We gave the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Ubisoft Shanghai's EndWar a respectable 7/10 when it was released late last year, its voice command mechanic proving a satisfying, if unspectacular solution to that perennial console RTS control conundrum. Now, in early 2009, EndWar has finally arrived on the PC, the home of the RTS. Unfortunately this time around the rules of engagement are different and a much more unforgiving battlefield awaits.
PC gamers will compare EndWar to other PC RTSs and ask themselves: why should I play this instead? This is an inevitable, unavoidable question the game ultimately fails to answer convincingly. EndWar's up against the likes of Relic's excellent Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes, Creative Assembly's superb Empire: Total War, or Ubisoft's own World in Conflict: Soviet Assault - games built from the ground up as PC experiences. Where EndWar shone as a clever and accessible RTS on console, on PC it's comprehensively put into the shade by its big-boy PC RTS competition.
The biggest problem is that the meat of EndWar's gameplay is more bare bones than juicy steak. The near future setting, which sees the Enforcer Corps (Europe), the United States Joint Strike Force (US) and the Spetsnaz Guard Brigade (Russia) all going at it in a near-future World War III, is neat enough and certainly in keeping with classic Clancy, but its limitations prevent it from being an essential purchase. There's no story to speak of, there are only four game types (conquest - control over half the uplinks, assault - wipe out every enemy unit, raid - destroy or defend a key building before the end of the countdown, and siege - capture or defend an uplink in an enemy city) and the three factions play so similarly that the game relies almost exclusively on the quality of its core gameplay, which, while fun, isn't complex enough to satisfy those looking for an RTS experience to rival the best on PC.
The voice command feature from the console versions returns, but instead of holding down the right trigger on the joypad and speaking into the mic like a walkie talkie you press the space bar. In this way you're able to open up communications with any of your forces on the battlefield. From there you're able to control movement, attacking, retreating and the securing of uplinks, crucial to the success of any EndWar match. So, by saying something like: "unit one move to bravo", you'll send unit one trotting off towards uplink bravo. Simple.
Things obviously get more complicated than that. While units will automatically attack a hostile when they spot one, you can order any number of your units to attack a hostile ("unit two attack hostile one"), and spread your forces around so you're attacking multiple hostiles at the same time ("unit three plus four attack hostile five"). From there's it's very much a case of micro management so that you're exploiting the game's simple rock, paper, scissors combat chain.
At its simplest tanks beat transports, transports beat gunships and gunships beat tanks. Keeping this in mind will stand you in good stead well into the single-player campaign, an offline version of EndWar's interesting Theatre of War game mode. But at higher difficulties and online against human players factoring in riflemen, engineers, artillery and command vehicles makes sound strategy more essential, and the game more rewarding.
If there's one word that describes EndWar's design philosophy it's simplicity. Ubisoft Shanghai has smartly eschewed base building for a simple resource gathering mechanic that's dependent on the securing of uplinks. Most matches will, in our experience, begin with an out and out dash for the nearest uplinks - ("unit one secure alpha", "unit two secure bravo" and so on and so forth). Once secured, you start gaining Command Points which can then be spent on strengthening your force with more units. Once an uplink is held you can instruct your infantry to upgrade it, making available special attacks, like a vehicle disabling EMP or a devastating orbital attack. They're satisfying to use and we like the small picture in picture video that plays in the top left corner when you call one in, too.
Although EndWar is billed as being playable entirely with your voice, doing so is actually slower than using the mouse and keyboard, and I found the unreliable voice recognition (it took us half a day to get the game working with a headset) much poorer on PC than it was on console. It made the whole thing redundant. Instead of telling a unit to move or attack, it's much quicker to simply use the number keys to select units and right click on enemy units and destinations instead. EndWar on PC, at the end of the day, feels very much like the port from consoles that it is.
That you find yourself wishing that Ubisoft had made EndWar a "proper" PC RTS shows that it's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but a disappointing one. There are flashes of what might have been, glimpses of satisfaction enjoyed as you begin to master the combat chain, but the game's bogged down by its own design and the odd frustration. Getting infantry to take the right side of cover is hellishly fiddly, and there will be occasions where helicopters will stand still and refuse to shoot at a nearby hostile because the line of sight is broken when it could easily move a bit to see it again. And because there are only seven units in the whole game, and all three races have access to them all, there's little in the way of variety. Yes you can upgrade your units by spending cash in the barracks, giving them a degree of individuality, and you can level them up by keeping them alive across multiple battles (units can be airlifted to safety when they're incapacitated, preventing them from being killed outright), but for all intent and purpose rushing infantry to uplinks, making sure you've got helicopters trained on enemy tanks and tanks trained on enemy transports will be the overriding concern of all players, no matter what faction you choose to play as.
EndWar is at its best online. Here, the MMO-style Theatre of War allows players to contribute to a persistent WW3, which ebbs and flows depending on your success and that of others around the world. Every victory is factored into the day's fighting, opening up new maps and new offensives as fronts move back and forth. You can play alone one on one, or alongside another player in two versus two battles, which works well. The feeling you get from contributing to something bigger than the game itself is satisfying indeed, and is EndWar's greatest achievement.
On console EndWar's graphics were occasionally impressive, but on PC, in comparison to things like Dawn of War II and Empire: Total War, they come across as bland. The units are well designed and have great animations, but there's little to differentiate the same units across the three factions. There's the odd nice touch, like the shaky cam that triggers when your infantry storm into a building, but the forgettable explosions and building destruction make proceedings feel a little dated. The sound, however, is brilliant, with plenty of dialogue making itself heard during battle - great for immersing you in the action and providing audio clues to the player.
There's a degree of geek-fuelled fun to be had with EndWar, but we can't help but feel as if it's been thrown into the deep end of the RTS pool with only poor quality gear and outdated weaponry to fend off the sharks with. We're not saying every PC gamer out there plays real-time strategy games, and there's truth to the argument that EndWar makes for a solid entry level PC RTS, but, ultimately, most PC gamers will find the experience too dumbed down to warrant investigation. On console EndWar is good. On PC it's in over its head.