Blood Wake Preview

Don't rock the boat--Blood Wake will do that for you. Vehicular destruction hits the high seas in a game that has you controlling fantastical seagoing craft and blowing up lots of stuff.

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Fictional fantasy worlds are a safe bet in games; they remove the responsibility of accuracy from the author and allow for uninhibited storytelling. Despite the freedoms that fiction may provide, any plot can still fall into a spotty pastiche in which stories become secondhand history or an obvious retelling of an earlier, superior work. In the case of the upcoming Xbox game Blood Wake, we have an example of the former. Is this a condemnation of a plot whose high-tech, fantastical speedboats, skiffs, and cruisers rule the high seas as if it were the 19th century in the South China Sea all over again? Well...no one ever said that video game narrative was high art. Blood Wake, developed by Stormfront Studios, may have a fiction of convenience, but in this case, it's a pardonable offense, since its central purpose is to provide gamers with a unique arena for taking control of its cool array of weapons and highly stylized boats.

Stormfront isn't shy about citing its inspiration for Blood Wake's concept and setting. Essentially, it has taken many of the facts and stories from the 19th-century conflicts between Chinese Taipans, pirates, and European ship captains in the South China Sea and moved them into a fictional futuristic world. For example, take Blood Wake's Iron Empire, whose technological superiority is an amalgam of European colonial powers such as England and Spain or the Iriyans, whose vast numbers but inferior technology mirror the Chinese's. Blood Wake introduces you to the conflict between the Iriyans and the Iron Empire through the eyes of the Shadow Clan, a group of mercenaries and raiders (pirates, for all intents and purposes) who look to make a tidy profit off its two larger, warring neighbors. As Blood Wake begins, you find yourself as a young, unproven sailor--eager to take tough missions that'll prove your mettle and worth to the Clan.

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Gameplay adheres to a formula of self-contained missions built around a larger narrative--a concept that will no doubt sound familiar to those of you who have played games like X-Wing or TIE Fighter on the PC or EA's Strike series on consoles. Each of Blood Wake's 25 "levels" contains multiple objectives that can often be completed in a nonlinear fashion. Mission types vary from typical seek-and-destroy ventures to more complicated escorting tasks, courier runs, and scramble-and-defend sorties. Stormfront even promises that you'll participate in all-out engagements between dueling armadas, with dozens of ships involved on either side. While Blood Wake isn't online compatible, you will be able to play with up to three other gamers via split screen. Multiplayer includes most of the options found in the single-player game, as well as the ability to choose from custom-designed maps and adjust the canopy of dynamic weather and time of day during which you play. You can tailor your matches to take place in the morning, at noon, and at night and to include all sorts of inclement conditions, such as breaking waves, high winds, and thunderstorms.

Whereas nature is in the periphery in most vehicular games, its force and power are at the forefront of Blood Wake's gameplay; namely, we're talking about Wake's realistic waves and physics engine. Stormfront claims that its engine for simulating the physics of undulating water is some of the most complex and realistic seen in any game yet. Like a demented water-park wave pool, Stormfront has designed Blood Wake to take a perfectly calm sea and transform the water into a churning, frothy beast with 12-foot-high waves in only a few minutes. When the waves are high, controlling your ship becomes an adventure; if you try to idle, you'll see your boat tossed to and fro; if you try to gun it too hard, you'll see your craft skip over the waves or, if you're not careful, tumble around the choppy seas. Even more impressive, the wake from other boats or explosions disturbing the water can have a noticeable effect on the bearing of your own craft.

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Blood Wake offers you 10 different boats to control. Stormfront's art and design teams have conjured up wild takes on watercraft, creating a stylized menagerie of boats and ships--analogous, in some ways to Zipper Interactive's Zeppelin-inspired aircraft seen in Crimson Skies, on the PC. Each ship varies greatly from the other. You begin the game piloting tiny, maneuverable skiffs; eventually, you'll move on to junks, speedboats, and even heavily armored patrol cruisers. You'll also have a good array of weapons to choose from--your default weapon is a high-caliber machine gun, while your primary weapon can be chosen from a variety of firearms and ammunition. Stormfront promises guided and dumbfire missiles, naval cannons, gattling guns, torpedoes, and proximity mines, for starters. Additionally, you can equip your guns with different types of rounds, each with specific purposes. For example, you'll want to load armor-piercing shells when you're taking on armored cruisers or stationary turrets and to switch to high explosive rounds when you're dealing with soft or exposed targets.

Blood Wake's calm, frothy, and rolling waves are as much the game's visual centerpiece as they are its gameplay foundation. Even in its early state, Wake's graphics are comparable to WaveRace: Blue Storm's polished water effects on the GC. While many of the finishing visual touches haven't been integrated, we saw a little bit of what Stormfront had in mind for E3. The engine accurately maps sunlight's glistening reflection on the breaking waves, and we've seen how each boat's individual displacement and motion realistically disturbs the surrounding waters. Like most Xbox games, Blood Wake features exceedingly crisp and defined texture work--in particular, boats feature both high-resolution textures and a healthy number of polygons, making even small details in each craft evident. Blood Wake features a sizable draw distance, although the E3 demo and screenshots we've seen show some fogging in the distance. The effect appears to be mostly atmospheric--rolling fog on the horizon is a common oceanic sight.

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Of course, Blood Wake will need more than some impressive water effects if it hopes to make waves during the coming holiday season. The fact that Stormfront has constructed an interesting, historically inspired fiction to go along with its more tangible wave physics and wake effects should calm speculation that its game will be visually impressive but a vacuum in terms of gameplay. No, Stormfront's game may not be high art, but with a name like Blood Wake, is that much of a surprise?

Expect Microsoft's Blood Wake to arrive close to the Xbox launch this November.

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