In sandboxes, there’s a lot of emphasis on playing your way. It’s something we’re seeing a lot lately with the number of procedurally generated games on the market. At PAX East, I had the opportunity to check out procedurally generated Windward, a sandbox game with multiple ways to live out your type of high seas fantasy, sail, battle, explore, or even play with (or against) friends. Windward is a game that might have been easy to overlook before, but it turns out it holds its own with just how many options are built into the game.
Windward is a pretty looking game, with water, terrain, and the ability to simply sail around exploring, collecting cargo, and maybe even completing some quests. It can feel pretty peaceful on an instanced or co-op map, since most of the action is up to you. The world is procedurally generated, though you can also learn to control and carve out terrain, as well as, deep into the game, possibly obtain a ship that can also travel over land. One of the best abilities is one that simply lets you explode through chunks of terrain in order to sail through it or create strategic points in the map. Blast through to create a river to make passage easier or even to mount an escape. To start, you’ll want to collect cargo, explore shipwrecks to plunder them, and even start capturing towns. The game now has quests too, so while it’s still a sandbox, you can turn to quests for a little guidance and some rewards if you’d like. You can capture towns, buy, sell, upgrade, and build defenses at those sites to keep them protected as you sail off to the next thing.
You can set the game to play in a single player instance, to which you can invite others. You can create co-op games in instances that start out friendly and then potentially turn competitive later. Each of the four factions has specific benefits, and each area of the world is handled one at a time. During my demo experience, my team captured every town and controlled our area of the map. At that point, I tried an individual instance, but had I stuck to the co-op server, the decision would’ve been either to continue to sail around and maintain our corner of the world or sail further out toward areas still unclaimed and potentially encounter other factions aiming for the same spoils.
Followers are NPC ships that can follow you or you can send them elsewhere on the map to take care of enemies or towns. Having followers with you when encountering enemies is valuable, though you’ll get assistance from friendly ships when trouble shows up even if they’re not following you. Yet being able to tell ships to follow you or send them off to complete other tasks can be a valuable tool. Spot pirates down further on the map near one of your towns? Send a couple of followers to take care of them while you go and capture another.
The game also features RPG style skill trees. You can choose whether you want to have a more balanced playstyle, become a super fortified ship with defense, or really go for the offensive strikes. As you progress and open up more of the map, you’ll encounter NPC or real player ships from your own faction (depending if you’re playing on a server or in a personal instance), as well as pirates sailing all around. Towns will come under attack by these pirates, so if you’re claiming towns for your own, you’ll definitely want to keep them defended. As you go along, you’ll have the opportunity to pick up cargo from the world and access various upgrades that will help you. In my demo, I was able to get a better hull, as well as found a new captain with some better stats than my current one. The stats, however, often reflect the various playstyles available to you, so while the overall stats might be better on a particular captain or ship upgrade, if you’re defensive, you might want more points there, or if you’re looking to get in, cause a ton of damage and get out again, pick the one which adds to those specs. As you upgrade you’ll also be able to obtain utility skills as well, such as being able to pull in cargo from greater range.
The controls were a little on the hard to get used to side. Turning ships feels really slow, although the controls are responsive. Yet when a pirate or enemy ship shows up, it was always very easy to either not turn fast enough or to overshoot the angle for getting the guns to point in the right direction, which led to many close calls and use of resources and repair time. The turn speed can be slowed a bit by holding down a key, which I didn’t find out about until late in my session, but this should help in getting used to the movement. To be honest, the turning process isn’t a flaw, and it’s a common thing in most ship-based games.
One of the things that being fired upon so often did enable me to witness was when my ship blew up, it also took out the enemy ship that was firing upon me. This could definitely be used deliberately if it came down to it in a battle. Windward doesn’t make it hard on you if your ship is blown up, which is a plus. The developers wanted to create an action-oriented game that lets players get into the fray as early and as simply as they wish (if they wish), and it shows. As an explorer, I would probably spend lots of time sailing around the world, collecting cargo and opening up towns before deciding to seek out some trouble. That’s common for new players, and it’s also a wise move.
Overall, Windward is a game to watch. If you enjoy flexibility of play, a large world, and sailing, pirates, progression, and yes, ship combat, you may want to try it out via Steam Early Access.