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Tom Clancy's EndWar

Score: 82%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer: Funatic
Media: Cartridge/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Strategy/ Turn-Based Strategy/ Board Games

Graphics & Sound:

One of the first games I downloaded from Nintendo's Virtual Console was the classic, Military Madness. It's an unassuming title, but one that has garnered much praise and amassed a legion of devoted fans. The reason is simple: Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. Nobody ever hated form over function more than gamers. Give us sexy graphics and we'll drool like anyone else, but we always come back to wanting a game that is fun to play and gives us the satisfaction of a job well done. Military Madness still does that job well today, over a decade after its creation, and Tom Clancy's EndWar aims to continue that tradition for the DS.

The DS is perfectly suited to pulling off a game that doesn't ask the moon and stars from a graphical perspective. What we find in EndWar for DS would be considered retro unless you knew the context, and that's not a bad thing. Compared to the more modern design aesthetic of a game like Advance Wars that borrows heavily from anime and manga, EndWar can look a bit dowdy. Thinking of the tremendously entertaining Fire Emblem series will bring you closer to the style of EndWar. Battle engagements aren't meant to be flashy, just to showcase the two sides facing off and giving you some visual representation of each battle's outcome. You can even skip these animations later in the game if they start to get old. There is some great music that pumps up the action considerably, with moody beats and rallying songs that seem to drive you and your troops forward into battle. The sound effects that accompany battle actions or movement are passable, but hardly in the same category as the music. There are even some basic voice effects, but no extended spoken parts for character development. You'll read the text, listen to the music, and be happy as long as you can appreciate a more retro setting.


Gameplay:

As you might have guessed from earlier examples, Tom Clancy's EndWar brings the series to DS with a turn-based dynamic that sets it apart from what is happening on the larger consoles. Rather than try to emulate the real-time controls of other systems, EndWar was envisioned for DS as a series of turn-based battles that closely follow the story and characters introduced in the other releases. You'll step into the shoes of a new recruit for one of two factions, either the United States Joint Strike Force (JSF) or the European Federation Enforcers. Each faction represents a campaign, and also a slightly higher level of difficulty, up to the final Spetsnaz faction. Layered within each faction's campaign is a series of smaller campaigns, also keyed to a beginning, medium, or hard level of challenge. Selecting the European faction basically throws you into a tutorial where you learn the controls of the game and the different units you'll work with. You're thrown into situations and given more and more rope until you can easily hang yourself. Veteran Strategy fans will find the introductory missions tedious, which argues for a separate tutorial mode. The rationale for wrapping the tutorial into the first few missions is that even veteran players need to know where the story is going.

Story development is a big part of Tom Clancy's EndWar. As you move from the Enforcers missions on to the JSF series, you'll switch over to the American perspective on the same events detailed by the Europeans. The stories cross over, creating a nice continuity that continues through the entire game. This is a big deal for a genre that usually has only a thin layer of story to explain why you move from place to place, fighting one battle after another. Thanks most likely to this being part of Tom Clancy's EndWar universe, the games creators put in the time to make the story a centerpiece rather than an afterthought. You get to see some of the same characters popping up during the dialogue segments that bookend each engagement, but there's no real character development in the way you'd associate in a RPG or other long-form game. The battles roll together until the Campaign mode is all tapped out, but there's plenty of gameplay available. Once you conquer all the single-player maps, or if you just feel like a change, you can switch over to Battle Mode and wage war against another player using maps you've unlocked in the Campaign. There are special maps that can be unlocked through top performance, similar to Achievements on Xbox Live.

The final wrinkle to EndWar that really tips the scales in its favor is a Map Editor that allows you to play and trade custom maps. This has infinite possibility, as you can script out ideas using any of the units and terrain found in the main game. Especially through trading maps, we can imagine some really neat evolutions cropping up over time as this game gains its audience. The only downside is not having any online trading, such as we saw recently with Line Rider. This would have been a really obvious step, to encourage more than just local trades. It would have also opened up the possibility of playing some new, creative maps instead of being limited to what came preloaded on this cart and whatever your immediate circle of friends can cook up.


Difficulty:

There are many things to love about EndWar. It steps up gradually in difficulty where other games like Fire Emblem quickly evolve to crushing and unforgiving levels. The manual specifies that "brute force tactics have little chance of success," but there's a decent buffer for players that favor a shock-and-awe approach. Like most games of this type, you can complete a mission by defeating all enemies or you can satisfy a strategic objective like capturing an enemy base or defeating a single, critical unit. The latitude you have for running and gunning a bit instead of sticking to strategic gameplay diminishes as you move out of the easier missions, making the harder situations so rigid as to almost be on rails. This is where veterans and fans of classic turn-based games like Military Madness will really get their game on. For anyone coming to EndWar with the conventions of other games in this genre in mind, there is some adjustment to the flow of the engagements. I didn't walk away a big fan of the way EndWar artificially divides the action and movement phases during combat, but after you get used to the difference, it's not hard to adjust. The payoff is worth the pain, as you open up map after map of strategic goodness.

Game Mechanics:

EndWar deftly combines touch-screen controls with button controls in a very simple interface that has lots of intuitive aspects. It is possible to play the entire game without the stylus, if you just don't like using the touchscreen. There aren't any touch mini-games for instance, or any reason to break out the stylus and interrupt the on-screen action. Playing with the stylus can also be your preferred mode, and each type of action on screen you would initiate with a button shows up as a tab that you can tap to launch a menu or action. Economy of presentation makes this an easy game to navigate, without arbitrary menus that you wish would just go away. Switching between the map and the details on an enemy unit is accomplished with one tap or click of a button. Likewise, you can scroll around the map using the D-pad very nicely, or simply tap the stylus in the direction you'd like to slide the overhead view. EndWar gives each side two turns each, making up a single round. The first player will move units, and the second player will then designate attack strategies. The first player then gets to attack, followed by the second player's movement phase. This plays out much differently than we're used to seeing in games where you move and then immediately attack if you can. There have always been units in other games that could only move or attack, but not both. Moving your unit within attack range of an enemy but then waiting for the enemy to take his turn seems a bit artificial. The weirdest thing is that the enemy may be making plans to move an enemy that is about to be decimated, so what's the point of going through the movement phase until you see your opponent's attacks? It's confusing, but you'll make the adjustment after a few rounds. The battle dynamics are generally very standard, with a mix of land, sea, and air units. Limitations on attack and movement range, combined with advantages over certain types of enemy units, makes for nice strategic complexity. Layer in the idea that friendly units gain an advantage by proximity to other units and you have a formula for an experience that plays out in some instances like a finely-tuned chess match.

The difference between something like Tom Clancy's EndWar for DS and a chess game is that no variant boards are required to make a game of chess more challenging. Our modern sensibility just wouldn't allow for a simple field of black and white boxes on which different military units were scattered. It wouldn't be out of the question to build a game like this, but instead we have a mix of environments that modify the attack and defense capability of individual units, and units that gain strength and battle advantage by moving in squads. The other element that makes this feel like "chess 2.0" is including a story and a cast of characters. Tom Clancy's EndWar does a great job of combining all these elements and falls down only by missing out on the opportunity to build in online trading between players and pushing a slightly goofy style of play that breaks from convention and takes some getting used to. Otherwise, a fun game in a genre that needs more fun games, especially on this platform.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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