Throughout the many competitive multiplayer matches of Leviathan: Warships I've played, I've shown a great deal of restraint. No matter how many vessels I lost, I refused to utter the words of defeat that so many have spoken during games of Battleships. I refused to give my foes the satisfaction of hearing me miserably say "You sunk my battleship." And the scenario in which such a phrase would be important happened with great frequency.
Leviathan is a tad more strategic than the classic board game. I say a tad, but I really mean a lot. It's an asynchronous multiplayer naval strategy title with hints of both Frozen Synapse and, surprisingly, Gratuitous Space Battles. I've grown rather fond of it, I must confess, as it strangely merges the pick-up-and-play gameplay of popular mobile games with the deep strategy of certain PC titles. I also once lost a ship to a Kraken, and that's just quite cool.
Leviathan: Warships (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Pieces Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: April 30, 2013
MSRP: $9.99 (Mac, PC), $4.99 (Android, iOS)
Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit
It's a good thing that I don't have the sea legs to command an actual fleet of warships, or the seas would be filled with flotsam and corpses. I'm not coming right out and saying that I'm a bad Leviathan player, but I have been known to sacrifice more than a few ships. I'm fairly certain that somebody in the know said that you should never do the expected in war, and I've taken that to heart. I just hope it wasn't someone who died five minutes later that offered this excellent piece of advice.
My sometimes risky maneuvers tend to spell my death in Leviathan's rather boring single-player campaign, with the unrelenting AI continually assaulting me, leaving no room for mistakes or silliness. It's okay, though, because playing Leviathan on your own is very much the wrong way to play the game, regardless of the existence of a single-player campaign.
Everything from the aforementioned campaign to the plethora of challenges -- pitting your fleet against waves of foes or tasking them with the defense of facilities -- can be played cooperatively, with players commanding their own fleet. This opens these scenarios up, providing opportunities for more complex strategies, and it also makes it a little less likely that the dogged enemy AI will tear you to shreds.
With an incredibly simple control scheme and user interface, Leviathan is extremely easy to grasp, allowing admirals to give more thought to tactics and strategy. It has to be, of course, as it's designed to be played in short bursts by mobile gamers, just as it can be a time sink for those chained to their desktop.
At first, it's a little strange playing it on a PC, as the influence of tablet touch-screen interfaces is clear. Instead of menus and hotkeys, fleets are controlled in a more tactile manner. Clicking on a ship unleashes a radial menu, with icons representing the ship's various guns, shields, and special abilities. Selecting one of these icons reveals firing arcs, allows one to turn on or off "fire-at-will," and activates the cloaks, shields, or even mines.
Dictating the movements of the fleet is done by dragging the movement icon, the route appearing as you pull it away from the ship. The line representing a vessel's journey also reveals if the ship will reach its destination during that turn or not.
All these actions take place during the planning phase of Leviathan. Until these actions are locked in by confirming the end of the turn, plans can be tweaked and altered, and so often in my games they were. Every plan is dependent on one's ability to guess what an enemy is going to do, where they are going to move their ships, and what weapons they are going to use. Frequently, I'd scrap a plan, changing my ships' trajectory, altering where they were aiming, and using new weapons because I'd start to second guess myself.
Confirming the end of the planning phase is a difficult experience, as one is immediately giving up control, leaving everything in the hands of fate. The action phase is a completely hands-off affair, and no matter how confident one is in their plans, it can all go tits up if the enemy does something unexpected, or enemy reinforcements burst out of the fog of war.
All of this becomes even more intense when you add the human element. Leviathan's competitive multiplayer is undoubtedly the most compelling facet of the title, especially when it's two teams rather than just two individuals going head to head. Anticipating the moves of two minds while also making sure you are on top of what your ally is doing adds another level of complexity to the experience.
In these matches, phase lengths and game lengths can be customized, allowing players to select short 30-second planning phases, requiring quick thinking and direct communication between allies. Being able to actually talk to your ally is a must, as planning by text is hardly efficient when planning is limited to such a short space of time. The length can be substantially increased, of course, making for more relaxed games.
One of Leviathan's greatest strengths is the extremely different ways the game can be played. Quick five-minute matches are perfect for those who just want to jump in and play when they don't have much time, for instance while they are on the bus, playing on a tablet. Other games might be longer affairs that could last days, with players taking their turn, seeing how the action plays out, and then pausing the game and coming back to it in a few hours or days. Matches are saved to the cloud, making it easy to start them up again to make another move. This way, one could have multiple games going on at the same time.
This is how cross-platform multiplayer titles should be between tablets and PCs, as Pieces Interactive understands that different platforms inspire different ways to play games, and Leviathan caters to all kinds of players without making too many sacrifices in terms of depth.
As much as I enjoy a good old naval battle, it's Leviathan's fleet customization that really sucked me in. While there are several premade fleets and lots of ship blueprints, one can ignore these entirely and spend hours constructing their own armadas -- one for every eventuality. Vessels are covered in hard points where all manner of weapons and tools can be equipped. Destructive, powerful laser beams that rip through multiple ships, devastating artillery that can target enemies half way across the map, cloaked mines, shields of varying strength, even a Kraken summoner -- players are spoiled for choice, and that's before they even decide how much armor they want to put on their ship, or how many ships they should have in their fleet.
Selecting an appropriate base vessel is imperative, too, as they all come with different speeds, durability, and a different number of hard points. It might not be such a good idea to attach a lot of close-range weapons to a ship that's so slow that it'll rarely get near foes, while adding a cloak and mines to speedier ships might just be a splendid idea, since they can travel all over the ocean arena, sneaking up in front of enemies, depositing mines, and then buggering off, away from the danger.
The problem with all this ship customization is that there's very little feedback in the ship editor menu. The only way to tell if you've made a terrible mistake or not is to take the fleet into battle. Thankfully, the option to participate in brief matches does encourage risk and experimentation, but it would be nice to be provided with a broader array statistics so one could make an informed decision about their vessels before they dump them in a fight.
Leviathan's maps, of which there are lamentably few, are well designed creations -- small enough so that games don't drag on, and the slow ships don't spend most of their time looking for a fight rather than getting into ones -- with plenty of islands dotted around providing cover, bottlenecks, and larger open spaces perfect for creating killzones. They really aren't varied enough, however, and they do blend together, which is problematic when they are so small in number.
With so many fleet combinations a single map can can offer up plenty of unique experiences, though. Unfortunately, it won't take long before these ocean battle-spaces start to outstay their welcome, but more might be on the way via DLC.
Leviathan is best enjoyed if you already have friends playing. It's a game that offers little to the solo player, despite the single-player campaign. With pals, it's an entirely different, much more entertaining experience. If you do have a tablet, then I recommend picking it up for that rather than PC, purely because of the much lower price. All versions are completely identical, so you won't be missing out unless you desperately want to play it on a larger screen.