Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release Date: February 24, 2009
Over the past few years, there has been a perceptible shift in the dynamic between PCs and their console cousins. Where once the computer reigned supreme in all genres of gaming, it has rapidly and decisively lost ground to the cheaper and less complicated alternative. Nonetheless, the real-time strategy genre has remained inarguably bound to the PC, largely due to the difficulty of converting the complicated control schemes necessary for these titles.
Enter Tom Clancy's EndWar, the latest of the celebrated Tom Clancy line of games. In an attempt to bridge the enormous divide between systems, EndWar introduces a host of stylistic and mechanical elements aimed at simplifying the RTS genre for console players. Unfortunately, many of these changes are drastic ones for the PC player, and EndWar is so immensely different from the standard formula that it can easily be overwhelming.
Like most other strategy titles, the game presents a multilateral conflict fought by several different factions and across many fronts. Initially, the player isn't allowed to choose his own faction. After the prelude has ended, however, the choice is made and the player dives headfirst into World War III. This is the first major problem. Regardless of which side is chosen, armies play more or less identically. Regardless of the alliance chosen, a tank is a tank. There is no mechanical difference between factions, and therefore nothing that sets them apart. The missions, though intriguing, follow a relatively rote set of objective lists, further limiting the uniqueness of the sides.
This is complicated by an extremely rigid rock-paper-scissors system of combat resolution. Gunships will always defeat tanks, and transports will always shoot down gunships. This is mitigated somewhat later on by the addition of infantry and customizable load-outs, but for the most part, things remain locked in this strict system throughout the game. Since all of the factions have access to the same vehicle and troop types, this makes for fairly boring exchanges in which the player's only true concern is utilizing the correct type of unit.
The graphics, though gorgeous, don't do much to help. Units are nicely modeled and textured. Infantry men move very well, seeming almost like motion-capture in their fluidity and grace. This is especially the case when capturing a structure. The maps are beautiful and lush, and battles are a fascinating jumble of tracer rounds and smoke. Still, the color palette throughout the game is bland, and the various vehicles and soldiers aren't crafted or painted in any way that would allow distinction. Except for the numbered labels that appear over their heads, all of the troops look precisely the same.
Perhaps the defining flaw of the game, though, is its tragic and silly control scheme. Real-time strategy games are notoriously difficult to play with controllers. To battle this, Ubisoft Shanghai has implemented what, on the surface, seems like a fantastic workaround. Using vocal commands, the player is able to select units, set their targets and order them to attack. This seems wonderfully intuitive and fresh, the kind of thing that enthusiasts of war games have been hoping for years. Unfortunately, it is pitifully implemented. The commands are ponderous, requiring extreme precision and unnatural pauses in between words. What should be issued as a fluid command instead comes out as, "Unit. One. Attack. Hostile. Four." Even then, the commands can easily be misinterpreted. In the heat of conflict, this can sometimes create a situation in which the player sends the wrong unit into a kill zone.
It is quicker and easier to use the mouse, but this method is even more imprecise. The uncomfortable camera angles can make it more than a little difficult to send a unit to a desired location. It is also impossible to select multiple units or set up command groups, staples of the genre. Besides, the voice command system is so cool that it deserves to work.
That odd camera orientation sets back EndWar even more. The title eschews the traditional top-down, free-floating camera. Instead, Ubisoft Shanghai has opted for a bizarre locked viewpoint, only allowing the player to see from the currently selected unit's perspective. This is a frustrating and inexplicable design choice, and one that makes it unnecessarily difficult to manage the large number of troops in most battles. Perhaps it is a functional direction on consoles, but to the PC player, it makes the game feel far too much like a dumbed-down port.
Luckily, the sound design does a lot to redeem EndWar. If the game's immersion is damaged by its arcane controls and illogical camera, it is somewhat restored by the large variety and depth of sounds. Rumbling tanks and thrumming choppers sound intimidating. Rifle fire and explosions are muted enough not to be overwhelming, but powerful enough to be noticed. The voice acting is superb, with accurate accent work and interesting voices.
Another saving grace of EndWar is its multiplayer mode. The conflict is tracked like a massively multiplayer world, with various battles pushing the war toward different objectives and outcomes. At the end of the day, the player's successes and failures factor into a huge, globe-spanning struggle, a very genuine feeling war that shifts based on battles won or lost. It's a very immersive, relatively well-executed thing. Unfortunately, it is still tied to a less-than-stellar vehicle. Again, the outstanding multiplayer setup truly deserves to be part of a fantastic game. This just isn't the case.
Ultimately, EndWar's main failure is its desperate attempt to be too much for too many. Elements that may have worked to make the game more playable on the console versions instead go against the very nature of what makes PC RTS games so great. They make EndWar seem obtuse and clunky to the keyboard and mouse set, especially with the recent release of a slew of top-notch strategy games on the system.
While EndWar's quirky camera tricks and novel approach to unit selection may very well be functional choices on the X360, they translate very poorly to the PC and create a confusing and chaotic experience that seems to be the precise opposite of what Ubisoft Shanghai was attempting to create. Strict combat mechanics and dull, uninspired texture palettes collude to create an entirely dull and forgettable play experience. Controls that defy logic and an extremely annoying take on camera perspective badly damage any sense of immersion. The failed voice-control system serves only to make the PC player long for a properly implemented version of the same thing.
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