In terms of structure Maelstrom is comfortably familiar. Build a base, build some troops and capture strategic points to gain more resources and thereby increase your dominance of the battlefield. It’s also a good idea to kill the enemy while you are at it and luckily Maelstrom gives you lots of ways to do that.
The enemies come in three flavours: the Remnants, a bunch of ragtag militarised political activists; the Ascension, the futuristic lapdogs of a mega-corporation who have traded their briefcases for laser guns and whole lot of attitude; and the originally named, Aliens – need I say more?
Well actually I do, because unlike some other recently released real-time strategies, notably Supreme Commander, these factions are completely different to each other. They look different, they play different and they sound different, although boy do these guys talk too much! For example, factories make comments every time they start and finish building a new unit. When your very first trooper appears saying “I’m cocked, locked and ready to rock!” you’ll think it’s cool – 150 mini-gunners later it’s a different story.
The Remnants are very 20th Century, using rockets, rifles, chain guns and, my personal favourite, napalm grenades to attack their opponents. Their style of play will be familiar to anyone who has ever owned an RTS before. Build a base, build some men, build some cooler men and a tank or two and er… CHARGE! Oh yes, you guessed it; all the units have something to say about charging too!
While the Ascension are similar in some respects, like the excessive levels of chit-chat, they use a different mix of missiles, laser beams and lightning to fry their foes. They also use a healthy range of vehicles, ranging from the smallest, a laser-toting two person half-track, to the giant Colossus, which is a massive walking battle tank. After some research many Ascension vehicles can transform at the click of a button. Imagine flying a bomber over your opponent’s base, landing and turning it into a walking engine of destruction with lightning coming out of its hands. Sound good? It should. Perhaps they are related to the Autobots? Even the base is made up of transformers which can be upgraded and turned into any one of four different buildings. Need more tanks commander? Turn your research centre into one then. See how the enemy likes that!
The aliens are just that. Alien. Although in effect you still need to build a base and build some units, the rest is very different. Instead of guns the aliens attack up close and with special powers and instead of vehicles they simply use bigger aliens. It’s always amusing to see a bunch of marines picked up and hurled across the screen by some invisible force. It’s a lot better when it’s your invisible force! Another neat touch is the way the Aliens pump water out onto the map, flooding it. This means that as you gain control of more water pumps you can cover more of the map in mutagenic gunk. This heals your troops and forces everyone to swim, which offers a new tactical element and helps show off the terra-forming features of the game.
Speaking of swimming, the in-game animations and sound effects are impressive. Send an amphibious vehicle into water and watch it splash in before extending some flaps and bobbing to the surface. When it gets to the other side it rams into the bank, retracts the flaps and powers up onto dry land. Repeat this superb level of detail for everything. The ability to zoom right in to see this happening is a great feature even if it’s purely cosmetic, unlike the Direct Control of characters which is so bad I’m not going to mention it again. It’s failed to work in other real-time strategies and its implementation here is no better.
Some of the animations are hilarious. For example, while playing the tedious campaign (more on that later) I saw a buggy firing rockets at an Ascension trooper and I zoomed in to watch. Most of the rockets hit the ground nearby, killing the trooper slowly with splash damage. Suddenly one of the rockets scored a lucky hit and vaporised him. That was an awesome sight and I then spent several hours doing nothing but blowing infantry up with rockets while cackling to myself. If you’ve got the same warped sense of humour I recommend you do the same!
In fact, playing Maelstrom, made me think of a (much wealthier) mate of mine who once owned a brand new £60,000 sports car. It had everything: tinted windows, 19″ alloys, colour-changing metallic paint, full leather interior, and more horsepower than a cavalry charge. Now you’d think that was a pretty awesome car right? Well, you’d be wrong. Because of a problem with a £2 battery the key didn’t work. No opening of doors, no squealing tyres and definitely no picking up the ladies.
So what’s up with Maelstrom that could ruin the impact of deformable terrain, rock solid sound effects, varied factions and some of the most gorgeous scenery yet rendered in an RTS? Not to mention moments like the exploding ascension trooper? Simple, it’s the sloppy way all these great features have been put together.
Let’s start with the AI, which has more bugs than a swamp in spring. Tanks and infantry spin in circles, and troops allow the enemy to walk right up to them before opening fire, if they open fire at all. Then there is the ridiculous squad-based selection system, pre-sets that get erased at each in-game cut-scene, a mini map that is featureless and impossible to use, and a cutting-edge 3D landscape that rotates and pitches so fast you can never view it from the angle you want. Aaargh! Don’t even mention the cries of “Rednecks Rule! Oh Yeah” that accompany all of this.
Worst of all is the lacklustre and poorly scripted campaign. It’s a real let down. The lack of a difficulty option, poor quality videos and unclear mission objectives all compound the fact that you are forced to play as the Remnants first. Although Alien and Ascension campaigns are unlocked once you complete the Remnant campaign.
If you stick to multiplayer Maelstrom has a lot to offer but an abundance of basic flaws mean it’s no challenge for the big boys of the genre. That said, if you are looking for something a little different Maelstrom might be worth a look. Just know that you won’t be getting greatness.