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Stormrise – the PS3 Attitude Review

Submitted by on Sunday, 26 April 20095 Comments

StormriseHow often do you actually read the manual that comes with a game these days?

With the plethora of tutorials usually available to get you started, and the fact that – let’s face it – the majority of games’ controls released on the market are almost innate after ten minutes and probably burned into your psyche at thirty, that pretty pamphlet you’re vaguely aware came with the box is usually unceremoniously ignored.

Stormrise is an anomaly. After a baffling hour into the game, I find myself sitting with a lucky-to-be-alive controller in my lap, frantically flicking through a perfunctory manual and, dejected and frustrated, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing wrong. I’ve played games for over twenty years, I’ve wrestled with innumerable control systems that have lacked polish and finesse. Surely I can’t simply suck so bad at this game that its virtues and appeal are totally lost on me.

It took a while but I’ve accepted that, like a relationship that’s simply run its course, it’s not me – it’s them. The reality is, The Creative Assembly’s noble attempt at innovation, the goal of creating a control system that circumvents the age-old challenge of marrying the RTS genre with a console’s mouse-less condition, has missed the mark entirely. And though we admire any studio that takes a chance and innovates, we can’t view Stormrise as anything but what it is – a game so stricken by its wayward controls that it becomes near impossible to play.

It was always going to be tough to review Stormrise without turning this into a harangue against the game’s “revolutionary control system” – the Whip Selectâ„¢. The fact is, considering the Whip Select technique is at the very cornerstone of the game’s being, Stormrise’s success as a title was always going to rest squarely on the shoulders of this unique control device as a troop deployment method. But, as it’s a mandatory system with absolutely no alternative, and the damning fact that it doesn’t work, the house of cards upon which the game is built comes crashing down. It might be cliché to mention eggs and baskets but this age old metaphor best describes what The Creative Assembly have fallen victim to. Their radical navigation system was touted as a selling point; a deus ex machina destined to solve the perpetual problem of how an RTS can work on a console but, in reality, it’s become a long rope that they’ve managed to inextricably intertwine themselves with.

Would you like to know more? No, didn't think so.

Would you like to know more? No, didn't think so.

Using the right-analog stick, players can push down on the nub and view all available units on the battlefield as floaty icons. Joined to these units are ethereal silky threads, suggestive of some inalienable connection. “Whip” or flick the right stick towards one of these icons and you’ll swing control over to the resource in question. It’s a novel idea, and it works when members of your division are close together and with a common goal, but split them up or add any number of brigades to the party and it becomes total anarchy. Ironically, this is probably what real warfare is like but it’s not something we want to contend with when playing a game.

The crux of the problem with the Whip Select feature is one of visibility. By locking the viewpoint to ground-level it might lend to a more visceral and realistic battle perspective but it also makes it nigh impossible to control what’s going on around you. There are a few mitigating factors like the ability to group units together and then assign them to the D-pad buttons but, with a restriction of three units per group, and the physical limitation of only having four directional buttons, it’s like handing a man a bucket of water as the winds shift and the flames of a forest fire eye up his soon to be smoking house.

By not having a “God view”, and hence no ability to assess a battle from a subjective height, you’ll find yourself quickly at a loss when your adversary attacks; especially when they do so from multiple locations. The much lauded ability to deploy troops across different strata – on top of buildings, beneath brides and under the very ground itself – is redundant when you can’t manipulate your forces into a coherent fighting machine. You’ll lose troops and have no idea where they’ve just fallen. Forget about using aerial units for scouting purposes as they’re practically useless and get shot out of the sky far too easily and you’ll often “whip” into the wrong unit only to have no idea of how to get back to where you were before. Even the world view map, accessible by pressing Select, is more trouble than it’s worth. As you wrestle with the glowing monstrosity, trying to massage it to get some sort of overview of the carnage being handed to you, it will spin around uncontrollably like a greased pig proffering glimpses of enemy units descending on your unwary garrisons, oblivious of their impending doom. It’s unhelpful and counter-productive, it could also be viewed as downright sadistic. Whatever it is, it’s not usable in any form as a strategy planner.

The micro-world map available in combat mode is equally worthless when you consider its isometric viewpoint gives little information regarding distance. Red blobs and blue blobs. Dying. Endlessly. How nice.

The Sai's "Rage" unit was pissed to be in such a lacklustre game. Many died under his frustrated hands.

The Sai's "Rage" unit was pissed to be in such a lackluster game. Many died under his frustrated hands.

Add Mr. Whip to the above equation of disorientation and your head will be quickly spinning as you try and formulate any sort of grasp on what’s happening. Thoughts of who’s dying, who’s winning and who’s stuck in the scenery and rendered completely useless to your cause will flash through your mind as the monotonous computer voice informs you of yet another “unit lost”. The Unknown Soldier. Unknown as you’ll have no idea where he just died, his body lost forever.

Commanding from this frontline position might have been a good idea during the game’s design phase but, in practice, it’s onerous and totally impractical. The whole point of an RTS is the “S” part. When the massacre of one of your divisions is well and truly over by the time it takes you to find out who was getting slaughtered in the first place; with no opportunity to send reinforcements, not enough time to change that unit’s task or make any difference in the slightest, you’ll realise you’re fighting a losing battle. And when you lose the ability in an RTS to perform strategic game-play, the game is lost itself.

"Sheilds up boys! Oh, hang on, we're already dead ..."

"Shields up boys! Oh, hang on, we're already dead ..."

If Stormrise was only let down by its cumbersome controls, we’d still say it was poor considering a game’s control system is so fundamental to its enjoyment, but we’d probably not deride it so much. Unfortunately, though the control system is the most egregious of culprits, there are a litany of other failings lining up that compound the more glaring of mistakes and prevent us from letting up with the negativity. The game’s presentation and weak plot for example don’t even try to elevate it above standard shlock fare.

It’s the near future and mankind, in a vain attempt to reverse global-warming, have somehow inadvertently caused what has become known as “The Event”; a cataclysmic global maelstrom that rendered life on Earth uninhabitable. Fast-forward a few centuries and mankind has schismatically fallen into two warring factions. There are those who slept through the hardship, the Echelon, only to awaken and build a new society, and there is the Sai, a mutated nomadic tribal society that lived through the storm and learned to adapt and survive. As there wouldn’t be much of a game if the two sides came together and co-existed in mutually beneficial harmony, both factions have mastered certain aspects of future-technology with the intent of unleashing it and causing the other’s total annihilation.

The back-story is appropriately hackneyed, insipid and merely an excuse for the action to play out between the two sects. It’s this lack of thought towards building an immersive and believable world that epitomises the various shortcomings that permeates Stormrise. For example: the graphics are serviceable though never spectacular – which leads us to wonder why there are so many frame-rate hiccups and other performance issues. The voice acting is passable but is pretty much on par with the rest of the game’s quality. In other words: below average.

It’s a shame really, as there are certain redeemable factors to Stormrise that are begging to get out from beneath the sloppy controls and turgid delivery. Some of the units are well designed with the Sai’s Matriarch and the Echelon’s Arc Hammer standing out as fun units to play around with – before the dementia sets in of course.

The Eclipse, the most powerful Echelon weapon available. One you're unlikely the patience and get to see.

The Eclipse, the most powerful Echelon weapon available. One you're unlikely to have patience and get to see.

We’d mention multiplayer but whenever we went online to “play” someone, the servers were empty. Complete and total desolation. The fact that the leader board only has 71 people on it (at the time of writing) is a testament to the game’s unpopularity. We’re assuming it works and consists of two people from different locations possibly swearing at the controls in two different languages as an almost simulated battle of chance plays out in front of them.

In conclusion, The Creative Assembly reached too far and, instead of dumping the unwieldy Whip Select feature early in testing (I can only imagine what this game has done to the minds of QA over at the studio), they kept it, convinced they were on to something unique; a breakthrough in RTS gaming on consoles. It was a misstep and a pricey one at that. The Whip Select technology may be revolutionary but, like all revolutions, there is no guarantee that it will herald in a new era or deemed a success in the cold light of day. Because of this design decision, Stormrise is a poor game. Pure and simple. I’m trying to imagine if somehow a patch could save Stormrise and drag it kicking and screaming from the frustrating experience it is. Can you patch in a whole new control system into a game? Perhaps. I think it’s a better choice to learn from this stumble however and move on and make better games. There’s no doubt there’s talent at The Creative Assembly. They just need to recognise a game-crippling issue earlier in the process and dump it before it infects the rest of the game’s elements.

I can’t in good faith recommend Stormrise to anyone. Even die-hard RTS fans with a morbid interest in the title should pick it up on PC as, and this is an assumption, I’m thinking whipping with a mouse is easier than with an analogue stick. Other than that, Mech-heads might need this to complete some sort of “divine collection” or maybe gaming masochists would enjoy it – if such a cadre exists. The fact is, with a lot of perseverance, it’s quite possible Stormrise might become an enjoyable gaming experience but, with so many games on the market at the moment, and with only so many hours in the day, when you create a game whose learning curve is literally vertical, you deserve to have nobody play it. The empty servers attest to this fact.