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Stormfall: Age of War is a free-to-play MMO strategy game available on PC browsers/Facebook (link here), Android and Apple mobile devices. Alan Stock raises an army and mounts the battlements for this ComiConverse review.
Game Review: Stormfall: Age of War
If anyone’s as old as me, they’ll remember the rise of PC strategy gaming, such as the Warcraft games, Command and Conquer and Age of Empires. The last few decades has seen the evolution of these concepts into the MMO strategy genre. Players still manage bases, resources and units, but in an always-online world, competing with other players for dominance. Stormfall: Age of War is a classic example of the incredibly popular free-to-play MMO strategy games that have risen to a peak over the last few years.
Stormfall: Age of War has been a massive success, first appearing from developers Plarium in 2012, and taking Facebook and PC browser gaming by storm (boom tish). With a player base which used to be in the millions (and perhaps still is), a lot of content has been added since then and it’s inspired hundreds of imitator F2P games. I myself am a strategy fan, but haven’t played many games in the F2P genre – so I thought I’d see how it held up four years after release. I played for about a week, playing for a few days solid, and then dipping in for hours a day multiple times a day after that.
Stormfall (I’ll just call that for short) is set in a Germanic fantasy world of magic, mythical creatures and medieval warfare. After registering, you begin the game with your own little castle, randomly placed on a huge world map. Around your home is green countryside populated with other player castles and various points of interest. Your main objectives are to build up your castle, develop technologies and forces, complete quests, and battle (or politic) with other players for supremacy. There’s no “end” to the game – the world is always online, but there are plenty of goals to aim for. It’s structured in a way that encourages you to dip in for an hour or two at a time, and then log in again later or the next day to reap rewards and find the outcome of attacks.
Age of Empires acts as an inspiration for resources, base building and visuals. The three main resources are Gold, Iron and Food, which you generate through buildings, quest rewards or capturing from other players. Other buildings allow you to conduct trade, train units, defend your castle or perform other special functions. You construct buildings within your castle boundary in a base view, placing them where you like within its radius. Strangely, your castle doesn’t start with walls (although it appears as a castle in the world map), and they must be purchased separately. The placement of your buildings aside from walls doesn’t really matter as as far as I could tell – it doesn’t seem to affect combat, so cramming as much as possible into the space available is the best tactic.
Resources are generated over time, just like an RTS. You spend them on buildings, upgrades, training units and researching technology. Technologies and skills are found in numerous tech tree menus, accessed through various buildings – with tons of stuff to research. Generally these upgrade or unlock units and buildings, and sometimes add new mechanics to the game. The basics of base building and resource management are straightforward for anyone that’s played a strategy game. Initially an in-game tutorial quest system directs you, suggesting buildings, upgrades and things you should be doing. This provides good direction as there is an overwhelming amount of icons, menus and options available to you from the outset. Rewards for completing quests are generous, usually in the form of resources, experience and units for your army. This allows you to crack on for hours in a cycle of quests without needing to interact much with other players.
Just as you have grasped the basics, the tutorial quests suddenly tail off, and you are left mostly to your own devices. There’s still a lot that you don’t know so there’s a bit of a steep learning curve in probing the many menus and deciding how best to continue. Quests and limited timed Events provide some direction. The problem is really the overwhelming amount of options available to you in Stormfall and their lack of explanation, and also what you should be focussing on. It seems a lot of features were added over the years since the game’s release, but weren’t really incorporated into the tutorials. Thankfully, there’s an in-game guide, helpful news articles and player chatroom in-game where you can sometimes get the answers that you need.
Once you’ve got your base under way and have some forces built up, you can concentrate on the more fun stuff. Your army can be sent to battle against computer controlled monster factions in nearby “battlegrounds” – or you could start interacting with other players Lords in the neighbourhood. Battling monsters usually gives you rewards like units to help you advance, but may be costly in troops once the battlegrounds increase in level.
You don’t take direct control in combat, instead battle results are calculated automatically and instantly. Your victory depends on what kind of units you sent, how many there were and other combat bonuses you have from buildings and technologies. Troops in Stormfall come in different types including cavalry, infantry and occult and have their strengths and weaknesses. Basically though they come in two types, Offense and Defence. Sending Defense units to attack is a bad idea, they are better served holding your castle or outpost, and ferrying supplies back home. Combat is essentially a numbers game – decide how many troops of what type to commit, and then hope for the best.
To begin with you’ll just throw your whole army at an enemy, but as you progress and your army gets bigger, you have to put some thought into your plans. Deciding how to split up your forces and which to risk in different raids, sieges and defending home is where the strategy comes in. Time is also a factor – attacks against monster battlegrounds is very rapid but sending troops to other player castles and outposts takes longer, sometimes hours of real-time. Planning attacks is fun and awaiting their outcome addictive, and so is logging on to see what has happened to your army whilst you were away.
The core enjoyment of Stormfall comes in your interactions with other Lords (players). You can raid or besiege other players’ castles to steal or slowly farm their resources. There’s also hamlets and settlements dotted around the countryside which you can capture and collect resources from – these act as hotspots for conflict, as players fight over their control. You can make friends, alliances and join leagues to gain allies. Messaging, reinforcing and trading with allies is simple and builds good communities. Help out allies, and then call on them for aid when you are in a pinch.
Your castle can’t actually be destroyed but buildings can be damaged. Pricey castle defences help as does a healthy defensive garrison. Your catacomb building allows you to hide some units and resources in case of a raid when you are offline, but comes at a cost. If you are besieged, you can break out if you build up enough forces to break the siege, or get outside help from reinforcements or allies. Spies can be used to check out enemy forces in advance, but can be countered by enemy spies and sentries. Going in blind to an enemy castle could be a recipe for disaster. Harassing your neighbours, fighting for control of outposts, teamwork and getting into long lasting rivalries is the whole fun of the game.
Aside from a massive amount of upgrades, units and buildings to develop, longevity also comes in the form of Events and Leagues. Leagues can be joined and give you the benefit of teammates who can assist with building, supplies and troops. You get nice league rewards for helping in League Events and there is an in-game league chat room to use. Leaderboards track the progress of players and leagues, and there are rewards for reaching their heights.
Once you have been playing for a while, you can get involved in the epic pursuit of League vs League wars – with leagues fighting for control of territory, raiding League Fortresses and so on. I spoke to players in the league I joined who have been playing for years and this aspect of the game still keeps them entertained. Daily and weekly Events provide rewards for fulfilling both personal and League goals. These all combine to create engaging pursuits for longer term players and a focus beyond just raids in your region.
The core PvP battling and politicking are at the heart of Stormfall’s appeal. However it also comes with all the trappings of freemium gaming, some of which can be unsavoury depending on your outlook. First of all, there is a great deal of “busywork” in the minute-to-minute gameplay. You’ll spend plenty of time just clicking buttons to upgrade, research, train troops, complete quests, collect rewards, go to the market – in a continuous cycle, especially at the start of the game. Troops, buildings, research, quests all take time to complete and so there’s lots of bars to watch filling – frequently a bar will fill and you need to assign a new task. Your effectiveness is down to you efficiently managing resources and time – always keeping your building and tech trees pumping along. There’s no queuing or parallel building unless you purchase them at a high cost. The busywork is an addictive but ultimately empty gaming interaction at heart, and there’s a lot of it unless you invest in the microtransactions available.
So now onto Stormfall’s freemium business model. Normally how a game is paid for shouldn’t affect a review but with freemium games it’s necessary to discuss as it directly affects gameplay. The game is funded through microtransactions with a huge plethora of upgrades you can buy. Sapphires are the main premium currency and can do many things, from instantly completing tasks, buying special units and buildings, extra slots for inventories, building queues, and so on. In addition to this the game has a host of trinkets with various benefits, and time bar-reducing “Boosts”. You can pay real money for packs combining these. The game’s not shy about promoting these, and fair enough, as it’s their revenue stream. However it can a bit intrusive, with on-screen icons you can’t remove containing special offers, buttons that whisk you to the store when you try to buy units and so on. Ultimately almost every part of the game offers some option to spend Boosts, trinkets or Sapphires to upgrade, speed things up or create some kind of advantage, and it lets you know it.
Sapphires are definitely necessary to progress in the long term, and along with Boosts and trinkets can significantly reduce build-times and busywork. Not to mention giving you powerful units and defences you otherwise could not get. However, it’s important to note that it’s still possible to progress without buying them. The game is generous in its rewards – giving you plenty of Boosts, trinkets and resources for Events and quests. Sapphires are harder to get hold of, but you do get some as rewards, and you can capture Jeweller outposts to farm them. Placing on leaderboards and entering prize draws can also net you Sapphires. Of course, doing this will take longer than just paying money for them, but at least it’s possible. I certainly managed fine and got my castle to a good level without paying for Sapphires at all. I don’t begrudge the system, as its how the developers make money. I certainly wouldn’t mind throwing some dollars their way if I want to progress further. That’s just how these games work – how, or if, you invest is up to you, after all.
The main crux is whether you mind that the freemium model is somewhat “pay to win”. Certainly if you spend real money you are going to have an advantage over those that don’t. I suppose players embroiled in long running enmities or big league wars might find this to be an issue. Personally I didn’t find it to be a problem. Unless a player is “picking” on you and paying money to give themselves a big advantage, there are plenty of factors which mitigate paid advantages in PvP scenarios. The political aspects of the game allow you to team up with allies, get reinforcements and so on. It’s more likely that your random placement in the world, and your neighbors in the map are most likely to affect what your experience is like.
Pay to win, if it is an issue, would probably become more pertinent after putting months into the game – when building times will be longer, advanced units more important to success, and feuds more epic. I haven’t played for months so I can’t comment, but I generally compare freemium games against subscription models – if for some dollars a month you can be competitive and enjoy the game, I don’t have a problem with it. It seems like a fair compromise in Stormfall in comparison to some other freemium strategy games I’ve seen. That’s not to say it’s not slightly cynical, like many other freemium games, in the way that it gets its hooks you in with its addictive quality, then encourages you to spend money to remove forced time restraints and gain in-game advantages. I also don’t appreciate the reminders for you to invite friends for in-game rewards (although Stormfall is far from alone in this). But whether you embrace, live with or ignore the freemium aspects, it’s fair to say that it’s entirely possible to get far in the game without paying a cent and I know that some players have.
At its crux, regardless of your thoughts on freemium, Stormfall is a decent strategy game. It may not be that original any more, but the compelling cycle of building, feuding, politics and dip-in appeal makes for a good combination. However the busywork and freemium aspects can obstruct, bore and intrude in places. Menus and extra systems added over the years have become quite complex and could be explained better. The plus side is that means there is a lot of content and longevity. In the long run, I imagine the game gets better and better as you play, as you form more alliances, bitter rivals, ongoing wars and get involved in league events and politics. It’s certainly fun to log on every day or two, set up your next plays and see how others have responded to your attacks. How much strategy involved will depend a lot on your interactions with other players, as the combat is not complex. Overall, Stormfall: Age of War helped to pave the way for current freemium strategy game powerhouses and it still holds up well today, if you can overlook its flaws.
Alan Stock is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow us on Twitter: @ComiConverse