While arguably best known for the epic strategy games in the Total War series on PC, Creative Assembly have always kept one hand on a joypad. Recently they’ve decided to cut a bloody hole in our hearts with the grand-scale slasher Viking. What Stormrise attempts to do is marry the two extremes of its output – something that throws around crowds like Viking did, but with the added things-going-on-upstairs action of the Total War games. Its setting is a somewhat familiar future-dystopia – a world in ruins and the struggle to claim the throne of… oh, you know – standard sci-fi goofballs. It’s suffice to say that two sides are fighting, the Sai and Echelon or – in extreme shorthand – a band of scabby mutants and a squad of jackbooted marine high-tech stormtroopers.

The “Sai” is something of a pun – they’ve got “psi”onic abilities, they can cloak themselves to get closer, both to observe and eviscerate. Best of all is their special ability which can give you control of the opposition. We were shown a particularly sneaky scene where an Echelon machine is walking over a Sai attack, only to be subverted by a recon soldier and turned back. Generally speaking, that describes the relationship between the two sides. The Echelon has the advantage in sheer power. Whereas the Sai has the advantage in sheer sneakiness.

This is traditional strategy game stuff – but while that’s going to be the seasoned meat of the game proper, the question with console strategy games is one of... well, cutlery. You could have the most beautiful meal in the world, but if you’re given a fork which scalds your hand and doesn’t pick up the tasty tactical treat anyway, it’s all for nothing. To that end, Creative Assembly has created a control system where the vast majority of your interactions are performed with the analog sticks and a single button.

Rather than the distant view of many strategy games, Stormrise takes the approach of something like Full Spectrum Warrior or the forthcoming EndWar, and puts you right in on the action, over the shoulders of each of your squads. You look around with the left stick, seeing what’s on. A single click will send the squad in question off at whatever the cursor’s looking at. If you want to swap units, rather than cycling, by moving the right stick you can create a selection whip. By maneuvering it over whoever you want to be, just release the stick to ‘become’ that soldier or unit. This may seem clumsy, but its advanced use allows you to flick it in any direction, and then you’ll instantly skip to the nearest unit.

This means that the selection whip is going to rely on your ability to orient yourself spatially. While you can call up a map of the area to get your bearings, your second-to-second decisions are going to be based on the information of a man on the ground rather than some all-knowing figure floating in the virtual sky. Line of Sight plays an important part, as the only way to discover if any of your enemies are about is to actually see them. This is where the scouting troops and planes come into play. Clearly, if you’re moodily crouching on the top of a skyscraper or soaring above that same edifice, you’ve got a great view.

Conversely, you’ll be a great target which should make the recon troops glad of their invisibility. The “crouching on skyscraper” stuff brings an important point. This is a game where the vertical axis is enormously important. Battlezones are arranged into four areas – the rooftops, the ground, the sky and the subterranean parts. This opens up obvious tactical possibilities for units to out-maneuver each other. Still, with forty units on the battlefield at once, that’s a lot to manage, which is where the co-op seems promising, both in online and split-screen. And then there’s the competitive multiplayer, where two teams of up to four can face off.

Rather than Sai versus Echelon, each player can choose what they want to be to create an interesting tactical mix. There are also equipment slots to allow each player to customize with bonuses. This only scratches the pollutant-covered post-apocalypse surface of the strategy game – there’s in-character heroes, special weapons and an enormous nuke-based weapon designed to help the battles come to an end. If someone can pull it off on current consoles, it’ll be Creative Assembly.

Aug 7, 2008