Many years ago, I owned a computer with a very rudimentary voice-operated word processor on it. I can't remember the name of the particular bit of software, which is probably handy from a legal point of view given what I'm about to say about it, but I do remember that it was a dazzlingly effective piece of technology, so long as what you required was an easy means of taking letters, shopping lists, CVs and college essays, and transforming them into conceptually challenging works of modernist free association. It was a lovely idea, but it didn't work.
Voice recognition has always proved to be dangerous waters, yet that hasn't stopped generations of tech entrepreneurs running themselves aground trying to get it to function properly. With EndWar, it teams up with another troubled enterprise - making an RTS that truly clicks on a console. You'd be forgiven for assuming that the results of such a daring double-endeavour could only be a five-star flaming ambulance pile-up, but a chance to try out the game's multiplayer mode suggests that things are continuing to look surprisingly good.
As the "Tom Clancy's" business should suggest, EndWar's plot is typical neo-con moon pie, a glimpse into a future world where the Middle East has gotten itself blasted into a crater, nuclear weapons have been ruled out of the equation by an orbiting defence network, and dwindling oil reserves have lead Russia, the US, and Europe, rather weirdly, to enter into a massive three-way ballistic rumble. Taken as a whole, it's a story that could have been written by my Nixon-loving great aunt who believed, amongst other things, that the numbers stencilled on the bottom of US road signs were secret instructions for an invading United Nations army, and who once called my sister a Commie when she turned up at the house wearing rainbow-patterned roller-skates. That said, even the dev team admit the back-story's little more than an excuse for a lot of big battles in a vast Atlantic theatre. And it's certainly done the trick: in both the single-player mode and the online multiplayer campaign, the playing field stretches from the Eastern seaboard of the US all the way to Moscow.
And, as previously reported, getting stuck into a few battles, it's immediately obvious that the voice control works. Most of the skirmishes in EndWar revolve around capturing a set number of control points and then hanging onto them during the Defcon period, a tense five-minute countdown where the enemy is suddenly authorised to use WMDs on you and things move from Brutal to Really Nasty. (Alongside this, there are mission variations such as raids, siege scenarios and sabotage challenges.) Limiting commands to a few handfuls of nouns and verbs, and enforcing a rigid sentence structure of Who, What, Where, means that moving units around, getting them to attack or secure structures, combining them into larger teams, bringing in reinforcements, and retreating when, inevitably, the whole thing goes horribly wrong, clicks almost instantly.
There are a few hiccups - your commands have to be phrased in the correct order with "Unit 1, Capture Lima," going down gangbusters, but "Capture Lima, Unit 1," resulting in me being told off by a man with a Russian accent (only in the game, thankfully), but once you've understood the grammar at work, only Yoda is going to have trouble with EndWar's controls. After a mere five minutes of playing, I'd gone from a stuttering clown to a quick-thinking dictator, ordering my units around the map without a second thought. Sure, I was still mostly sending them to face fiery death at the hands of a smarter opponent, but that was hardly the game's fault. Even my limited ability with funny voices, and my unlimited ability with garbling words and stumbling over the simplest sentences, couldn't stump Ubisoft's designers.
It's enough to make you suspect that, even without voice control, EndWar might still be onto something. Its tight vocabulary deftly manages to capture every action you'd conceivably want to carry out, and the manner in which it forces you to communicate through real sentences rather than a mish-mash of triple button taps and expandable paintbrush cursors cuts out the classic newbie problem of knowing what you want your men to do, but not quite being sure how to coax them into doing it. A good example is the old "selecting all of a certain type of unit" problem, a simple enough task that has some console RTS games quietly freaking out. Rather than tabbing your way through various highlighting options, all you have to do in EndWar to get the job done is say, "Calling all tanks." It's snappy, it's fairly transparent, and it makes you feel like a nineteen-thirties radio dispatcher, too, which can only be a positive direction for videogames.
Of course, it helps that, from what we've seen so far, the rest of the game has been intelligently refitted to work on consoles too. Ultimately, perhaps the defining feature of EndWar is not the voice control so much as the new perspective, which sees you pulled in closer to the action, looking across the landscape rather than directly down at a large chunk of the play area. Not only does this create a much greater sense of involvement with events on the battlefield, and gives you a chance to enjoy the slick animations and not-so-slick clipping issues, but by limiting your options to anything within the line of sight of any given unit, it means you aren't getting brain-spammed by too much information flooding in all at once. Switching between units either by using the control pad or by saying, "Unit X, camera!" will allow you to shuffle around the constituent parts of your army in seconds, while a tray at the bottom of the screen constantly keeps you informed on the health of all your units as well as what they're currently up to.
There's been some judicious pruning as well. Some will be disappointed by the removal of base building, and the use of control points as the sole resource, but it puts the focus firmly back onto combat tactics, as well as ensuring that missions get going a lot more quickly. Equally, a resource cap limits the amount of units you can place on the map during the course of the game, meaning that tank rushes, with their lengthy build period, are a thing of the past too. If you're the kind of player who likes refining build queues and seeing a vast army of your own making surge across the screen towards the enemy, you'll doubtless be disappointed, but others may appreciate the more direct strategies available and the shorter, snappier play that ensues.
Beyond the individual battles, in multiplayer as in single-player there's the overarching war, unfolding over a series of turns. Details on how the wider conflict's going are accessed via the Situation Room, a map of the entire world that pops up between skirmishes, giving you options on where to fight next (there will typically be three or four different battles available at any one time as the frontline evolves, and matchmaking will find players from around the world to fill out the other factions in each encounter), or a chance to visit the barracks and upgrade units. On this meta-level, EndWar behaves like a game of Risk, and with an ongoing multiplayer campaign taking potentially a few weeks to burn itself out before resetting, there's something pleasantly MMO-like about the whole approach.
Tom Clancy's brutally simplistic take on geopolitics means that, while he may be the kind of person you wouldn't want to get stuck in a lift with, his world is perfectly suited to the rock, paper, scissors dynamic of an RTS, and from what we've seen EndWar has much to be getting excited about, particularly if you've always liked the idea of tactical games, but have struggled with them on consoles. While the voice control element may garner the most attention, it's far from a flashy gimmick, and there are promising signs that a fairly deep game lies ready to be explored beneath it. Ubisoft, then, might be about to give us the most accessible RTS yet made, on console or otherwise, and if that's the case, contrary to its name, EndWar might be about to start one.
Tom Clancy's EndWar is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 7th November.