Games often sound dull on paper. Naval battles with synchronous turn-based strategy set in a near future, with battles potentially lasting days, if not weeks, to finish. Add to that a slightly disturbing emphasis on DLC and microtransactions and Leviathan: Warships as an idea is beginning to keel over and sink before it even started to swim. Yet in many ways that, despite being an accurate description, fails to impart any justice to this intense nautical arcade simulation. Almost despite itself, Leviathan: Warships manages to rise from the murky depths of turn-based strategy and produce an original and entertaining experience worth investigating.
Perhaps it is best to dive straight into the deep end. The included tutorial is ponderous and fails to really highlight any of the strategy of the game. The best course of action is to head to a random matchmaking battle, with up to four players on two sides, and see what happens. The raison d'être of the game is certainly the synchronised turn based action which is split into two sections: planning and outcome. In the planning phase you plot the course for each of your ships in the fleet and order the guns to fire or shields to be raised. After each player has submitted their plans the outcome phase then plays out the resulting ten seconds before the game returns to the planning phase.
In many ways the idea is similar to that of the blisteringly fun, if equally frustrating, turn based strategy game Frozen Synapse, yet the switch from future soldiers to fleets of ships changes everything. Movement is achieved by dragging the green arrows (or orange reverse arrows) from a selected ship and moving waypoints to the desired location. Similarly cannons (most of which are set to fire automatically) can be aimed at desired targets with a drag and drop interface. Overall it is neat system that seems clearly designed to be more compatible with mobile platforms, but the result is somewhat simplistic for a strategy game.
Giant floating fortresses, with guns the size of tanks, take eons to power up their engines and then crawl into battle and asking them to reverse is like asking rivers to flow upstream. Meanwhile devious little speedboats can cloak until under the range of the enemies’ cannons and then unleash their deadly array of short ranged beam guns. At least that is the plan. Almost certainly the first mistake you will perform in Leviathan: Warships is to accidentally crash all your ships together, failing to realise that different ship types move and turn at varying speeds. Watching your fleet follow your ludicrous plans with unswaying conviction as they plough their hulls into each other, causing serious damage, at least teaches you not to make the same mistake again. Though undoubtedly you will.
The second mistake will most likely see your ships being sunk by your own cannon fire. Friendly fire is just as devastating to your own fleet and your allies as it is to the enemy, this makes positioning, as well as constant communication, absolutely vital. In fact positioning is the key to success in Leviathan: Warships. Unlike many strategy games, where units can swivel on the spot and point their guns in the right direction, warship cannons can only rotate a certain degree. This means that not only do your ships have to be within range and have a clear line of sight of the enemy, they also have to be facing in the right direction. Bearing in mind some ships take over four turns just to rotate through one hundred and eighty degrees, suddenly it becomes clear how important it is to predict enemy advances.
The resulting strategy from these basic premises becomes surprisingly deep, quite unlike any game we’ve experienced before. Furthermore its arcade feel sets it apart from the simulation heavy counterparts such as the Silent Hunter or Pacific Storm series. The game poses so many questions, such as whether to send in speeding scouts to track enemy positions for the long ranged artillery, knowing it may never make it back? Do you risk splitting the fleet to attempt flanking manoeuvres and risk being overcome by a larger force? Every turn seems to demand decisions and, as we discovered with Frozen Synapse, the nature of synchronised turn based strategy games actually makes these decisions more intensive than traditional turn based games or even real time, due to being forced to watch without any control the result of your best made plans.
On the first few matchmaking attempts the player will most likely pick a ready made fleet from the supplied list, and rush into battle. However the more one learns about the strategy and systems of the game the more they realise that the in battle planning is only half the war. The real strategy begins in the fleet selection area. Leviathan: Warships allows players to edit their fleet from the ground up, selecting whichever combination of ships, weapons and defences they wish, so long as it fits within the points limit of each specific game. In this way it is similar to a tabletop Warhammer battle or more recently the multiplayer element of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Equipping your fleet with the perfect complement of devastating offensive cannons and ingenious use of shields and cloaking is more than just a core part of the game, it is absolutely vital for victory. Each type of ship has a point value and allows for a certain number of armaments to be attached. Larger ships cost more, allow for more weapons and defensive placements and can withstand a greater onslaught, yet this comes at the sacrifice of speed and manoeuvrability. Meanwhile the cheaper smaller ships move quickly but will perish quickly if hit by a barrage of cannon fire. This raises yet more strategic questions. Does one deploy a quick moving fleet that attempts to flank the slower ships and stay out of cannon fire? Do they instead opt for gargantuan battleships and just hope that the overwhelming firepower destroys all who stand in their way? Or perhaps a mixture of the two would be the most sensible? Each option is viable, but the key is in understanding your own fleet’s strengths and weaknesses.
As with Frozen Synapse, multiplayer is certainly the heart of the experience and it is clear the developers understand this. The matchmaking is a fairly tidy process allowing you select the form of game you wish to search for. At present there are disappointingly few modes: cooperative challenge mode, point victory and assassination. Each can be played with up to four players and, in the case of the two latter modes, two teams. Rather cleverly three player games are achieved through an archenemy format where one player has twice the point value to spend against two weaker allied opponents.
Sadly, the competitive modes: Point victory, where the winner claims victory when he sinks enough ships of certain point value, and Assassination, in which only the enemy flagship has to be destroyed, essentially amount to the same experience. It would have added to the depth of the game to have seen some more variable modes such as holding key positions, or a primitive capture the flag mode. However these two modes do still provide enough of a deep and fulfilling experience to entertain players for some time.
Perhaps the less said about the single player (though it can be played cooperatively with up to four allies) campaign mode the better. It is short, only totalling nine brief missions, badly written and contains possibly the most ludicrous and broken final boss battle in recent history. Most likely it will be used by inexperienced players to get some initial idea on how to play the game but will be brushed aside following this. This is a slight shame since it is the only area where the game can be played at a refreshing pace without having that tiresome wait for opponents to finish their planning phase and get on with the battle.
The most worrying part of the campaign is the cliffhanger ending which brings with it the stench of early DLC and microtransactions and possibly highlights the game’s mobile preference. The shop is displayed fairly prominently on the main screen and within it already lie options to purchase at a price extra ship types and maps. Personally there is a worry here that this could result in one of the worst experiences in multiplayer gaming, a ‘pay to win’ atmosphere. Though this may be the modern gaming skeptic speaking. Arguably the game is being sold at a discount price and may require this form of alternative funding, but we shall have to wait and see how this may affect the overall experience in the long run.
For a budget game Leviathan: Warships certainly shines with a unique and charming, if technologically primitive, graphical style though the music does betray some of its cheap development cycle, feeling constantly derivative and irritating enough to be switched off after a short period. Yet overall Leviathan: Warships is a wonderfully original and intense strategy game, posing many questions and potential plans unseen in strategy gaming previously.
Credit should also be given to the rather brilliant development team at Pieces Interactive and Paradox who have managed to get it to work across most available (excluding consoles) platforms meaning that games can be played between PC and mobile. Furthermore players can swap devices at any time if they want to leave their PC and go on the move. Arguably this may result in a more watered down experience than PC gamers are used to, but it rarely hinders the gamer in any way. Yes, It does not have the extreme finicky depth of Frozen Synapse, yet it does not really need it. Ships move at a much more leisurely pace and thus planned positioning is far more important than precise timed movements.
However, as with most multiplayer games, the true test of this game will be whether a community establishes around it allowing for reliable and stable matchmaking and tournaments. At present matchmaking is a slow and laborious process and finding a game to play can be tricky. Yet hopefully this will improve as more players discover the game. It certainly has the potential, and if the development team continue to add content, without upsetting the player base with pricing, then it may even become a staple of the multiplayer gaming landscape. Only time will tell whether this hulking Leviathan will rise from the depths of obscurity or rot at the bottom of the ocean.