Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release date: Available now
Review by: Michael Smith
Successful developers know that, if you’re creating a game in a long-popular genre, you need a hook, something that will distinguish your new game from the rest. Whether it’s a lead character with a distinctive personality (Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem 3D), a revolutionary interface and deep gameplay mechanics (the Homeworld series), or a fast-moving story backed by excellent visuals (the Half Life 2 episodes); new games need something to rescue them from a lonely future in the bargain bin. Ubisoft Shanghai’s Tom Clancy’s EndWar’s hook is a command-and-control system that gives even the novice RTS player a fair shot at global domination.
In typical Tom Clancy fashion, EndWar is filled with all of the elements that have made his novels and games so successful. In 2016, nuclear terrorists attack the Middle East, destroying the majority of the world’s oil-producing facilities. The last significant oil reserves are now located in Russia, and the Russians begin to take full advantage. One year later, the US and most European countries join together to eliminate the threat of further nuclear warfare by completing an electronic missile shield, powered by uplink stations built in strategic locations throughout the US and Europe. All seems to be well until, in 2020, the US prepares to complete the Freedom Star, an orbital military platform that many nations see as a threat to their continued sovereignty. A terrorist attack on Cape Canaveral during the launch of the final space-shuttle mission to the Freedom Star sets events in motion leading to World War III.
In EndWar‘s single-player campaign, you choose a faction (US, Europe or Russia) and a difficulty level (Normal, Expert or Hardcore), then set off in “Prelude to War,” a series of nine tutorial missions during which you learn to use the game’s voice-command system. This allows you to control all of your units using nothing but a trigger pull and your own voice. A mini-map in the upper right corner of the screen shows you the locations of all units and uplinks on the current map, and a helpful voice offers occasional hints on unit deployment and offensive strategies. At the end of the tutorials, you are asked to choose a specific battalion within your faction that you command for the remainder of the campaign. At the end of each battle, a recap screen shows the success (or failure) of your units, and you are rewarded with an amount of credits that you can use to upgrade your battalion’s offensive and defensive capabilities. The results of your battles contribute to the overall progress of the war, which is won when any of the three factions secures the majority of the world’s battlefields.
Normally, I shy away from RTS games because I usually have trouble keeping track of who’s doing what to whom (a situation that usually ends badly for me), but with EndWar‘s voice-command system, I don’t have to learn complex button combinations or the meanings of dozens of HUD readouts. I can make faster assessments of the ongoing situations and smarter choices about engagements and deployments, since I just move the targeting reticule over an enemy unit to identify it, then pull the right trigger and order Unit 1 to attack Hostile 2. The voice command can also be used to order infantry units to enter and exit troop transports, to select and deploy new units to replace those lost in battle, or even to call in air strikes or weapons of mass destruction, should my battle start to go south. The HUD layout is minimal and efficient, leaving the vast majority of the screen available to show the conflict in progress. The Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics are clear and smooth, from the snowy expanse of Eastern Europe to the dark swamps of central Florida. Sound effects are also excellent and well-mixed so that they don’t cover up the voices of your soldiers during battle.
As much fun to play as the campaign is, the multiplayer mode is that much of a disappointment, despite an interesting innovation of its own. In Theatre of War, you select a faction and a battalion, and then you’re given a mere handful of possible missions to play against another human player. Each turn lasts an entire day, during which time you only have those few missions available to you. At the end of each day, the total number of wins and losses for each faction is tallied and the war moves on to another turn, giving you another limited set of missions to play until the 24-hour timer runs out. Since each of these missions might not last more than 15 or 20 minutes, you could finish a day’s worth of missions in less than two hours. There is a skirmish mode that allows you to pick any battle from the campaign to play against AI or human opponents, but the results of these battles aren’t added to the global leader board. Speaking of the AI, on Normal difficulty it offers nothing more than token resistance; even I, with little RTS experience, managed to lead the US to glorious campaign victory in less than 15 rounds. Expert provides you with a much better challenge, and Hardcore is only for those who have graduated from War College. There are graphical oddities such as members of units all moving in the same way at the same time (no stragglers in the infantry, and tank turrets turn like they’re in some kind of wartime ballet), but the biggest problem with EndWar is a total lack of diversity in gameplay. You either try to destroy all enemy units or capture the majority of the map’s uplinks in every battle, with the background scenery being the only difference between conflicts. It’s great fun for awhile, but the fun runs out really fast.
When I saw EndWar demonstrated at E3 2008 and got some hands-on play at Ubisoft’s holiday release party, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the full version, and, for the first few hours, the amazing voice-control system, the great-looking graphics and ever-advancing campaign story had me hooked like I thought I would be. Unfortunately, however, a crippling lack of gameplay variety and a tragically limited global multiplayer mode brought me back to reality. I look forward to a future game in which this control technology is combined with a smart and diverse storyline to create a deep and fascinating experience, but EndWar is not that game.