Stormrise is one of those games that makes you wonder, "What were they thinking?" This real-time strategy game is, from top to bottom, misconceived, frustrating, frequently broken, and rarely fun. Developer Creative Assembly has built an entire product around a fundamentally flawed control scheme and neglected almost every important facet of the RTS genre. Embarrassingly busted pathfinding, infuriating interface problems, abysmal mission design, substandard visuals--these unpleasant elements and many others make the whole thing an unseemly mess. It's the bizarre irony of Stormrise that it's an RTS game built from the ground up for modern consoles yet it's far inferior to those ported from the PC.
The control scheme in question is called whip select, and its Stormrise's most interesting idea--and greatest liability. The game eschews the standard top-down perspective, forcing you to view the battlefield and issue orders from the viewpoint of an individual squad. This isn't a brand-new innovation; a similar perspective worked to great cinematic effect in Tom Clancy's EndWar. To switch to another unit, you rotate a line that emanates from the center of the screen with the right thumbstick, hover it over the target unit, and release the stick. This is whip select, and on paper, it sounds like a clever console-centric alternative to traditional PC mouse controls. However, initial fascination deteriorates rapidly into abhorrence when the control scheme collides with the game's delinquent interface and often nonfunctional pathing.
Your initial struggles will come when you start to spread units across the map. When a squad isn't onscreen, it is represented by an icon displayed either in your field of view (when there are obstacles between your current selection and your target) or along the edge of the screen, in the manner of a space combat sim. When units amass in the distance, making an exact selection, especially in the midst of combat, can be a nightmare. You'll waste precious seconds fiddling to make sure you highlight the correct tiny icon before releasing the thumbstick, or worse yet, you'll choose the wrong unit, possibly flinging your view to an unrelated unit that happens to be positioned in the same general direction--but underground. Or you may land on the wrong unit simply because you can't tell what the unit type is from the simple icon that represents it, wasting even more time while you fumble your way to the squad you need most. Rather than enhancing the enjoyment, whip select taints every action and hobbles the few moments when the game's burgeoning potential peeks from underneath this specter. It's like driving through a thick fog or running with a broken leg. You can issue indirect orders, though this function is only mildly helpful and, like most aspects of Stormrise, was not implemented well. You can issue such a command when controlling a unit, but not when managing the power nodes that you must capture and upgrade, where the feature would have been far more helpful.
From here, the problems begin to pile up, and the resulting tower of insanity crashes to the ground in an astounding mass of broken and half-implemented features. The pathfinding in particular is possibly the worst an RTS game has seen to date. Units get hung up on everything: the environments, each other, and sometimes nothing at all. You might watch some individual members of a squad move forward while the lagging ones get stuck in the level geometry and then teleport forward a few moments later. Large units like the spiderlike matriarchs may walk directly into objects and just keep walking rather than go around, and they get stuck in jittery animation loops when they can't figure out what to do or where to go. Squads won't get out of the way of oncoming units, often leading to traffic jams that can be fixed only by manually leading away units one at a time until you can bring order to the chaos. Interpretive dance routines are common in the ranks of your infantry, and your warriors often choose to run about like buffoons rather than engage the enemy or find a place to still their hyperactive feet.
The campaign's level design seems created almost to aggravate these issues. In the level that introduces the anti-infantry vehicles called prowlers, these units must navigate through tight roadways, a task they are clearly incapable of performing. In later missions, you must lead units down spiraling sets of walkways to take a series of control points, and navigate through incredibly confined underground tunnels. The choke points in these areas create long, frustrating stalemates due to the resulting stew of practically uncontrollable units. At least in wider environments, unit behavior inspires fewer headaches, but these missions are abysmal, because bad pathfinding and unnecessary micromanagement lead to losses that could have been avoided if your units had simply done what you had commanded them to do. At first, the option to group units into control groups of three (yes indeed, you can only combine up to three units in a single group) seems like a tempting way to soften the issues, until you realize that creating groups only compounds the pathfinding absurdities.
Even should you overcome these roadblocks, you'll find that units are extremely slow to respond to orders, taking their time to move out of the way as if they need to give it some thought first. Want your hero unit to get out of the way when his health is quickly diminishing? Don't count on it: he'd rather perform a series of useless animations, and then die--which ends the mission--rather than follow your command. Not that it is always clear why your hero (or any other unit) is losing health in the first place. All too frequently, you will watch a health bar slowly diminish, yet the absence of bullets, lasers, or nearby units will make you wonder where the damage is even coming from. This is because animations and effects often go missing. Enemy rangers might collapse in a bloody heap, apparently from the fire of your hovering hunters--but because these airborne units are stuck in a jittery loop, you won't see any laser fire. In fact, Stormrise goes out of its way to not give you important visual information. Once units are grouped, you cannot see their remaining health, which is an enormous problem if you include a commander in the group. Should you want a better look at the battlefield, you might try pulling up the overhead view, though in doing so you will find the most useless piece of garbage that has ever been passed off as a map.
This smorgasbord of horrific design is all the more heartbreaking when you consider the game's potential. Yes, Stormrise is brimming with terrible ideas poorly executed, but the grim, futuristic setting and cool-looking units, such as the soaring rift worm, show elements of real promise. Two factions, the Echelon and the Sai, clash over the future of the planet after a cataclysmic environmental disaster, and both sides' moral ambiguities lead to a few different twists and turns to the tale. The story isn't always easy to follow, but emphatic voice acting and a few atmospheric touches keep the narrative interesting, even if you aren't sure what's going on. Sadly, poor production values cast a shadow on these few bright spots. When masses of units collide, Stormrise can offer a mild visual spectacle. Otherwise, low-resolution textures, poor lighting, and muddy, uninspired art make the game look a bit homely.
The basic gameplay also showcases some decent core ideas. You must capture and link power nodes to accumulate resources, and you can upgrade them with shields and surprisingly effective turrets. This concept isn't that new, but it's a solid one that keeps you pressing forward. And while using the terrain has been an important aspect of other strategy games, few offer Stormrise's sheer verticality. You can place snipers (called infiltrators here) on ledges and move infantry behind cover, and once you become familiar with each unit's attack range, careful positioning can open up some intriguing strategic options. Sadly, knowing each unit's range is even more important than you would expect, given that if you give an attack order, the unit will move right up to its target, rather than attack from the most distant possible range, as in every other RTS. This leads to more micromanagement, lest your rangers wander directly into their targets as if they just want a hug.
Stormrise's multiplayer component gives rise to its greatest ideas. Before you head into battle, you can customize your powerful commander unit with different weapons and abilities, which is a nice touch that gives you the element of surprise. Up to eight players can battle it out, and like World in Conflict, Stormrise offers drop-in, drop-out online play. At least here you can leave behind the single-player campaign's oft-frustrating mission objectives and concentrate on capturing power nodes while crushing the opposition. Multiplayer skirmishes offer the most hints at what the game could have and should have been, and a few micromanagement lovers may enjoy exploring their units' alternate attack modes (the matriarch's acid storm is fun to play with). However, you're still dealing with all the control and pathfinding issues, only now, you might get stuck on friendly units that you don't get any direct control over. If you really want to showcase your skills on the leaderboards, you can participate in ranked matches, but maddeningly, the game allows uneven teams, which is just out-and-out absurd in a ranked contest.
There are more nightmarish issues, of course, such as how the terrible enemy AI ignores your attacks or rushes past your powerful stalkers in endless, scripted waves. And how the broken checkpoints and single save slot mean potentially saving at an inopportune time, forcing you to restart a mission from the beginning. And the way the action continues after you save the game, but doesn't let you control anything for several precious seconds. Suffice it to say, Stormrise is a broken debacle that is in no way deserving of either your time or your money.