Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is the definition of a game that needed more time in development. Saying that it “needs polish,” though, feels like an understatement: this turn-based tactics game is just lacking or buggy in so many areas that the places where it does stand out are overwhelmed by the lack of quality elsewhere. What promising fundamentals its simple but well-designed combat gives way to a weakly organized roguelite campaign, a frustrating grind for new stuff, bizarre inconsistencies, and a lack of diversity and balance among its units.
The world of Age of Sigmar is well-represented here: it’s a Planar Fantasy world with all kinds of outrageous, over-the-top concepts and a slurry of compound words like Stormcast and Maggotkin and Bladegheist and Realmgate and Stormvault. It takes itself entirely too seriously and is perhaps best if you can laugh at it – something Storm Ground generally understands, with pop-culture homages and puns littered among the otherwise straight-faced dialogue. It also looks good, a few shoddy textures aside, with fantastical feature design in the small, tightly controlled hex-based battle arenas. It’s even got the single thing all great Warhammer games need: An army painter.
Storm Ground’s strongest aspect is its basic game rules. They’re simple mechanics that allow for a lot of interesting things to happen yet remain fair and predictable. Units have health, movement, armor, and damage statistics. You rarely have more than five to 10 units to command, so things never become unwieldy. Units are vulnerable to quick death, but combat is not very random: An attack always hits and deals the same amount of damage, minus the target’s armor value. If the armor value is higher than the attack’s damage, then the attack has a percentage chance to do no damage or a single point of damage based on how much higher the armor is.
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Each round you spend power to summon units, and each round your power meter refills and grows a bit longer. As the battle goes on you can summon your most expensive and powerful units, leading to a natural escalation. Unspent power becomes Aether, the currency spent to activate units’ special abilities, which presents an interesting choice during every turn: sometimes you’ll summon new units, but sometimes you won’t as you’d rather save the power to allow your current troops to use their special powers next round.
Layered on top of this simple rule set are slightly more complex ideas, most of which are delivered in the form of each unit’s unique abilities. Basic special attacks pierce armor or hit an area. Some have forced movement attacks that push or pull enemies around, like Blightkings, who have a giant tongue in their stomach. Status effects that change stats, melt armor, deal ongoing damage, shock, or penalize movement abound. None of this is particularly well-balanced, mind you, and you might find multiplayer frustratingly unfair as a result, but you can build some combos that are fun to execute.
You can build entire strategies around things like making the choice to have a strong hero with expensive powers who holds out until powerful allies arrive, or a swarm of low-level troops that nibble away at enemies. I really liked the combos present in the Maggotkin faction, which allowed me to use cheap defensive swarms to wear down enemies before my heavy-hitting back line mopped them up.
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It’s these special abilities that mess things up for Storm Ground in that their rules are weirdly inconsistent. Pushing enemies into terrain has a negative effect, sometimes as severe as instant death, but pushing enemies into trap abilities that you yourself laid doesn’t trigger the trap. Additionally, the rules incentivize playing strangely. One mission type requires you to take and hold a position, but new waves of enemies will spawn endlessly when the previous wave is wiped out. Thus the logical approach is to take the position, kill every enemy but the lowest-damage one, and just take hits from it until you win.
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Each of the factions does feel distinct and interesting from the other, though balance is all over the place. Some units feel useless while others are vital to their team’s composition. The Stormcast Eternals are based around their commander, only able to summon reinforcements each round to their spawn area or their commander’s vicinity. In return, their individual strength is very high, with consistently well-armored units able to bully the opponent’s line. They’re also the most fleshed out faction, with the most unit variety and the largest number of interesting powers and combos to offer.
The Nighthaunts are the opposite: they’re a swarming faction that can use wisps of spirit matter to summon almost anywhere on the battlefield, but they pay for that with individually weak troops. They’re cool and interesting, but it takes a lot of playtime to grind out the new units that really empower their combos.
The Maggotkin are something else entirely, a faction focused on spreading corrupted terrain on the battlefield and able to summon their units on it as well as proliferate free Nurgling units by consuming their own corruption. Managed well, they can form a powerful defensive wedge that eats up enemies who defy them as they creep toward victory. Unfortunately, they also feel like half a faction, with a small unit roster compared to the other two and a lack of interesting customization in items, weapons, and new powers. (The AI also has absolutely no idea how to play them.)
If most of this sounds like a lot of clever and fun design, well, it is. It’s pretty and the basics are good. Everything else, though, is not good.
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In the campaign, Storm Ground’s action itself is slow. Slow to go through dialogue, with conversations between characters lasting a minute despite only having 30 seconds of conversation. Slow to resolve, with combat animations having no fast-play option, so you’re forced to watch every movement, including frequently hanging for 10 seconds before and after an order is given—both on your turn and the AI’s turn. This is the least of the bugs that plague Storm Ground.
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I encountered no fewer than seven activated unit abilities that crashed to desktop every time I tried to use them. Others simply didn’t work. Effect animations and unit models frequently stuck around even when the ability that triggered them was over, or the unit was dead.
It’s also just small stuff that lets Storm Ground down. There’s clearly an elaborate system of keywords behind the rules, but there’s no way to reference what those keywords are or mean—it’s in desperate need of a rulebook and tooltips and just doesn’t have them.
Finally, though the roguelite campaign mode is nice in theory, it takes hours of grinding to unlock new powers, units, and abilities. And it is grinding – the missions are very repetitive and an overall lack of unit variety in the small faction roster means one goes much like another. Once unlocked, you can only retain a handful of them from campaign to campaign, relying on random loot to give you interesting units mid-play. Adding insult to injury, you can’t use unlocked stuff from campaigns in the multiplayer or even the single-player skirmish vs AI – which you have to be online to use. It’s a separate grind entirely to get new stuff for use in multiplayer.
It took me 30 hours to win the campaigns on all three difficulties, and I’ll admit that I came up with some real cheesy strategies to do it. I’d conservatively estimate that it would take 100 or more hours of gameplay to unlock everything in either mode. That’s not because there’s so much interesting stuff to unlock, that’s because Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is paced like a free-to-play mobile game. You get some cool stuff at first, but when you hit the grind wall you hit it hard.