Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release Date: October 2008
Over the years, various games and game genres have made the jump between the PC and the console. Often this results in ports that are near-identical to the original game. Other times, it results in tweaks to the underlying engine in order to try and optimize the game for its new home. Usually it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Of all the genres to make the move, real-time strategy, or RTS games have always suffered on consoles. Sure, Starcraft was an awesome game on the PC, but trying to shoehorn its control system onto a controller for Starcraft 64 wasn't exactly a shining moment in the Nintendo 64 library.
Acutely aware of the issues faced in the past, the team at Ubisoft's Shanghai studio decided to rethink what it meant to be an RTS when they decided to develop a new property for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Rather than stick with longstanding genre conventions, the core elements of an RTS game were distilled out and used as a starting point to build Tom Clancy's EndWar with a console in mind. After getting the chance to play a few rounds, it appears that the gamble is paying off.
The biggest hurdle for console-based RTS games has been the lack of a mouse. The de facto standard on a PC RTS, a mouse allows players to quickly select a group of units, issue an order, and send them on their way. On the console, such functions have previously been relegated to the analog stick and action buttons. It's a combination that works, but it's not the most elegant solution on a controller born from an arcade heritage. For EndWar, the developers simply got rid of the analog stick.
Reacting effectively to an imminent attack requires speed that isn't possible with a controller. Dumbing down the AI to compensate ends up hurting the overall experience. The solution, at least for EndWar, was voice command. Rather than worry about pointing and clicking, players simply issue orders by speaking into the headset. Because you can speak just as quickly as you can think, orders can be implanted immediately. Want to move a battalion? Tell them where to go. Need to change plans mid-fight? No problem. Just give the order.
Before you start groaning, be advised — the voice recognition works. Voice command has come a long way since the early cell phone days when you'd tell your phone to "Call" someone, and it would show you the calendar instead. According to Ubisoft, EndWar is programmed to support a number of different languages and accents so the game should understand what you're trying to say. It also doesn't hurt that the commands are structured in a specific way. At any given moment, the game knows to expect one of a handful of words. Anything else can be ignored.
The only time the voice command system could potentially run into trouble is in loud environments. If you're blasting the stereo, have a screaming sibling in the background, or happen to live right next to an active rock quarry, EndWar might mistake a word or three. In that case, you do have the option of using the d-pad to navigate through the command tree. For most gamers playing at home, however, standard voice command should work just fine.
After a quick demo on the voice system, we jumped into a one-on-one skirmish against the computer. The initial loadout screen allowed us to choose which of the seven different unit types to include on the battlefield: Artillery, Command Vehicles, Engineers, Gunships, Riflemen, Tanks and Transport. Each unit family has a particular strength and weakness against other types (think of it as an expanded version of rock-paper-scissors), so fielding a balanced force is important.
The game mode available for demo involved capturing and holding multiple bunkers on the map. Capturing a bunker increased your resource rate, which made it possible to deploy more units. Winning could be achieved by capturing all of the bunkers or by eliminating the enemy force.
EndWar defaults to a third-person perspective highlighting your selected unit. The net result is a feeling of being on the battlefield because, in many ways, it looks very similar to a third-person shooter — especially when the camera is hovering right behind a squad of riflemen in the middle of a firefight. Commands can be issued to any unit on the field, and swapping views is done the same way. Just tell the camera who to follow. One nifty side effect of the setup is that the close-in camera acts as a natural fog of war. You can only see what's in your line of sight while on the field. Upgrades allow you to develop satellite recon, which enables a more traditional overhead view.
Since movement is relegated to defined points (i.e., go to checkpoint Bravo, follow team two, attack enemy three), being successful at combat requires sound use of tactics. You don't want to just blindly throw your army at the enemy. If tanks are attacking your location, don't try to defend with the riflemen; bring in some choppers to attack from above. Watch out for the antiair units supporting the tanks from the rear, though. It's this sort of multilayered combat approach that promises to draw players into the game.
While it doesn't have a major effect in a one-off skirmish match, ensuring that units survive battle is going to be a key aspect of the single-player game. As your units win more and more confrontations, they will gain experience. Experienced units become more efficient fighters and can gain upgrades (more than 300 in all). These upgrades are persistent from map to map, so the advantage quickly becomes obvious. You might call it a Pokémon for adults.
Rounding things out is the promised online mode. Hearing it described brings up images of an "MMO Lite." While the world map won't change immediately, the online servers keep track of total matches won and lost by each side each day and then calculate territorial gains and losses based on those results. With three factions and 40 or so territories, we're thinking that there's always going to be some contested land.
The concept of an RTS may not be new, but Ubisoft's implementation of Tom Clancy's EndWar is chock-full of originality. Everything here is immediately familiar, yet mixed in a way that makes it feel completely fresh and new. Being original certainly carries some big risks, and the biggest risk here is the depth of play. With only one map under our belt, it's way too early to say if EndWar is limited to superficial tactics or if there's an incredibly deep combat system underneath. With that said, we can't wait to get our hands on a full copy of the game and find out.
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