Let me get the obvious out of the way right now – the game looks a lot like Sid Meier’s Pirates, particularly the 2004 remake of the classic 1987 PC game. The art design, ship models, the isometric perspective, and some of the controls are all reminiscent of the now-classic remake.
The single player experience can best be described as “grindy.” The player chooses a faction, a starting region and begins sailing across the… whatever body of water this is supposed to be. The main options during gameplay are doing quests, trading commodities, and combat. The choice of faction determines what parts of gameplay will be easier/more rewarding at the outset, though these starting bonuses are ultimately temporary.
The first area map is already under the player’s faction’s control and pirate incursions will be limited, often only triggered by accepting a pirate hunter quest. Any map region after the initial one will have to be taken by force through town conquest, outpost founding, and the sinking of hostile pirate ships in the area.
Quests come from two primary sources in Windward: towns scattered along the winding coastlines of the area maps, and random pick ups from floating debris (usually found after combat or just floating along in the water). Most quests take the form of transporting some passengers from one port to another, discovering a town in an unexplored portion of the map, or hunting a specific pirate ship in the area. You can only take on as many quests as your current ship has cargo slots. Since starting ships generally have 2-3 cargo slots, you will be limited in how many quests you can take on at one time. However, you can upgrade your vessel to add more as play goes on.
Quests are a good source of experience points which are used to give yourself permanent bonuses called “perks.” The trade off with doing quests is that they don’t generally pay very well. But completing quests is still worthwhile since doing so can level up the towns on the map in your current region. The game keeps track of which town gives you a particular quest. Once you complete a certain number of quests for the same town, that town levels up and produces better gear for your ship as well as better ship classes for you to purchase.
If you’re interested in making some money, and you will be, trading is generally better than questing. Trading takes the age old path of buying low and selling high. The economy is dynamic in the sense that prices change from time to time, but the price changes seem to occur semi-randomly. Fortunately, you can visit the local tavern, in the form of some flavor text, in each town to find out which goods available in the port might bring a nice payday a few ports away.
Combat happens in the style of Sid Meier’s Pirates, with opposing ships circling each other and firing with reckless abandon. While combat seems very simplistic at first, there is actually some strategy involved, particularly when there are multiple hostile ships trying to send your crew to Davy Jones’ locker at the same time. Positioning is critical and trading broadsides with your enemy is a great way to make sure your ship’s health drops just as fast as that of your opponent. Generally speaking, the best strategy is to try to aim your broadside at the front or back of the target ship. This allows you to take full advantage of your ship’s firepower while avoiding the inconvenient cannonballs of your enemies. There are also a few special abilities that you can activate in combat depending on how your ship is equipped. These tend to be special attacks and use cool down periods similar to abilities in a MMORPG.
There is a wide variety of equipment that can be slapped on your ship. Everything from guns and sails to hull plating material that can change characteristics like the speed of your ship and how it performs in combat. You can even hire a variety of crews and captains that can have a big effect on ship performance. It is definitely possible to dictate a lot about how future combat will go by how you set up your ship.
Why does all this ship equipment matter? There is an extensive RPG-style statistics system in the game. Basically, there are stats for everything. The range and damage of your ship’s guns and shot-type, how resilient your ship is to damage, the speed of your ship as it cuts through the water, and how much money you make when trading are all controlled by your stats. Each ship has a set of base stats that are modified by the equipment that you have scavenged or bought, as well as the crew and captain that you have hired to run your vessel. My experience in the game so far has been that it is difficult to get all of your stats up at the same time. In other words, the ship equipment seems designed to force the player to make choices. Do you want to make a lot of money with trading or would you rather be more deadly in combat? It is difficult to be set up for both at the same time. I think that is a good thing when it comes to the longevity and replayability of the game.
There is no story mode or campaign to be found in Windward; the game is a pure sandbox and comes with all the pros and cons that one would expect of an open ended game. You will create your own narrative, but I can certainly understand why someone might complain that the game lacks direction. The world is procedurally generated, which means that the area maps will be different every time you fire up a new game. But, as is normally the case with procedural generation, repetitiveness abounds and there is a distinct lack of handcrafted-ness in the game world.
As stated at the beginning of this article, the single player experience in Windward is a very repetitive one. And while it could be argued, in all fairness, that all video games are repetitive in some way, the question is really whether the kind of repetition found in Windward is appealing to you. Basically, the game involves grinding through quests, trades, and combat missions to generate money to buy better ships and equipment so that you can do more/harder quests, trades, and combat to generate money to buy betters ships and equipment.
In a kind of Jekyll and Hyde turn of events, the multiplayer is a very different experience and seems to involve far less grinding than the single player game. Multiplayer is a largely cooperative experience that involves combat against AI-controlled pirate ships. Interestingly enough, the mission payouts and equipment salvage values are much higher than their single player counterparts. Although I did not discover the vast difference between the single player and multiplayer experiences until relatively late in my play time, it seems clear that multiplayer is indeed the intended focus of Windward. Unfortunately, once the player base has moved on to other things, the single player mode will leave players with a long, slow grind in front of them.
My advice? If you loved Sid Meier’s Pirates (especially the sailing and ship combat) and thought that the only thing missing was some cooperative multiplayer, then Windward is the game for you. But jump on it now while there are still people playing online and avoid the lonely grind that awaits.