It's not uncommon for a game system's launch lineup to contain one or two gems and then a lot of shovelware. At first glance, the 3DS launch lineup seemed a little barren, as there were no Zeldas, Marios or anything that stood out in the crowd. There are certainly some fun games, but nothing that would merit the purchase of the 3DS hardware. That is partially why Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is such a surprise. The game is good, and it's a surprisingly solid strategy-RPG. Even if the 3DS had a better lineup of launch titles, Shadow Wars might still be near the top of the list of recommended purchases.
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is set in the not-so-distant future. You play as a group of elite American special operatives known as the Ghosts, who are sent in to defuse a tense situation involving Russian extremist elements. The story is probably Shadow Wars' biggest flaw; it's there, but it's so full of clichés and boring characters that I found it difficult to care. Every character seems like a cardboard cutout. I'd even be hard-pressed to tell you the personalities of any of the Ghosts, aside from Mint and the heavy weapons guy, who are the nervous rookie and excitable large guy, respectively. I was aware of the story and was able to follow along, but I barely cared when plot twists popped up or it was implied that one of my characters was missing in action. I just wanted to get back to the gameplay
Shadow Wars is a rather straightforward strategy-RPG. You and your opponents take turns moving your characters along the grid-based map, and you have to decide between attacking and moving your character along the map. The combat has a heavy focus on defensive and offensive positioning. Almost every character has a ranged weapon, and each weapon has different limitations on where and how you can use it.
There are a lot of factors to take into account when choosing your attaching position. Each weapon has three levels of effectiveness: yellow, orange and red. Red is for close-range attacks, while orange and yellow are for attacks that are progressively farther away. Some weapons function best up-close, like a Gatling gun, while others do less damage unless you're in the sweet orange spot. You also have to consider enemy counterattacks and defenses. Attack an enemy while his friends are nearby, and you'll be open to counterattacks from nearby foes unless you attack from outside of their range. Attack an enemy behind cover, and you'll do less damage. The good news is that this applies both ways. If you position your troops properly, then an attacking foe may suffer a deadly combined counterassault from the other Ghosts around their target, and defenses allow you to drastically reduce the damage dealt.
What makes this surprisingly accessible for even casual players is that the user interface does a fantastic job of communicating everything you need to know. Everything is carefully color-coded to show you the available options. The grids you can move to are blue, and you can move to green grids and still fire your weapon. Any enemy who is within the range of one of your weapons has a red crosshair over him. Selecting that enemy shows you exactly where you need to move to attack, and it even color-codes the ground so you can see if your placement counts as close, medium or far-range for your weapon's attacks. Laser sights even appear to show you when other enemies will be able to counterattack if you attack from that square. It makes it very easy to identify the pros and cons of moving to a certain space, and it does wonders in making the game accessible to newcomers without making things too easy for people who enjoy a challenge.
The variety of available tactics and strategies makes Shadow Wars fun. You're usually stuck with your core team of six different Ghosts. Each belongs to a different class. Duke, the leader, is a commando. He's armed with an assault rifle and heavy explosives, and he's a good all-around soldier. Haze is a sniper and, as you'd expect, specializes in taking out enemies from a distance. Richter is a gunner and is basically the tank of the team. He can't move quickly, but he can soak damage like no other character, and his Gatling gun can do tons of damage. Richter can also use a "suppressing" action to skip an enemy's turn. Saffron is the medic and can heal wounded allies. Banshee is a recon operative; she's stealthy and is completely invisible unless standing next to an enemy. Finally, Mint is an engineer, and he's armed with deployable robot turrets and an assault rifle.
There's some good variety to your characters so that no two fill the same role, and each feels like he's useful in his own way. It's cool that the game manages to avoid having a "best" character. The player can send in different characters to handle different situations, depending on the circumstances. When fighting a heavily armored opponent, you don't want Banshee the stealth operative to knife him and when you must get somewhere quickly, Richter the tank is a bad choice.
As you play through the game, your characters level up. Finishing missions earns you stars, which can be distributed among your characters. Some stars are given to you for finishing the level, while others can be earned by completing optional objectives within a stage. Characters spend the stars to unlock new abilities. For example, your sniper may get the ability to travel unhindered through tall grass or a new sniper rifle designed to be used against armored vehicles, or a special ability that increases the Power Points they get from a sniper attack. As the game progresses, more abilities become available to unlock. There aren't enough stars to maintain all of the characters, so you have to decide who would benefit most from an increased level. Likewise, focusing heavily on a single character is a bad idea. An underleveled and underequipped Ghost is a lot more likely to die than a well-leveled one, and a dead Ghost means an automatic Game Over.
One of the cool things about leveling up is that it provides you with more character customization options. At the start of the game, every character has one main weapon, one subweapon and one piece of armor. As you level up, you unlock new equipment that can be switched out. For example, Richter can swap out his Gatling gun for a heavy machine gun. The latter may be weaker, but it can be fired more easily after moving around, so it's a must-have for missions that require speed. Some weapons and abilities are simple upgrades to your equipment, but others can drastically change the play style of certain characters. Mint can switch out his stationary turret for a mobile drone, so you'll have less firepower but more mobility. This allows Mint to contribute more to battle because he doesn't have to babysit his turret all the time, but it makes him less effective in situations where you need to hunker down and defend a location.
In addition to basic equipment, each character also has special abilities. Each character has a Power bar that fills up as you kill enemies or pick up power packs, and once the bar reaches 100, your characters unlock a special attack. Duke gains the ability to perform a Rapid Strike, which unleashed a more powerful machine gun attack and gives him a second consecutive turn. If he's using a missile launcher, though, Duke can improve the attack radius and damage of his explosives for one round.
As you level up your characters, they gradually become more specialized in how they gain Power points. Banshee gains extra points every time she attacks an enemy with her knife. Richter gains additional points any time his health is below 50% and he attacks someone. The sniper Haze gains extra points for long-distance sniping, but his weapon is most effective at medium range, so you may have to decide between doing more damage and earning more points so he can use his Super Shot ability later. It's a neat mechanic that adds some extra strategy to the gameplay. Sometimes you have to decide between killing enemies in the most effective way and taking a less effective route to build up Power points.
One of the most interesting things about the levels in Shadow Wars is the inclusion of Command Points. At certain spots in a level, there are radar stations that can be captured by either side. A captured command station awards one Command Point (CP) per turn to the side that owns it. The CP can be spent on powerful special abilities. It takes some effort to capture a command station because they're almost always under enemy control or deep in enemy territory. You have to play very aggressively to get to it before the enemy does, and you have to be even more aggressive to get to it before the enemy collects enough CP to cause you trouble. There are also a limited number of points available within a stage, and the more an enemy collects, the fewer are available to your team of Ghosts. The CP special abilities can sometimes feel too powerful. For example, the air strike can obliterate all but the strongest foes; if used at the right time, it can pretty much instantly win a map for you. It still feels like a worthwhile reward and encourages you to play aggressively in a game where defense might be the usual tactic.
Shadow Wars offers a few extra gameplay modes beyond the main story. There are bonus Skirmish maps, which give you a group of characters and task you with completing a mission. Sometimes these are simple "kill everything" missions, and other times, you are given slightly more complex objectives. These skirmishes are fun, but they feel simplistic when compared to the main story and its customizable teams. There's also a multiplayer mode, but it's rather lackluster. Players take turns passing around the 3DS to battle one another. It's not terrible, but it feels bland. To Ubisoft's credit, they tried to spice it up with a few gimmicks, such as a Zombie Horde mode, but the multiplayer lacks enough punch to be really exciting.
Unfortunately, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars really isn't a very good-looking game. The character models are very simplistic and undistinguishable. If not for the solid interface, I'd have trouble telling apart half of the characters. Even after I was accustomed to the game, I couldn't help but be bored by how combat looked. There are a handful of very dull animations, and they don't get particularly better. It's a "realistic" war game, but it feels like more effort could have been put into making it look more interesting. The 3-D effect is well done but didn't add much to the gameplay. It added some depth to the maps, but I didn't feel bad about turning off the 3-D effect, either. The game also suffers from some very noticeable slowdown during certain cut scenes and busy moments; this feels really out of place when you consider the simple visuals. The soundtrack isn't much better, as it's full of dull and generic music that does an OK job of setting the tone.
For me, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is probably the biggest surprise of the 3DS launch lineup. It's not only a good game, but it's also one of the better strategy RPGs I've played in recent memory. The gameplay is solid and engaging enough that you can easily overlook the occasional nagging flaws, such as the lackluster story and subpar visuals. As a game that showcases the power of the 3DS, Shadow Wars is probably near the bottom of the list. In terms of gameplay, though, Shadow Wars is by far the best of the launch titles that I've tried, and it's an easy recommendation to 3DS owners with even the slightest interest in strategy-RPGs. If you own — or are planning to own — a 3DS, Shadow Wars is by far the best bang for your buck.
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