If nothing else, Tom Clancy's EndWar proves that Ubisoft Shanghai's voice command solution to that perennial console RTS control conundrum works. The tech behind the system, which sees you dish out commands using your voice rather than your thumbs, is robust enough to understand what you're saying about 95 per cent of the time. That's good enough to make EndWar the most intuitive console RTS out there.
The only problem is that the meat of the 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 World War III, is neat enough and certainly in keeping with classic Clancy, but the 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 for ten minutes and siege - capture or defend an Uplink in an enemy city) and the three races 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 a console RTS experience to rival the best on PC.
Much like those walkie talkies you used to play with as a child on Christmas day, by holding down the right trigger (on the Xbox 360, the version tested) 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 mechanic.
At its simplest, tanks beat transports, transports beat gunships and gunships beat tanks. Keeping this in mind should enable you to progress well into the single-player campaign, an offline version of EndWar's excellent 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 fun.
Although the game was billed as being playable entirely with your voice, doing so is actually slower in some cases than using the traditional controls. For example, you could say 'Unit 3 camera' to zip across the map and see things from that unit's point of view, but it can be easier and quicker to use left or right on the d-pad to cycle to unit three and press X. And when you have a hostile fixed squarely in your targeting reticule, it's often much quicker to simply press A to make that unit attack it than say 'Unit three attack hostile two'. In reality, combining voice communication with controller inputs is the most efficient way of getting things done, which provides a less idealistic experience than the game promised during its development, but, essentially, works a treat.
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 reinforcing 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 quite 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.
The focus on simplicity, while well-intentioned, does negatively impact on the gameplay on occasions. When a faction is about to be defeated, it's able to call in devastating WMDs and crash an uplink. The WMD strike will destroy pretty much anything on the map, and feels incredibly cheap not only to suffer from, but use. It feels a bit like losing a Mario Kart race only because the game's given a Lightning power up to whoever is in last place.
And there are times when you wish that you could more accurately control your units. 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 your units 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 intents and purposes, 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 the success of you and other players 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 work well. The feeling you get from contributing to something bigger than the game itself is satisfying indeed, and is EndWar's greatest achievement.
The graphics are at times superb, but often fail to excite. The units themselves are well designed, and have good animations, but there is little to differentiate the same units across the three factions. Despite the nice touches, like the shaky cam when your infantry storm into a building, the explosions are hilariously forgettable and the building destruction distinctly last-gen. 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.
Once you get over the fact that playing EndWar makes you look and sound like a bit of a twat, you start to have quite a lot of geek-fuelled fun ordering your army about the battlefield, but we can't help but feel that EndWar is more proof of concept technical showcase than fully fleshed out triple-A title. The future is bright, however. Safe in the knowledge that EndWar's voice command system works, and is fun to use, we hope Ubisoft Shanghai gets the opportunity to make a sequel, where, we imagine, there will be much more to wrap your voice box around.