"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".
Supplementing the single-player campaign (the game starts with three missions designed to give you a taste of all three factions, then WW3 kicks off and you need to choose sides for global domination) and the skirmish (up to eight-player 20-minute quick in / quick out matches) modes is the Theatre of War mode, which we reckon is the most interesting thing about EndWar. In essence a massive multiplayer persistent campaign, players choose a faction (from the Americans, Europeans and Russians) and fight alongside every other player in that faction and against everyone who isn't. Ubisoft will culminate all of the match results and, the following day, update the Risk-style board. In this way your results will count towards the overall success of your faction.
"Let's say I'm defending Paris," explains Gerighty. "100,000 people play and 70,000 people playing the American faction win. The next day Paris is American and we can all decide to go on the offensive or go back on the defensive again." Nice.
From our admittedly brief time with the game we didn't notice many differences between the three factions, but Gerighty assures us that there's plenty. "The Russians have huge missile launchers and are more mercenary style, the Europeans are very technologically focused and the Americans are very fast and use stealth. The analogy is orcs, humans and elves." EndWar won't set any graphical benchmarks either, but the game impresses in other ways.
One of our primary concerns going into our voice-on was that the extremely basic and simple gameplay would result in an RTS devoid of, well, RTSness for want of a better word. But Gerighty disagrees. "The idea was to create a strategy game on console," says Gerighty when asked what genre EndWar falls into. "The fact is every time we talk about strategy people internally freak. But yeah, it's a strategy game. We've taken our cues from FPSs, MMOs, RPGs, there are lots of different elements that we've stolen left, right and centre and it makes a very visceral action game. But basically it's based on your strategic decisions and massive battles that ensue."
I agree that the game remains at its core an RTS, and indeed it plays like a traditional RTS, but the emphasis here is on quick fire fun. There's no base-building for example, and micro-management is non-existent bar the occasional "unit X retreat" command when you're getting pummelled or "unit X attack target" when the line of sight system spots an enemy. Ironically, EndWar will probably be harder to wrap your head around if you're well schooled in the PC RTS arts compared with someone completely new to the genre.
The night before Ubidays proper, Ubisoft treated the world's gaming press to a live demo of the game. At the time I was blown away - commanding units through voice command only with the Xbox 360 microphone hooked up while standing in front of a huge screen made EndWar look like the greatest military general sim ever made and the video game most likely to make you feel like Matthew Broderick in classic 80s flick War Games. It seems as if EndWar could be the game to challenge Microsoft's fellow console-only RTS Halo Wars. We're looking forward to WW3 with bated breath.
Tom Clancy's EndWar is due out for Xbox 360 and PS3 in Autumn 2008.