IGN Review of Tom Clancy's End War
It's not often that a game arrives in the IGN offices that is embarrassing or awkward to play in front of the other editors. But then, most games aren't Tom Clancy's EndWar. This real-time strategy (RTS) game from Ubisoft Shanghai offers something new for the genre. It's not just an RTS on a console, it's an RTS made for the console. An innovative voice control and camera system has been devised to work around the pesky fact that controllers don't have nearly as many buttons as a mouse and keyboard. And while it may be awkward to sit there in an office talking to your game, it's worth it.
Though EndWar carries the Tom Clancy franchise name, don't come into this game expecting a tale of espionage or personal heroism. This game is extremely light on story elements and the Tom Clancy name primarily comes into play with the setting and events leading up to the game's opening. It takes place in a science fiction setting, but you may find the opening cinematic eerily hits close to home. Tensions have been rising around the globe due to dwindling oil reserves. When a missile defense system is put into active use, effectively taking nuclear war off of the table, the great powers of the world fear the shift in power has become too great. Sound familiar?
EndWar takes place in the Atlantic theater of the ensuing world war. The US, a revitalized Russia, and the Europeans have erupted into an all-out war with no allies betwixt them. If you play through the single-player campaign, you'll work through the "prelude to war" which tells the tale of how this war to end all wars gets sparked and then pick a side to fight for. After that the focus shifts away from storytelling and towards pure gameplay as the eventual end is put in your hands.
Though many real-time strategy games offer unique characters and intricate storylines, EndWar focuses on action and streamlined gameplay. It all revolves around the voice commands. It is entirely possible to play EndWar with nothing more than a trigger button and your voice. On the flip side, it's possible to play with just a controller while keeping your mouth shut. To get the most out of the game, you'll want to use a combination of both.
There is a small learning curve that you'll have to work through to get into the swing of things. Though you can control the game entirely by shouting out commands, the game can only recognize certain phrases. You can't simply say, "Calling all units, win the game," despite the best efforts of every other person I played against. Still, the voice commands work out of an intuitive tree that begins with who or what you would like to direct and ends with its target. If you don't have the whole command layout memorized, you can just look on the upper left side of the screen and talk your way through the command line. The game will bring up the possible options for what you can say as you go. By using this, you can do something as simple as move the camera to as complex as grouping two separate units together and directing them to attack an enemy on the far side of the map. Or you can drop a WMD on top on some poor sap's head.
The voice recognition isn't perfect, but it works. In my experience, it works better on PS3. This likely isn't a reflection of the system's prowess as much as the fact that the standard Xbox 360 headset is pretty flimsy. Some older, beat-up 360 headsets had some issues with the game. But with solid accessories, something the PS3 offers in greater abundance with its open Bluetooth policy, the game is quite good at recognizing what you're saying and directing the action appropriately. It even worked with my terrible impression of a cockney British accent. Still, when the background noise peaked, the game started to have trouble understanding what I was saying. Let's just say this wouldn't be a good game to play if anybody in your household likes to vacuum while you play.
The voice commands aren't the only thing that makes EndWar feel at home on a console. One of the major complaints that most RTS games must answer when they come to a console is how to operate the camera. The RTS has traditionally been played from a satellite view. EndWar takes the camera down to the action and does away with the classic fog of war that limits your view of the enemy's maneuvers. Whatever your units can see, you can see. To keep track of all of the action, you'll be swapping the camera from one squad to the next. There is a sitrep map that provides a limited classic RTS view, but you'll find yourself only using it as a quick information resource. That's because the game's camera angle is more immersive and a great way of viewing the action.
And still, the changes to fit this game to a console and its audience don't end there. Each game will typically last about 15 minutes, maxing out at roughly 30 -- a far cry from some complex PC-centric RTS games like Supreme Commander that can last hours. Resource management and complicated tech trees have also been entirely removed. This game focuses on action and rapid reflexes. You won't find any turtling, building of huge armies, and then a single large conflict to end the match like other games.
All of this adds up to a good option for those who haven't yet played a real-time strategy game. It's accessible, which might be the single most important aspect of the game. You can even save replays of your best matches and share them with others. If you're having trouble learning the finer points, you can check the tops of the leaderboards, download a replay, and see for yourself what a winning player looks like.
For all its accessibility, I don't want to give the impression that there isn't any strategy to this game. In fact, you'll find that the only way to beat your opponent is to outthink or outhustle them. There are several different game types to choose from. All, at some level, involve taking control of and holding satellite uplinks. Each side takes command of up to 12 squads that can be split between seven unit types. Though there are small differences in looks and strength between each faction, they largely play the same. None have unique units or powers, which is a letdown when you compare it to so many other RTS games that have worked to make numerous factions both unique and balanced.
The strategy largely breaks down to a rock/paper/scissors mechanic that requires fast thinking to ensure your units match up well. Tanks will beat transports, which will beat helicopters, which in turn will beat tanks. Add in two types of infantry, command vehicles, and artillery that all play special roles and you have yourself a full set of units to command. Shuffling them around to put the odds in your favor is the first step towards victory.
Rather than focusing on resource management, EndWar uses a command point system. By completing certain actions, such as capturing satellite uplinks or taking out the opposition, you'll earn command points. These can be spent towards upgrading the uplinks, calling in reinforcements, launching special attacks and more. All of this adds more depth and fun to the game (Who wouldn't want to grab uplinks and begin launching air strikes?) and provides a great variety in the ways you can approach a battle. Once you start getting into things like grouping units, dishing out commands by voice to operate multiple front lines, sheltering infantry in buildings, and laying out strategically placed land mines, you begin to see how flexible EndWar is.
The meat of the game is the Theater of War. This is a persistent online battle where you pick a side and fight for ultimate control over the world. Each day, players fight over a few battleground maps. After 24 hours, the game will add up all of the results from that day and see which side won the majority of the matches. Then, based on those results, it will redraw the frontlines and offer up different territories to fight over. The goal is total global domination for your faction. The single-player campaign is just a mimic of this, the real reason to keep coming back for more.
At the end of each match, you're awarded credits and experience points to those units that survive. Through this, you can upgrade your army, buy new abilities and secondary attacks, and come back better and badder than ever. And yes, your foes can wipe out your units before you can evacuate them, killing them and resetting their experience progression. It's not the easiest thing to do if you feel like being a griefer, but it does add a sense of urgency and will make you think more than twice about sending in that top-level tank unprotected.
If it weren't for the barracks, the Theater of War might be a bit of a letdown. The idea is sound and the implementation is solid, but a few aspects of it are a bit underwhelming. Playing for control of an entire map is a cool idea. However, the feeling that you're part of this big movement never really comes through. In fact, the premise boils down to the game simply presenting a few territories to fight over, and then matches you with another player to fight. At the end of the fight, you can choose to play again against another random player on the same small set of maps, or just wait until the next day for new frontlines. You can team up for a 2vs2 match, but there's no clan support or other tools in the game to coordinate your behavior towards having a single unified faction plan.
Of course, you can always just play a skirmish online or off where you play with maps and settings of your choosing. However, these don't use your persistent battalions. It's more of a practice ground with less stress than the Theater.
The biggest letdown in EndWar comes with the game's look. Real-time strategy games are rarely graphical showcases on consoles, but it's still hard not to be disappointed with EndWar's total lack of flare. When you bring the camera down to put the players in the thick of it, you better have the looks to back it up. EndWar doesn't. Pop-in of scenery as you move across the map is very noticeable and everything has a generally dull appearance. Explosions don't have any power behind them and the smoke, which one would expect to litter a battlefield, is underwhelming at best.
The game has issues with pathfinding as well that can result in some unsavory visual displays. Rather than moving realistically, you'll often find tanks and other units clipping through each other. Infantry take a straight-line approach to finding a path that causes them to bump into trees and other small obstacles and slowly slide around them. These are small things, but a reflection of the fact that EndWar doesn't take that last step towards greatness.
©2008-11-04, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved