Tom Clancy is a man who takes himself very seriously. He is also the last man in the western world who is still convinced that the evil Russians are plotting to kill us all. He built on the success of “The Hunt for Red October” with his doorstop-sized, alarmingly well researched “Red Storm Rising” back in the mid-eighties – back when Russia-terror was all the rage. Since then, the Tom Clancy brand has moved with the times in almost all ways – the notable exception being his rather dim view of our Russian friends.
Endwar is, as you will no doubt have deduced, no different. Set in the near future, the Russians trick the USA into thinking their lovely new spaceship was shot down by elements of the newly-formed European super-state. That’ll do for plot – cue a three-way punch up between the Russians, the USA and the Euros.
At its heart, Endwar is an RTS. Many of the elements will be familiar to the RTS crowd. Artillery sits at the back, command points (or uplinks, as they’re known) need to be captured by infantry to dominate the battlefield, and the rock-paper-scissors convention that has replaced the tank rush in recent RTS history is alive and well to give you that ‘combined arms’ feel.
Right, that’s three paragraphs without mentioning what Endwar is really all about. Clicking on your gunships then clicking where you want them to move to is all very well, but it’s so 1990s. Orders in Endwar are issued via your headset. Space age! Troops can be commanded to move to destinations, artillery and air strikes can be coordinated, and there’s really nothing quite like bellowing “Deploy Gunships!” or “WMD Zulu!” at your computer, particularly as your hands are free to enjoy a sumptuous Pot Noodle as you take in the devastating results. There’s something about controlling the battlefield with your voice that takes you back to the wonder you felt when you first saw a videogame, back in the dewy-palmed throes of youth. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a solitary tear.
Gameplay itself is robust and well-balanced. The three factions are fundamentally the same but with just enough difference to make them play in varying tactical ways. Voice-acted mission briefings and what little plot exists are delivered in a believable and well-thought-out way. Graphically it leaves a little to be desired, but not so it affects enjoyment.
It’s the little touches that really make it a fantastic game. Troops gain experience as they progress through the campaign, and that probably would’ve been enough to just tick a box. However, depending on how masterfully you conduct a battle, you’ll get credits which can be spent on a series of upgrades to your battalion – everything from grenade launchers for your tanks to more effective airstrikes or IT training for the engineers. More powerful upgrades are only applied to troops with higher rank, so it’s a balancing act. This detailed system of upgrades was probably not strictly necessary to the game, but it adds significantly to the feeling of involvement.
The learning curve is handled in a sublime way. At first glance there appears to be a lot to take in. You need to learn the finer points of securing uplinks, conducting electronic warfare, conducting raids and deploying force recon units. The tutorial is presented as a ‘prelude to war’ mini-campaign that precursors World War III, and name-drops characters and organisations from other Tom Clancy games. By the time you reached the end of the prelude campaign, you'll have had so much fun you'll not have even noticed the ability to play the game seeping into your brain, but there you will be, facing down the full campaign and utterly prepared. It’s very clever how they do that, you know.
Multiplay is innovative as well, with a kind of persistent world, MMO-type affair going on. Multiplay gamers sign up to one of the three factions and then fight their choice of battles along global front lines that are the same for all players. Every 24 hours the number of wins for each faction contesting a territory are computed and the battle lines move. It’s not perfect – it sort of limits what you can do in a day – but it’s something we’ve not really seen a lot of before, and together with the headset command system, Endwar does a good enough job of its innovations to no doubt justify developments in these directions in the future.
There’s not really a lot for me to gripe about, I’m sorry to say. The addition of WMDs in the later stages of a battle, initially deployed by the losing force in a kind of last, dying middle finger to the victor, seems a little overpowered and unnecessary, albeit pretty dramatic. Battles generally tend to play out in fairly similar ways, as you frantically try to match the right type of attacker with the right (wrong) type of defender or visa versa. But that’s really all I can say against it, and these could both actually be perceived as my own personal skill limitations rather than any failing in the game itself.
God bless you, Tom Clancy, and God bless war.