In the distance, I can see two ships exchanging fire, clouds of smoke swirling as they strafe each other with broadsides. We're moving fast toward the battle, our sails snapping in the wind. It's a big ship, but all 13 crew have finished loading cannons, re-rigging sails, and dropping crates of fresh supplies for the gunners. Everyone has a job to do, and this one is mine: I'm staring down the barrel of a port-side cannon on the top deck. I can't swivel left or right. I just have to light the fuse when the moment is right.
That's easier said than done. One of the British warships has spotted us moving in, and they pivot and face their cannons in our direction. I'm hunkered behind my cannon, waiting for my shot, when hot iron starts raining down. Chainshot rips through our foresail and our ship slows. Inches away from my face, a cannonball tears a chunk out of the deck railing, flinging a crewmate dead into the pitching waves. I'm bleeding from the blast but I stay on my station. The captain finally steers round, the warship comes into view, and I fire. I reload as fast as I can while crewmates restring sails, patch holes in the deck, and die all around me.
Call of Booty
There are a few ways to describe the maritime warfare of Blackwake. It’s an early-access, first-person multiplayer deathmatch between Caribbean pirates and the British navy. It’s an FPS with black-powder muskets, smooth-bore cannons, and the most ridiculously foppish faux-British voice acting I’ve ever heard. But most important is this: it is an anti-power fantasy. First-person shooters usually want me to feel like the biggest boss, the hero who can do everything. The cooperation in Blackwake's multiplayer arena is self-reinforcing because no one can do more than one job at a time.
Let's start with the boats, which are sleek and gorgeously modeled. Exploring the ship models in Blackwake is a treat, especially the largest galleons, which stretch three or four decks tall above the water. The captain, duly elected by a majority vote of the crew, steers and sails. Since large cannons can't be swiveled or tilted, the offensive capability of the ship is split: the captain aims the gun and the crew pulls the trigger.
In practice, these mechanics are pretty tame. Click to pick up a powder charge, click to load it. Click to pick up a cannonball, click to load it. Hold-click to run the ramrod. I’ve had entire battles where I did nothing but load and fire a cannon as we pummeled an opponent at long-range. It could be mind-numbing, but I find that I love feeling like I’m part of a larger well-organized crew, even if I am only doing one job.
And in battle, there are dozens of jobs to do. Any damage to the hull has to be patched by hand, with hammer and nails, before the ship fills with water and sinks. Damage to the sails has to be fixed in person by sailors climbing up the shroud, or the ship won’t be able to move. Cannons are a full-time job, but crates of fresh powder and shot also have to be shuttled to from the magazine to the guns. If grappling hooks land and a ship gets boarded, everyone drops their work and a melee suddenly breaks out—usually while one or both ships creak and take on water.
Melee sword fights are a fascinating addition to Blackwake. For a huge majority of every match, opponents are tiny dots, specks climbing around the deck of faraway ships. Even getting close enough to snipe at the other crew with muskets is relatively rare. Suddenly being close-up, face-to-face with them gets the heart pumping every time. The trouble is that melee hit detection and melee combat is at a very early stage, so sword fights feel a little weightless, random and flailing, like an early beta test for Mount & Blade. Melee is simultaneously the worst part of the game and the most tantalizing and exciting.
All the while, cannon balls and musket fire are whipping around and men are dying at random, leaving positions unfilled until they can respawn. Every successful crew I've sailed with has spent the entire match screaming over proximity voice chat, calling orders and yelling for help. If things feel frantic in Blackwake, that's probably a sign of a well-run ship—and that's exhilarating.
If anything, Blackwake reminds me of the distributed control scheme of Artemis, the starship bridge simulator. I have to trust my teammates because I have no other choice. Trust is how the game is played.
One downside to this approach is that your fun is heavily reliant on other people. Communication is essential, and Blackwake has provided some pretty good voice-chat systems to shout out to nearby crew, the entire ship, and the entire team. But those voice channels aren’t any good if no one uses them.
Not only is a rotten crew a swift ticket to the briny depths, but even a good crew can be ruined by an incompetent captain. Blackwake reminds me of the modern-military shooter in this respect: a decisive leader makes the difference between fun and not-fun. To help control this, the crew can mutiny at any time and elect a new captain, forcing the old captain to become part of the crew and watch his successor at work.
Aside from captains, being a cog in a machine means there are also few chances for individual glory. When these moments do come, though, they feel great because they’re so rare. During one battle, my captain yelled, "We're going to ram them, boys!" Everyone started scrambling for the top deck, ready to run across and board the enemy. The ships slammed together. Yelling, my entire crew ran across our bowsprit and onto the British galleon.
I aimed my musket at a British sailor and fired. He dropped. I jumped and grabbed the netting of the mizzenmast shroud, swinging down to the deck. With my pistol's single shot I killed a second sailor, then drew my cutlass. I cut down two more sailors before someone threw a bomb into the melee, killing everyone. I didn’t care. I already felt like a pirate god.
Blackwake is still in early access, and its development has only recently been speeding up. While I’ve seen amazingly few bugs, animations feel janky and moving around—such as getting caught up on the corner of a crate, or running horizontally up a sail rigging—feels weightless. Most servers run the Team Deathmatch mode, where both sides face off across a wide ocean dotted with rocky islands, trying to bleed the other side of tickets and ammunition. Every death and every missed cannon shot counts against the total: the faction that runs out of warm bodies or hot lead first loses. This mode can get repetitive, so I don’t think the current game is something I could spend hours and hours playing.
It’s easy to completely overlook the level map itself—it’s an ocean, so it is by nature flat, wet, and sort of a green shade of blue. But taking another look shows just how good the water simulation is, and how gorgeous the blue sky split with crepuscular rays really is. Maps are big enough for several separate battles to rage at once, dotted by rocky islands to break up sight lines and give captains options for maneuvering.
The most exciting possibility for Blackwake, I think, is if it gets popular enough for clans and gaming groups to set up formal battles. The largest servers I’ve seen max out at 54 players: enough for a 13-crew galleon and two 7-crew warships on each side. A minute or so at the start of each match gives players time to pick a ship and elect a captain, so this would work really well for large group events. Being part of a trained Blackwake crew that works together—facing down cannons by another crew of organized experts—sounds like one of the most exciting multiplayer experiences in gaming right now.
Will that happen? Even though it’s still early, Blackwake has shot to the top of Steam’s bestselling list recently, and there’s a healthy batch of international servers full of players from around the world. It’s early, but that’s a promising start.