Stormgate preview: StarCraft’s back with beginner basics

An RTS for everyone

StarCraft, and in particular its sequel, have long been seen as the pinnacle of the real-time strategy game genre. High-level RTS gameplay requires players to execute multiple actions per second, and responsivity is the key to a game’s popularity in the genre. Players need to react to their needs as quickly as possible ensuring they have enough resources mined, enough army units in production, and upgrades online within tenths of a second, and they need the game to react just as quickly to their inputs. StarCraft is popular because it is responsive, and Stormgate, its spiritual, is four times more responsive.

StarCraft’s last mainline entry was released in 2010, and some of the original developers left Blizzard after that to create their own company, Frost Giant Studios. Their aim was to create a new kind of RTS that was more approachable for beginners, while still having the tools to challenge the genre's hardcore fanbase. That idea was a hit with fans. Frost Giant received almost $2.5 million in funding from over 28,000 backers on Kickstarter and received positive feedback from its 2023 closed beta test. Launching in early access this year, we were able to get an hour hands-on with Stormgate, including a first look at the new faction the Celestials.

A horned demon summons a ball of fire in its right hand
Pondering his flame orb / Frost Giant Studios

The approachability smacks you in the face as soon as you boot up the game. Stormgate suggests that you play in co-op, giving newer players the chance to get help from more experienced folks and learn from them. There is also the BuddyBot system. BuddyBot automates processes such as gathering resources and building the essentials of your army and your base. It’s not optimized, so it won’t perform as well as an experienced player. However, it lets you learn the genre's basics without getting overwhelmed by all the things RTS games ask of you. Once you feel comfortable, you can turn off BuddyBot’s services one by one, until you can do it all for yourself.

UI is one of the aspects of game design that you only notice when it’s done poorly, but in Stormgate, it stands out for how easy it is to navigate. Everything you need is in a box in the corner of the screen, with large images that are grouped together by their uses. I do wish each of these had clearer labeling, as starting out, I often forgot what each one did. However, once you get up to speed with the control scheme, I can see how streamlined this process would be. The other corner has a mini map which will allow you to zip wherever you need to go in a click.

Stormgate currently has three factions, with more planned in time for the full launch. The Blockade are the human faction, and play exactly as you would expect a standard RTS faction to play. They farm materials, build their base, and move across paths on the map towards their goals. The Blockade is a solid starting point, with both offensive and defensive pieces and all the tools you need to win a match. Then there is the Maloc, this is an infernal army that is based on sacrifice. The more units that fall, the stronger the army becomes creating a fine line of risk and reward, and the Maloc requires a player with quick reflexes to pilot.

Two Stormgate factions fighting on a grassy plain
There's a lot to keep up with in RTS games, but Stormgate makes it easy to learn / Frost Giant Studios

The newest faction is the Celestials, which plays unlike any other faction in the game and in the genre. Celestials do not have worker units. Instead, machines placed near resources will gather them over time, so you can place them further from your base. This fact is important, as the Celestial base is a floating spaceship that can move anywhere on the map and bypasses all obstacles. The base is susceptible to attack, so while you can move it anywhere, you need to plan carefully and ensure you have enough units to protect your far-flung empire.

Units also have their own unique style of gameplay. Some are useful for surveillance, allowing you to see more of the map, while others can attack and abduct units from afar. Controlling Celestials requires a greater awareness of the map than other factions, but it has a number of obvious benefits. Celestials are part of how the team hopes Stormgate balanced approachability and can appeal to more advanced players.

It’s clear that Stormgate is still preparing for early access with limited factions maps and modes to play with. However, what is there is exceptionally strong, nailing the basics of the genre and elevating it with new ideas. The hyper-responsive gameplay means that you could easily play cooperatively with teammates anywhere in the world, and the factions are finely balanced allowing players to find a style that best suits them. 

What impressed me most is the approachability. RTS is a genre known for its deep mechanics, and watching people play can instantly put newcomers off attempting to learn them. BuddyBot is the perfect way to lift the burden from new players, while not giving an advantage for those playing at a high-level. Stormgate will likely succeed by reining in its ambition, focusing, polishing and balancing the basics and its main goals, while allowing it to expand to something impressive in the future.

Josh Broadwell