Platform: Browser (Free To Play)
Shiver me timbers, splice the mainsail, roger the cabin boy and so forth. There be a pirate game on the horizon, me hearties, sailing straight for the golden shores and tropical lagoons of in-browser free to play. Kartuga be its name, and that's definitely enough awful wannabe pirate speak for one preview.
Kartuga, then, is an attempt to inject a healthy dose of naval combat into the MMO and MOBA space, with players controlling a customised pirate ship in a battle to become the scourge of the seven seas. Though tooled for structured four-on-four PvP combat, there's also avast [stop it, I see what you did there - Ed] open world to explore in player versus environment adventuring, allowing captains to undertake quests, pillage and plunder solo or part of a pirate guild.
If you've found yourself craving more swashbuckling than repeated playthroughs of that Sid Meier game can possibly provide, you might be able to get your fix without forking over a single piece of eight.
Kartuga's world is a colourful and fantastical take on classic pirate themes: bright Caribbean port towns, vibrant lagoons, sandy islands and vast expanses of glittering ocean realised in chunky 3D visuals. Even in an early pre-beta stage (evidenced by numerous connection issues and plenty of placeholder GUI assets), the stalwart Unity 3D engine has acquitted itself well, relying on relatively simple yet eyecatching aesthetics to guarantee compatibility with lower-end PC hardware. Cast as a green pirate captain, you'll choose a ship and sail into the ocean blue in search of gold, ship parts and scurvy lubbers to terrorise.
As an isometric real-time action RPG with ships instead of fantasy heroes, Kartuga plays out a little like Stellar Impact, only with gunpowder cannons instead of laser cannons. You'll control your galleon using simple WASD commands, while broadsides can be directed at targets on your flanks using the mouse cursor. It's an accessible twist on traditional naval combat, tempering familiar commands with the need to carefully aim your cannons sideways rather than forwards. Ships dance around each other, presenting as small a profile as possible before swinging round for a salvo, as captains keep an eye on their reloading indicator to decide whether it's worth firing off a weaker volley early or waiting until their powder monkeys reload every single barrel. Interestingly, there are no land battles or boarding options - combat is very much based around clever naval manoeuvres and taking advantage of coastal terrain.
The moment-to-moment action feels brisk and surprisingly tactical without requiring a Doctorate in sixteenth century maritime warfare, but it's also bolstered up by robust persistent RPG elements. Three distinct classes offer a very different approach to piracy, offering unique strengths and skills that change your role and play style.
The Destroyer excels in dealing immense damage as quickly as possible, acting like a traditional DPS class in terms of closing with targets, loosing devastating volleys and retreating back out of engagement range. A three-pronged skill tree lets captains specialise in a range of passive buffs and active skills, choosing between long-range domination or scrappy point-blank assaults. In contrast, the Protector is all about tanking; allowing captains to soak up punishment while locking enemy skills and punishing arrogant enemies who get too close in nasty knock-down battles of attrition.
As a counterpoint to the two straightforward pirates, the tricksy Engineer focuses on territory control; capable of deploying hovering healing drones (which are pleasingly made out of wooden barrels), and floating turret buoys to lock down crucial control zones in PvP. As a medic or engineer by choice when playing the likes of Team Fortress 2 or Planetside 2, I personally found this class to be the most versatile and enjoyable.
Upon starting out, most players will venture into the PvE (Player versus Environment) mode as their first port of call. From what I was able to play over the course of fifty minutes, it's a very traditional MMORPG layout: a dangerous overworld peppered with safe ports, merchants and quest-givers, who will issue you some fairly familiar objectives to accomplish for gold, experience and ship parts (more on that later). Merchant ships are ripe for sinking and plundering. Hotshot AI pirates or colonial defenders need taking down for bounty. Alone or with some friends, you'll set sail for these non-instanced encounters while constantly encountering hostile forces and other players eager for battle. Despite remaining cagey on the specifics, InnoGames suggest that you'll be able to flag yourself as being available for PvP action, or remain invincible to other players if you're seeking a less stressful experience.
A lengthy storyline and plenty of optional quests are currently in the pipeline, but the main use for PvE will be to find like-minded fellow captains to team up with. Players can easily create Guilds, complete with a unique quest emblazoned on their mainsails, and start working their way up the leaderboards in search of fame or infamy. Questing with friends will likely be a much more enjoyable way to experience the PvE content, but InnoGames are up-front about the fact that Kartuga's real strengths lie in structured PvP battles.
Clearly inspired by MOBAs like League Of Legends or Defence Of The Ancients, Kartuga's competitive suite offers brisk and intimate battles for territory, where small teams will need to communicate and support each other effectively to win. The aptly-named Domination mode provides a traditional king of the hill-inspired gametype with Ghost Ships to hold for cumulative points, while Destruction makes teams bicker over a single bomb to deploy in key score locations. AI turrets and defensive towers make tight coordination and running interference absolutely essential, while some asymmetrical maps provide plenty of scope for clever tactical play.
After struggling with the pre-beta netcode, I was able to check out both modes in 2v2 battles, and I was delighted to discover that all three classes seem to be perfectly balanced... to the point of a complete and total deadlock until the opposing team managed to fake us out with a clever manoeuvre. Levels and class skills will be incredibly important, but there's no substitute for teamwork.
Climbing the leaderboards will probably be fun, but Kartuga might also need to offer more in terms of large scale battles going forward. Structured 4v4 PvP is all well and good, but as guilds swell in number, they'll doubtlessly want to clash with rivals in full-scale guild-on-guild warfare. InnoGames are apparently having trouble making these massive engagements fun without becoming confusing messy bundles, though they might attempt to integrate this into the open world post-launch.
As you complete quests, win PvP matches or destroy other players, you'll gradually accrue experience, levels and skill points to develop your character. However, you'll also be rewarded with two distinct in-game currencies: gold and ship parts. Gold can be spent on new vessels (there will be twenty different ships at launch, all of which offer different speeds, target profiles and visual flair) and more experienced crew to handle them, while ship parts are predictably used to unlock upgrades to guns, sails and hull. Interestingly, though, there's also a third currency. Gems. It's time to talk microtransactions.
Since Kartuga is a free-to-play title, there'll naturally be all manner of things to buy, from upgrades to consumables like boosters and healing kits. Personally I feel that the cosmetic customisation options are a little flimsy at present - there's little to differentiate between ships beyond your guild insignia and hull - though InnoGames are considering implementing figureheads and other ways to make your galleon yours. The developers assured me that "almost everything" can be purchased with in-game currency as well as premium funbucks, but an hour of contact time with an early build isn't anywhere near enough to pass judgement on how much of an advantage paying players can get over their free counterparts.
How slow will progression be? How long will it take to amass enough gold to afford a top-flight galleon? How powerful are the most expensive ships compared to the starting options, and what effect will that have on PvP? Questions remain, so we'll need to temper enthusiasm with a note of caution for now.
But ultimately, Kartuga will be free to play... and you'll be able to judge InnoGames' swashbuckling MMO for yourself without spending a penny. We'll bring you more coverage over the coming months, ahead of its full release later this year. Matey.
Kartuga will enter closed beta on February 27th, which you can still pre-register for on the official site.