Games Workshop – where nobody has a nice time.
Okay, let us clarify; it’s entirely possible to have a nice time playing their games or painting their models or – heck – even chatting to their legendarily helpful and inclusive staff. But pick a world, pick a game and we’d be hard-pressed to say that any character is having a nice time in it. Necromunda? A diabolical hellhole. Talisman? They don’t even make that anymore, but it would have been an appalling holiday destination. Anyway, the point is, if anyone asks if we fancy a quick jaunt to the Age of Sigmar, it'll be a hard no from us. Thankfully, in the form of the video’d game, the Age in question is a more palatable prospect. At first.
But what is this “Age of Sigmar”, we hear you cry? Well, despite being an excellent potential title for a Mega Man X reboot, it seems to be a somewhat controversial reworking of GW’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle; a new experience heavily criticised by fans of the original offering. Sound familiar, gamers? We kid because we love. Anyway, none of that particularly matters in Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground; whatever rule changes may have affected the wargame itself, we don’t think any of it really factors into this simpler, easier to get into turn-based tactical take on the franchise.
The central gameplay is an interesting hodge-podge of elements that initially sets off alarm bells. The focus on collectable cards which reveal new skills, Wargear and upgrades had us narrowing our eyes and sniffing around for the inevitable microtransactions, only to come up empty – for now. Proceedings are hex-based and fairly traditional. You play your hero or unit from your chosen cards, then move and attack as per many, many other similar titles. Each turn you accrue Aether points which can then be spent on special moves with myriad devastating effects, and each of the choosable factions has their own little quirk.
Initially, you've got your common-or-garden and never knowingly under-named Stormcast Eternals (crack of thunder), whose hero unit can utilise her powerful hammer to send enemies flying, potentially causing devastating chain reactions of explosions if your target is killed by the attack. You can also take command of the Nighthaunt, servants of the Grand Necromancer Nagash (it says here), a cluster of very-much-dead spirits whose primary tactical advantage is their sheer number. Finally, there's the Maggotkin who are basically exactly what they sound like — disgusting, bloated monstrosities who excrete nasty goo all over the battlefield, routing and poisoning their opponents.
All that said, it's going to be a while before Storm Ground lets you cut loose with your chosen faction. Why? Thanks to what struck us as a desperately misguided design decision: the scourge of roguelike elements.
Don't get us wrong - roguelikes (or roguelites, whatever — don't sweat the small stuff) such as Dead Cells, The Binding of Isaac and of course Hades are tremendous titles that balance their incremental progression with perfectly-sized gameplay sessions. Storm Grounds does no such thing, killing you off without a second thought three hours into a game and sending you back to what's near-as-damnit square one. Yes, you can carry over a couple of units and their associated Wargear into your Warband every fresh attempt, but it's pretty demoralising.
The game doesn't seem to benefit in any way from this approach where challenging and curated mission design in a more linear, traditional structure would play to the game's tactical strengths. There's little in the way of terrain variation outside of some raised "platforms" and the occasional treasure chest to find. Storm Grounds' roguelike elements here feel faddish; poorly thought through, and that's not great. This isn't so much of an issue with the multiplayer, but said mode does rather forsake what could have been a strong point in the game's favour — singleplayer loot appears to be completely segregated from your multiplayer loadout, in a rather confusing decision.
It's a shame, because the moment-to-moment gameplay itself — as well as the presentation — are pretty strong. It runs well on the Switch even in handheld mode, the UI is appropriate for the smaller screen and it controls rather well, too. Animations can feel somewhat long in the tooth but we never found ourselves frustrated with these smaller details. The game at large, though is unfortunately rather flawed on a more fundamental level.
This game didn't need to be a roguelike, and the quirks of its structure cast a bit of a pall over the entire product. There's an abundance of content here, with multiple campaigns per faction and plenty of scope for tactics... but enough of it falls into the category of "luck of the draw" that it's somewhat outrageous just how much essentially unchanged content it makes you play through over and over again when you fail — or even when you succeed. Warhammer fans will likely enjoy the lore drip-feed and typically portentous writing, but everyone else should probably steer clear of Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground. An impressive game for sure, but not in the way that counts most.