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TVG secures an uplink to the fourth Clancy brand, but does its voice command control system look like the future of RTS on the consoles...
- Reliable voice command system.
- Strong immersion.
- Persistent online warfare.
- Friendly AI could be improved.
- Relies heavily on voice system for immersion.
- Too stripped down for RTS hardcore.
Despite the stubbornness of some developers (most of which are based in Central Europe), the Real Time Strategy genre has definitely undergone a significant shift in recent years. Trailblazers like THQ's Relic Entertainment and the former Vivendi Games studio, Massive Entertainment, have strived to guide the genre onto a more tactical path with the likes of Dawn of War and World in Conflict.
But some things haven't changed.
The RTS genre, despite some dogged (or should that be dog-eared) attempts from EA on the Xbox 360, remains very much a PC entity. Held back mainly because of clunky control systems, the genre has looked like it'll never crack consoles...but Ubisoft aims to change all that with Tom Clancy's EndWar. Produced at the publisher's Shanghai studio by former Creative Assembly man Michael de Plater, EndWar has been the subject of much speculation over its bold strides ever since its key feature was revealed – a voice command control system. But can the debut title in the fourth Tom Clancy franchise really hope to change how the RTS genre is created for the consoles? Or is it a slimmed-down, novelty strategy game that barely stands up for the genre's rich heritage?
A Sign Of Madness?
Set during the 2020s after the events of both Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 and the upcoming HAWX, EndWar brings together the armies of the USA, Russia, and a united Europe into a three way conflict over (amongst other things) energy supplies and terrorism. Utilising a typical Tom Clancy approach, with one foot stuck in the real world and another placed well and truly into the world of 'what if' futurology, EndWar's precursor to war timeline certainly feels like a potentially realistic prospect.
Despite the finality of the brand, EndWar takes places in an extended Atlantic theatre of war, and is far from an all-encompassing global conflict (presumably the spread of the war will be answered in potential expansions and full sequels). The introduction of China for instance as a new faction to battle Russia and the USA – opening a Pacific front - is certainly something that we can anticipate if the original is successful. More a 'Real Time Tactics' title than the more traditional structure of an RTS, the addition of the voice command system is the decisive feature of EndWar – but does it actually work.
Although we've occasionally enjoyed the ability to issue squad commands in video games for a number of years (thanks again Rainbow Six 3), EndWar really is aiming to push the barrier of voice command systems. With the introduction of the current crop of consoles, and their increased processing power, the hope has been that the extra grunt would significantly improve the fidelity and accuracy over past attempts. Thankfully the licensed technology is incredibly reliable, with only the occasional command going astray (no, not 'attack Zulu, move to Zulu). Muttering under your breath is another way to send the voice command awry, the AI squawking that it didn't understand the order or that it cannot be executed. Speak normally however, and the battle units will respond in a vast majority of cases.
With so many other permutations and commands available to players, from deploying units to securing uplinks and targeting hostile forces, the branching system of the voice control (which features a contextual drop-down menu on screen, is essential). Beginning with the identification of a unit or a special attack, the drop down continues through a list of actions that can be taken – for instance, secure, move to, attack – followed by the name of a location (in the phonetic alphabet) or hostile unit (which are numerical). What's so solid about the voice command system is that player don't have to wait for the next stage in the branching menu to appear on screen. Instead of issuing orders in what would be a stutter fashion, the technology means that a command (like 'Unit 1, secure Zulu') can be spoken in a single sentence effortlessly.
Like the notion of using a voice recognition system, speaking quite so intricately and naturally to AI does take a little time to get used to – but once the gloves have been slipped on, it all fits perfectly. Not only does a voice-based control system work well within the context of a console RTS, it also enhances the gameplay massively, making it a more visceral, engaging, and immersive experience than we'd expected. Just because the command system works well however, doesn't mean that the units will follow your every whim. In fact, the AI of friendly units can be quite a twitchy affair, the system acknowledging a 'secure' command only to continue to stand idly by. This really is a fairly rare occurrence however, but it's still an annoyance nonetheless.
Prelude To The Future Of RTS?
Splitting the world map into forty sectors, each representing important uplink locations from as far afield as JFK Space Center to Bedford(?), and a single faction city (Washington DC, Paris, and Moscow), EndWar's 'Risk'-like structure is almost like a global version of cat and mouse. There are two ways to win the game: either capture the three capital cities or secure 28 sectors on the map. It may sound simple, but with the overall war effort sometimes feeling like a thermonuclear game of musical chairs, the campaign can end up being tens of turns in length. Four gametypes essentially dominate the battles - 'assault', 'defence', 'siege' and 'conquest' - all of which revolve around the idea of capturing uplinks to succeed. Capturing uplinks, which gives players the ability to unleash special capabilities like WMDs and air strikes, also give bonus command points to deploy additional units. Expanding the simple objective in the likes of 'defence' battles to prevent the destruction of important buildings, EndWar tries to throw in some variety, but it all largely feels the same. Not that it's a bad thing thanks to the immersion offered by the voice command system.
Technology trees and unit experience both feature in the game, adding to the feeling of progression with 'attacking', 'agility', 'defence' and 'mobility' options. Upgrades like hydrogen power cells, bunker busters, and anti-tank grenades, are all available to buy with in game credits, but it's not as simple as just purchasing them. The promotion system is linked into the tech trees, allowing units of a certain combat experience to access some of the more advanced upgrades. Unit experience is a bid by Ubisoft to instil a certain empathy between the player and their AI subordinates, not only enabling them access to those advanced weapons systems, but also rewarding them with an increasingly efficient army. Much like the real world, veteran units stand a greater chance of succeeding in a mission rookie out of boot camp. It does feel like a bit of a flat feature however, with not so much empathy but frustration boiling up when a highly experienced unit falls – now we will have to resort to the 'wet behind the ears' recruits!
Implementing a 'rock, paper, scissors' system where gunships beat tanks beat armed transports beat gunships...but all can be defeated by infantry in cover, EndWar's battlefield gameplay is very structured. With a limited number of units (a maximum of twelve), there aren't many opportunities to use the classic 'tank rush' tactic; more often than not, running headlong into a battle will result in a quick lesson in why riflemen and engineers are more than a little vulnerable out of cover.
Despite the solo campaign, the main menu of EndWar reveals its true intentions, sticking the online progressive game mode right at the top of the list. The game's big feature (after the voice command system) is a persistent online war between the three factions, which twists and turns according to the performance of gamers. Collating the global results of battles across the game world, watching the ebb and flow of the front-lines over Xbox Live and PlayStation Network is something that'll be interesting to follow post-release. An engaging area of a game that truly pushes a new frontier for the RTS genre on consoles, its persistence online is surely something that will play out on other titles in the future.