Game Theory: Designing Down

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Empire: Total War and Stormrise are two radically different games with a common core. Developed by Creative Assembly, they give us a rare opportunity to see the stark contrast between what PC and console strategy games can and cannot do.

Empire is a refinement of a revered brand, featuring new elements set within a familiar context.  Despite the bugs, it’s still a deep, detailed, and beautiful strategy game with a different texture from any other Total War game.

Stormrise severs the 3D tactical element from the Total War series and reconfigures it as a third person real-time strategy game. The ground-level FPS/RTS hybrid is not the huge innovation trumpeted by Sega. Pandemic’s Battlezone II: Combat Commander attempted a similar RTS/FPS mélange 10 years ago, with pretty solid results. But memories are short and hype is powerful in the game world, allowing Stormrise to position itself as “The First Truly 3D RTS Game.”

There is indeed innovation on display in Stormrise. I haven’t seen a game which forced such a reorientation of my approach to strategy gaming since Homeworld. It offers a large battlefield that has tactically significant verticality—with levels in the air, in and on structures of varying heights, on the ground, and underground—and is controlled from the perspective of individual units.

Unfortunately, this attempt to bring a scaled-down version of the Total War battlefield experience to console systems is ultimately undone by the limitations of console controllers, which make managing the multiple units very tricky.

The PC version of Stormrise (which was clearly an afterthought) is even more unsatisfying. The mouse/keyboard controls that would have been a perfect fit for Stormrise are instead filtered through the confining lens of the console controller, rendering the PC controls extremely cumbersome.

A PC concept has been bounced to the console and back to the PC, and as with any game of “telephone,” something is lost in the process. If Stormrise was designed from the ground up for PC control, instead of designed down to the console level, it might have been a classic. In attempting to bring its complex ideas to consoles, Creative Assembly has instead proved why its only true home can be the PC.

Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine .

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