Eurogamer is stirring. "That's completely unfair!" bleats Michael de Plater, with a whiff of the naughty schoolboy, in his unmistakable south Australian drawl. "I've been really good on cutting stuff!" pleads the man who is creative director on Tom Clancy's EndWar, the voice-commanded console RTS that embraces Anglo-Saxon accents of all flavours, from Camden to Canberra, with several tongues in-between.
We're chatting to de Plater at the end of the long second day of UbiDays 2008 in Paris. He was up with the larks this morning to demo his pride and joy after a long night of fun and games following the Gallic publisher's press conference in the opulent Louvre, narrated in the equally thick northwest English drawl of the terminally-mugging Vernon Kay.
We've just shared with de Plater the remarks of Ubisoft Shanghai content director Julian Gerighty, de Plater's on-stage demo brother-in-arms the previous evening, whom we caught up with early doors today. Gerighty insists EndWar is now feature-complete with one caveat, quipping: "If we can control Mike... The way I see it, we're done. But If you get Michael involved, he'll be taking notes from all the journalists, and going 'that's a great idea, let's get it in!'"
Hence the theatrically indignant response from de Plater. He sees it quite differently, of course, and starts telling us about some new feature that Gerighty, the scamp, has apparently already promised a journalist today. "It wasn't gesture controls, was it?" we ask, tentatively. "Oh yeah, that's the one. He totally pulled that out of his hat."
"Er, that was us, Mike. There's already a story on Eurogamer..."
A sudden flash of recognition. "Excellent! We'll have to put it in now. That's the Peter Molyneux approach to game design: you just announce things in the press and the team reads about them. You don't have design documents, you have articles!" Detention and 1,000 lines for the pair of them, we say.
The point of all this light-hearted banter is how relaxed the team is right now. And, curiously enough, it's all thanks to Assassin's Creed. We got our first and only hands-and-mouth-on experience with EndWar in Shanghai last November, which you may have read about already, and even watched in our recent EGTV Show special.
Back then it was all hands on deck with a March release approaching and very evidently, despite the huge potential, a lot of work still to be done. Strategy fans should raise un verre de vin rouge, then, to old Altair: thanks to the massive sales of Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft was able to make shareholder-pleasing patterns on its abacus and shift a couple of big titles out of that financial quarter.
So EndWar, with a new release target of October, was the lucky recipient of seven extra months of development time. Which, for a game of such invention and complexity, is a massive bonus.
"It was fantastic," enthuses de Plater. "I've never had that experience happen before, to have the extra time to make such a commitment to getting the quality good."
Now, as both we and Ubisoft know, extra time does not always maketh the game. But in EndWar's case, the signs look very, very positive.
Gesture controls, all joking aside, are a happy product of this delay. Currently only up-and-running on PS3, since its Eye camera comes with a handy and necessary stand, this feature will allow you to manipulate the tactical map by waving your hands around. The exact effect the team is trying to achieve can be seen at 0:26 in the original EndWar CGI trailer over on EGTV.
The only thing holding the 360 back here is the lack of a stand, we're told; although we're sure it can't be too hard to knock up a Blue Peter-style job with double-sided sticky tape and unwanted copies of Haze. Aside from that, however, discipline, self-control and consolidation (notwithstanding excitable Mike) are the buzzwords for Team Shanghai.
"We can now debug the game for five months," says Gerighty. "It's a luxury we've never had before at Ubisoft; it's hard to keep going after 3.5 years, but everyone's got their second wind."
To recap briefly, then (a detailed summary of the basics can be found in our preview hands-on, it's 2020 and its the US and Europe versus Russia in a nuclear-powered fight to the death. World War III, to be precise: classic Clancy fodder.
Traditional real-time strategy, of course, typically translates to a console joypad with all the finesse and eloquence of Wayne Rooney doing a turn as Hamlet ("Frailty, thy name is Coleen, eh eh!"). So Ubi Shanghai's Big Idea is voice command. You, as general, control an entire army through voice alone, using the joypad as a walkie-talkie.
This part worked really well last year; it's even better now. During our playtest of a big scrap across Paris in Annihilation Mode, in a noisy conference hall, our orders fail to register only the once. The system has been tweaked, trimmed, topiaried and tousled to the point it is at today, where you can do absolutely everything you need to in-game using the right combination of just 40 words.
"Refining those words is the secret," reckons Gerighty. "We do playtests on this all the time; and if a word has three percent more recognition than another word, we pick it."
What is also immediately obvious are the substantial strides that have been made in bumping up the detail and intensity of battles. The sense of being caught in the midst of a ferocious, multi-faceted battle is compelling and exciting. Still far from fluent in EndWar's combat lexicon, our rather clumsy brain gymnastics produce the desired results after a few seconds' contortion. But watching Gerighty later directing his units swiftly and precisely as a conductor might guide an orchestra through some elaborate symphony of destruction (with all due respect to Megadeth), the potential is enticing.
"Unit 4, secure Foxtrot"; "Deploy artillery"; "Unit 1, upgrade Bravo"; "Calling all gunships, create group"; "Group 1, attack Hostile 6": the orders are pretty straightforward and common-sensical in truth. What might take a little longer to grasp is an appreciation of the entire conflict. It's very easy, as we discover to our substantial loss, to get distracted by watching your choppers batter a bunch of puny soldiers scarpering for cover, zooming right in with a click of the right stick to delight in the death meted out to avatars animated by the same bloke who did Ghost Recon. Meanwhile, the rest of our forces are getting pummelled.
One overwhelmingly positive improvement concerns the camera. Back in December we complained: "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."
Well, the fixed camera has been binned, thank goodness. In its place is a decent range of movement across the x-axis around each unit, which makes finding a satisfying and useful viewpoint a doddle, without buggering up the line-of-sight rule.
"We wanted the left stick to give you direct control of the units and move around with them, but we never quite got that to the level where it was feeling right," reveals de Plater. "So we reached a point where we gave up on that feature, which freed us up to put the free camera in." Amen to that.
Although not on display at UbiDays, the team does share more details on the ambitious persistent online element to EndWar. You choose one of three factions - the US, Russia and Europe - pick a general and a speciality, say, airborne, and each day there will be battles raging across 40 territories online. "It's like a giant game of Risk," explains Gerighty.
"Every day you choose which and how many battles you face. Maybe 100,000 battles are fought in New York City, and 60,000 are won by Europe - it then becomes a Euro territory." A companion website will launch to supplement and follow the action online, and you'll pick up experience points win-or-lose, which contribute to your ongoing war effort. There's scope for teaming up with three others for four-on-four or co-op versus battles, with AI waiting in the wings to fill any empty slots for the lonely and spurned.
"I reckon this is a game that'll be like Rainbow Six - people will really play," Gerighty asserts. "The single-player game is about 20-odd hours of gameplay there, but the multiplayer we're very excited about. It's very much like a sports game, like a championship. The replayability is honestly where it's at. That's what we're really looking at, and the DLC will just influence that - and we're big believers in DLC." No details on exactly what the downloadable content will consist of just yet.
15,000 gamers across the globe are currently being lined up to "stress test" the online component, so it's as slick and as solid as can be come release in October.
At this stage, and with still relatively little direct experience of the game, the novelty of voice command is a big part of EndWar's charm. But really, the system seems so flexible and integral to the experience that, while you can just use the pad, one wonders why you'd want to bother.
Depth is a question that cannot yet be adequately answered. The team has been quite clear in its rejection of what is sees as the more mundane and unnecessary micromanagement "housekeeping" of core PC RTS titles: it's making this game not just for a console audience, but one which may have previously recoiled in horror at the prospect of a strategy title.
As de Plater has it: "The two big reasons we encounter as to why people don't like strategy games are: one, that they're too complex; and two, that they kind of look boring. Hopefully for those people, if they give it a go with the demo, they'll find those things are addressed." And he'd know, being a veteran of Creative Assembly's Total War series.
And the demo, when it comes later this year, will be crucial in making up the minds of the many swing voters out there: this is a game that may sound impressive on paper, but clearly needs to be played in order to 'get it'.
We have played it, we're really enthusiastic about what we've seen so far and can't wait to put this brave new step for the Clancy brand to the test with some rigorous in-depth play. But with another four months before release, Ubi's war machine is an increasingly mouth-watering prospect.
What a difference a delay makes.
Tom Clancy's EndWar is due out on PS3 and 360 this October.