A lot of people are suckers for games about pirates — not so much the plundering and looting part but the part where you sail ships around and put broadsides into enemy vessels. Naval gameplay should give the player the feeling of excitement they would get if they were fighting in the climactic battle of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007), when the pirates are facing off against the Royal Navy around a maelstrom. A few games — like Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” (2013) or “Blackwake” (2017), an indie title in early access — really capture that feeling. Others add a twist with steampunk airships like Muse Games’ “Guns of Icarus” (2012) or modern-day navies like “World of Warships” (2015).
“Cloud Pirates” (2017) has no twist at all. As uninspired as the name implies, “Cloud Pirates” features few ideas that could be described as new or original; it just combines “Guns of Icarus” airships with Wargaming’s freemium progression model that turned “World of Tanks” (2010) into a cash cow. Even the game engine in “Cloud Pirates” looks like it was salvaged from a now-defunct MMORPG from 2012. But just because the ideas behind it are unoriginal doesn’t mean that the game is dull to play. Allods Team, the developer behind “Cloud Pirates,” has succeeded at making the combat fun, fast-paced and easy to learn.
What the main gameplay boils down to is two teams of airships battling for control points with respawn on death, although there are other game modes. Players can pilot various kinds of airships that excel in different areas, such as ships designed to get in close to ram the enemy, ships that launch a volley of torpedoes, sniper ships that excel at picking off slow and lumbering units at great distances or support ships that help repair damaged teammates. The better a player performs in these battles, the more in-game currency and experience they get. They can then use these to upgrade their ships and buy better ones. Players can also join clans and participate in battles against other groups if they’re looking for a more competitive experience.
Though the game engine looks dated, the ships themselves are detailed and visually appealing. More often than not, steampunk art can end up looking too mechanical, gritty and washed out, but that’s not the case here. The designs of the ships are reminiscent of something out of “Treasure Planet” (2002), with sails that have a glowing honeycomb pattern. The visual feedback during combat is quite clear and satisfying, with ships sustaining progressively more visual damage as they receive incoming fire until they finally explode in a shower of twisted metal.
Less appealing, perhaps, is a quick glance at the progression tree. The Wargaming business model generally requires that you sink a significant amount of hours or dollars into a game if you want to experience endgame content without waiting months. There’s not much of a reason to progress faster though, as lower level battles are probably the most fun you’ll have in a title like this. The gradual pace at which upgrades and new ships are acquired is the main way this type of game gets you to pay real money to speed up the process. Ship upgrades allow you to improve things such as your engine and hull durability as well as choose from multiple weapon options and customize your ship’s “skills” depending on your playstyle, to some degree. You can equip certain abilities that make your ship substantially more powerful or resilient, such as a way to teleport short distances, get a temporary speed boost, launch various types of torpedoes, self-repair or make your ship invisible.
Though it may be a new entrant into a crowded MMO scene, “Cloud Pirates” has decent potential to succeed if it can find a way to increase player numbers. The target audience for airship combat is small but dedicated, and reaching out to it won’t be easy. Right now, as the game emerges from alpha testing, player count is still pretty low, but hopefully, that will improve with time.