Yeah, it works. Best to get that out of the way early. Because if you've been paying the slightest attention to Ubisoft Shanghai's ambitious and risky attempt to reinvent the real-time strategy genre on console, it really all boils down to one question. And that, in short, is the answer. Voice command in EndWar? It works. Really well, actually.
The promise was of a war you could shape and control with voice alone. We get a lot of big promises in this game; and, like car tyres in the north of England, we're used to being brutally let down. So, shame on us, if our initial response was one of scepticism and a fear of gimmickry. Still, it's always nice to be proved wrong.
Anyway, for Tom Clancy's EndWar (to give the game its full, apocalyptic title) to be taken seriously, the voice command system must deliver the goods. It's critical to a title that is serious about stripping the RTS bare and redressing for a new audience with only the elements fundamental to, well, fun.
Team EndWar, many of which we chatted to during a recent visit to the Shanghai studio, are veterans of the PC strategy scene, not least project lead Michael de Plater, who's previous credits include Creative Assembly's revered Total War series.
But there's a shared boredom with the state of RTS. "PC RTS has gone up a bit of a dead end," de Plater told us. He blames the likes of Warcraft, C&C and Age of Empires for what he sees as the over-complexity of the genre and the move away from what it should be all about: gripping, spectacular conflict. Raw is war, if you like.
That thought process has led us to the present situation in China, sat in front of a 360 dev kit, barking orders into a headset with nothing more than a squeeze of the right trigger.
Can't we all just get along?
To recap, it's 2020 and World War III has started thanks to some hubristic men in ill-fitting suits pointing things at each other and stamping their feet a lot. It has always been thus, give or take the attire. 'EndWar' is shorthand for the end of strategic nuclear war, proclaimed by the US and Europe on successful completion of the Space-Land-Air Missile Shield in 2014.
This, like a Heat magazine sticker joke featuring a semi-famous disabled child, goes horribly wrong. Iran and Saudi Arabia bomb each other, oil tops USD 200 a barrel, dramatically emboldening Russia, and in response the US launches a massive military base in space to the condemnation of many men in bad suits. It's war, kids.
The first chapter in the EndWar series (there will, of course, be more, assuming you lot buy it) sticks to the Atlantic stand-off between the newly-formed European Federation and the US, and Russia. We've already provided you with details of some of the factions, and there'll be more of this to come in the run up to release, courtesy of our friend the PR Plan.
Our exposure to the game for our first hands- (and throat-) on was limited to two maps, playable in both single-player and one-on-one multiplayer via system link. But that enough to give us a decent handle of what to expect from the finished article next March.
As we've already noted, in a conscious drive to cast the net of strategy far beyond its traditional target audience, every aspect of the genre has been reassessed in terms of its accessibility, necessity and utility. Anything considering extraneous is out on its arse. And in EndWar that turns out to be a lot of stuff. So no base building, resource management, or any of the attention-diverting clutter the developer euphemistically refers to as "housekeeping".
How you feel about this proposition will no doubt shape your initial reaction to EndWar. But fastidious, micro-managing generals beware: in Ubisoft's RTS version of the tortoise and the hare, the hare always wins because it WMDs the shit out of the tortoise before it's even crawled an inch. Welcome to the Tom Clancy school of strategy.
Talking a good fight
If you're a mute, you'll need to know your way around the pad. This is how it works on 360: A is the general action button used for confirming orders and for your primary attack; Y is contextual, and used for secondary attacks; the D-pad lets you switch between units; clicking the right-stick zooms - it'll feel very familiar if you've played Ghost Recon. And that's deliberate.
The essence of RTS, as refined by Ubi Shanghai, consists of seven unit types: Riflemen, Engineers, Tanks, Transport, Gunships, Artillery, and Command Vehicles. And there are two main single-player modes: Conquest (win control of most of the map) and Annihilation (wipe out the enemy), both of which we tried out.
But this streamlining of content is such that you can simply forget about what all of the buttons do, hold down the right trigger, and start jabbering away instead. Everything in-game can be controlled by the Who-What-Where voice command system. The headset effectively turns the pad into a walkie-talkie, activated with the right trigger.
This brings up a neat system of on-screen menus, listing every single available command before your eyes, so there's thankfully no need to memorise a manual's worth of orders.
The first menu consists of individual units, say "Unit 1", "Unit 2" and so on, and also general functions like "Calling All". Depending on your order, subsequent menus will pop-up with relevant commands until you've completed the Who-What-Where and you can enjoy Watch.
Say, for instance, you want to group off your gunship units to command under a single order. "Calling All", "Gunships", "Create Group". Easy as that. Want to dispatch a unit of tanks to deal with the enemy's frontline? "Unit 1" (Who), "Attack" (What), "Hostile 3" (Where).
For the first 10 minutes or so, a mixture of uncertainty and mild embarrassment caused us to bumble disjointedly through the steps. "Unit 1.... Um, er.... Attack.... Um.... Lima?" Hardly Henry V. But then, it just clicks, and orders start to flow with increasing assurance and authority. "Unit 4 secure Alpha!"; "Calling all gunships, attack hostile 5!"; "WMD Lima!". "DIE, ****S, DIE!"
Staring death in the face
If it sounds restrictive, it's really not. You can do everything like this: organise units, reinforce the number of soldiers on the ground, switch to the tactical "Madden-style" overhead view, call an airstrike, and quickly switch your view from unit-to-unit - everything via this easy-to-grasp system that any idiot, whatever their experience of RTS titles, will pick up in minutes. Aside from the right-trigger, you only really need to use the stick to move around the camera.
And yes, the traditional fixed RTS perspective is replaced in EndWar by 3D battlefields, a leap forward already taken earlier this year by the superb World In Conflict. Epic's Unreal engine has been called upon to render the end of the world. We had access to two maps in the alpha build: New York and La Mancha.
We stormed the Big Apple in multiplayer Conquest mode. Offering a scenario where one side is defending a military base, the other seeking to overwhelm it and control the map, it offered a gentle introduction with manageable unit numbers and tightly-constructed map sitting by the water at the edge of the city. It was heaps of fun, fuelled by the thrilling novelty of the voice commands.
The aim of Conquest is to control the bulk of the map. Once you have secured the requisite number of key zones, a timer begins to countdown - you have to retain the advantage (or extend it, if you're showing off), until this runs all the way down and you claim a glorious victory.
The barren, rocky, arid plains of La Mancha provided a stage for Annihilation against AI. Here, the number of units on the battlefield was increased dramatically, serving up a conflict of far greater scale and destruction.
The cockily self-satisfying experience of commanding the battle right in the middle of it had made us wonder why anyone would want to use the boring, top-down tactical map. But as the complexity of the armed forces increases, the Commander's View offers much-needed strategic clarity. And if you're some kind of twisted 3D-denier, you can play the whole game from here.
Bear in mind that this is war, and you can only see what your units can see. The issue of 'fog of war' raised by EndWar's 3D battles has a neat solution: you can only see what your units can see. The camera can switch between each, and you freely look around, but you can't, crucially, freely move the camera. This proved something of an annoyance at this stage.
A fully-free camera would utterly undermine the strategic nature of the experience, we readily accept. But by not being able to move it around at all beyond a fixed position with each unit, you can't help but feel slightly frustrated and cheated that you can't watch your gunships blast the crap out of the enemy from a better angle. It's doubly frustrating when, as happened a couple of times, the fixed view was partially obscured by a building. For an Unreal-powered wargame, promising vast battles with up to 1,000 units at a time this seems a shame.
Visually at this stage, it's all satisfyingly striking and impressive without knocking your socks off. Explosions look the part, and with large unit numbers the 3D views affords a convincing sense of being at the heart of a violent conflict.
There's a great deal more to see of EndWar beyond out limited playtest, and sadly that was not on offer in this build at least. Inner-city maps favouring troop warfare suggest a different experience, for example, and team-based co-op. And then there's the ambitious "MMO-style" online multiplayer - where persistent units battle it out over what sound like a sports game season mode structure. Not to mention the narrative-driven single-player missions (beefed up by over 40,000 lines of dialogue, as if you weren't talking enough already.)
So it's still much too early to make a judgment. But we can say at this stage with absolute confidence that the implementation of the voice command system is fantastic, and recognition is already high - your correspondent's faded Midlands drawl worked the vast majority of the time, although James the Cameraman's White Van Man Mockney encountered a few problems. We're assured this is being constantly improved upon.
If you've never cared for RTS before, but find Clancy's murky universe of global intrigue compelling, then EndWar's radical interface might just be the thing to tempt you. Whether die-hard strategy nuts find enough to satisfy their demands remains to be seen. But Ubisoft has promised us depth. Let's hope that's another one it keeps.