Review / Stormrise (PS3)

The real-time strategy genre has had a curious affair with the current generation of consoles. This is a genre that was seemingly built for high definition, high fidelity and high processing power of the current breed of machines on the market. However, and in spite of a handful of valiant attempts the genre has clung to conventions and styles of play better suited to the desktop rather than the console. The challenge facing Stormrise, from renowned Total War developers Creative Assembly and published by Sega, is overcoming the inherent difficulties imposed by consoles on the real-time strategy game whilst still delivering an experience that offers significant strategic opportunity as well as being, above all else, good fun.

The game creates the setting of a planet recovering from some kind of man-made cataclysm. Mankind as we know it is emerging after sheltering from the disaster in underground vaults (sound familiar?) only to find another race inhabiting the surface – having survived the disaster through mutation. So you have your two factions, humans (the Echelon) and mutants (the Sai), who rather than getting along choose to war it out until they’re blue in the face. This setting and the plot that unfolds around it is largely an ugly collage of sci-fi cliché and unchallenged RTS tradition. If we’re going to be perfectly honest it really is just a loose, contrived setting in which to place a few set-piece skirmishes and base-building battles between the two factions.

One of the biggest historic problems with bringing the RTS to the console is compensating for the lack of a functional cursor. It is here that Stormrise makes one of its biggest innovations. Rather than using the analog sticks to create a poor attempt at a mouse cursor, Stormrise lets the player quickly flick between units using the analog sticks. “Whip Select” as its known is intuitive, quick to pick up and eventually becomes second nature. The natural feel of this new method for selecting units is not dissimilar in feel from the flick-it system found in Skate and screams of the kind of innovative obviousness that will undoubtedly leave other devs thinking “I wish we’d thought of that!”.

While this system feels natural and acts as a wonderful antidote to an age-old problem it brings with it a whole host of other challenges that have been left more or less unaddressed. Rather than playing the game from the point of view of an omnipotent armchair general the player is constantly living the game through one unit or another. This brings the gameview right down onto street level, skimming over the tops of the heads of the troops. This is fine in and of itself but completely mutes any strategic view of the battlefield (yes there is a strategic map but to be frank it comes across as nothing more than a lazy afterthought and it is more or less useless). Knowing where troops are and what they’re doing is entirely a question of memorising their positions and hoping for the best. Furthermore, as battles wane the player will find themselves with potentially hundreds of squads each with only a couple of members that all individually need to be flicked to and told what to do. Its times like this when the ability to drag a nice big box with the cursor and highlight the lot would really come in handy. Compounding this is the fact that every time you do flick to another part of the battlefield the composition of possible other units around the screen changes to suit that unit’s perspective, meaning there is no logical way to move around each unit, nor to know which are close and which are far away. To cap it all off, being so close to the units all the time makes the camera regularly flip around unhelpfully and erratically.

The sum total of all this is a single innovative and inspired game mechanic that is marred by a host of thoughtless, clumsy errors. Simple tactical actions such as making sure no troops are not needlessly exposed become mammoth projects, requiring the player flick endlessly between units. Responding to changes in the battle quickly, scripted or otherwise, are impossible. This makes every level a question of trial and error so that the player can effectively plan the whole level out in their head and anticipate what is coming before it hits.

This painfully awkward and regrettable gameplay adds insult to injury in the form of the limited, repetetive, unwitty and vomit inducingly clichéd unit dialogue. Apparently in the war ravaged future everyone is a (bad) comedian and they all tell the same jokes over and over and over and over. Yes its nice to have some feedback from the troops but 90% of the time I found myself wishing for a “Yes Sir!” rather than “I’m gonna make me a freak salad, yeeeehawww!”.

Graphically the game is quite a delight. The battlefields themselves carry more believable character and emotion that the characters which walk upon them. They range from deep, moody, Helganesque night-scapes through to oblique, imposing industrial sprawls. In those brief moments when you may have the time to spend following a unit as it is directed down an unknown alleyway, or creeping along a rooftop to get a vantage point its easy to find yourself drawn into the moment and the ambiance. Briefly, you might buy into the fact that these are real people, you might care about them and want to defend them as their commander. That is right up until the point where one will get stuck, start running around in circles and then the whole unit will be shot to pieces in the time it takes to say “freak salad” and you’ll remember just how awkward this game can be.

There is an online mode – which allows the player to create or join skirmishes. However this obligatory online functionality is clearly tacked on and is woefully underutilized in terms of the ability to structure campaigns and create meaningful battle narratives. Furthermore all the gameplay problems of the offline mode and carried through online – minus any of the drama and atmosphere.

As a console focused real time strategy game, Stormrise understands the magnitude of what it is attempting, not to mention the commercial and critical opportunity if it actually gets it right. The result however is a game whose eyes for innovation are much too big for its stomach to execute. By and large this is a game that takes on a lot, and crumbles beneath the weight of it all. What is more tragic is that on paper Stormrise should be an excellent game. Creative Assembly have through the Total War franchise pushed both real-time and turn-based strategy into a new space. This is a group of people who understand real-time strategy games, who know how to innovate and who get what it takes to produce an entertaining experience. However, and for whatever reason, this pedigree only translates in a deeply aching disappointment and a distant glimmer of what might have been.

+ Genuinely innovative “Whip Select” mechanic has potential to breath life into console bound RTS games. It completely eradicates the need for any imitation mouse cursor (which has always been difficult to manage with analogue sticks) and plays remarkably intuitively.

+ Visually the game is a treat. It won’t be winning any awards, but environments have been composed in a thoughtful way with a reasonable amount of attention to detail. They definitely add to the ambiance and overall experience.

– Gameplay is terribly awkward. It is incredibly difficult to get an overall view of the battlefield and to make quick tactical maneuvers in response to changes in play. In spite of its technical innovations and philosophically new approach to the genre, gameplay is frustrating at best and broken at worst.

– Dialogue and characterisation is predictable, boring and clichéd whilst also being relentlessly repetitive. This makes it incredibly irritating at times.

– There is also no respite to be found in the game’s plot which only serves as a mantle upon which to sit the game’s numerous scenarios. Forgivable if the gameplay is brilliant but it’s not so we can’t.