The RTS genre in the console market has never been a success and most of the criticism is leveled at the control system which is just never indicative to a good gaming experience. The PC rules the roost with strategy games and it may very well always be like this. That said, developer Creative Assembly of Total War fame has implemented a new control system specifically for the console market. Is this set to revolutionise the genre?
The story pits the Echelon, the human survivors of a catastrophic failed global control experiment against a new species of humanoid known as the Sai, a psionics based race who are inherently ‘evil’. This is the initial feeling anyway but without ruining the storyline the plot does get a little more interesting as progression is made.
Graphically the developers have opted for a bleak and harsh environment and the colour scheme reflects a post nuclear style setting with heavy use of greys and browns which set the tone. All the cities are gutted by flame and rubble is strewn throughout the environments to give the impression that everything is in absolute turmoil. This can get a little messy however when you are trying to pick out opposing forces from distance and you have to rely on the on screen faction symbols to differentiate during mass combat. Stormrise’s maps are well designed with a lot of vertical elements incorporated and the missions in the single player campaign guide you over rooftops and under buildings to diversify the setting. By using sniper units and capturing vantage points you get a great overview of the map. This is helped by a decent engine system and a solid framerate count.
As I mentioned earlier, the biggest talking point with Stormrise is the Whip select system which is named after a whip like unit jumping system assigned to the right thumbstick. It is the most innovative system I can remember in a console based RTS game and is about the closest mechanic yet achieved via mouse control.
Unfortunately it does not improve efficiency and for such a great theoretical idea in fails to work well in practice. This is mainly due to the mess of unit icons that clutter the screen and can make correct selection nigh on impossible. If you have ungrouped units close together for example then icons will overlap and the chances of you immediately selecting the correct unit will be very difficult. If you are quickly trying to transverse to the other side of the map to a firefight for example you will often just have to whip to the group of units and try and sort out the mess from over there. At glance it is also difficult to discern the battling blue icons which costs further value time.
An RTS that doesn’t let you control all available infantry at the demand of the person playing is going to have to be very careful indeed and this is the biggest issue I have with the game. Stormrise will allow you to group any three squads together which creates a triangular arrangement of three tiny icons. Grouping is assigned to the right bumper on the 360 by default and holding it down while the cursor is over the group and using the whip select disbands it. You will still end up having to manually shift a dozen separate units around which means that whip selecting is almost a constant process if you are controlling two groups. It is extremely fiddly and even more annoying to be whipping around several groups of units when you want them all to move together to a simple location. If you want to move 5 units all at the one time you waste so much time whipping back and forth that any enjoyment from the whip system is immediately negated. I am stunned that no one in the testing phase pointed out that a group selection system for more than 3 units was needed.
Path finding is also an issue and the units will often take ludicrous routes to a given point and get stuck on the edges of terrain and will even get confused into returning the way they came to try a completely different route. Just as annoyingly if you point a group of units towards a point and an enemy unit intercepts them, they often just run past getting shot into pieces without so much as raising a gun in defense. I lost more units in this game that I even care to think about. I would like to assume that a group of trained soldiers would have the sense to return fire while carefully finding a point, rather than running wildly into the open and not even returning fire. The AI is simply appalling and unforgivable and if you watch some units merely stand there like dummies getting shot you just want to slap the developers for being so careless and clearly disinterested. I tried so hard to enjoy the combat but found so many flaws that I went past the angry stage to merely being bewildered that this was ever released in its current state.
Character design and animation is first class however and the Echelon units are nicely detailed if a little generic and while clearly the aerial attack craft have many ideas lifted from The Terminator they are effective and realistic to watch. The Sai units are great, with multi headed hydras on display as well as a crab style Matriarch unit which takes masses of damage to destroy. Although there are only eight units the game gives you further control by an accessible wheel of abilities open for each group enhancing their firepower or defensive abilities. You don’t need to use these further options if you don’t wish to micromanage on this level but grenades can prove useful with specific enemies. Sadly the AI will mean they never use any of these optional attacks automatically so you are limited to manually using them whenever needed. Again, another annoying aspect to know that your soldiers have pockets of grenades but instead of using them will happily stand in the open firing pea shooter guns at a turret for example.
The vertical game play deserves mention as it has not often been seen in an RTS console title and it adds a lot of tactical options to the environment. Snipers for example work much better on high ground in cover and can decimate grunts with ease. The game’s unit creation infrastructure is all tied to a node network system which is essentially a series of linked capture points that chain their way through a level, supplying your base with material to create more units. You can upgrade their production rate and equip each node with a powerful turret and shielding system but the pleasure of this means that it urges gamers to really use the landscape in order to not only secure each node but to protect them and relocate unit production to one a little closer to the enemy.
The benefits of the node chains are immense because the action can almost be immediate and the games AI voice over lets you know when a node is being attacked so you can whip back between nodes and units to maintain a defense. This is a tactic you will need to master early otherwise the game will be quickly over. The only issue again is that whipping back to a node in your control can be almost be impossible from a distance if there are a plethora of units in its vicinity.
The games default difficulty level is hard and you get punished for any errors. Leaving your commander open for instance is an instant game over scenario which is frustrating if you are winning a battle only to have your commander killed when you forgot he was in a specific location which is now under attack. I feel he should have been a more powerful unit to withstand quite a few attacks, but even though he is kitted out in a robotic shell, he is quite weak and vulnerable to even several basic grouped units.
In skirmish mode you can take on up to eight AI opponents for overall victory on ten maps lifted from the single player campaign which incidentally are the same maps used in the multiplayer section of Stormrise. These maps are huge and each are set to be used with a recommended number of players. Some of the larger maps can be played with only 2 AI opponents but be prepared for huge areas of empty space.
Multiplayer is interesting because the node style gameplay is still in place and there is a gradually unlocked character creation mode. You can customise your hero unit with all kinds of abilities and weapon modifiers to make them more potent in the fray and they can also dish out some handy defensive effects to other units.
To conquer in multiplayer you can either demolish the oppositions forces or capture the nodes to win. The vertical nature of the game is interesting in multiplayer because well placed units are more effective than just a mass of soldiers rushing a focus point.
The Creative Assembly are a studio with a lot of great ideas and they certainly should be commended for creating the intuitive whip system. Unfortunately in operation it falls short of the mark, due to the iconic nature of the units and the overlaid mess that happens when several are in close proximity. The production values are high and it is unfortunate that this game ends up being an ‘almost got it’ rather than something that resets the boundaries of strategic game play in a console environment. It is a worthwhile first attempt but it is unfinished and clearly demanded more play testing time to fine tune the mechanics.
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