Blackwake Review

Played on Windows.
Also Available on macOS

Hmm, Blackwake. So we’re talking about an Early Access Multiplayer game about being pirates? Interesting. Well, it’s unlike most Early Access games in that there’s no food and water foraging in the game, but we’ll have to see how it is outside of that. While others are talking about Skull And Bones, and Seas of Thieves, I’m looking at the second of the Humble Monthly July 2018 early unlock.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of multiplayer. I get bored of doing the same thing over and over with very little persistence. So similar to Hearts of Iron IV, I might not be the target audience here. However I do like the idea of a pirate game and, as such, I was a bit eager to take a look at Blackwake.

There’s a big issue here. I don’t normally believe in Early Access game. I’m sure there are points where I have funded games in Early Access, but until a game is released it’s very hard to judge the final product. Historically, I believe I’ve only bought one game in Early Access in the last couple of years, and that’s was Factorio, also the only game I reviewed in Early Access.

Yet, due to this being an early unlock I’m giving this game a proper review. I’m judging it on the quality of the game it is today, and not promises of the future or what might happen. I don’t give it much leeway as you might see but ultimately the fact that it’s an early access game doesn’t mean I should change my standards.

The first thing I noticed about the game is that graphics in the game are actually quite nice. The game actually has good looking water, and the ships and players are well detailed. In fact, I have to say I was impressed by the graphics. Though my framerate was very inconsistent, to the point that I had to change the graphics to 720p to record footage of the game because the 1080p resolution of the game had a number of hitches and low frame rate.

Now I know that the developers are probably working on generating new content and features for the game, and so optimization is not high on their list. My computer is solid for their recommendations, and the hardware they’re asking for is quite old, but be aware that optimizations for that hardware don’t appear to be done and the game can run roughly. When I dropped my framerate down to 720p most of my trouble went away. Honestly, graphically, the game is impressive. It’s may not win awards for its graphics, but for a budget title that’s going for 20 dollars, the game does look quite good.

Still it just looks good even as you sink.

The water is quite beautiful in-game but what’s interesting is how well the water physics works. The ships bob in the water naturally, and the game feels great. The player feels like they’re riding on a boat and the naval combat evolves naturally from that.

When and if you get behind the wheel (only captains may steer the ship), you’ll actually find the boats cut through the water very smoothly. The boats are a little too maneuverable and able to speed up and slow down entirely too fast, but it works well for the gameplay of the game, and I don’t believe this game would be as enjoyable without some leeway in the boat physics.

People probably think “It is ships shooting each other how hard is that.” Well, I worked on a water-based mode for at least six months while working on Saints Row 2 and we tried a number of prototypes back when I was a novice video game developer. The number of things we tried to make work was staggering and ultimately we had to cut the feature because it just wasn’t fun. A good amount of that was the engine wasn’t able to do it, and the modes we were trying just didn’t work with our gameplay. So seeing Blackwake nail boat combat is especially impressive to me because it means their water physics and boat gameplay has to be tuned perfectly to work for the rest of the gameplay in the game.

Blackwake actually does that well. The boats react naturally in the water, but the majority of the gameplay is the ship to ship firing of cannons, and that is actually very impressive. Lining up a shot requires the work of both the captain (or the person steering the boat) and the crew aiming and firing the cannon.

Still, the one thing Blackwake drops the ball on is the tutorial. I jumped into a game and was pretty lost on what to do. There’s almost nothing in the game to tell you how to play. There is, however, a video, that if you find will teach you the rules of the game. It’s not labeled as such, it instead is 3.0 Basics. However, it does lead you through the game.

Sorry about the popping, technical issues happened out of my control.

I hope this changes in the future. I’m completely aware the game is in Early Access, but I hope that a tutorial is planned. It’s important information and the fact is, the video is excellent, but to leave the game and go to youtube to watch a tutorial video is annoying. The information though is essential to understand the game.

After watching the video I felt like I was brought up to speed on how the game works, and in my second game, I was did much better. So with that information, you can properly play the game. There are three possible modes to play in the game. Team Deathmatch, Siege and Capture the Booty. They have different objectives but are quite similar.

The first mode Team Deathmatch is essentially three versus three boat combat. There are two teams, the British Navy, and the Pirates. Each has two small crews of 7 players and one large crew of 13 players. The game is played with “tickets” every death and ship kill decrements them until one team wins.

It sounds and plays well. I once told a coworker there’s a good reason that Deathmatch is always in every game. Deathmatch is your foundation. If your Deathmatch is good, the rest of your game can build upon it, however without a solid Deathmatch mode that’s fun to play, it’s doubtful any mode can really work. You don’t need a mode, but you might as well include it if it’s enjoyable.

The problem is all about mechanics. The act of pointing your weapon at an enemy and firing has to be satisfying. Avoiding fire, or absorbing it, or acquiring your target faster than they do, has to be enjoyable at some level because most of your competitive gameplay will be based around that, even if there are other goals.

Blackwake passes this test with flying colors. In fact, its Team Deathmatch is so popular the other two modes are rarely played. I’ve only been in two games of Capture the Booty, and three games of Siege. Neither is bad, but that simple mode of Team Deathmatch keeps me coming back.

As for the other two modes, Capture the Booty is obviously made to behave like Capture the Flag, just with a pirate theme. Get a chest of gold and bring it back to your base. Simple. It works in theory, especially because of how well the Deathmatch systems integrate with that.

Siege, on the other hand, is still labeled “experimental”. It’s similar to Assault maps in Unreal Tournament. Each team tries to take over a fort, and the one that does it the fastest wins. It’s a good mode that needs some work. But it does have more of a pirating flavor to it then the rest of the game.

Which is an issue with the game in my book, there’s a strong link of the game and pirates. The game’s icon is a Jolly Roger, the pirate symbol. However, the game is mostly Ship to Ship combat between the British Royal Navy and Pirates. You don’t plunder regular ships, you don’t attack villages. If the game was between the British Royal Navy and the French Navy, it wouldn’t change very much.

It’s a shame because it confuses what the game might be about. The game still has a strong theming feel to the era of swashbuckling pirates, but I hope there will be another mode or two that might have a stronger link to the idea of classic piracy. Perhaps some AIs can be in the game to be attacked, with one team trying to save them. It’s a minor issue as the game is fun where it is, but it’s a shame the theme and the gameplay haven’t found each other just yet.

So with the idea of the game out of the way, let’s look at the actions in the game. The game starts with the players assembling the different crews. Then the game has each crew vote for captain. From there, the captain is able to build a ship and take to the sea with his crew. There are six types of small ships and three types of large ships that the players can “purchase” for free currently. Each ship feels a bit different but ultimately has the same rules. Mostly it is the configuration of the cannons, the layout and, sometimes a few extra weapons (swivel guns, or a mortar) that are on the ship.

Once the ship is built or as it’s being built, the crew runs along the dock and dives into the water to climb up some useful ropes on the ship and board their boat. From there the crew’s job really starts.

The crew starts by loading the cannons. Cannons require gunpowder then a type of shot, and finally, the player has to “ramrod” the shot into place and push the cannon up to the edge of the ship. This sounds complicated, and it is, but after a few cannons loaded most players will get a rhythm down.

The only real choice for the cannons is the type of shot required. A normal cannonball is a usual shot, but there’s also Grapeshot to target the crew, heated shot to burn a ship, a Grappling Hook to tether two boats together, the Barshot, to take out masts, and Chainshot to destroy sales. All of these shots can be loaded into any cannon and they each have different tactics associated with them.

The crew also will have to take care of the health of a ship. When an enemy scores a hit, the damage will appear on the ship and the ship will start taking on water. The crew needs to repair the holes made and pump out water, given enough holes, or with no pumping, a ship will eventually sink.

It’s not glamorous but repairs will keep you afloat.

All of this is a constant process in the game, Blackwake is perfectly balanced so the crew constantly has something to do in combat. There’s almost never any downtime unless the ship has done something to avoid enemy ships. Whether it’s firing a cannon as the ship pulls along another ship, reloading it or fixing the damage, there’s a job to be done.

On the other hand, the Captain of the crew has a different set of jobs. He will almost always be steering the ship and ordering the crew to do different tasks. Mostly he should be telling the crew what is happening or what they should be doing, whether it’s to repair the ship, or which side of the ship will be used next. The goal is keeping the ship safe, and bringing the next enemy into attack range through steering.

A captain’s job really is about communication with the crew. I’ve played enough games to see bad captains who try to use only the command wheel of the game, or don’t talk enough and they utterly fail. Sometimes there’s a mutiny, and sometimes it’s just a loss recorded by that team. Overall though, there’s a specific T word that Blackwake relies on: Teamwork.

So much of Blackwake is about working with your ship’s crew as a team. A good captain is necessary, but the crew needs to listen to the captain and know how to deal with everything, or which actions he’s about to take. The fact is the teamwork of a ship will completely change the experience. I’ve been on well-oiled teams and it’s like you are invincible. Everyone is important to that experience, but when you get it, the game feels completely different, and it’s worth it to try to attain that perfection.

A good example of that need for teamwork is the cannons. Once you load a cannon you might look through the view of it, and see an enemy but can’t tell the distance. You can hit a button to try to see the distance but that might not work, the problem is that someone on your crew has to “Spot” ships. It’s not required to be done very often, but if no one has a spyglass, you and your captain won’t be able to see the distance markers and will have to guess at the distance. That’s quite hard.

Instead, if you have a spyglass just a quick look at the enemy and your entire team can see the distance, from there the captain can figure out how far away from the enemy to be. The crew has markers on the cannon that show how far the shot will travel (in 100s of meters). There’s still the challenge of lining up the shot. The crew can’t move the cannons around much, the game claims you can move them left and right but in practice, they barely move in either direction, which makes sense as these are Iron Cannons. Instead, the Captain aims the cannons by moving into position, and the crew is able to take the shots and hopefully hit the enemy.

A perfect shot. Anything under 300 is a straight shot.

All of this has to be done fluidly and quickly but again, with the right team, it feels simple, with the wrong team… well, one team I was on had a captain who wouldn’t stop turning and I found almost every shot I took missed. On another crew, I had a captain who told us when he was turning, and I was able to hold off a missed shot. That’s the difference.

Not everything is rosy in Blackwake. While the ship to ship combat is incredible. The game also allows you to ram, and grapple other ships. In my experience, this is where the game loses some of its brilliance.

You can grapple another ship, and the battle just becomes a random melee. You can try to figure out which team each player is on by their clothes, but even then I’ve had trouble getting kills in head to head combat. I’ve made a couple of kills, but the melee and grapple combat seems to have an odd flavor to the attacking ship, due to them being prepared for it, but even there, it just turns into a hectic attack fest.

The team admits that melee needs more work, and I completely agree with them. Though I feel like Muskets are almost a luck based combat. There’s no way to aim down the barrel so you shoot in the general direction of an enemy, but I rarely have killed anyone. Ultimately the grapple and ramming don’t feel like it works as they intended it right now and it’s a shame because that is where I should feel like a pirate, and to me it’s the worst part of the game.

The bigger issue with this is Siege has a decent amount of its gameplay devoted to this style of hand to hand combat (muskets and melee) and the fact is, it doesn’t work that well. I love the assaulting the fort moments of Siege, but the land battle at the end ruins the mode for me.

There are also some events that will happen on different maps, the two big events I’ve seen is that volcanoes will erupt in the game, and it makes it harder to see (for both teams). It subtly changes the game and makes the game more interesting. The other big event is waterspouts, where if the crew doesn’t hang onto a cannon they can be sucked into the waterspout and thrown into the air and killed. The death by waterspout almost feels like a glitch due to how the graphics work, but the gameplay is clearly intentional.

So with all that being said, how is Blackwake? As I said I’m reviewing the game today, based on the 3.195 patch that’s currently out. It is in Early Access, and hopefully, that means it’ll grow, but I won’t judge a game based on promises.

Blackwake is a great naval combat simulation. I love attacking the enemy vessels with a good crew and working my ass off to keep my ship afloat. I also can get frustrated when my crew fails. However, both of those are positives to me, because it is supposed to be a team game, and it’s all about properly meshing with your crew and working as the team.

At the same time, the melee and grappled ships just aren’t as good as I would like. Siege needs a lot of work in my opinion, and while they will hopefully fix it sooner rather than later, they see just the melee as an issue, and I find the muskets to have a similar issue.

Still, I have to admit after filming both attempts at a last look for the game, I actually stuck around and played for a couple more games because I was having such a good time, and I’m normally not a multiplayer fan, to me that’s a sign of an addictive game. Ultimately I end up giving this game a


Final Thoughts: A excellent squad-based game, where squads are actually ships. The game only has a few modes to play, but the gameplay is very solid, and the teamwork is essential for the game. Worth a look.

Stats: Steam claims I’ve played 30 hours, however, I think the game didn’t quite correctly, I believe I played closer to 12-15 hours. There are no achievements for the game.

I bought this game as part of Humble Monthly Bundle for June 2018.

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