Version tested: PlayStation 3
Does anyone remember Greenclaws? He was a corpulent, anthropomorphic maggot beast, reminiscent of the protagonist from Fat Worm Blows a Sparky, who hung around with a retarded woman and a mechanical owl on his own TV programme in the late 80s. Each episode involved a contrived disaster, which forced the couple to open Greenclaws' box of special magic seeds, selecting a gaudy, intriguing little kernel and germinating it over the course of the show inside a hollow tree. At the end, the tree would open and there would be a plant inside, invariably bearing crushingly disappointing fruit, such as shoe polish or dusters. I think once it was cake, but it was carrot cake, so it doesn't count.
The point is that the seeds were always the interesting part. Shiny, brightly coloured and full of promise, there was always the mystery, the unknowing, the possibility that this week, against all odds, a plant bearing toy soldiers or Micro Machines would sprout inside the tree; that the over-hyped seed would finally come good and something truly special would bloom. Anyway, those of you well-versed in the interpretation of painfully extended analogies may already have guessed that Stormrise's success is best expressed in terms of a tree bearing curtain hooks, owl pellets and the fingernail clippings of a man with haemorrhoids and no social mores.
When I first saw the game, tucked safely away behind the PR barrier at SEGA's Brentford offices, I was cautiously impressed. Wowed by the simplicity and effectiveness of the Whip Select, in particular, I was willing to accept that what I was watching could be a generational leap for the genre.
Whip Select seems like such a pure premise. Simply hold the right stick in any direction (or click and drag on PC) and a beam of light emanates from your current unit. Direct it to one of the icons representing a friendly unit and release, and the camera flicks instantly over, settling into a third-person perspective a few feet above them. It works. In a sense. As far as selecting units goes, it's functional. You can, as promised, flick instantly from one side of the map to the other, or rattle rapidly between engaged units and production nodes. I'll even concede that, also as promised, Whip Select does these things more quickly than a mouse and keyboard. Sadly, its functionality ends there.
The first and prevailing issue is this: strategy games require a method of forming strategy. What this generally means is viewing a battlefield as a whole, complete with troop positions and movements, and directing your forces responsively and in co-ordination with one another. Stormrise, for all its rapidity of selection, simply does not allow you to do this. Because the camera is constantly fixed in a slightly elevated over-the-shoulder view for whichever unit is currently under your command, and the environments around you are flaunting their 3D verticality by being all vertical, it's impossible to see more than a few metres in any direction. Sure, this is what it's like for soldiers on the ground, but that's why armies have generals, which is, after all, the role that RTS gamers are supposed to find themselves in.
Co-ordinating attacks is nigh on impossible, especially if you try and flank enemy positions, because troops can only be moved to a cursor, positioned within visual range, or sent toward the icons of other units. Moving a unit to a position out of line-of-sight and so far unoccupied is a painful process of tiny increments, making three-point turns around buildings or obstacles. By the time they arrive, the troops assaulting whatever it was you were trying to flank will usually either have triumphed or been annihilated, rendering the entire manoeuvre pointless. The most successful tactic I discovered, at least on the more cluttered maps, was to accumulate a stockpile of the game's single resource, send a unit out until they made contact and then spam other units onto their position direct from the constructing base, hoping that the steady stream would eventually overcome resistance.
True, units can be directed from the viewpoint of another, so if you get one up on a tall building, or take an air unit up above the map, you'll have a more traditional perspective from which your army can be commanded, using the square button to drag out pointers to objectives. Unfortunately, you'll also be so far away from your diminutive troops that you'll have no idea which are which, nor what they're seeing. Given that the average encounter between units lasts for about 10 seconds, you'll get very little chance to find out what's been engaged, select appropriate backup and send it in before the entire skirmish is nothing but a greasy patch of asphalt. Additionally, units can only be grouped into maximums of three, meaning any kind of concerted assault requires nauseating flicks back and forth as troops are piled into engagements.
Added to that, any air units hovering naively over the battlefield are rapidly exterminated, ridding you of their perspective, and the resource cost of these units means that they're hardly expendable drones. It all adds up to you feeling wildly out of control, briefly possessing units and sending them to their poorly co-ordinated deaths as the AI enemy inexorably spawns and grinds down your position. Factor in the complex, multi-layered environments you'll be fighting in and the savagely passive troops under your command and the battlefield is reduced to a bewildering chaos of isolated units, idle resources and frustrating mistakes.
Flicking to units and resources works quickly, but does nothing to alleviate the confusion. Firstly, in order to orientate yourself effectively you need to memorise where every unit you switch to is actually going to be. Suddenly finding yourself hovering behind one of the twenty to thirty units in the field gives you no real idea of where you are, unless you know the map well enough to judge it in relation to the whip from your last position. The garishly neon strategic overview map is of no use either - you can't give orders from it, scroll around it or relate it to the battlefield in any meaningful way. Similarly, the almost constant reminder that there's been a 'unit lost' gives you no indication where they may have fallen and where your defences might consequently need shoring up.
Units show no initiative at all, happily jogging past enemies without firing or running right up to emplacements, being shredded in a matter of seconds, before they open fire, and unit skills, such as grenades, shields or AOE attacks, have to be activated individually for each unit - a fiddly and time-consuming process that ramps up the tooth-grinding even further. More than once I observed two platoons of well-trained cyber troopers rush into each other's ranks and out of the other side before turning to shoot. The firing animations seem to be optional too, with soldiers falling in groups when nobody is firing, felled en-masse by an unseen hand. Graphically it's dull, dour and uninspiring, with the odd bit of quirky unit design lost in a sea of bland. Married to a frame-rate that dips more often than the interest rate, clunky, stuttering animations and units that regularly get stuck on scenery, each other or just thin air, and you're looking at a real mess.
Once in a while, however, it does all come together. There were brief spells where I was navigating tight urban corridors, ducking into cover or holing up in buildings, switching back to resource nodes or aerial units to churn out troops or check enemy movements, when I could see the logic behind the decisions here. Times when it didn't seem like such a ridiculous idea to base an entire game around the limitations of its control scheme. There are undoubtedly excellent ideas hiding behind the scenes; they're just stymied by the method of execution.
3 / 10