Review: Stormrise (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Real Time Strategy
Release Date: 03/24/2009

Following hot on the heels of another console Real Time Strategy, Sega and The Creative Assembly have delivered a new console and PC RTS in Stormrise. Stormrise embraces some new ideas about how a Real Time Strategy can be controlled. But do those rumblings of thunder mean that we have some wonderful new artillery to play with? Or is this game, instead, a hurricane of suck? You might want to get an umbrella….

1. Story
Just a bit out in the future, mankind realizes that he has kind of screwed over the planet, and sets out to fix it. Conveniently for the story, something goes horribly, horribly wrong. Instead of saving the world, a series of expanding fireballs topples society as we know it. The powers that be seal a certain percentage of chosen humanity into giant vaults and leaves the rest of the species to die horribly. Years later, those people who were saved start to wake up from cryogenic sleep and realize that the people who were left outside didn’t die horribly as expected – they survived horribly. Half-mutated monsters, nearly human soldiers, and giant freaks of nature have risen up to form a loose-knit army known as the Sai. Defending the still human strongholds is the technologically advanced Echelon. Sounds like a typical RTS at this point, right? Well, kind of.

The Creative Assembly has taken a radically different approach to the RTS genre. Instead of being a nameless, faceless commander high above the battlefield and issuing commands to soldiers that you never interact with, you are instead an officer in a suit of power armor right in the thick of things. Instead of being able to scroll around and see everything, you are instead limited to only your field of view. When you have additional units, you can select them to see what they see. Panning all over the map with a bird’s eye view is no longer an option here. You won’t know that you are about to be attacked until the attack is upon you. Units will take cover when they are next to the appropriate terrain. Much like in Gears of War, cover and defensible positions will become paramount to your successful waging of war.

Without going fully into spoiler territory, you will take the role of Commander Geary, a soldier who witnessed the isolation of one small fraction of humanity and the condemnation of the rest. You are awoken years later and tossed pretty much right into the thick of things. You are given a brief tutorial on how to move your suit and select units, and off you go. The rest of the game will take you through shattered cities, broken factories, and hovels where people are barely surviving while fighting off the mutated, monstrous SAI forces.

Story Rating: Enjoyable

2. Graphics
When I reviewed Halo Wars, I criticized them for not having enough detail or zoom for the units. Stormrise takes the other approach. Mostly because of the way the game is designed from the ground up to be all about your units, the detail level on your troops is amazing. Weapon effects for snipers are different than the effects for assault rifles. And the heavy machine gun effects look different from either. That attention to detail is to be commended. Watching your Sniper teams up close is great. There is a heat shimmer distortion effect for every round fired, and there is burst of blood when the round impact enemy soldiers.

The maps you will do battle on are impressive as well. Though not quite Fallout 3 detail, a factory with a bombed out middle, iron rail bridge, and some waste pipes that have been ruptured look really cool. Draw distance is what your troops can see, but it does go all the way to whatever thing blocks your view. Ruined cityscapes and ramshackle, sheet metal tenements give a great sense of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. The game runs smoothly even with a bunch of units and weapons moving around and interacting.

storm-2Sadly, the detail stops at the troops. Textures are flat in almost all of the environments. There are weather effects, but they don’t really affect the ground. Neither do weapons. If a ten-ton vehicle rolls over a rain-soaked, muddy village, then there should be some tracks. Gunfire miraculously leaves no trace on the environment. If you use a grenade or a bomb attack, then you can barely tell you used it. Animations are sometimes weird too. For instance, a melee-based SAI unit won’t just run up and start swinging at your soldiers. They will run up, swing, and run back to where the attack would have began. However, your units may have moved position since then. The results of the attack take place a second or two later than what you would expect also. Imagine a fighting game where you throw a punch, jump away and crouch, and then see the impact take place. It’s jarring, and takes you out of the action.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound
Along with the graphics, the sound here starts out very appropriate and impressive to the casual observer. Weapons boom appropriately, voices fit the theme, and the shrieks of inhuman and recently human monsters are actually rather chilling. The quality does not continue, however. The voice acting rapidly goes from tolerable to laughable, but to be fair that might be the fault of the script and not the actors. Lines like “Hold still so I can capture you!” will make you laugh and shake your head. Music will be absent from half the battle before popping in. It’s good music when it finally arrives, but why wasn’t it there the whole time? Issues like this really point to a half finished product.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

4. Gameplay and Control
The Creative Assembly, to their credit, has tried a few new things here. I mentioned the “point of view” aspect to the game already, which makes Stormrise play much more like a third-person squad game than a traditional Real Time Strategy game. In order to control your units in a game where you can’t move the screen over whatever unit you want to select, something called “Whip Select.” What this means is that when you are using a unit of Snipers and want to change to a tank, you flick the right stick towards that unit. If the line that shoots out from your Snipers intersects with the tank, then you release the stick and “whip” to the tank.

storm-3The other innovation that The Creative Assembly brought to the table is the concept of the first “truly three dimensional” real time strategy game. To you the gamer, this means that your troops can run into buildings, on top of buildings, and under buildings, in addition to being right next to buildings. Lots of other games have let you garrison troops into a warehouse and fire out windows, but this game actually lets you fight room by room through that warehouse. Getting those troops into cover and in a position to utilize all that beautiful terrain is nearly impossible though.

So how does all this innovation pan out? It pretty much ruins the game. Whip Select will make you nauseous as you flip from unit to unit, assuming you get the correct one. When you train up a unit, you will get a group of soldiers as one unit. Let’s say you want Infiltrators, which are the Sniper unit for the Echelon. You will get three of them per unit, standing in a little triangle formation. If you summon up four or five groups of soldiers at a base, and try to whip back to only select one of them, then you have all those icons sitting right there and keeping you from selecting the correct version. If you want to put more than one group together, such as a combined force of a Commander battle suit, Enforcer grunts, and Infiltrator snipers, you are in for a terrible time. First off, select one group. Then whip select to another group and press the left button. This puts those two units in a duo. Then whip to the third group, and whip back to the first group of two and press the left button again. You’ve now got a group of three units. This is such a waste of time, and you haven’t even left the staging area.

The glorious revolution of a fully 3D RTS? Well, again, on first glance everything seems cool. You can put a group of Infiltrators on top of a building so that they can snipe over huge distances, and put a group of Enforcers at the bottom to keep your Infiltrators from being rushed. Great theory, Professor. Too bad it ends there. Let’s say you want a group on top of a structure. You only get to see the battlefield based on that unit’s field of view. So if you have a group of troopers on the ground, looking at the top of an Air Control tower, then what they see is the view from below. You pretty much have to run over to it, pan up so you are looking straight down, and then give another move order to get to the top. During all of that, you are under fire from all directions and trying to manage a bunch of other units. Even if you can get them over and order them up, if the little circle formation that the game dictates doesn’t fit up there, then you won’t be able to get all of them into position. Finally, if you’ve managed to grit your teeth through all of that, if only one of the troops can see an enemy, then that troop is the only one that will fire. The others in the group will just stand there and pick their noses, which leads me to the next problem: A.I.

I’ve actually managed to find a letter that one of the Enforcers wrote to his parents. Apparently this was done on the field of battle, which may account for some of the rushed grammar and writing. Here we go. “Dear Mom and Dad. The war against the SAI is going well. Today my platoon was grouped up with First and Second. Commander Geary sent us over to an energy node to gaurd it. I’m sure everything is fine! Just a few hours ago, half of my platoon was killed by enemy infantry. But I’m sure if I just stand still and don’t return fire, they won’t come back or see me if they do. Give all my love to” That’s where the letter cuts off, the rest is a bloodstain. Yes, we are back to that old chestnut of strategy games. Enemies don’t fire back unless they can see the shooter. If you end up with a group, and only one unit in that group is taking fire, then that is the only one that will respond. This is how wars are lost. If you have three groups standing in a line, the enemy can engage them one at a time without any fear of reprisal. You can exploit this as well, as your Infiltrators can move to just outside of range, kill a squad, move forward, and repeat. In fact, most engagements can be won by a group of three Infiltrators. The A.I. is a lot more artificial than intelligent.

storm-5So aside from a crippling inability to return fire in a sensible manner, what other handicaps are out there? What’s the other huge issue in any game of this nature? That’s right, pathfinding AI! Give yourself a pat on the back if you were thinking that. Half the time, a soldier with a freaking jetpack will get stuck climbing a ten-foot cargo container. I’ve never been in the military, but I’m pretty sure that if you gave an order to a squad of soldiers to climb to the top of some metal cargo containers, I think they could get on top of those without too much trouble. Fortunately, you can reverse the move order and try to find a different way up, but by then that unit has probably already been killed. Aerial units? Even worse. If the game decides that the easiest route to get somewhere is the same as a land unit would take, then your very expensive VTOL jet is going to follow the exact same path that your infantry just took. Ugh. Combined assaults with air cavalry coming over a row of buildings to save your infantry’s backside becomes a pleasant dream, not an awe-inspiring charge.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Bad

5. Replayability
Stormrise features the typical multiplayer component, and supports games of up to eight people. If you don’t want to go online, you can always play a local Skirmish. Two factors are weighed heavily against this game though. First off, it isn’t that fun. See right above. Secondly, there’s another little RTS title that came out this month that you might have heard of. Between the lack of fun on this game and the mass of people playing other games, there’s just not much reason to come back unless you really, really love the setting. In fact, I was barely able to find one other person playing quick matches on Live two days after the game launched. Aside from going for a few Achievements to pad your gamerscore, you’ll find better value elsewhere, and you will find better games to play online elsewhere.

Replayability Rating: Poor

6. Balance
Any RTS game worth its salt requires finely balanced units. To that end, Stormrise succeeds. Each faction has 10 units that can be hurled into battle. The Echelon side tends to start with the very powerful Commander battle suit, while the Sai have the Siren, which is kind of like an energy witch. storm-4The philosophy of the factions are well represented by all of the units. Echelon units favor high-tech solutions, while Sai units favor close up, mutated humans. Echelon Enforcers are the shield wall soldiers, able to generate an energy barrier to defend themselves well against incoming fire. The counterpart on the Sai side are the Rangers, which can sacrifice their defenses by charging rapidly into an area held by the opposing side. Warriors, for instance, will shrug off a lot of fire just to get close enough to beat down an entire platoon in a few swings. For the most part, no one side has a huge advantage over the other. In gameplay, you are kept on your toes by a near-constant stream of attacks. You cannot just hunker down and produce units, you have to be constantly moving, preparing, and going on the offensive. It does fit the theme of the game, but the pace can be aggravating early on when you are still getting used to the game. You are forced to learn by fire, which is a painful teacher.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

While you can probably track down the basic setting in any number of science fiction novels or games, Stormrise does a good job of presenting itself as something new. Or new-ish, anyway. Honestly, while walking around massive hangers in a suit of power armor, I got the feeling as much as anything else that I was playing in a Rifts campaign. Frankly, that would be awesome. The other sensation I got was that it was very nearly a Gears of War RTS. When you see a group of soldiers run up to a low wall and take cover, only to be assaulted by a group of monstrous, subhuman freaks, you are reminded very much of the Gears setting. The story and the setting all work very well, which makes the poor execution of the gameplay that much more aggravating.

Originality Rating: Good

8. Addictiveness
You know that sensation, where you want to do something even though it is bad for you? Like when a doughnut shop opens up at the end of your street and you just keep going there, even though you know that doughnuts are not filled with vitamins? Stormrise fills me with the opposite of that feeling. Playing through this game was like pulling teeth. I wanted to know more about the story, I wanted to see new units and new weapons, but I really didn’t want to keep playing to get to those nuggets of story and technology. Even the idea of just jumping into a skirmish and tossing out a bunch of units doesn’t appeal to me. There is meat on these bones, but the gameplay has turned it rotten.

Addictiveness Rating: Bad

9. Appeal Factor
There are probably a bunch of Microsoft fans that consider anything Halo related to be, by its very nature, lame. I’m willing to bet that a subset of those people are RTS fans, and wouldn’t mind playing something else, something new. Since this is a cross platform release, Playstation 3 and PC gamers could be interested in Stormrise as well. Anyone and everyone who has a love for post-apocalyptic settings could find something to like here. As I’ve said, the setting and story are actually interesting. So there is, for anyone interested in this type of game, a strong appeal. If you’ve read this far, however, you should know that unless you are willing to put up with a lot of frustration you should not commit to this game.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous
Stormrise really could have been something great. The ideas that The Creative Assembly brought to the genre are not bad ideas. A third person, squad based game in real time, or even turn based has a lot of appeal. The post-apocalyptic, oops-we-destroyed-the-world setting works as well, especially with the initial environmental disaster theme. The “Whip Select” system is not, by itself, a bad idea. Removing every other standard aspect of RTS control removes so much of the fun of playing this type of game though. The amount of glitches and other A.I. issues on top of all that just show that this was either rushed out the door or people stopped work early.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores
Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Bad
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Good
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Bad
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Mediocre


Short Attention Span Summary
Stormrise brings a lot of new and interesting ideas to the RTS genre, but it brings them at the expense of the refinement that most gamers are used to. The Creative Assembly has built a squad-centric, third person RTS that locks you into the eyes and ears of your units. Solid graphics and sounds combined with an interesting storyline make this title something that you might be interested in checking out. Far from a perfect storm, this game should only be sought after by storm chasers that have a lot of patience and don’t mind fighting the interface and A.I. along with their enemies.



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