other players in a multiplayer game.

Score: 7.5/10

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