Version tested: 3DS
If you're off to Kazakhstan anytime soon – and I hear the weather is just lovely – be sure not to, you know, fall down any holes. I only say that because, if Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is anything to go by, the landscape there – as well as in a handful of other former Soviet hotspots – is absolutely riddled with gullies, gulches, crevices and canyons.
Normally, I'd put this down to the glinting, shifty-eyed presence of Tom Clancy, chewing thoughtfully on a pulled-pork sandwich while he spit-balls game ideas over IM with his good buddy Glenn Beck. "Those Commies, or whatever they are these days," he might type. "Not even the ground wants anything to do with them." In reality, though, the frequent pitfalls are probably due to the hardware, as it's tricky to make a turn-based strategy launch title that shows off the 3DS' magical top screen without them.
Ridiculous as it sounds, the third dimension genuinely adds something to Shadow Wars. Not in mechanical terms, necessarily – although your cel-shaded units do stand out from the gloomy landscapes a bit more than they otherwise would – but in terms of the overall feel.
The 3DS has brought a solid toy-box tangibility to the world of miniaturised warfare: convoy trucks, passenger jets and missile launchers have a Tonka quality to them; barbed wire, rubble, and pylons jut out towards the sky; and even the 2D cut-scenes detailing another secret and sweatily complex war brewing between the US and the Russians are delivered in pleasant Minority Report style, as talking heads and presidential poll graphics swing past at a range of different depths.
Shadow Wars is not a particularly good-looking game – animation is basic, characters are tiny, and the environments, whether they're airports, underground missile bunkers, or puddles of scrubland, are all fairly ho-hum – but the few visual pleasures it gathers together are definitely due to the special abilities of its platform.
Thankfully, Ubisoft's game is more stylish to play than it is to look at, with X-Com creator Julian Gollop returning to his favourite genre and bringing along a fair sense of pace. If you were hoping this would be the 3DS' Advance Wars, you're not quite thinking along the right lines. Like a futuristic Fire Emblem, or a pared-back version of Enemy Unknown's ground control sections, this is a far more intimate kind of battling.
The game's conflicts play out on a human scale, and although you'll spend a fair amount of time commanding support units when they see fit to fight alongside you, for the most part, you're bossing around the same team of six Ghosts – each squad member perfectly calibrated to fill a different role.
You've got your medic, your heavy gunner, and your everyman commando, alongside sniper, engineer, and a stealthy recon unit. Each class has its own quirks that you'll have to get used to: engineers can chuck out a turret of course, while recons are practically invisible on the battlefield until a foe is right on top of them, for example.
All of them can be upgraded throughout the course of the campaign as you award post-mission stars, boosting their health, or unlocking new perks, armour and weapons. They've all got names and very basic personalities, they do their best to banter, and if you lose any of them on a mission, it's back to the start.
The Ghosts may not have much in the way of character, but their abilities mesh well, and they're thrown into a game that has a range of clever systems in place to keep things interesting. Each unit can take a secondary weapon with them – one that comes with its own strengths and weaknesses – and you'll earn points through your battlefield duties that allow you to power up special attacks.
Shadow Wars just loves shoot-outs, and the design, as with X-Com, forces you to constantly evaluate terrain and vantage points. These elements, along with range, all have an effect on the impact of your weapons – and with houses to take cover in, lines of sight to exploit, and returning fire (certain units can shoot back after being attacked, and making the most of this system can often turn the tide of an encounter) you've got a pleasant number of variables to juggle as you head into battle.
On top of this, Shadow Wars' scenarios try their hardest to keep things fresh, sending you on simple seek-and-destroy missions one moment, letting you loose on more complex multi-stage objectives the next. Plenty of maps include capture points, which you must hold to unleash treats like air strikes, team power boosts, or the ability to give a selected unit two moves in any turn.
With a decent-sized campaign to slog through, there are one or two real tactical gems awaiting you, including a stand-out effort that sees you sweeping through a town and clearing out unseen hostiles while steadily eroding their ability to call in reinforcements. Indoor levels are not quite as good as outdoor stages – the terrain can lose its strategic richness as you're funnelled through corridors – but even then Shadow Wars will throw in a few optional objectives to stretch your squad. Along with sneaky AI (enemies will target weak team members and patch each other up) this is good, solid stuff.
Beyond the campaign, there are skirmish modes to unlock for some more puzzly standalone missions, and a hot-seat multiplayer mode that sees combatants passing a single 3DS back and forth. It's surprisingly enjoyable, but the 3DS' integrated Friends system calls out for something a little more ambitious. Maybe next time.
Shadow Wars makes for a relatively meaty handheld offering, then, but it's one that's slightly lacking in personality. Despite its tactical flourishes, the single-player runs out of most of its fresh ideas too early in the campaign, while the license, with its stoic US heroes and canny Russian baddies, means the developers (and this is hardly their fault) don't have too much leeway to add the kind of character, atmosphere or flair you could expect from an X-Com or an Advance Wars.
Despite that, Ghost Recon is undoubtedly a chunky, enjoyable addition to the 3DS line-up, and a slick if unspectacular strategy blast.
7 / 10