Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release Date: November 4, 2008
Tom Clancy's EndWar is set in the not-too-distant future. The world reached peak oil, which sparked a nuclear conflict that ended with the creation of a joint American-European Missile Defense Net, which ended the threat of nuclear war. With that threat gone, the world began to descend into chaos. Most of Europe banded together into the United States of Europe, and Russia began to build up its arms capabilities and became increasingly belligerent. Each of the world's three superpowers begins to build up its arms in different ways, culminating with the creation of America's "Freedom Star" satellite.
On the day that the Freedom Star was supposed to be completed, a mysterious Forgotten Army attacked all three superpowers at once, armed with advanced military technology. This attack sparked actions from all three sides. Russia took advantage of it by disguising their troops as Forgotten Army soldiers, and American launched an attack on Europe after it was discovered that high-ranking members of the European government were funding the Forgotten Army. Everything came to a head when the Europeans, in retaliation for the "unprovoked" American attack, blew up the Freedom Star's final piece as it was leaving Earth's orbit. This was the start of World War III, which goes by many names, but most are simply calling it the war to end all wars, or the "EndWar." It is up to you to decide if this is the doom of humanity or the rise of the ultimate superpower.
The big selling point of EndWar is the voice command system. While it's entirely possible to play the game using a controller, this is not the recommended method, as it's fairly awkward. Instead, EndWar is built around issuing commands using an Xbox headset. You do this by simply holding the right trigger on your Xbox 360 controller, speaking the command, and letting go. This works shockingly well and is one of the best ways I've encountered to handle a console RTS game. The phrasing takes a bit of getting used to, but once you've got the hang of it, issuing commands is a breeze, and before long, you're ordering units around as fast as you can talk.
Almost everything in the game can be done through this voice chat, and the few things that can't are usually special moves that require precision placing, such as Minefield Placement or ordering a unit into cover, which must be done with the controller. For a voice command system, EndWar is almost flawless. I rarely had trouble getting it to follow my orders, and the majority of my problems were when I got excited and used the wrong phrasing, which tended to confuse the poor game. However, it is worth noting that I invited a friend with a Welsh accent to play, and the game tended to choke on him. While he could muddle through, it was nowhere as effective or quick as when I spoke, and he quickly gave up in favor of using the awkward controller scheme instead. If you have a thick accent or uncommon speaking tone, you'll want to check out the demo first.
EndWar begins by asking you to pick one of the three sides — either Russian, European or American — as well as a brigade from one of those sides. Each brigade has different strengths and weaknesses. One may be able to call in more riflemen, and those riflemen may have a better attack but less health, while another may be more focused on gunships to improve their defense. Once you've picked a nation and a brigade, you're given an overview of the world's current situation, with every major combat area in the world marked with a hex colored by whichever nation currently "owns" that area. Orange is the United States, blue is the Europeans and green is the Russians. The game advances in a turn-based fashion, with each turn changing the face of the battlefield, depending on the missions that you've undertaken and whether you've won or lost them.
Every round allows you to take different missions, which advances the war in your army's favor, with each mission having different effects depending on the location and the enemy commander you're facing. Regular battlefields simply advance the front line or protect your own front line against enemy invasion, while raiding an enemy base will allow you to cut off supply and reinforcements to nearby enemy soldiers on the next turn. Perhaps most important is capturing major cities, such as Paris or Washington, D.C. It takes three "missions" to capture a city, but capturing enough cities wins you the game. The overall ranking of the enemy officer you're facing determines the importance of the location. Low-ranking officers are put in charge of non-crucial areas and are easy to defeat, while the major areas in the game are put under the command of the strongest opposition.
Combat is a bit of a combination between a simplified RTS and Advance Wars. Instead of having full control over your units, you're given general waypoints to move to, with the game using its own AI to get to where you command it to move. You can issue orders to attack specific enemies or move to specific waypoints, but not to take direct control over the movements of your soldiers. It's a little awkward and tends to make the combat feel a bit simplified, despite the potential complexities involved. Still, compared to struggling with a controller to control various armies of soldiers, the voice command method of control is fantastic, and not a bad way to handle large army battles. You begin each battle with a specific number of troops, who you can customize from the pre-battle menu, and then you gain the ability to call in more troops and more reinforcements as the battles progress. Your number of troops and reinforcements is limited, though, so you can't just use them willy-nilly.
Your goal in each stage of EndWar varies. Some stages require you to capture uplinks, which are communication stations that give you access to overhead satellites. Others may require you to eliminate all enemies on the battlefield, or destroy or protect buildings at specific locations. Generally, however, these battles are built around capturing the various waypoints and exploiting uplinks to your advantage. Once you've captured an uplink, you can upgrade it to gain access to various kinds of mission support, including airdrops of "regular army" soldiers, air strikes by jets, and even the ability to call down an electromagnetic pulse to fry your enemy soldiers. The more uplinks you control, the more potentially powerful these abilities can be, so even in missions where you don't have to capture uplinks to succeed, it should be your first priority anyway.
Actual battles play out in a rock-paper-scissors method that should feel quite familiar to some strategy fans. Gunships defeat tanks, tanks defeat transports, and transports defeat gunships. There are various ways you can influence this, but the general flow of battle remains like that. Infantry soldiers are weak in general battle, but they can capture and upgrade uplinks, as well as take cover or garrison themselves in buildings, so they're solid defenders, although they can be quite squishy outside of cover. Riflemen are great at capturing uplinks and can snipe enemies from cover, while engineers are better at upgrading uplinks and defending against enemy vehicles. Artillery and command vehicles are terrible in close combat, but offer other advantages to make up for it. Artillery, of course, can bombard you from a far distance, while command vehicles give you access to a sitrep map, which gives you a clear overview of the battlefield, instead of forcing you to rely on your soldier's cameras. It doesn't take overly long to master the basics of the various units, and once you begin to upgrade them, their roles tend to remain the same. You may get the ability to have an engineer plant a field of landmines or a gunship to fire a barrage of rockets, but that's icing on the cake for those combat roles.
One interesting element, although it doesn't come into play too much in the single-player campaign, is EndWar's health system. Each unit has two kinds of health bars: shield and unit strength. The shield bar functions are their basic health, absorbing damage from regular attacks and regenerating if you don't suffer damage for a while. It is also vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse, which can even leave a strong unit completely defenseless. The second bar shows unit integrity and fails when one part of your squad is shot down. This bar doesn't regenerate, and more interestingly, isn't an exact measure of your squad's fighting strength. Once it falls to about 30 percent, your squad is "defeated" and an automatic evacuation chopper is called to rescue them. If the chopper successfully extracts them, you suffer no real punishment for losing them. However, if that remaining 30 percent is depleted by enemy forces before they can be extracted, your unit is permanently killed.
Why does this matter? Because EndWar has a persistent experience system for your units. If a unit survives a battle, and particularly if that unit does well, it'll level up, going from a rookie all the way to a legendary battalion. Leveling up a unit has a number of benefits. For one, each higher-ranking unit gains a percentage bonus to its overall stats so that it's far more efficient in battle.
You can also purchase upgrades for your basic units at the game's menu. Upgrades range from defense and movement upgrades to brand new abilities, such as sniper rifles for your riflemen or an unmanned attack drone from your command vehicle. Upgrades are tied to ranking, though, so only a unit of a certain level can take advantage of a level-two attack upgrade or a level-three defense upgrade. If you spent a million or more dollars on an upgrade for your elite rifleman squadron and then it gets wiped out in the next battle, you're going to have to build up a new force to make that million well-spent, which is not something you want to do while in the middle of liberating Paris. It's a pretty interesting system because it encourages you not to use the "Zerg Rush" method of attacking enemies, and to actually try to preserve your troops, even if it means a loss on the battlefield.
When one of the sides manages to achieve the minimum victory condition, or comes close to achieving victory, things begin to go pear-shaped. The losing side will be offered the ability to crash an uplink, disabling it permanently, and to use a weapon of mass destruction. Crashing the uplink is a very interesting tactic, since it changes the face of the victory condition, and a wise use of it can disable an enemy's air strikes or EMC weapons and allow you to make a comeback in a reasonable way. A WMD, on the other hand, is the most annoying thing in the game. It causes massive devastation to anything within a certain radius, easily eliminating all but the hardiest of defenses. One good use of it can easily nuke half or more of a team. In exchange, the side that had a WMD used on them can also gain access to a WMD. It's a neat concept in theory, but it's sort of annoying in execution. It's basically a one-use superattack for both sides, and most of the encounters I had with it tended to be an equal exchange or flat-out worthless. All the exchange of WMDs did was make the game last longer, and once it was used on me, I didn't see any reason not to use it right back.
The EndWar isn't won or lost by a single battle, and the game doesn't end until you've conquered enough of the enemy's territory or cities to force their surrender. Winning or losing a battle influences the amount of cash and resources to which you have access. The faster and more efficiently you win a battle, and the higher the ranking of the enemy soldier, the more money you get. That money can be spent to upgrade your troops, which in turn allows you to win battles even faster. Money wasn't too hard to come by against the enemy AI in EndWar's single-player mode. I was winning battles with an A ranking left and right, and before long, I was able to pump an insane amount of cash into my lucky soldiers, turning them into real killing machines.
To be honest, the single-player campaign is not the selling point of EndWar. It's pretty fun, but doesn't have the punch needed to sustain a long game. The enemy AI, even on high levels, isn't really that bright, and it didn't take me too long to smash them by exploiting the triangle and careful usage of EMPs and air strikes. Once I got a steady influx of cash coming in, this just continued, and since I was fairly frugal with my troops, I rarely had my awesome high-ranking soldiers getting permanently killed. It's pretty fun and certainly worth a play, if just for the interesting view of an EndWar battle, but just didn't seem to have the flow to keep things going. I would have enjoyed seeing a bit more beyond the war, since you get a lot of interesting "news snippets" about things, like Israel refusing to sell weapons to any side or the Pope calling for an end to hostilities, which don't seem to do anything and thus feel oddly disconnected from the main game. The game will support DLC, but it seems unlikely that new battlefields and missions will improve the player's interest in the single-player campaign.
The real selling point of EndWar is the online mode, which is roughly identical to the single-player game but with one major difference: All three sides have multiple human troops handling multiple battles on multiple fronts. The entire "EndWar" is persistent, with the world updating every day or so to reflect the effect of battles that have occurred in the past day. You can join any side and try to help that side to victory against other human players. You might be given a cash bonus for joining a losing side, however, and you can see exactly what percentage of players are joining which side, which allows you to get a pretty clear view of how things are going before you hop in. The online mode fixes many of the major problems with the campaign mode, since you're facing cunning human opponents instead of rather dull AI, making it more important to plan your strategy and more likely that you're going to face the risk of permanently losing soldiers. The EndWar will occasionally reset once a side has won, so don't fear if you join the Americans just in time to get caught in the wave of a Russian invasion.
EndWar is really not an impressive-looking game. The units and models are rather bland and lackluster, and none of the visual effects are very impressive. Even when you get to big explosions like the WMDs and various rocket launchers or heavy explosives, their overall effect is pretty dull. Combat is rather boring to watch and mostly involves watching the small and uninteresting models sit there and fire tiny streams of bullets at each other. I spent a lot of my time with the boring-looking sitrep map simply because it was more efficient, and there was little reason to watch the unpleasant-looking battles play out. The environments are similarly lackluster, and while some of the major cities are kind of interesting to look at, most of the environments are just unexciting.
The soundwork is slightly better, and does more than the animations to bestow personalities upon the units. Various units tend to have different voice actors and lines; you get a pretty clear view of who you're controlling, from arrogant American tank commanders to the cold, ruthless and amusingly amoral Russian officers. There are a number of amusing little touches too. If you leave your camera on a group if infantry that's guarding an area that isn't under attack for example, you may hear them begin to chatter about the state of the war or what they plan to do when it is over. They'll even comment on your tactics and complain when you send a gunship to fight a transport. With that said, there is some annoying repetition in the battle, and it's aggravating to hear a giant burst of the same quote four or five times in a row when you get ambushed or a WMD goes off. The music isn't bad and fits the tone of the game quite well. Some of the combat sounds and vocals came off as rather muted, and I had to turn up my speakers fairly loud to hear everything clearly, especially with the headset on. It would have been nice if more action reports came through the headset instead of your speakers, since the only time the game makes use of the headset's earphone is to tell you when it can't do something.
Tom Clancy's EndWar is partially a game and partially a tech demonstration. As a tech demonstration, it works pretty great. I had only a minimal number of technical problems with the headset, and a lot of them were my own fault. With that said, I have a rather generic voice, and I can't promise that this will hold true for anything with an accent, so please try the demo before you buy. As a game, it is rather fun, although a bit simplistic, and its real strength lies in its online, not offline play. The persistent online EndWar will keep players busy for much longer than the single-player campaign, and the fun of trying to stop a Russian invasion or to take over Washington, D.C., is significantly higher when you know that the enemy commander who you just stomped is a real person. While EndWar could also be fun for offline play, this is certainly a game you'll want to pick up for its online component.
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