Review: Stormworks: Build and Rescue

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As a child I was blessed with an abundance of Legos, everything from fire engines to galactic cruisers. This inevitably led to the creation of fire-fighting jets and cargo airships, utterly impractical designs that were nevertheless cool as hell. I’m not sure that’s the reason Stormworks was created but that’s the enjoyment I’m getting out of it, designing utterly absurd vehicles to resolve the simplest of problems. If it were a bit easier to bring my creations to life, or less time-consuming to see them do their work, this one would be an easy sell for just about any budding builder. But as you’ll see, there’s a lot of effort involved in even the simplest tasks.

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Things seem to keep going wrong on a remote and scattered archipelago, from oil rig fires to sick crew at sea. You’re just the clever bloke to solve all of these problems, because you’ve got a magic fabricating workbench that can create any kind of land, sea, or air vehicle you could want. Building the right vehicle for the job is key, as recovering lost cargo and extinguishing fires call for very different approaches. Here in Early Access you’ve got two main modes to approach Stormworks in, the no-holds-barred Creative mode and a Career mode that locks parts and construction behind completing missions and accumulating cash. No matter which you go for, though, you’re going to be doing a lot of building and a lot of crossing the open ocean.

Constructing a vehicle is a matter of assembling shapes and components in a grid to form exactly what you want. For a simple boat, you would shape the hull out of cubes and inclines, place propellers, engines, and a pilot’s seat, and then connect up all the logic bits to make the different parts work. The constructing part is quite easy, thanks to a clean and intelligent interface that seems to know where you want to place things and how you want to orient them. If that were all there was to it the design aspect would be a breeze, but there’s logic and wiring to worry about, too. Engines need to be started by buttons, propellers need to be linked to power sources, your controls need to be assigned by button and axis to the fins or rudders or gyros controlling the vessel, and so on. Those are just the basics, too, because the “advanced” mode also has you worrying about fuel lines and fluid dynamics.

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The result is incredibly detailed vehicles that actually operate like their real-world counterparts, assuming you can engineer them to similar complexity. I’ve grabbed a few planes and ships from the Steam Workshop and the potential here is flabbergasting. There was a 737 with a full pre-flight sequence of switches and starters, as well as control readouts for altitude and fuel and orientation. There was a submarine with functional ballast tanks and bulkheads and cabin lighting. It’s terribly exciting to have a game where all of this is possible, but it can also be frustrating when it appears to be required. I’ve been struggling with designing a simple helicopter because of how many logic inputs the rotors require, and you also have to manually balance the main rotor against the tail stabilizer in terms of power to ensure the thing doesn’t go careening off into the horizon.

With practice anything is possible, and this is shaping up to be the kind of game that inspires that kind of dedication. It’s not quite there though, at least with regards to the Career mode. The promise is excellent on its surface; you start off with a simple base and dock for creating boats, and take on basic tasks like cargo delivery and search and rescue. As you complete missions you earn money to build larger crafts and entirely new islands with larger construction facilities. You also unlock new vehicle components, which seems like a great idea except the order appears to be random. That becomes a problem when you get faced with missions that seem to be designed around aerial approaches, but the game hasn’t decided to give you any propellers or control surfaces to work with. The core mission experience is also long trips across the ocean to your destinations, so some rebalancing in vehicle speed or map density could help the pacing immeasurably.

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I’m griping about these things because I really quite like Stormworks, it’s just proving hard to stick with at the moment. There’s plenty that needs improvement during Early Access, and plenty to love already like the wonderfully simplistic graphics and powerfully churning sea. The weather effects like storm surges and rain do a lot to make you feel threatened on the high seas, and there are options for vehicle damage and sharks if you want to add risk to your long ocean sojourns. Right now this is mainly a game for sim grognards, the folks that want to build realistic rescue choppers and who don’t mind flying them over empty seas for five to ten minutes at a stretch. I’m hoping it becomes a bit more accessible for folks like me, because I’ve got a great idea for a fire-fighting VTOL that I’ve had kicking around for years and I’m not quite sharp enough to bring it to life here.

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