Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Stormworks: Build and Rescue is a fairly ambitious entry into the building genre by a small team of developers. According to the developer’s description, players should expect that Stormworks is “the game where you design and pilot your own sea-rescue service, in a rich and dramatic physics playground. Steer or fly your custom-designed, block based, programmable vehicles into fierce oceanic storms. Plan and execute thrilling rescues in a variety of challenging crisis scenarios.” As is the case with many games that spend time in Early Access, however, the game that hit release in September 2020 (and continues to be updated now with new content) has shifted in focus a bit over time, and significant portions of the game are now focused around cargo transport. Additionally, a Weapons DLC is in the works which may bring significant change to this previously peaceful title. One thing that Stormworks is not and makes no attempt at, however, is being anywhere close to the cutting edge of graphics during gameplay. If you want smooth curves, detailed textures and lifelike people, you won’t find them here.
Diving into Stormworks for the first time can be a daunting experience. The default game mode is presented as “Career”, which is described in-game as “Complete missions with survival style settings”. What exactly those settings are, however, aren’t visible – although it rapidly becomes apparent they include items like forcing your first-time player into a hardcore (permanent death) experience and hiding the player’s position on the in-game map. Other game modes are listed as “Custom” (which allows a player to alter the world settings, but not until after they’re already in the game) or “Classic Career” (which says you need to unlock components, but offers no other information on settings differences).
Going into Career mode, our first-time player is put into a quick character creation sequence which is purely aesthetic (no stats, skills or other mechanics are picked here), and then dropped into a small cabin. Mousing around will show various objects that can be interacted with and the default keys to use to do so, and some blind fiddling on the keyboard shows the character moves using a basic WASD control setup. Once you step outside some on-screen labels start to direct you down to your first experience with the vehicle systems in the game. The provided small boat is sufficient to follow the onscreen directions to find a small boat stranded nearby and on fire, introducing the player to a sticky-throttle-and steering style of vehicle movement and basic handheld inventory. A few flaws here can cut your experience short, though – there isn’t anywhere to dock your ship while you fight the fire on shore, and it’s easy to accidentally run the starter boat up onto the shore from where there is no obvious way to retrieve it, breaking the tutorial sequence. Fire can hurt your character, and other mistakes (like walking too close to the still-running engines on the starter ship) can kill the player, leaving them facing a “Deceased” message with no option to respawn and continue.
Assuming the player sticks around long enough to get through that first mission, their return home puts them into what is arguably Stormworks best-developed (and worst-introduced) system: the vehicle editor. This incredibly powerful construction system at its most basic level allows players to place various blocks within a 3d grid system to create any sort of object their imagination desires – a feature familiar to players of many building games by now. Where Stormworks shines, however, is the way it has integrated connections for power and logic between components, adding layers where “nodes” on parts can be connected together to create advanced systems. Going further, Stormworks includes both basic logic gates (Or, And, Not, etc.) and sensors as placeable objects, and also allows the player to build custom microcontrollers using these items to make advanced systems. Want to make an altitude-hold system for an airplane? Put an altimeter and some tilt sensors on your craft, and wire their outputs to a custom microcontroller that will control your maneuvering surfaces automatically. Go even further if you like and apply a layer of custom LUA programming & scripting to your creation, to make it do things far beyond what other building games in the genre allow.
As stated above, however, this powerful vehicle designer isn’t introduced very well in the game. No in-game tutorials or hints help the player through it – instead, the game directs players to YouTube tutorials by content creator MrNJersey, an independent who works closely with development staff but is not actually employed by the studio (https://www.mrnjerseygaming.com/). With tutorials and videos for the game going back to September 2018, however, this leaves new players with a mountain of content to sort through to find what they are looking for, and many videos contain items that are out of date – from blocks that have since been removed/replaced to information on balance and outputs that is no longer accurate. In-game, the information provided with many blocks is fairly minimal, resulting in building and troubleshooting creations often taking far longer than the actual missions the player is presented with. Once a player understands how things work, however, the creations they produce can be truly astounding: the Steam workshop is filled with items from oil tankers to advanced coast guard ships, submarines, helicopters, aircraft of every description, trucks, forklifts, buses, trains and even tanks!
The missions within Stormworks are somewhat lacklustre at the moment, most often revolving around a procedural formula of “find an object within X area”, “put out a fire on the object” and “move survivors from X to a hospital”. Some variations exist where the vehicle won’t be on fire, crew needs to be ferried from A to B, or a ground-based incident causes a forest fire that needs to be put out in addition to any other objectives. Other options to keep the player busy and earn money to buy bigger creations include transporting cargo containers from A to B, or hauling oil products (crude oil, diesel and jet fuel) back and forth between oil rigs, an oil refinery and various consumers. These all take place against a backdrop where AI ships and planes travel the world, and some often-extreme weather can make travel hazardous.
Talking about weather brings me to a major critique of the game: its peculiar balance of physics. Stormworks gets a lot right: wind and waves can push vessels around in high seas, top-heavy vehicles tip, things fall under gravity, off-center thrust will try to turn vehicles, etc. A few faults become glaring over time, however, which are rather surprising for a game that seems to be focused around applying its physics to the player’s creations. First, Stormworks only calculates buoyancy for closed volumes – so open-topped boats (like a rowboat or canoe) won’t float. Instead, water simply clips through into unenclosed areas, meaning that low-riding boats will often be awash no matter how high the side walls are. This poses a big problem for players trying to transport cargo on deck for a mission, as waves will clip through the walls and push it around, destroying the ship’s balance. Second, because the game has created a single material for its basic cubes that needs to work for boats, planes and everything else, creations often feel extremely light – high winds can cause even extremely large ships to blow into the sky as if their hulls were made of styrofoam instead of steel. Third, adequate ground friction for vehicles can be hard to achieve, so sliding around instead of properly tracking through a turn is common. Finally, aircraft in the game cannot glide – lift doesn’t seem to work very well in the game if there is no thrust, so unpowered aircraft often have the same flight characteristics as a styrofoam oil tanker caught in a gale. Items two and three can be traced back to the choice to have a single lightweight building component, but overall these items are some of the most visible signs of a developer that may be more focused on maintaining sales by adding new content over fixing issues with already-released systems.
Stormworks offers a multiplayer option to let players operate cooperatively to overcome missions and show their creations off to each other. Hosted either locally or on a dedicated server, the world configuration options are fairly robust and include options to require per-player authorization by the server admin before vehicles can be modified – an excellent way to fight back against people joining public servers just to cause mischief. Overall, the system works well enough that a small team of players can cooperatively seek to progress within the provided mission system, but server loading can get quite high with multiple players each using their own vessel(s). As a result, options such as the AI-controlled extra ships and planes often get turned off by server owners, leaving the multiplayer environment a bit more desolate than in a single-player game. Developer Geometa seems to be aware of these concerns, and recent updates have included options to try to reduce the load that vessels put on the game’s physics engine to address this.