Gamers who have dreamed of being a pirate will be provided with another outlet for their fantasy besides dressing up at home and splashing around the bathtub when Microsoft releases Bloodwake for the Xbox. Developed by Stormfront Studios, the game is a story-driven combat game set at sea. We got a chance to test the waters in the game and have come away intrigued by Bloodwake's slick graphics, arcade-style gameplay, and multiplayer modes.
The game's story finds you in the role of Lieutenant Shao Kai, an officer in the Northern League fleet. Cast adrift at sea after a brutal ambush by a group of pirates, he is rescued by Ped Zhang, Warlord of the Shadow Clan, another group of pirates. Thanks to the intervention of one of Zhang's group and his slightly surly attitude, Kai is adopted by the clan as a sea raider. Kai's acceptance of the offer is one part survival tactic and one part opportunism. Although he feigns ignorance when questioned by Zhang about his squadron's assailant, Kai is well aware of the identity of his attacker and hopes to you get an opportunity to exact revenge. The twist is that the object of Kai's hatred is his own brother, Admiral Shao Lung of the Northern League fleet, the commander of a fearsome warship called the Dragon.
You'll find two main modes to choose from: the single-player story mode and battle mode, a multiplayer mode for up to four players. The story mode follows Shao Kai as he balances being a quality pirate in Ped Zhang's crew with his quest for revenge. Levels are grouped together under different "chapters" and strung together by Shao Kai's narrative and sketches, which work together to tell Shao's story and inform you of the objectives for each level. You'll initially start out with a lightly armed and armored speedboat, but as you progress through the game, you'll be assigned better craft such as catamarans, torpedo boats, and sampans. Although, you may find that completing your objectives with even the best of ships is quite a challenge in later levels. The game's battle mode will eventually offer seven different types of matches for you and up to four friends to fight in. Unlike in the single-player game, you'll find power-ups that will give you new weapons or enhance your abilities for a limited period of time during a match. You'll unlock the various battle types and a variety of selectable ships to use in the battle mode by going through the story mode.
The gameplay is standard mission-based fare, which keeps Bloodwake accessible. Your missions will include attacking a ship or building, collecting crates, escorting ships, or performing recon. The game's control scheme is basic and works well with the Xbox controller. You'll control the rudder and throttle on your ship with the left analog stick or D-pad. Pushing left or right steers, while pressing forward accelerates. The left trigger fires your boat's primary weapon and the right trigger fires your secondary weapon. The clear face buttons allow you to toggle between several views, including a first-person view that is sure to nauseate anyone who isn't seaworthy thanks to the game's realistic waves. Double-tapping the X button gives you a turbo boost that's limited by an onscreen gauge that slowly refills when not in use. The A button allows you to cycle through your available secondary weapons. The B button zooms in on your radar if you need a closer look at the map during a mission. Finally, the black face button toggles your onscreen HUD on or off.
Graphically, the game makes good use of its clearly generous polygon budget. There's quite a bit of eye candy on display--the boat models are so detailed you can see gears turning in the engines and weapons. As the game is set at sea, Stormfront has put quite a bit of effort into the "look" of the water and come up with a very stylized and beautiful environment to interact with. The game's environments are huge, though they're a bit sparse at times. Missions set at various times of the day showcase the game's impressive lighting, which is quite beautiful.
In our time with Bloodwake, we found the game's single-player game to be challenging fun. The stylized sketches and voice-overs that drive the story fit the game and are an interesting departure from the CG cinemas that are the norm these days. Being able to select the difficulty of each level before you play it is a nice touch, as it lets you ease yourself into a more challenging game if you feel ready for it. The control scheme is user-friendly and didn't take long to pick up. Although the water's physics, in combination with that of the various boats, made for a slightly floaty experience at times, they gave the game an arcadelike feel that was fine. The multiplayer mode was fun, offering a good variety of battle options and ships once they were unlocked, which wasn't that hard to do. Overall, Bloodwake is looking quite promising. Gamers looking for some high-seas pirating action should look for it in late December.