As far as I’m concerned, Rare’s open-world pirate MMO Sea of Thieves can’t get here soon enough. I played a slice of it at Gamescom 2016 and I can’t wait for more. It’s not just because it looks like a whole lot of fun, it’s because I’ve kinda got a thing for pirate games.
I grew up on the Monkey Island games, had a blast with Sea Dogs and its Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and couldn’t resist the buggy wiles of Risen 2: Dark Waters (but that was mostly because I was a fan of the equally buggy Gothic series). So, when a friend told me about BlackWave, I knew I had to take it for a spin.
The first thing I encountered is the NSFW trailer, which you should definitely check out as it perfectly encapsulates the feel of playing the game.
I didn’t much enjoy my first round, but that’s most because I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. It didn’t take long to figure out that my job as a sailor was primarily to ensure that the cannons were reloaded. It’s not a fast process, either. You need powder, then some form of shot (cannon ball or grape), then you have to pack that in with a ramrod, before wheeling it into a firing position.
What would normally be a mundane task becomes incredibly tense when you’re sailing beside an enemy ship filled with sailors rushing to do the same thing. As your ship takes damage, you have to switch to a hammer to repair holes, or work the pumps to stop your tub from sinking into the depths. The repair hammer can also be used to repair damages sails (because why not?), but to scale the rigging you have to do a circle-strafe-style jump to the outside of the ship that I wasn’t willing to try, especially after a crew member ended up in the drink attempting this very thing.
All of this happens while your captain is yelling at you over VOIP to do stuff you’ve likely already done. By the second round, I had a better idea of what was going on, plus a captain who was on board with treating the VOIP channel as a perpetual Talk Like a Pirate Day communications system.
It takes time for the cannon to fire after you light the fuse, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a need to lead the enemy ship. The mode that I played was a single ship-versus-ship battle, so we didn’t have to worry about sea-wolves slinking in to finish off what we’d started, either. There are islands scattered around to use as cover and, as a crewmember, you’re absolutely reliant on the better visibility your captain has from behind the wheel.
The catch is that the captain makes a juicy target for the enemy ship, especially when you’re near each other. Swivel guns and muskets make it possible to temporarily remove an enemy captain from behind the wheel, and we were on the receiving end of that trick more than once.
While you’re working the deck, though, you’ll regularly see your fellow crew turned into a red mist as a cannonball destroys them. That’s less fun when it happens to you, but it’s regularly hilarious when it happens to someone else. I found that the easiest way to score points is to work the pump, repair holes, and ensure the cannons are reloaded and ready to fire. Even though my crew of salty sea dogs didn’t manage to win a round in my handful of rounds, it was good to see that the scoring system rewards serving the needs of the crew.
Landing hits on the enemy ship and scoring kills is fun, but you also lose points for missed shots, which is a much subtler deterrent for a wide shot than your captain grilling you. It’s a pirate game, so of course there’s also the option to board the enemy ship or be boarded, but my experience with the cutlasses was less than stellar. The single-shot firearms were okay, but the swordplay definitely felt clunky in an Early Access kind of way.
In fairness, BlackWake is still in development, and considering the core formula is a heap of fun once you get over the initial learning curve, it’s easy to forgive. If you’re so inclined, check out one of my NSFW sweary early rounds below. BlackWake isn’t perfect, but it scratches my particular pirate itch while I sit in port awaiting the arrival of HMS Sea of Thieves.