Tom Clancy's EndWar
One lesson they don't teach you in Videogame Journalism School is this: If a publisher sits you down in a high-end, automated massage chair prior to a demo, there's usually a reason for doing so.
Studies show that having those magic fingers work their magic on you makes any game -- yes, even something like Fusion Frenzy 2 or Vampire Rain -- appear like it might be marginally fun.
Case in point: During a demo of Tom Clancy's EndWar in midtown Manhattan, fellow Crispyite Scott Alexander got to the massage chair before I could. (He's surprisingly agile for a big man.) As Alexander literally undulated before me, his eyes rolling back in his head, I sat down on the hard, ass-busting floor of the Shoreham Hotel penthouse, and got a clear-eyed, totally unmassaged and unbiased look at the last war-mongering Tom Clancy offering.
If you're a Clancy fan, no doubt you're voting Republican this year. In fact, my Oliver Stone streak makes me wonder if the Republican Party secretly funds these games, as tools to spawn new generations of Junior Republicans. Michael de Plater, the man responsible for the touted Total War series, is serving as the game's Creative Director.
The context of the game is World War III, which is, according to Clancy, slated to take place in the year 2020. You must choose one of a trio of factions -- the United States, the European Union and those dreaded Russians -- and then command said faction to victory. The game's opening cinema, as is typical of Clancy games, mixes real-world images of nuclear explosions, pixilated footage of soldiers trotting across deserts, and missiles sailing through blue skies.
Gameplay is fairly typical of the RTS genre. Pick the right troops for the right job. Send them in. Then, bring on the next objective. Rinse, repeat.
But there are two aspects of the game that save it from merely being a Command & Conquer clone.
First, the game's camera angle isn't the usual three-quarter/top-down view that is the norm for the genre. Instead, the game puts the camera into the middle of the action, right down on the battlefield itself. This gives the gameplay a more intimate quality, and works to make you feel more connected to your troops, tanks, choppers and so forth.
The second, and more impressive, aspect of the game is the voice-command ability. Using the Xbox 360 headset (the game was demoed on the 360, but it will also be available for the PS3), you'll be able to issue audible commands to your troops.
Not digging your current battlefield camera angle? Simply hold down the right trigger on the 360 controller as if it were your walkie-talkie button, and shift it by saying, "Unit one camera." Voila. The camera instantly jumps to unit one.
Here's a running sample of what the voice-commands sound like:
"Red Team move to crosshair. Unit five attack hostile. Unit four secure foxtrot. Air strike hostile two."
(Note: Be sure to notify any friends and family who may be nearby while you are playing the game, lest they think you are talking to your invisible childhood friend, Chad.) For those not in the mood to chat, commands can also be issued the old-fashioned, point-and-click way.
Overall, at this point in development, while the game's graphics are certainly serviceable for the genre, they don't exactly set a BioShock-esque standard that makes competitors (like C & C) look obsolete. Explosions are nice and fiery, and the individual soldiers down on the battlefield are rendered with a decent amount of detail, making them look, well, appropriately human.
I found EndWar's online mode especially intriguing. Ubisoft plans to create a persistent world in which gamers can gather and wage their wars. You sign up with a faction, the game matches you up with an opponent, and at day's end, once all the wins and losses are tallied across the board, new front lines will be drawn. The point is to help your faction conquer as much of the world as possible. Your smaller victories are then added to your faction's overall victories.
As the demo concluded, Alexander ceased his undulating and began the process of sleepily extricating himself from the loving, coddling arms of the Sharper Image massage chair. Whether or not a more intimate camera angle, voice-command and the seemingly ambitious online mode -- not to mention the tried and true Clancy name -- are enough to distinguish EndWar in the RTS genre remains to be seen. For the time being, Ubisoft confirmed that the game will not be shipping with a gratis massage chair. Though we here at Crispy agree, if more games did, we'd no doubt be doling out a whole lot more Buy Its?
Check back here in a few months for our final, massage-chair-free, Crispy-style Buy It/Try It/Fry It verdict.
This preview was based on a publisher-driven demo of the game. The release date has not yet been announced.