"Unit three attack hostile one." With these five simple words, and around 35 others, Ubisoft hopes to be the first developer to crack that eternally perplexing nut - the console RTS.
The game is Tom Clancy's EndWar, or "Apocalypse done Clancy style", according to Julian Gerighty, editorial content director at Ubisoft Shanghai, where the game's being made. He's taking me through the game at Ubidays in Paris using only the thumb sticks of an Xbox 360 pad and his voice. This is not a hands-on preview of what could well be one of 2008's most ambitious titles. This is a voice-on preview.
Back to that eternally perplexing nut - the console RTS. EndWar, or the near-future WW3 fight between the Americans, Europeans and Russians over dwindling natural resources, is a console-only RTS and it shows. Although FPS-style camera movement with the thumb sticks and the right trigger - EndWar's walkie-talkie button - were essentials during our play test, the game can be played entirely with voice command only. So clear your throat, drink some water and practice your pronunciation, in EndWar you'll be saying things like "calling all units, move to bravo" and "unit two secure bravo" until the cows come home.
And we totally didn't feel like a dork doing it, but then we were at a game publisher's annual showcase event where the overpowering smell of man sweat is pretty much par for the course. EndWar won't be one to get the hot girl you've just brought back to your place for a night cap.
But, ironically, there's probably more chance of that non-gaming hot girl being able to pick up and play EndWar than Wii Sports. And that's because it's the most accessible RTS we've ever seen. Ubisoft has completely bypassed the console RTS control problem by ignoring it completely.
"When you're playing just with the pad all you're playing with are the thumb sticks like a shooter, the D-pad just like Ghost Recon and X and A and that's how you control the entire battle," explains Gerighty. "On top of that we wanted even more accessibility so we put in the voice command. With 40 words you can do absolutely everything on the battlefield. It's like a walkie talkie, you click down with the right trigger and you speak your orders. You click off, just like a walkie talkie. When you click off you're actually talking to your team mates when you're playing co-operatively online."
Accessibility is a buzz word that can be felt throbbing through EndWar's virtual veins. There are only seven units in total but most of the time players will only use three of them. The game uses a classic RTS rock, paper, scissors combat system - transports beat helicopters, helicopters beat tanks and tanks beat transports. Simple as that. Command Points, displayed on the bottom left of the screen, are used as an in-game currency to be spent on off-map support, including air strikes, paralysing electronic warfare and Force Recon units - well hard reserves that rush the enemy (a Clancy link). Each unit can be upgraded to a maximum of three levels which will persist throughout the single-player campaign and online play. Upgrading grants units new weapons, new abilities and secondary attacks. If they die though, they're gone forever. Luckily, units won't be killed straight away - they have a chance to be airlifted from battle and saved for the next fight, but you can go for the kill and completely obliterate downed enemy units if you're feeling particularly vicious.
In the skirmish Gerighty set up for us at Ubidays, the objective is also simple: kill every single enemy unit or capture over half of the six strategic uplinks, displayed on the mini-map and named using the phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo etc). Troops can be ordered to take these uplink points and upgrade them to bring in other units, like artillery, or, as Gerighty describes them, "long range death dealers".