The real-time-strategy (RTS) genre has largely been a bust on home consoles, though games such as Battle for Middle-earth and Command and Conquer 3 have been met with open arms. The biggest obstacle has been the consoles’ lack of a keyboard and mouse, a combo that PC gamers have grown accustomed to using to group, control and “hot swap” between squads on the expansive battlefields. To date, the biggest console RTS innovations have been thumbstick-based control schemes designed to make the gameplay more accessible, but even then, problems have arisen with grouping, camera angles and battlefield management.
For Tom Clancy’s EndWar, an RTS that ships today for PS3 and Xbox 360, Ubisoft decided to do something completely different: they ignored the thumbstick entirely. Instead, Ubisoft went back to the voice-control mechanisms first used in Rainbow Six 3 on the original Xbox. After spending some obvious time refining the voice-recognition technology, Ubisoft has succeeded in creating not only an intuitive and innovative control scheme, but a fast-paced game that breaks every stereotype you’ve ever heard about RTS games on a home console.
The return to voice command is long overdue for Ubisoft, as it’s not really been implemented since Rainbow Six 3. In that span of time, Ubisoft clearly spent some serious time tweaking its voice recognition software, because it’s darn near flawless in EndWar, something that could hardly be said of Rainbow Six 3. In addition to barking commands through the microphone, players hear the AI respond to commands via the headset’s earpiece rather than through the speakers, a small decision that ends up immersing you in the game just as much as voice command.
Ubisoft’s pedigree and EndWar’s graphics might suggest otherwise, but it’s absolutely vital to remember that Tom Clancy’s EndWar is an RTS, not a shooter or action game. Almost every RTS basic is intact: players manage several different squads (infantry, gunship, tank, etc.), each of which has different strengths and weaknesses against certain enemy units; infantry in cover get defensive bonuses; players can only command a certain number of troops based on the number of available Command Points; and lest we not forget, players never fire a bullet, making Tom Clancy’s EndWar feel more like Full Spectrum Warrior than Rainbow Six. In fact, about the only thing not resembling a traditional RTS is EndWar’s complete lack of resource gathering.
Issuing commands — the core of all RTS games — is so intuitive in EndWar that you’ll find yourself feeling hindered by a mouse and keyboard after playing this game. To select a unit and give it an order, simply hold down the Right Trigger, issue a voice command and release the trigger when done. Commands must be organized by “Who” (the name of the unit whose attention you want to get), “What” (the activity you want the unit to do, from attack and take cover to capture and retreat) and “Where” (the location/object of your command, e.g. “Hostile 3” or “Uplink Bravo”). Orders are always carried out with great efficiency, with nary a pathing problem, although you will encounter some micromanagement when units complete their primary command and stand there waiting for your next order.
Ubisoft has also solved one of the biggest challenges in RTS games — unit management — by having the HUD indicate which units are under fighting, which are en route and which are garrisoned. However, rather than use your mouse or thumbstick to scour the battlefield looking for that unit’s location, you simply need to say “Unit 4, Camera,” for instance, and the camera will immediately swing over to give you a bird’s-eye view of the action and let you issue your next command. Or, you can simply say “Unit 4, Retreat” or “Unit 4, Take Cover,” and the unit will react accordingly, without you ever needing to take your eyes off whatever other firefight needs your attention.
So EndWar is just about issuing commands? Isn’t that boring? Not at all. True, it’s really the voice commands that make the game, but the implementation of voice commands in EndWar makes the entire RTS genre instantly more accessible and “empowering,” giving players the sense that they’re really a commander rather than some omnipotent dude clicking units. Plus, the action in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, although different from the action in most console games, is arguably as fast as anything you’d find in a shooter, it just tests a slightly different part of your brain. EndWar can be flat-out frantic at times as you switch between units, call out “Unit 2, Secure Uplink Alpha; Unit 3, Attack Hostile 1” and things of that nature. If ever there were an RTS that could intrigue even the most jaded of shooter fans, EndWar is it. It’s essentially RTS for the masses.
To be fair, making EndWar “everyman friendly” is the result of Ubisoft removing some of the more hardcore RTS options such as customizing which units comprise a squad. To a certain degree, this simplification should have been expected from Ubisoft; they’ve been making their games’ difficulty and depth more “mainstream” for years now, particularly with the Ghost Recon series. However, even though certain hardcore RTS fans might be put off by the lack of base building and squad creation, the complete EndWar package is more innovative than even the most optimistic RTS fan could’ve hoped for.
At the end of each mission, players earn credits with which to buy new units once they’ve accumulated a sufficient number of Command Points. Different units require different numbers of Command Points, and it’s important to pay close attention to the mix of units on the on the battlefield and how they match up against foes. Capturing Uplinks, the game’s equivalent of bases, adds to your Command Point total and enabled you to utilize more units at once, and uplinks also let you upgrade certain units. You can also spend Command Points on air strikes and other off-the-map super attacks.
These core gameplay mechanics play out in each of EndWar’s gamplay modes — Skirmish, Solo Campaign and Theater of War — each of which is further divided into four different mission types: Conquest (capture a certain number of Uplinks), Assault (kill everything that moves), Raid (destroy or defend certain targets) and Siege (Capture the Flag, basically). In Skirmish Mode, players participate in unranked single- or multiplayer missions on any territory and in any mission type. In the Solo Campaign, players work their way through the Prelude to War story missions and the WWIII campaign. The story in Campaign Mode isn’t quite up to snuff with other Tom Clancy games, not because it’s weak (a world war over oil and money is definitely relevant), but because the missions themselves aren’t tied together very well. It’s almost as though Ubisoft’s writers knew where they were going but forgot to clue us in. Imagine walking into a room and coming in at the tail end of a long joke; you see that the missions are connected, and you grin and nod at the overall plot, but in the end, you don’t truly feel like you know the whole story.
The final mode, Theater of War, is by far the most ambitious mode in EndWar (it’s also the one mode we weren’t able to fully test in the closed environment of debug code). In Theater of War, players choose their faction (U.S., Russia or Europe) and participate in a persistent online war — yes, a massively multiplayer campaign — on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. These ranked matches track player statistics and are likely to provide dozens of hours of gameplay, but like any massively multiplayer venture, the fun to be had will largely be dependent upon the people with whom you play.
But even without playing online — a venture that will likely be a bit off-putting for all but the most hardcore RTS fans anyway — Tom Clancy’s EndWar is a groundbreaking game. Not only is the Voice Command an innovative way to make real-time strategy games work on a console, but it works so flawlessly that it’s hard to go back to mouse-and-keyboard gaming after playing EndWar. What EndWar is missing in big-time RTS depth, it more than makes up for with novelty and flat-out fun. The story could have used a bit more connection between missions, and there could have been more differentiation between the factions’ abilities and play strategies, but neither of those takes away from the core gameplay. If you own a PS3 or Xbox 360 and have been cautiously optimistic about the RTS genre, Tom Clancy’s EndWar is worth your time. EndWar truly is the first game to do “console RTS” right, and it may just revolutionize the RTS genre in the process.
- Score: 8.5
- Ubisoft has single-handedly blasted every stereotype about strategy games on a console. EndWar is fun, fast-paced and will likely swoon even a few jaded shooter fans to the RTS fold.
— Jonas Allen