At first, Endwar feels like magic. Ordering troops with your voice and having it work almost flawlessly is clearly the work of the devil. But you'll quickly get over the childlike glee of playing General with your flapping lips and accept it for what it is - a speedy and useful system to use alongside pad controls - and you'll find Endwar is more than just gimmick.
At its heart, this is Scissors, Paper, Stone played at high speed with high stakes - Gunships beat tanks, Tanks beat Transports, and Transports beat Gunships - but between those simple rules there's space to improvise; just enough wiggle room to bend the rules almost to breaking point. Add a Command Vehicle and you'll get a high-level tactical overview of the battlefield and powerful drones to command; add Artillery or Engineers into the mix and you can break the chain with smart thinking rather than brute force.
The tactical options in Endwar are complex enough to allow for creative play, but playing the game is almost insultingly easy. Without the usual RTS clichés, Endwar is the first to work on console; there's no build tree to work through, no complex resources to mine, and no complex controls to master. Instead of a high-level tactical view, you'll play from a third person perspective, only able to see as far as your most forward unit; you'll jump between your twelve units with simple commands or button presses and direct them in a similar manner to squad-mates in, say, Ghost Recon.
You'll navigate from waypoint to waypoint on the battlefield grabbing Uplinks as you go, pushing deeper into enemy territory before being forced into combat. Nobody could fail to understand the simple combat circle or their objective, but even within such a simple system there are options - limited though they may be - which will always ensure it's the smartest and most capable general who walks from the battlefield the victor.
It's not the voice control which makes Endwar the first console RTS to actually work, but rather the design decisions made by Ubisoft Shanghai to exclude the complexities of traditional strategy titles and focus only on what's already worked in other games. The unit types from Advance Wars kept that game tactically complex but easy to learn; the perspective from Full Spectrum Warrior made you feel like a part of the action; the turn-based map from Total War made the campaign flexible and different every time; the online progression from Call of Duty 4 gave you a sense of working towards something bigger. Endwar nabs the lot.
Ubisoft have taken the best bits from dozens of games and tossed them headfirst into the Clancyverse. In the mid 2020s, splinter factions within the Russian government only go and engineer a global war - the heavyweight Ruskies vs the light and fast Europeans vs the all-rounder Americans. Even the factions are borrowed from Warcraft, but it's not something Ubisoft have once attempted to hide.
If you were to ask Steven Spielberg what movies influenced his new flick, he'd probably reel off a long list, yet games developers always shy away from crediting other games as influences for fear of appearing derivative.
Not so with Endwar producer Michael De Plater, telling us from day one that Endwar is a game built upon foundations laid by other games. By splicing the parts together, Endwar feels very much like its own game - as simple as Advance Wars, as exciting as Full Spectrum Warrior.
Endwar is a lesson to all, then. You can make a strategy game work on a console; you just have to speed it up, dumb it down, and somehow keep it smart. Rather them than us. PC RTS fanatics may scoff at a perceived lack of depth, but Endwar is the first sign that console strategy developers are learning what shooter devs figured out many years ago - to make strategy games work on a console, you first have to rethink strategy games from the ground up.
The first console strategy game that works, TCE is a very strong, accessible title.
- Clearly black magic
- Just complex enough
- Not especially pretty