Life after the apocalypse is going to be tough, but we think we’ll cope with the help of our survival kit. Buried in an old biscuit tin at the bottom of a garden we’ve got a pair of studded shoulder pads, an eye patch, a mohawk wig, a battered leather jacket and a rust-streaked Hummer. How did we manage to fit so many post-apocalyptic clichés into such a small container? Let’s just say we got a few tips from KDV Games.
Maelstrom isn’t just filled with Mad Max clichés, it’s also crammed with RTS ones. Leap straight into the campaign mode and it’s seven or eight hours before you arrive anywhere novel. That’s seven or eight hours of cobbling together bases, guiding gaggles of grunts around maps, and watching MG jeeps and sci-fi tanks squabble ritualistically like old married couples.
Part of the problem is the order in which the game’s trio of factions are introduced. For the first seven missions you lead the rather dull Remnants (scrap-salvaging renegades whose top-tier unit is a black hawk chopper (that fires missiles) into battle against the only slightly more interesting Ascension (DNA-salvaging renegades whose top-tier unit is a mech (that’s quite tall). Your reward for slogging through this formulaic romp? A similarly bland sequence leading the Ascension against the Remnants.
Long past the time when most sensible gamers would have beaten a path back to Supreme Commander, Rise of Legends and Dawn of War, a modicum of excitement and originality finally shows-up in the wobbly bio-form of the Hai-Genti. Rock-pool aliens with abundant limbs and a penchant for H2O, they are just about weird and violent enough to distract you from the secondhand mission plots and the various AI and command-and-control deficiencies. Yes, Maelstrom manages to botch some crucial fundamentals. We’ve seen pollen-drunk bees navigate greenhouses more skillfully than some of the units in this game and how they path find their way from base to front. The lack of formations and the awkward squad creation system add to the chaos of battle in the same way that dead flies add to the protein content of soup.
Instead of concentrating on getting the basics right, KDV seems to have lavished a lot of energy on unusual but ultimately irrelevant content. The tactical terra-forming that was such an ingenious aspect of their last creation (Perimeter) is too fiddly and slow to be enticing in this context. Even the campaign designers seem to ignore it. It’s a similar story with the third-person hero control. Where in Rise & Fall there were good reasons to possess your protagonists, here direct control does little but expose AI shortcomings. Spending 15 minutes sniping dunderheaded hostiles from beyond their detection ranges isn’t much fun.
The best way to play Maelstrom is via the skirmish mode. Though the AI cheats like Terry Thomas at advanced level (the only worthwhile setting) and control of game parameters is limited, you are guaranteed a challenge and unrestricted armory access. You don’t have to worry about the action being interrupted by awful cutscenes or failure-triggering hero deaths either.
One of KDV’s more successful innovations is only available in skirmishes. Switch on automatic base management and the AI will deal with such things as solar farm placement and upgrade paths, leaving you free to indulge in manly stuff like killing, demolishing buildings and taking screenshots.
With death by lightning, fire, ice, whirlwinds, water, fangs, talons and chainsaws, not to mention all the usual bullets and bombs, Maelstrom has plenty to offer the Hypersnap paparazzi. Oddly, given all the mayhem, we didn’t find ourselves cackling with evil glee very often. Actually, thinking about it, we didn’t cackle once. Either we’ve lost our capacity for enjoying bloody mayhem (improbable) or KDV has attempted to create something modern and populist and ended up with something that feels ten years old and decidedly ordinary. We reckon it’s the latter. Russia’s answer to Introversion has gone from the exciting, dangerous Perimeter to the dull and crowded center. Grieve.