Kartuga: hands-on with the F2P maritime MMOG

It looks like Sid Meier's Pirates raided Anno 1707 and it plays like Micro Machines with broadsides. Its name is Kartuga, and it aims to be the scourge of the free-to-play high seas. Developed by Hamburg's Ticking Bomb Games, whose previous title was Europe 1400, Kartuga is a massively multiplayer game in which daring buccaneers zip across sky-blue seas in an arcadey, top-down rendering of nautical warfare. It's being built in Unity with the intention of being playable in your browser (over at beta.kartuga.com ). But can Kartuga offer anything to hardcore gamers beyond unwelcome flashbacks to Pirates of Carribbean or flashforwards to the next incarnation of Assassin's Creed ?

I got my callused mitts on the keyboard for about thirty minutes, trying out the PvE open world and both PvP modes. It's definitely not a simulation. There's no wind or waves or rocks or weather or accurate galleon wood-splinter physics here. WASD controls give the skittering skiffs the snappy immediacy of a kart-racer - the two concession to accurate seafaring are that they can't go backwards, needing to circle instead, and that they have to fire broadsides that slowly reload. You can fire a single cannon forward, but it's a non-damaging debuff that slows the enemy. Firing restrictions aside, the game is all action, with: you'll be so busy shooting, you won't even notice the filigree beauty of the buildings.

There are three classes in the game at the moment. The Destroyer is a glass cannon designed for hit and run attacks. It's good at range and fast, but can't go hull-to-hull with the other classes. The Protector specialises in durability and damage, but is easily outpaced by enemies. Finally, the Engineer specialises in area control, buffing and staying the hell out of the front line.

Beyond their raw stats, the classes also have differing abilities; For example, the Engineer can deploy a floating cannon, as well as a healing drone. The Destroyer, meanwhile, gets access to powers that allow a single long-range penetrating sniper shot, a shortlived damage buff to its broadsides and a chain-shot attack, that temporarily slows down the enemy.

Each class has a branching skill tree, allowing it to level up and unlock specialisations, whether in PvP or PvE. Looking at The Protector, for example, it gets to choose between becoming the almost unsinkable Bulwark, the critical-hitting Wrangler, or the Suppressor, an excellent support vessel for the defence of nearby teammates. It's not exactly a huge range of classes, but then this isn't exactly a complicated game.

The inventory structure does add a little more depth, very much like Pirates meets Dungeon Siege, where you can slot in different flavours of ammo, five different crew member slots (officers, gunners, carpenters, powder monkeys and one more), guns, and repair kits. All of these are bought from in-game stores, either with in-game doubloons or real world money. On top of that, there are entire ship types that you can swap in or out, which offer their own sets of combined buffs and debuffs, and are separated into light, medium and large categories, depending on your play style.

In the main PvE world, players carry out quests (mainly to kill other ships or do deliveries) and follow a main questline and story as they go. This world is brightly drawn, with its ornately-architectured cities clinging to lush, sunlit shorelines. Each of the three areas has its own theme – Mediterranean, Arabian or Mayan - and, like Sid Meier's Pirates, everywhere there are AI ships going about their daily trading business. In the full online game, there'll be other players, too.

Where the majority of your time will be spent is, however, in the two PvP modes with their nine maps. The first of these, Domination, will be familiar to any FPS player. It's a capture-and-hold gametype with two teams of up to four players scuffling over five scattered ghost ships. The longer you hold them, the more souls you get, and the first to 2500 souls wins the match. The gameplay is only complicated by the navigation routes between the islands and the presence of defensive towers on either side.

The other mode, Destruction, witnesses a tussle over a centrally-spawning bomb, each team attempting to deliver it three locations on their opponent's side. The bomb carrier has a disadvantage, as it can't use the zephyrs dotted around the maps, which give ships a temporary speed boost, is vulnerable during the seconds it takes to plant the bomb. But even if defenders scupper the ship as it prepares to detonate, they'll still need to defuse the explosive, leaving them vulnerable, too. Once one side has lost its three bomb sites, it's game over.

This PvP malarkey is fun, but throwaway; it's just not deep enough to be my cup o' grog. But even if Kartuga does little to sink the F2P stereotype of frivolous shallow action, its overworld offers a simple joy in the exploration of those three handsomely drawn regions. There's ample charm to be found here in its brightly coloured world of knockabout cannonfire combat; I like the cut of its jib, even if its maritime mechanics do little to push the boat out.