There’s a megalodon clamped to my ship. A piano’s-worth of teeth are splintering the wood protecting my hull, and the weight is threatening to dip my cannons into the deep - tipping my crew in the direction of a terrible pink maw.
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I remember reading somewhere about an animal that can’t let go once it’s fastened onto its prey, so I relinquish the wheel and instead start turning the barrels of my repeater handgun (Von Meinkopt’s Whirling Cavalcade of Death, to give it its proper name). Together with what remains of my crew, I aim for the monster’s directionless black eyes, each the size of a man’s head, and persuade the shark to loosen its vice.
Which is just as well, because there’s an orc drillakilla headed this way - looking like a seaworthy power tool propelled by a huge paddle wheel. Beyond that there’s a shipment of tin needed at the Kislevite port city of Erengrad. They’ve had enough problems, what with the recent zombies.
This is the Early Access promise of Man O’ War: Corsair - freeform piracy that muddies the high seas with high fantasy. Taking its name from a Games Workshop tabletop game, Corsair opens up the Warhammer world’s Great Western Ocean for you to bob about in. Here be monsters - and yet, here’s something oddly familiar.
Corsair lifts its satisfyingly direct control scheme straight from Black Flag, the exceptional pirate sim masquerading as an Assassin’s Creed game. WSAD steers your ship, right click shows the trajectory of your cannons, and left click fires them. You squint through a spyglass to identify the faction and contents of distant ships, and lead third-person boarding parties once the privateers come in close.
You play as a ship, then, but also manage one. A mostly-bearded crew mill about on the deck of Boaty McKeand - named after PCGamesN night newsman Kirk - and they’re not just for show. Enter into too many overeager boardings against full-strength galleys and you’ll be left with nobody to fire your cannons, stuck driving against a gale as an opportunistic bunch of rival pirates bears down on you. Fittingly for an adaptation of Man O’ War, in which rolling three ones in a row could straight-up sink your ship, a sudden change in the wind can be disastrous.
Recruitment and repairs are conducted in ports - menus that also offer noticeboards for quests, pubs for rumours and markets for trading. Refugees require passage, distant spots on the map suggest treasure, and the price of tin in one town might be half of that in the next. There are riches to made this way - and riches to be spent on front-facing mortars, tougher hulls, or perhaps a brand new frigate with a ram.
An onus on the player to pick their own path, not to mention the state of constant transit, leaves Corsair feeling a lot like Elite with one less axis. Certainly its greatest potential lies in that direction, with the accidental interplay of unscripted sailboats.
An Empire captain I was supposed to racing down the coast fell foul of orcs and was left floundering at the starting line. A black-flagged ship I’d been avoiding for hours cropped up in a marked monster zone, far worse for wear after a megalodon attack, and I was finally bold enough to sink it.
You’ll often run into scraps between factions and be tempted to board a neutral boat for its silver - but Corsair keeps score of your scores, and the most recent patch has equipped ports with tower defences. A moment’s greed can cost you over and over in repairs.
Swindon indies Evil Twin have plans for a short but productive four-month Early Access period, culminating in a campaign mode with the option of an Empire, Brettonian or Chaos crew - augmented by controllable magical beasts and wizards-for-hire. Also in the offing: High Elves, Dark Elves, Dwarfs and Skaven out on the open water to attack or ally with. There's a lot left to do, but the pace the studio have established in less than a month of Early Access updates bodes well.
Corsair suffers for the Assassin’s Creed comparison, and it’s not entirely fair: Seven developers work at Evil Twin; eight studios worked on Black Flag. The gulf in production values is most obvious during boardings, when the camera takes a clumsily static position behind your captain’s shoulders, and only health bars indicate that your gunpowder is having any effect on the orcs at all.
Nor can Evil Twin match the unseen algorithms that calculated the chaos of Black Flag’s oceans. That said, they give it a damn good go: the waters surge and undulate, and the ships move with them. Moreover, though Corsair lacks in looks, it’s strong on atmosphere: the sound of waves slapping against the boards; the fog hanging over the docks; the bats flapping about coastal turrets.
Even away from the more iconic dry land denizens of the Old World - the dwarf gyrocopters and goblin doom divers of Total Warhammer - you’re never allowed to forget what world you’re in. Particularly not when a shark of prehistoric proportions upends your ship on your way into port.