Halo Wars is sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing console real-time strategy games. It's probably the best of the lot, and it's going to be impossible for any would-be successor RTS to escape from its shadow without doing something tremendously innovative, or without another franchise as strong as Halo backing it up. The end result is that console RTSes now have two hurdles to overcome: creating a control scheme that comes remotely close to being as fast and smooth as a PC RTS, and developing a game that will draw eyes away from Halo Wars. Creative Assembly has given this a shot by implementing a bunch of extremely creative ideas, including a control system that by all rights should have revolutionized the genre. Unfortunately, these interesting ideas are buried deep within a deeply flawed game.
In Stormrise, humanity became tired of Mother Nature's evil ways, so it created a weather control machine to keep things in check. Unfortunately, this machine had an unfortunate side effect of causing massive storms that wiped out most of humanity. Now, as humanity, called the Echelon, tries to survive and return, they have to deal with a storm-ravaged world and a new race of super-creatures called the Sai, who are somewhere between elves and the Locusts from Gears of War. The Sai are every single generic "biological" enemy race you can imagine, and some of their units are indistinguishable from enemies in Gears of War or similar franchises. There's little to make it stand out from the other RTSes on the market as far as the setting goes, which already puts Stormrise in a tough spot, since it has to compete with the well-loved Halo universe and popular franchises like Lord of the Rings.
The basic concept of Stormrise isn't too different from other RTSes on the market. You're placed in command of an army and have to battle the opposing forces, while collecting enough resources to expand your own. Stormrise's unit selection is fine, if not particularly interesting. Both sides have infantry troops, ground- and air-based vehicles, and a commander unit. The units are basically what you've come to expect from the genre and work in a "rock-paper-scissors" formation, where different units are stronger or weaker than other units. Generally, each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses even beyond the obvious elements. There are a few particularly impressive units when it comes to scale, such as the Eclipse, which is a tremendously huge Echelon air machine; it's so big that when you try to control it, the unit takes up most of the screen. The game does a surprisingly good job with the scale of your forces and the environment in general.
Like many other console RTSes, Stormrise strives to make basic micromanagement as simple as possible. Rather than having huge bases, your entire resource base comes in the form of nodes, which are sort of a catch-all. When you get a node, it gathers resources, and you can upgrade it to have turrets, shields or even a Warp Gate to summon more soldiers. Instead of having combat be about defending a base, it's about moving from node to node, capturing each one to increase your potential resources and give you a rallying point closer to enemy forces. As you can imagine, they become the basis for combat and the focal point for both enemy armies. Whoever has the most nodes has more resources and is more capable of taking out the enemy. As a concept, it works well, although it feels a bit simple. It encourages faster gameplay and less fiddling with the controls, so you keep pushing forward to further nodes instead of building up a gigantic army and defenses.
Stormrise advertises itself as a 3-D multilayered RTS, and this is really quite true. Units can climb buildings or go indoors, and this provides tactical advantages. Units that are high above tend to gain damage and defense bonuses and are much harder to kill. Units that are indoors are protected by some of the game's bigger and beefier units. The 3-D terrain takes a lot of getting used to, and the learning curve is unbelievably steep. One of the very first missions asks you to take on a small group of soldiers who are stationed high above you, which gives you a very clear indication of how important terrain is. Unfortunately, for reasons I'll discuss a bit later on, trying to take advantage of the terrain is like pulling teeth, so this potentially interesting idea ends up being a source of frustration.
One of Stormrise's big innovations is the inclusion of the Whip Select system. Instead of having an overhead tactical view of the combat, the player's viewpoint is centered on the unit he's currently selecting, and to change your selection, you use the Whip Selection. Icons for every single unit and node under your command are scattered around the edge of the screen, each roughly corresponding to where that unit is on the map in relation to your selected unit. You aim with the right analog stick toward that icon and highlight it, which will cause the camera to jump to the unit. As far as speed goes, this is quite possibly the closest a console RTS has ever come to matching a mouse, allowing for near-instantaneous selection of units and not forcing players to scroll through various armies to find the unit they need. However, while the speed is excellent, the accuracy leaves something to be desired.
Whip Selection actually punishes you for creating large armies or trying to split them up or use tactical strategy. In order to pick a unit, you have to select that unit (or group's) icon with the whip "laser." This is fine when you have a small number of units nearby, where each unit's icon is large, visible, and separated from other unit icons. The second your team splits up, however, it becomes an exercise in controller-throwing annoyance. When your units are farther away, the icons become smaller and almost impossible to see, and they tend to overlap, so instead of flipping from Infiltrator to your Commander during an emergency, you flip from your Infiltrator to one of a bunch of indistinguishable icons, one of which will hopefully be your Commander. Since the game is designed so that being a little too slow can lead to your entire army being wiped out, or even worse, the entire mission failing because your Commander dies, this is basically unforgivable.
If you manage to select the correct soldier, you get to deal with the "fun" of fighting the camera. The way the camera works is that you always views things from the perspective of your current unit. It's serviceable, if a bit awkward, when this is an air unit, but things fall apart when a ground unit is selected. To make matters worse, your pointer is incapable of going "through" buildings and such, so you must guide it down streets and hope it doesn't get caught on any of the buildings or walls nearby. The game offers a "tactical view," but it's actually worse than the primary view, since it retains the same third-person view but replaces the visuals with a low-resolution "radar" view, which isn't very helpful at all. This gets even worse when you're dealing with the 3-D battlefield and ordering your troops to go to the top of a building that you can't actually see. Fortunately, flying units alleviate a bit of this problem, but even they can get caught in weird places; they're also much easier to shoot down, especially the Eclipse, which is a giant flying target.
Once you've selected the right unit, you have to deal with the frustrating task of moving them. Inexplicably, you can only "group" together up to three units at a time, and considering how large your battle forces get, this is infuriating. You can't select multiple groups at a time, so ordering your troops around is a mind-numbingly tedious process, either relying on babying each soldier through what should be a simple-to-navigate area or individually ordering each group to meet up with the unit you're viewing, which is time-consuming and only useful if the units happen to be right next to you. One nice thing is that you can issue "indirect commands," which allow you to direct a group in a basic direction without changing the view from your current unit. The indirect command arrow tends to grow less useful outside of short distances, but the same goes for all of Stormrise's controls. You can order units to move to far away waypoints by targeting them with the focus. This is a bit awkward, and more importantly, brings up the problem with the game's automatic AI.
The auto-controlling AI isn't very bright. When you order it to go somewhere, it will do so in some very confusing ways, taking indistinct routes and getting hung up on the terrain. This gets especially bad when enemies are involved, and your soldiers tend to react in bizarre ways. I've seen soldiers run past the enemy before turning around to attack them, flat-out ignore the enemy, and generally not doing what I'd asked them to do. Your only solution is to babysit your soldiers, but due to the aforementioned Whip Selection problems, lack of multiple group select, and awkward pointer, this can be quite aggravating.
Perhaps Stormrise's biggest problem is the lack of information that it gives you. You're tossed into the game with nothing but a short tutorial, and although the tutorial is nice, it fails to teach you some of the most basic gameplay features. There are other "mini-tutorials" scattered throughout the early levels, but depending on how you play, you might not even trigger the flag to view them, so you'll miss out on some fairly useful information. This is a game for which you'll have to keep the user manual nearby at all times.
Even after you get over the initial hurdle, Stormrise continues to be scarce with combat information. Keeping track of the battlefield is difficult, since the game gives you almost no help. The in-game maps aren't a very big help and only show a bunch of red dots placed nearby. Trying to get an overall tactical view of your army's position is exasperating. Most units are designated by a bunch of nearly identical light-blue icons with unclear symbols on them, which gets worse as they get farther away. Trying to determine if an indistinct bluish blob is one unit or another is a guessing game. It's entirely too easy to have units vanish off the map with no idea about what happened to them, and the only way to know what's occurring off-screen is to listen to quotes from your soldiers and hope you can piece together what's going on.
Beyond the rather short main campaign, Stormrise also offers Skirmish and multiplayer modes. They're basically the same thing, except Skirmish places you against AI opponents while multiplayer is, of course, against other players. You can take control of the Echelon or the Sai and try to beat the other guy. It's a fairly standard multiplayer RTS setup, although there are a few interesting elements. Like the single-player mode, both the Sai and Echelon have commanders. As you play the game, you'll unlock new equipment for the commanders so you can customize and optimize them for specific situations or improve their overall effectiveness. The multiplayer is superior to the single-player portion in that the areas tend to be slightly less cramped, you're not hampered by as many artificial limitations on your tactics, and you don't have to put up with the silly plot. Unfortunately, most of the other complaints still hold true. There are also only a handful of maps, and a lot of them impose restrictions on the units available to you, which is a bit ridiculous when you consider the small number of available stages.
I would be hard-pressed to point out Stormrise from a crowd of screenshots. It has taken notes from every single postapocalyptic scenario under the sun and is made up mostly of grey, brown and grayish-brown colors. The unit design is particularly uninteresting and unmemorable, with the Echelon forces being mostly the same generic space marines that we've seen in almost every RTS, and the Sai feeling like a group of World of Warcraft characters who took a detour through Gears of War. The graphics are pretty lackluster, and the game is full of poor texturing and uninteresting and badly animated units. This isn't too uncommon for RTS titles, but since the camera is zoomed in so darn close, it's pretty difficult to not notice how everything looks.
The levels are fairly well-designed and easily the strong point of the game, although nothing really makes them stand out from the legions of other grim-and-gritty postapocalyptic settings. The music is fairly unmemorable, and the voice acting is bad. Not only do a lot of the actors not seem to know what emotions they're supposed to convey, but there is also a ridiculous amount of repetition in combat quotes. Hearing the exact same quite four times a row because a group of soldiers met another group of soldiers is enough to make you grow tired of the acting, but since hearing these quotes is about the only way to know what's going on off-screen, you'll have to depend on them. The story is also told through the rather confusing and poorly acted cut scenes, which doesn't help the plot progression either.
Stormrise is the perfect example of good ideas not always translating into good games. The Whip Selection system is great in theory but extremely flawed in execution, and trying to fight with the controls, the camera, and the pathfinding AI is more challenging than anything the Sai could throw at you. Even if you do somehow manage to overcome the design problems, what awaits you is a fairly lackluster RTS with uninteresting unit design and a silly plot. I'm all for supporting innovation, and Creative Assembly clearly had some innovative ideas that could have changed the console RTS genre. Unfortunately, those ideas didn't translate into good gameplay, and it's nearly impossible to recommend Stormrise over almost other RTSes on the Xbox 360, especially with the superior Halo Wars still fresh on store shelves.
More articles about Stormrise