"We've got a control feature now that is faster than the keyboard and mouse," says Vispi Bhopti, studio communications manager at Creative Assembly Australia. What?
"Which sounds cooky, and everybody's eyebrows raise, and you don't believe me. In five minutes time I'll prove it to you."
He's right. Everybody's eyebrows are raised. Not only that, but lips are pursed and foreheads are scrunched in scepticism. This had better be good.
Bhopti, a breathlessly enthusiastic member of the team behind hardcore PC RTS Medieval II: Total War and its expansion Kingdoms, begins his demo of the post-apocalyptic console centred sci-fi RTS Stormrise. But wait - a proviso.
"This is faster because of this game. You can't just port this control system onto Empire, for example. It won't work. It just won't. We're not saying, bang, we've figured it all out and now we're going to license it out to everyone and this is the new Unreal Engine of controls, but it's just an interesting solution."
Back peddling, perhaps? Maybe. Whatever, we're used to grandiose claims from game developers, each and every one talking up their title as if it's the second coming. It's even worse in the console RTS space. Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 with its radial menu, EndWar with its voice command, Halo Wars with its simplified base building... all admirable efforts, really, but still, better than mouse and keyboard? No.
Bhopti isn't saying Stormrise's controls are better than the mouse and keyboard, he's saying they're faster. Traditionally, console RTS games have suffered from a lack of efficiency when it comes to moving between units. In Stormrise every unit, both friend and foe, and resource generating node, has an icon displayed above it. This is where Whip Select (CA obviously reckons Stormrise's control scheme is so good it warrants its own name), comes into play. Moving the right thumb stick in any direction will project a beam of light that can be aimed at one of these icons. Simply flicking it in the direction of that icon will shift the camera to it in the blink of an eye and that unit is under your control. That's it, one flick of the thumb. It doesn't matter how far away it is on the battlefield, or where it is. The icon will always be displayed, and you'll always be able to flick towards it, whether that's up, down, left, right, forwards or backwards. The thumb stick is analogue, after all.
In this way, you're able to leapfrog from unit to unit, or from groups of units to groups of units, dishing out commands as fast as your brain allows. "This is, for long distances, faster than anything that's ever been done," Bhopti confidently proclaims. "With a traditional game you would have to do four or six clicks in a mini-map to move across that many map screens and then select, or you would have to scroll across a couple of map screens, or with a keyboard and mouse you'd have to zoom out, refocus and zoom back in. Nothing is as quick as doing that one motion and letting go."
And yet, despite his claims, Bhopti insists Whip Select shouldn't grab the headlines when it comes to Stormrise. Instead, we should be scribbling in our notepads about a feature mentioned more than any other during the two hour presentation: verticality.
"All other control methods worked on a 2D spectrum," he says. "This is radial and the benefit of this is that we can have verticality. Verticality is why you should play this game. Verticality is why this is amazing. This is unreal. If you really are an RTS player, this is the thing that's going to freak you out for the next half hour and then it's going to keep you up going, imagine this, imagine this, imagine this."
What he means by verticality, really, is that because Stormrise is a 3D game, and because it's based on true line of sight, you're able to move units not only into cover but underground, into buildings, through tunnels and up and over and underneath and round the side and anything else you can imagine on a 3D plane. In most RTS games, an air unit exists on the same 2D plane as a ground unit. In Stormrise, air units can fly underneath bridges and into buildings, hiding, waiting to jump out and decimate a clueless enemy unit.
Bhopti insists verticality is what makes Stormrise "amazing", but there is danger in the design. As mentioned, Stormrise is fully 3D. There is no Goodyear blimp, God-like view of the battlefield. Instead, the camera is fixed to a third-person, EndWar-esque position behind whichever unit is currently selected. What you can see is limited to line of sight. There is no artificial fog of war because there is real fog of war.
This is a brave move indeed. Being able to survey a large chunk of any given RTS map has been a tried and trusted genre hallmark for nigh on 20 years. Indeed that's what a lot of people like about RTS games - that you feel like a general commanding his troops from above. Stormrise does away with this convention and forces you to think very differently. So differently, in fact, that it will be interesting to see just how RTS it feels. Ground infantry provides a Full Spectrum Warrior style view. Air units provide a perspective from the air. If you want to see what's in that tunnel, then you're going to have to send a unit down there to take a look.
Unlike Halo Wars, but like EndWar, there is no base building in the traditional sense. Instead captured nodes generate energy, used to warp in units from your supposedly infinite resource somewhere far away. The larger and more powerful the unit, the more energy it costs to teleport. Stormrise employs the in vogue radial system seen in other current console RTS games. You're able to build turrets and shields on these nodes to protect them, as well as refineries to make them more efficient. Again, jumping to a node is a simple case of flicking the right thumb stick in the direction of its icon.
Beyond the controls, Stormrise comes across as being a tad too sci-fi generic for its own good, both in terms of plot and aesthetic. Set 2000 years into the future, the game sees two warring factions, the technology-driven Echelon and the spiritual Sai, fighting for supremacy on a post-apocalyptic earth. The idea is that 70 or so years into the future scientists attempt to combat global warming by tinkering with the ozone layer. It all goes tits up, of course, and a cataclysmic storm answers humanity's meddling with an unequivocal kick in the balls. Massive tunnels are burrowed into the ground, and much of the planet's population hibernate there. Some, however, are left on the surface, many of whom perish, but those that survive adapt to the harsh environment, develop mutations, psychic powers and experiment on animals. And, eventually, those that hibernated emerge back onto the earth, scraping together 2000 year old technology for use in the fight for survival.
There are 18 units in total, nine on each side. There are three units of each type - infantry, mechanical units/beasts and air units, divided up into three tiers: basic, intermediate and elite. The Echelon use things like hover tanks that transform into artillery, and mechs. The Sai, on the other hand, can cloak, blink and mind control, and use creatures warped from experiments in battle. The most elite unit on the Sai side is a floating woman. The Sai's intermediate air unit is like the evil mutated twin of Falcor from The Never Ending Story.
On top of these nine unit types are heroes, upgradeable as you play the 12-mission campaign. Echelon hero units gain mech suits with flight technology and rocket launchers, for example, as further upgrades. Sai hero units - half naked women who float on mysterious hovering rings, upgrade with mechanical or spiritual abilities. When you take these heroes into the eight-player multiplayer portion of the game, you get to customise them with gear gained in the single-player campaign. Twin Doom Capacitors, anyone?
Stormrise rekindles many memories of EndWar, not least in the slightly generic aesthetic and unit design. Although the graphics have come a long way since the game's showing at trade shows last year, and are impressive in parts (the maps themselves are eye-catching) it still doesn't stun. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this. The game, after all, almost wasn't a game at all. Stormrise's genesis can be traced back to that classic PC versus console RTS argument. Creative Assembly Australia's head of technology, Ken Turner ("dude's a genius"), was convinced the genre could work on console, so he concocted a Whip Select prototype and laid it on top of the Kingdoms dev code. It was shown to SEGA, and SEGA said yes. The meat of Stormrise was then built around the control scheme. The units, the premise, the plot, the graphics, the look - none of it would be here if it hadn't been for Ken and his prototype.
Stormrise will live or die not on Whip Select alone, but on how the game's mechanics come together as a whole. The recently released Halo Wars has raised the bar when it comes to RTS on consoles. Does the rock, paper scissors combat engage? Are two factions enough? Is Stormrise fun? These questions are still unanswered, but the game does have promise. Whip Select looks the part. Verticality looks the part. Time to find out if they play the part.
Stormrise is due out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in March.