The more games I play the more it becomes obvious to me that for an industry reliant upon creativity a worryingly large number of games are depressingly average right from the moment you open the box. There's nothing particularly wrong with them they just have no spark of genius or innovation to make them stand head and shoulders above the crowd of similar games lining the shelves. Other games are just plain bad from the word go, unloved shovel-ware clogging up release schedules or titles that promised much only to fail spectacularly come release. And then there are the rest, the ones that make it all worthwhile, great games that fall beautifully into the upper reaches of reviewers score cards and provide hours upon hours of joyous entertainment for all who purchase them. Maelstrom is something of a rarity in that it somehow manages to fit into each of the aforementioned categories at various points, an achievement that makes it quite possibly the most frustrating game of the year so far.
To start at the beginning, Maelstrom, from Codemasters, is yet another Sci-fi RTS set in a post-apocalyptic future where the last of mankind has split into two warring factions each desperate to control what's left of the planet... blah... blah and indeed, blah. Which brings us nicely into bad point number one, the story. I've nothing against a good bit of post apocalyptic warmongering but it's been done so many times now that if you're going to do it you've got to do it well and unfortunately Maelstrom really doesn't. There are initially two factions in the game, the Remnants are your stereotypical army grunts, all gung-ho attitude and b-movie quips as seen in sci-fi games since the year dot. The second faction, the technologically advanced Ascension, are far more interesting and able to build all manor of funky robot units to help their cause. Later on in the game the alien Ha-Genti make an appearance proving that good things really do come to those who wait but more on them later. For reasons best known to themselves, Codemasters didn't see fit to provide a single player campaign for all the factions from the outset, so instead you're forced into control of the Remnants initially, a big disappointment considering they're by far the least interesting of the three.
That sense of disappointment shows no immediate sign of leaving once the game itself starts, the early missions are simple enough and clearly aimed to familiarise players with the controls and get the story started. Unfortunately they also serve to highlight the alarmingly broken RTS mechanics underpinning the entire venture. From simple things like awkwardly spinning the camera around the 3D environments to find units lost behind annoyingly non-transparent buildings to more important failures like units randomly appearing completely blind and failing to attack enemies walking right past them leading to much mouse throwing and cursing right from the off. The path-finding AI, surely the one thing an RTS needs to nail right at the start of its development, is far from perfect, too, with groups often getting broken up across the map as half the units try to go one way to a destination and half the other. Most frustrating of all the developers have also seen fit to put a limit on the number of units that can be selected at any one time meaning that moving large numbers around the battlefield is a constant source of frustration, even the ability to work around the problem by combining groups of units into squads which can then be multi selected feels like a half-arsed copout.
Badly written cut scenes push the story forward as you play through the main campaign and while dodgy scripts are nothing new in games having the lines delivered by in game character models who seem to be in the midst of some kind of debilitating fit, their limbs flailing about wildly as they talk, certainly goes someway to distracting you from the quality of the acting. Dialogue problems aren't confined to cut scenes however, the in-game troop chatter is some of the most repetitive around, often failing to even relate accurately to what's happening on screen.
It's not all bad though, shining through the midst of the mess are some interesting ideas, hero units with their own special abilities add a bit more thought to battles as keeping them alive becomes an important consideration amidst the carnage of war. There's even the ability to take direct control of these units in a familiar arcade style third person view but the less said about that the better. The arrival mid campaign of the Ha-Genti however ups the interest level considerably. Easily the most interesting faction their affinity to water and ability to flood the map is a novel twist on your standard alien race. Unfortunately as with so much of the game they only really come into their own in the skirmish mode outside of the main campaign, where you have the welcome opportunity to play as any of the three factions either against the computer or online. With a more interesting army under your control Maelstrom's basic faults become a little less important and you can start to see the game it should have been shine through.
Another of Maelstrom's plus points is the graphics engine which while not too hot when used for the close up cut scenes renders some truly impressive battles with the much vaunted destructable environments truly living up to their billing. The game flaunts this part of the technology to the max with the ability to manipulate the ground itself with offensive and defensive terra-forming. Having the power to effect the landscape mid battle proves to be just as much fun as you imagine it to be and stands out as a beacon of originality that the rest of the game would have done well to learn from.
When all's said and done, playing Maelstrom is a confusing experience, somewhere under the flawed exterior there are some good or even great ideas buried inside but these are sadly let down by some unforgivable glitches in the most fundamental parts of the RTS mechanics, problems that are thrown into sharp contrast when experienced through the unforgivably dull campaign mode. Someone out there will hopefully notice Maelstrom despite its ultimate failure and take the undeniably cool terra-forming, the destructible environments, the use of water and combine them with a much better underlying game to produce the RTS Maelstrom could have been. Unfortunately, coming as it does slap bang in the middle of the hype for Supreme Commander and C&C 3, Maelstrom was always going to struggle for market share even if it had been great, the fact that's so obviously not is really the final nail in its coffin.