Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release Date: October 15, 2008
Tom Clancy is perhaps one of the best contemporary writers at giving us a glimpse into the distant future. While not everything he predicts is accurate, Clancy's novels and games have an edge of realism that makes them distressingly plausible. From the Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell titles to his wide variety of books, he's become the go-to guy for futuristic looks at warfare. Combining rather interesting political insight with an unparalleled knowledge of upcoming military technology, Clancy's productions are great for those who are curious about what's to come. His next book-and-game combination may offer a rather disturbing idea of what is in our future: Endwar, the war to end all wars. It says something for Clancy and Ubisoft that, despite creating a game about an all-too-possible doomsday scenario, they have still managed to make Tom Clancy's Endwar into one heck of a fun title.
Endwar is set in the not-too-distant future. The United States and the European Union have developed an antinuclear weapon defense mechanism that supposedly eliminates nuclear war as a threat. However, just as this is occurring, it is also discovered that oil reserves have been drastically depleted. In the wake of the resulting war over oil, the political landscape changes. The EU becomes the European Federation, with certain groups leaving and joining the federation. The new EF, feeling threatened by the growing powers of Russia and the U.S., embarks on a new arms race, this time trying to militarize space itself. In response, the U.S. creates the Freedom Star space station, which is capable of dropping marines at any point on Earth at a moment's notice. The Freedom Star's construction is sabotaged by terrorists, and that final act of terror sparks a massive all-out war between America, Russia and the European Federation, the likes of which has never seen before, combining advanced technology, space militarization and modern warfare in what is to be the war to end all wars.
Endwar's biggest selling point, and inarguably its best feature, is the fact that you can use a headset to command your troops. While voice commands are often quite awkward in video games, Endwar's voice recognition is absolutely perfect. It takes a bit of time to get used to speaking the commands aloud, but once you do, it becomes quite possibly one of the best console real-time strategy interfaces I've ever encountered. You name a unit, a command, and the target for the command. This allows you to basically order your troops around at the speed of voice, and you can even switch the camera view or activate special commands using your headset. It's unbelievably fast and accurate, and I really can't stress how effective it was to play the game this way.
After a brief tutorial on the voice commands, I was given the headset and told to go to town — and I did. Within five minutes, I was grouping soldiers together, issuing attack commands, activating special features and even dropping weapons of mass destruction like it was second nature, all while barely touching the controller. There was never a moment where the voice command failed to recognize an order I issued, and the few times I screwed up, it was because I messed up the commands, not because the game failed to recognize them. I hesitate to use the word "revolutionary," but if Endwar's final product retains this amazingly high quality of voice command, it could really force people to take a second look at how they work out console RTS titles.
The actual gameplay is quite simple, although it looks to have the potential to be addictively deep. My goal in the demo mission was to drop my squadron of soldiers into an enemy-held city and capture and hold a majority of the enemy satellite uplinks before the enemy was able to do the same to me. I had a wide variety of available squadrons — including tanks, rifleman, engineers and even helicopters — that I could summon at will. There were five uplinks I had to take, each designated by a waypoint, and it was a tough battle moving forward. There were a lot of available tools I had on my side that allowed me to alter the flow of battle. For one, I had access to a supply of Command Points, which function as the game's currency. As long as I had CP, I could summon new soldiers to fight for me, up to five squadrons at a time. However, I did have limited Command Points, which regenerated slowly, and I had a reinforcement limit, which required me to use my troops carefully or risk losing the mission when I ran out of soldiers.
As I advanced forward, I got to see a good sign of each unit's specialty. Infantry units seemed best at capturing the enemy satellite uplinks, but were fairly slow and vulnerable to most kinds of attacks. My tanks and transports were capable, when grouped together with one of the infantry squadrons, of serving as rides for them, giving them greater protection and defense. The tanks had a hard time against helicopters, though, so I had to be careful not to let my ground forces be overwhelmed by superior firepower. Luckily, I also had access to a command vehicle, which gave me the opportunity to see a sitrep (situation report); it gives you an overhead view of the entire battlefield, making it easier to issue commands and get a feel of the flow of battle. The sit screen is fairly simplistic, though, so while you get an idea of where everyone is, you can't get a very clear flow of how the battle is going without switching back to your unit cameras.
My troops were not the only weapons available to me. When the tide of battle turned against me, I got to see a few of the more interesting special weapons available to soldiers. One was an air strike from a nearby carrier, which sent down a torrent of flaming death upon an unfortunate enemy stronghold, allowing me to move in and capture an uplink. Another useful ability was having my soldiers hack into and crash an enemy uplink from a distance. This permanently disabled that uplink and changed the tide of battle. Now instead of five uplinks to capture, there were four, changing the required majority and preventing my enemy from earning a victory.
Finally, we come to the big daddy of weapons: WMDs. If things are going very, very badly indeed, you're offered the chance to use a WMD against enemy soldiers. This utterly obliterates the enemy, but it comes with a cost. Using it on an enemy will enable their WMDs, thus allowing them to respond in kind. WMDs are powerful tools, but they must be used sparingly to prevent total catastrophe.
It's important to note that while your ground battles are important, they're only one part of a much larger fight, and this leads to what Ubisoft has nicknamed the MMORTS feature of Endgame. Online gameplay will be built around a massive world war between the three factions, with the entire war developing day to day based on the actions that gamers take. The front of the war may change daily, with different soldiers taking different missions that alter the course of war. Clever groups can even form clans and take on missions in synchronization to move their chosen faction closer to world domination. While it wasn't really possible to get a feel for exactly how this would work out in the limited E3 demo, we got a fairly good glimpse of the basic outline, with each mission influencing who controlled which part of the world. For those worried that one faction will gain control and ruin the game for everyone, don't worry; Ubisoft has promised that they have things in mind to prevent any one faction from achieving unstoppable dominance, and the game itself will occasionally reset with a new war if one group does take over the entire planet.
Tom Clancy's Endwar was shockingly fun. While I'm a big fan of RTS, I had to admit that voice-controlled RTS sounded like a disaster in the making, but Ubisoft proved me wrong on every account. It's easy to pick up and learn, and it's unbelievably fun to control. The MMORTS system sounds incredibly interesting, and when combined with the amazing voice commands, Endwar seems like the sort of game you could lose hours upon hours on and not even realize it. Barring some sort of catastrophic flaw in the voice system that wasn't noticeable in my demo, Endwar is going to be one heck of a fun, if potentially depressing, game when it hits stores this October.
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