Tom Clancy's EndWar (Xbox 360)
Think for a moment about all the standard, traditional handheld controllers you've ever handled. After the years you've spent using them, you probably thin k they're a perfectly natural way to control a game. But that familiarity obscures the indirect, imprecise way these controllers convert our desires into on-screen actions. Just consider all the times you've missed a jump in a platformer, or been shot in a first-person shooter, because your fingers weren't nimble enough.
The ideal interface would skip this middleman entirely and directly convert our thoughts into deeds without delay or interference. While other companies work on that pipe dream, Ubisoft has been trying to spruce up the real-time strategy genre with something to bridge the gap -- an interface for Tom Clancy's EndWar based on simple voice commands. While the idea and its execution have some merit, EndWar's flaws as a game pretty much guarantee that most people will make little note of the developer's achievement in voice-based controls.
The game's compelling narrative is not among these flaws. I was immediately hooked in by its extended, playable prologue, which illustrates a highly plausible near-future scenario that leads to a non-nuclear World War III. The end of oil, a worldwide missile shield, an ascendant United States of Europe, Russia's collusion with the "forgotten" nations of Africa and South America, and a terrorist attack on America's space defenses all combine toset off a powder keg of international conflict. It feels richer than the paper-thin fictions behind most war games. Once the war starts, short news vignettes between skirmishes provide quick, engaging updates on the international political situation. The backstory is marred only by some occasionally clunky writing and a few consistently wooden vocal performances.
Speaking of vocal performances, the thrill of using your voice to control an army is surely EndWar's biggest selling point. Seeing my tanks roll down the road after I spoke my first command ("Move Unit 1 to Bravo") was enough to bring a wide, self-satisfied grin to my face. The feeling of empowerment didn't wear off as the game progressed, and I began to feel like a god of the battlefield, moving units about the field effortlessly with the sound of my voice. The game's voice recognition held up reasonably well to all sorts of variations in tone, inflection and enunciation in the heat of battle, failing only occasionally. Like the first time you touch an iPhone, it's hard to try out this new control scheme and not feel like you are finally living in the future (lack of flying cars notwithstanding).
There are limits to the voice command structure, though. While the commands roll off the tongue naturally enough, they weren't always as intuitive as I'd have liked -- instead of saying "Helicopters attack tanks," for instance, I was forced to say the more generic "Unit 1 attack Hostile 5." The bigger problem is the surprisingly large number of commands that simply can't be given through a headset. There was no vocal option I could find to tell infantry units to find crucial cover -- this was done using some rather clunky, controller-based camera-fiddling and button-pressing. Similarly, voice commands can only send units toward other units or specific checkpoints on the map; planting a unit as a scout in a strategically important open area requires the controller. What's more, the game bizarrely fails to assign numbers to some hostile units, again forcing the use of the controller over the headset to set up an attack. For a game that sells itself on being totally controllable by voice, these omissions seem rather odd.
The real problems with EndWar's interface aren't what comes from your mouth, but what hits your eyes. The on-screen display is often a confusing, muddy, unit's-eye view of the action that makes it incredibly hard to make a tactical evaluation of the entire battlefield. I was forced to make constant, disconcerting camera jumps from unit to unit just to figure out what was going on. There is a persistent mini-map to help, but that cluttered collection of too-small moving shapes fails to identify units by type or number, meaning you usually need a unit's-eye evaluation to mount any sort of coherent voice-command action. An overhead "sitrep" view of the field gives slightly more information, but still requires constant controller-fiddling to make crucial enemy IDs. I know war is chaotic and this kind of imperfect information might be more realistic, but the complex mental juggling of what should be plainly shown on-screen saps a lot of the fun from the experience.
When you do get a handle on what's happening out there, the underlying game is too simplistic to be strategically interesting. There are a few battle types, but they all boil down to either rushed battles for strategically important "uplinks," or all-out battles to crush all enemy units. Instead of the unit production and resource management common to other RTS games, EndWar lets the player slowly (and I do mean slowly) fill the field with a set number of reserve units flown in by transport helicopter. The basic conceit is a rock-paper-scissors dynamic between the major units: Tanks defeat transports, which defeat helicopters, which defeat tanks in turn.
The mission map tries to add a Risk-like turn-based mini-game to the proceedings, but ends up being rather pointless.
Keeping a balanced force of all three of these unit types, with a few long-range artillery and engineers for support, is enough to handle the largely brain-dead artificial intelligence, which constantly sends out lone units to be easily picked off. The supporting AI isn't much better, leaving tanks to lie fallow unless specifically instructed to attack the enemy sitting 10 feet to their right, and leaving infantry to stand in the middle of a field unless specifically told to find cover. When I failed in EndWar, it was usually due to either the on-screen interface problems or to a game-breakingly unfair "feature" that lets the losing side annihilate a large part of the winning force when they're close to death.
Despite all the gameplay issues, though, EndWar is worth checking out for its innovative and largely effective voice controls. If some intrepid developer can take this base and tweak it to work with a stronger core game, we may be saying goodbye to our traditional, handheld controllers for good.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by Crispy Gamer.