Version tested: Xbox 360
The end of oil may be bad news for motorists, but it's been solid fuel for game developers, who seem to agree that the result will be superpowers jabbing nuclear fingers at one another. THQ's Frontlines toyed with the idea earlier this year, and now it's Ubisoft's turn to speculate on what might happen if Russia, Europe and the USA find themselves squabbling over diminishing natural resources.
If that's well within the Clancy comfort zone, however, EndWar itself is not. It's a console real-time strategy game, attempting to get around the issues that have dogged the genre outside of its PC home for years.
Developer Ubisoft Shanghai goes about this in two ways. The first is an intuitive two-pronged control system, ideally suited to the demands of the armchair strategist, designed to overcome the relative limitations of the control pad. Players command their forces with a superbly implemented voice-recognition system, in conjunction with a refined context-sensitive set of pad controls, and both elements are precise and fast. The lack of mouse control is no longer something to curse in the heat of battle.
The second part of the plan is to change the focus of the battle altogether, and zone in on small-scale skirmishes rather than traditional resource-gathering and research. Instead of zoomed-out overhead views and landscapes shrouded by the fog of war, the action is presented relatively close up, from a crisply detailed albeit somewhat bland 3D viewpoint just above and behind whichever unit you've selected. You can move and rotate with the left and right sticks, flick between units with the d-pad, and issue basic context-sensitive commands by moving a cursor over your target or location and clicking on it.
But much more in the spirit of things is to hook up a headset and bellow orders like a testosterone-damaged alpha-male war-pig. After a brief calibration procedure, everything from securing uplinks to switching units and taking cover becomes second nature. Holding down the right trigger, you can string together simple sentences, such as 'unit 1, secure foxtrot' or 'unit 4, attack hostile 3', which can be a lot quicker than having to manually flick between units on the d-pad, even if the pad interface is a simple and effective backup. A mixture of the two works best, with certain commands quicker on the pad and some evidently better voiced. Just make sure you have a wired headset, because the game's best played with the mic very close to your mouth to drown out the background noise. From the game. Fight in a library or something.
The actual combat, meanwhile, operates on an easy-to-follow rock-paper-scissors principle, where transports beat choppers, choppers beat tanks, and tanks beat transports. With just seven unit types to worry about (riflemen, engineers, artillery, command vehicles, tanks, transports and gunships), tactics are intuitive. You may well discover that riflemen, for example, are effective placed inside buildings first rather than fighting in the open, and good use of cover and sensible unit placement becomes important once you understand each unit's weaknesses, and the demands of certain mission types.
Missions come in four distinct flavours and the parameters are straightforward, regardless of whether you choose the Americans, Russians or Europeans. Raid involves destroying buildings or defending them for ten minutes, the goal in Conquest is to hold more than half the uplink stations for five minutes, Assault is a simple 'kill everything' battle, and Siege is about attacking or defending a critical uplink for as long as instructed. It's superficially stripped-down and basic, then, but EndWar has depth in its training and upgrade system, which allows players to apply up to 150 upgrades for each faction and rewards them for keeping experienced units alive. Points earned in each round can be used to beef up attack and defence abilities, or, for example, upgrade riflemen units to sniper units.
With no specific resource-gathering necessary (no oil, remember), EndWar instead utilises a regenerating Command Point system, allowing you to replace downed units at the cost of four CPs. Over time, CPs regenerate, and you also gain a CP bonus every time you secure an uplink or kill an enemy, so the resources, if you will, come through positive actions rather than the more traditional route of going down pit. Stripping out the standard mining removes a layer of strategy, but it keeps you focused on the action rather than fiddly micromanagement. EndWar also employs CPs to power special attacks like air-strikes, force recon and electronic warfare. One CP, for example, finances an air-strike to help finish off bothersome targets, such as long-range artillery, without having to risk precious units to do the job.
On the whole, EndWar is at its best when it keeps things simple with clearly defined roles and abilities. By the time you're dealing with 12 units and multiple abilities, however, the slick, streamlined feeling of the early game is lost among fiddly nannying, and the player AI doesn't help with a few dim choices, like infantry units unable to stand on the right side of cover or take up new positions when theirs is blown. Pathfinding can be more than a little irritating, with units prone to blunder into danger when an evidently safer and equally swift route exists, and units regularly slide around trees and get in each other's way. When this happens in a combat situation, it often means a suicidal ceasefire while they untangle themselves. And having to dictate to a unit to use their special ability every single time is a waste of time, and can be exasperating when you feel like you ought to be focusing on more important matters.
As a defensive game it's simple enough to handle, but unless you know what you're doing you'll get crushed even on the lowest difficulty setting if you take the initiative. Even when you're doing well, the game allows the losing opponent (during Conquest mode, for example) to unleash a WMD attack, potentially wiping out most of your forces. You could be wiping the floor with your opposite number and find yourself on the back foot in seconds. It's a great way of keeping players in the game when things are going against them, but it can be used in a ruinous way. The other player does get to strike back with a WMD of their own later, but by then the war may be lost.
There's also little difference between factions. It's generally accepted tradition to give each faction its own unique powers and abilities, but here it's limited to minor tweaks. Perhaps the time saved there was spent trying to solve the camera problems, as the zoomed-in default view also makes it easy to lose track of imminent danger. A zoomed out, overhead Sit Rep map can be called upon, and rectifies matters to some degree, but the game works best when you can see what's happening in multiple areas at once, not just some of the time.
Online, EndWar offers a persistent battle mode, Theatre of War. Essentially identical to the single-player game, players fight against human opponents and the results are calculated every 24 hours, and the battlegrounds re-established. In the same way as the offline game, you use credits and experience points to beef up units and continue your quest for global domination. All this works well for a while, although the scope is rather limited given that, once you've fought your battles that day, all there is to do is fight another player over the same maps. You do the same thing the next day, and while it's good to have persistency, the repetition starts to wear.
Making a genuinely accessible real-time strategy game for console owners is definitely a worthy aim though, and EndWar gets a lot of things right: a beautifully slick interface, stripped down mechanics, and the best voice-recognition system of any game we've played. It's got plenty to offer armchair strategists, but balancing issues, pathfinding and AI niggles and a disappointing lack of variety in factions stop it just short of its obvious potential. It's lacking a bit of Clancy magic, then, although we'll be interested to see where Ubisoft takes it from here.
7 / 10