"I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I do know World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
The words of Albert Einstein flash up during a video teaser for EndWar, silently looping on the flatscreen in a meeting room in Ubisoft's impressive studio in Shanghai, China.
Ol' big brain's mid-20th Century musing neatly establishes the geopolitical context for this near-future thriller - a new franchise in the mega-selling Tom Clancy franchise. And an ambitious, new direction, an RTS designed specifically for console that offers control over an entire nation's armed forces by voice alone, like some kind of virtual Vera Lynn.
Einstein is doubly appropriate. The FBI had assembled a 1,427-page dodgy dossier on him by the time of his death in 1955, the celebrity genius nevertheless successfully avoiding trouble, despite his political outspokenness in the US and an affair with a Russian spy. The stuff of Clancy, right there.
EndWar is set 13 years in the future. A global anti-ballistic missile shield has failed, Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in nuclear war, oil prices soar, America overreaches and, well, the whole bloody planet kicks off. The pledged 'end of strategic nuclear war', with rather devastating irony, merely serves to ignite World War III. Whoops.
EndWar deals with the 'Atlantic theatre' of the war: concerning the US, the European Federation and Russia. China, where the game is being made, and where we've been whisked away to for a first in-depth look at the project, is conspicuous by its absence.
China is in reality, of course, a nuclear power and an emerging superpower. It's also a notoriously thin-skinned Communist nation, with a state-controlled media. (No doubt the games industry PR community has at least some sympathy with this).
Shanghai, far more westernised than this westerner's eyes were expecting, is the financial and commercial hub of the country, with a shopping district that could frankly be Oxford Street, London on the surface.
It's only when we try to access Wikipedia (blocked), or search for local background information (most foreign Google links for general background on China are blocked), that we are abruptly reminded of the political climate.
In other words, don't expect China to start blowing the shit out of the planet in any games coming out of Ubisoft Shanghai anytime soon.
"Basically, being here we can't do anything that would portray China in a way that would be seen to be villainous, as bad guys, etc." Aussie creative director Michael de Plater tells us.
"Obviously when we get to the Pacific theatre [planned for the next instalment], we're going to have to look at who does what there."
Aside from that inconvenient truth, though, the company is free to get on with its business without intrusion, and has seized upon China's great natural resource: the vast, and largely untapped, pool of development staff.
"The Chinese games industry has actually exploded over the last few years," reveals Julian Gerighty, editorial content director and chief cheerleader for Shanghai.
"It's about that limited pool of talent worldwide and being able to tap into the best artists, the best engineers worldwide. Shanghai is one of those examples."
EndWar's development team is overwhelmingly local, overseen by key creative staff either shipped in from elsewhere in the Great Rayman Empire, or poached from afar.
But this is not, as the residents of Royston Vasey would have it, a local game for local people. It's an all-guns blazing, flag-waving Tom Clancy epic, yet one that is boldly going where no console strategy game has gone before.
Consoles aren't exactly buckling under the onslaught of RTS titles. But Ubisoft believes that's not down to lack of demand, rather the wrong approach. In other words, the traditional PC approach. Stand well back.
"PC RTS has gone up a bit of a dead end," explains de Plater, a veteran of the Total War PC strategy series. "The excitement and interest of soldiers and armies clashing is really interesting and compelling. But because of the success of Warcraft, C&C and Age of Empires, everyone has gone down this other path and forgotten what original war games really were.
"People are trying to come back [...] but they're loaded with this baggage," he adds. "Take Company of Heroes - they make this fantastic tactical war game, but then they still have this hardcore economic simulation that you have to play at the same time. If they cut that loose, it would be a much better and more fun game."
At the heart of de Plater's grievances is the issue of accessibility. "With traditional PC RTS there's almost this threshold of complexity," he complains. "The really good players have to master the keyboard shortcuts, the build orders. It's almost like learning a language. Then there's a layer on top of that where it's interesting and strategic. At that level I think we're really similar. I think we've just stripped out all the housekeeping decisions."
That might put the hardcore's nose out of joint, but it's fundamental to the studio's approach. de Plater routinely cites what Bioware did for the RPG with Knights of the Old Republic as both a paradigm and aspiration. "Every single successful console game is either third- or first-person," he muses, referencing THQ's Full Spectrum Warrior and Nintendo's Pikmin as rare examples of console strategy done good.
The art of war
So the first big change is how you view the action. "Every RTS has this intro sequence of 3D, and hills going over the horizon, and huge armies clashing like a real battle. And then there's a game where you build a town hall, or a farm. There's always been this big disconnect between the promise and the experience. We basically wanted to make a game that was more like the CGI intros to other RTSs than the gameplay."
The excellent PC version of World In Conflict rolled its tanks into three-dimensional warfare earlier this year, of course. EndWar takes a slightly different route. Critically, the camera isn't free-roaming, and this may prove contentious as the game nears release. That's because "the downside of putting the camera so you can see everything, is that you can see everything," according to de Plater.
Ubi's solution to this awkward paradox - essentially its 3D implementation of fog-of-war - is line-of-sight. You should only be able to see what your units can see. So you can look around freely only from the point of view of each unit.
In a concession to traditional strat-fans, you can switch to a Commander's View at any time, giving a top-down, real-time view of the battlefield. The team also calls this the "Madden view". Turns out that EA Sports' mega-series, surprisingly, is a major influence. "Madden was the game that convinced us it was possible to do strategy on console," de Plater notes.
You can play the entire game from this perspective should you wish. Though why you'd want to is beyond us: it's like watching the football on Teletext when you've got Sky Sports HD. But it's doubtless useful in short bursts.
Mode-wise, the two main single-player offerings are the traditional Conquest (take more than half the strategic points on the battlefield and hold them for a countdown to victory), and Annihilation (a massive, last-unit-standing brawl similar to the battles in Total War).
On the multiplayer side, there's team-based co-op and, as you may have read previously, an ambitious 'MMO-style' element. This again takes Madden for its cue, with the promise of season-style campaigns with persistent units.
"It's actually a massive online meta campaign," remarks de Plater. "Players belonging to each of our three superpowers can participate in massive online battles. The results of everyone's battles are tracked and uploaded and the status of the campaign is updated accordingly.
"As well as that you're online army is persistent," he adds. "So as your units survive combat they get experience upgrades and you can buy hundreds of different equipment and training upgrades for your army. Also you can customise your camo, insignia and mottos."
We're being deliberately circumspect on the gameplay, by the way. We've played it, but thanks to the mutually-assured destruction of our NDA with Ubisoft, we can't tell you what it's like until next month. Otherwise they'll WMD our ass.
A novel approach
EndWar's World War III, Armageddon scenario is by-numbers Tom Clancy fodder. But huge efforts are being made to create a narrative that engages the player from start to finish.
"We have way too much going on in this game to be handled by one writer," argues John Gonzalez, apparently seeking to justify his story director's salary. "We're talking about 25,000 lines of dialogue, which comes to about 200,000 words. That's three-to-four novels' worth of dialogue." That's why we read The Sun.
Producer Julian Gerighty chips in: "It's the biggest game in terms of dialogue Ubisoft has ever done." "The script is along the lines of a Bioware RPG in size," Gonzalez boasts. Okay, gotcha.
Interestingly, this spills over into the online arena, where pre-battle briefings are used to provide valuable insight into the psychology and strategies of your opponent. This information is determined according to each players' gamer rating. So if you're ever lucky enough to point your guns of glory in our direction online, expect to hear: "Your opponent is bottom of the barrel. If there were a war on, he'd be working fast food someplace. And I don't mean as a manager".
The onion gravy on the immersion mash is a range of CGI shorts, which appear in the top-corner of the screen at moments of acute drama, animated by an Oscar-nominee no less.
"The whole concept behind the picture-in-picture movies is to give feedback to the player," offers Gerighty. "So you order an electronic strike and you'll have a little movie that runs while you're playing just to give you that. It's also a very useful tool to communicate the emotions of the battlefield." A giant white flag would do the job for us.
And not just battlefields, but battlecity centres, too. EndWar's playable warzones include three capital cities: Washington DS, Moscow and Paris (which was also strike capital of the world last time we checked).
"We used Google Earth a lot," game designer Todd Owens confides, detailing the team's commitment to geographical accuracy. Don't expect Project Gotham levels of photorealism, but do expect to feel right at home if you know the place.
"We find the best places that are truest to the areas and map those in," he adds. "So if you've been to Moscow, you should be able to recognise the area. All the buildings are the right scale, it's just a matter of missing the odd side street."
Calling the shots
Anyway, let's talk tactics. Literally. EndWar's ace-up-the-sleeve could well be voice command. Ubi Shanghai wants to revolutionise the RTS by giving the player total command of his units simply by barking orders into the headset, the joypad becoming walkie-talkie, giving you a direct line to the battlefield.
"It's a three-part system," says de Plater. You say: 'Who' it is, so you select the unit, whether it's Unit 1, or Red Team or All Tanks; 'What' you want them to do, which on a battlefield is actually a fairly simply range of actions.... And then 'Where' you want them to do it, which boils down to one of the enemy units, or a location."
Who, What, Where. Got that? For example: "Calling all tanks" (Who), "Secure" (What), "Lima" (Where). Or "Red Team", "Attack" "Hostile 2". Issuing the correct commands simply accesses exactly the same menus you'd scroll through using the pad, but promises an immediacy and sense of involvement simply not attainable with thumbs alone.
"Voice command to our game is what the plastic guitar is to Guitar Hero," de Plater opines. "Guitar Hero would be exactly the same game on a joypad, but you get much more immersed and it's more accessible because it's on the guitar." He obviously hasn't seen Tom trying to play Knights of Cydonia on Hard.
"We are Ghost Recon, 20 times bigger, with voice command," concludes de Plater. If you can imagine such a thing. Einstein probably did.
EndWar is due out on Xbox 360 and PS3 next March. Stay tuned next month for detailed hands-on impressions, and a Eurogamer TV special looking behind the scenes at Ubisoft Shanghai, with a special investigation into the massive problem of video game piracy in China. In the meantime, you can check out the teaser trailer on EGTV now.