When I previewed Stormrise, a new real-time strategy title from Creative Assembly, I was hopeful. The game, set in a dystopian future with plenty of ruined cities and stormy skies to enjoy, was designed from the ground up for consoles. Playing the preview build, I was intrigued by the Whip Select control system (which I'll explain in detail later) and the battlefield camera, but a number of bugs and framerate jitters kept me from enjoying the full experience. Unfortunately, those issues weren't just limited to the preview build. Stormrise has a lot of good ideas and is a sincerely valiant attempt to make RTS work without a keyboard and mouse, but the game's technical problems, coupled with some truly frustrating control limitations, ultimately makes Stormrise a disappointing entry in the genre at best.
Stormrise takes place in a world torn apart by massive fire storms. After a catastrophic technological incident known only as The Event, pockets of humanity were forced underground into cryogenic hibernation in a desperate attempt to survive. The people remaining on the surface began to evolve over the countless years thanks to their exposure to the storms and they eventually became powerful beings known as the Sai. Now that the original threads of humanity -- the Echelon -- have awakened from their underground slumber, the two forces have begun to clash. You fill the boots of Commander Aiden Geary, a leader of the Echelon Special Forces and a strange player in these troubled times.
Check here for some gameplay clips.
After a somewhat convoluted but still powerful opening cinematic, the story of Stormrise suddenly takes a dive as characters are forcefully introduced, plot points are loosely chained together and the entire affair becomes nearly unintelligible. It really is a shame that the game couldn't have kept its wits about it from start to finish, because I'm all about the post-apocalyptic scene.
In terms of gameplay, Stormrise is far from a traditional RTS. It's not so much about building a base and commanding armies as it is jumping from node to node with small groups of soldiers. All the action takes place right down on the battlefield, as opposed to from a bird's eye view. When in control of a unit, the camera sits just above its head and you can move your cursor around from its perspective. In this way, you can tell it where to go and what to attack. In order to select a different unit, you use the trusty Whip Select system to jump from one unit to another. By holding the right stick in a certain direction, you can highlight a unit's icon on screen and let go of the stick, which switches you to that unit's perspective.
Besides controlling units, your other obligation in Stormrise is to manage the pre-determined resource nodes on each map, which must be captured first and can then be turned into shielded turrets and refineries. The biggest strategic element in Stormrise is figuring out how to go about holding onto these nodes, as they're a vital aspect of resource gathering and some can even be used as spawn points for new units. But besides node control, commanding units are what you'll be doing the most in Stormrise.
But you don't have to command one unit at a time, of course. You can group up to three units together and you can also issue Indirect Commands by moving the cursor over a friendly unit's icon, hitting a button and dragging the resulting arrow to a new destination. These techniques, along with the Whip Select system, are great in theory, but in practice it's a whole different story.
When it works, Whip Select is a neat idea. Being able to quickly jump across the battlefield is very handy, especially because the levels in Stormrise are multi-tiered and are rarely flat planes. But when the action starts to heat up, things fall apart.
Controlling a massive army is next to impossible in Stormrise. Sometimes, you need large forces to overwhelm the enemy but trying to whip between the groups is cumbersome. Even mapping different groups to the D-pad does little to alleviate the frustration. By the time you've built up an entire army, the screen is completely littered with icons and keeping precise track of your units is a disaster. Stormrise works much better when you're working with smaller scale conflicts.
These limitations are exacerbated by the unit AI, path-finding and plain ol' glitches. When units fight each other in Stormrise, things rarely make sense on the screen. I watched as countless soldiers in my command would suddenly drop dead when no visible enemy fire was incoming and as they'd just run in the opposite direction and get stuck on environmental objects (or themselves). At one point, I commanded a sniper unit to take out an enemy turret. My thoughts: "These snipers have better attack range than the turret. They should be able to take it out, no problem." The reality: the snipers joyfully bounded directly up to the turret and got totally destroyed. Awesome.
Another fine example is when I had my group of Sentinels (heavy weapon gunners) dig in to defend my own node. They suddenly became caught in an animation loop where they set up their guns, then decided against it and put them away... only to set them up again. Later in the battle, when I tried to put them back into a Neutral position so they could move to a new location, I found that they were stuck in place and couldn't break away. Score another one for crazy glitches.
Then of course there's the fact that the game runs poorly on both the PS3 and 360. The framerate suffers often and the game can rarely handle a lot of units on the screen at once without stuttering. When your forces collide with the enemy in an epic confrontation, expect the game to actually freeze momentarily before picking back up where it left off. Or perhaps it'll just crash altogether, which is what happened to me once on the PS3 version.
If you're interested in checking out some multiplayer action, don't hold your breath. As I write this article, just about 30 players have been officially ranked on the online leaderboards on the PlayStation Network, while less than 200 gamers have climbed onto the Xbox Live leaderboards. Regardless of your console preference, there won't be many people to play against and having an RTS with no community behind it just isn't good. At least LAN play is available, but there's no split-screen option to speak of.
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