There’s nothing like a good, Apocalyptic view of the future to fuel the storyline for a decent FPS or strategy game. Unfortunately nowadays you have to come up with something out of the ordinary to gain hardcore gamers’ attention. STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl managed to do that for spooky shooters and Maelstrom is Codemasters’ attempted ‘breakthrough’ for the RTS genre.
The story here is that mankind has single-handedly managed to destroy most of the planet though a combination of ecological disaster and global warfare (so, hugely improbable then…). Most of Earth’s surface is now under water and the few survivors have split into two factions that are vying for supremacy – they didn’t learn anything from the warfare bit, then! The Remnants are ex military ‘freedom fighters’ who scavenge metal and resources from the blasted remains of cities and battlefields and use largely conventional weaponry and vehicles.
The Ascension grew out of a multinational corporation specialising in advanced technology. The company’s president, Arlan Khan, has created an army of multifunctional transformers that can rapidly alter shape and purpose in the heat of battle. Complications then arose when an alien race – the Hai-Genti – chose to invade Earth for their own survival. Being an aquatic race, our newly submerged planet seemed an ideal choice, and the insurgents make use of psychic abilities and vast numbers of bio-engineered creatures to dominate the humans.
As you’d expect, each race has to build a base and then produce armies and vehicles before heading off to tackle the foe. The main novelty here is that while the Remnants and the Ascension use solar power for energy, the Hai-Genti use a Mutagen which is introduced into the water supply and is poisonous to humans: they will also genetically ‘convert’ humans while simultaneously trying to flood all solid ground. The other two armies can respond by terraforming and adapting their vehicles for water travel.
All three sides have Heroes with special abilities which can be upgraded as they gain combat experience, plus you can control them from a third-person viewpoint. Rarely will this give you much of an advantage, though, as the controls are highly sensitive and you need the wider top-down view to see where the enemy’s coming from.
For all its attempts at innovation, Maelstrom is also hugely frustrating and a lot of this is due to the AI. Units you’ve assembled refuse to stay in their groups and individuals constantly stray off on their own, wander round in aimless circles and take the longest route to their destination. The enemy are just as clueless and frequently the opposing combatants will be treading on each other’s toes before they’ll open fire.
In addition, the campaign mode forces you to play as Remnants first (who are easily the dullest), then Ascension (who are marginally better because of the Mechs) before you can lay hands on by far the most interesting of the three, the Hai-Genti. The interface menus take up too much of the screen, the mini-map has virtually no features and the camera position randomly alters after each stage is completed.
In the end, developers KDV have produced a graphically beautiful but only marginally original slant on the RTS genre that leaves its best features until too late in the game.