Review: Tom Clancy’s EndWar (Nintendo DS)

Tom Clancy’s EndWar
Developer: Funatics Software
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Release Date: 11/07/08

First, a bit of disclosure: I haven’t played much of any Tom Clancy games except maybe 5 minutes of a Rainbow Six game. However, I have played my share of strategy games, so I suppose that’s qualification enough for me to review this game. I’ll admit when I first saw this game, I bestowed it with the tongue-in-cheek moniker “Advance Wars For People Who Hate Anime”.

How applicable is that nickname? Read on to find out.

Story/Modes
Tired of fighting World War 2 in game after game after game after…okay, you get the point?

Here, have some World War 3.

Major nuclear conflicts in the Middle East decimate the area, depriving the world of a major source of fuel. As a result, fuel prices shoot up to exorbitant proportions and Russia becomes the new primary fuel supplier. This prompts Russia into restoring its military might and reemerging as a superpower. Most of Europe reacts by deciding to unite and form the European Federation. The United States and the European Federation sign the SLAMS (Space-Land-Air Missile Shield) Treaty, which states that they would cooperate in developing a comprehensive, interlocking anti-ballistic missile system. Russia, naturally, rankles at being left out and works to develop its own system. Energy security becomes everyone’s top priority. The proverbial ordure hits the ventilator when the US decides to launch the “Freedom Star” space station into orbit, causing strife in its alliance with EF and triggering an arms race that escalates into World War 3.

The story functions well as a premise for a game centered around war (and is also somewhat plausible, which is kind of scary). However, there’s not much plot exposition beyond the background I’ve just outlined, nor is there much character development. Most of the game just consists of various missions involving either taking over an enemy base or helping allies fend off enemy attacks in some form. While such missions are expected given the nature of the game, it doesn’t make for particularly enthralling gameplay. The dearth of plot and character development is disappointing, as it had potential to go somewhere, especially given the usage of that famous Albert Einstein quote, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones” as part of marketing for the game. Surprisingly, your player character actually gets lines, but they’re pretty generic, much like the rest of the characters, which consists mainly of you, a general, and either a goody-goody solider or a smartaleck who uses terms like “Russkies” and “Yankees” and gets smacked down by one of the other two for it. Characters from other Tom Clancy games do make appearances in this game, which should please Tom Clancy buffs.

Campaign Mode is the story mode wherein you play through 10 missions as either the European Federation Enforcers Corps, the United States’ Joint Strike Force, or the Russian Spetsnaz Guards Brigade. Battle mode lets you fight the AI on any map you’ve unlocked. Versus mode is exactly what it sounds like, but only local multi-card two player battling is supported. Editor mode allows you to create maps to use and trade with other players (again, locally only). Sadly, I could not test out versus mode because there’s no one near me who also owns this game.

The map editor is alright, but it could use more polish. It lets you choose map size (from 6×6 to 10×10), season (winter or summer), and which factions you want to face each other. When you’re placing terrain and structures (which you can assign to a side or leave neutral), you place them in squares representing groups of hexagons, not individual ones. It also only lets you place groups of units rather than specific ones. Better customization in those two areas would improve this mode and add more possibilities to what you can do in these maps.

Story/Modes: Good

Graphics
Battles take place on a hexagonal grid. Granted, the hexagons looks more like squares that have been rotated 45 degrees and the side corners squished in a bit, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll just refer to them as hexagons, since that’s essentially how they function as anyway. The maps are detailed enough, with differences in terrain and units easily distinguishable. The satellite screen that shows up after you enter all your commands looks good enough, but you’ll soon find yourself wanting to skip it.

The battle screen would be the main reason for the Advance Wars comparisons that crop up here and there. During combat, a split screen with your unit on the left and the enemy on the right appears on the top screen. Their remaining health and experience are displayed on the bottom, and combat bonus percentage is smack dab in the middle. The in-battle backgrounds tend to have silhouettes of buildings and bridges, but are otherwise fairly bland.

There’s pre-battle dialogue before each mission conveyed through text boxes and a little portrait of each character. Your character even gets a different portrait depending on which branch you play, which is a nice little touch. You can also go back and forth through the test boxes if you missed anything or want to reread something, which especially comes in handy for reviewing the objectives for the mission.

The general color scheme of the game leans towards the darker side (though vehicles look somewhat washed out), which suits the feel of the game. After all, World War 3 and nuclear warfare are not exactly happy fun times (for most people, anyway). The vehicles look pretty good and are reasonably realistically detailed. The soldiers, on the other hand, look like they’re made out of clay and lack distinct features. Each faction’s units are colored differently – red for Russia, blue for Europe, and yellow for America – so it’s easy to tell your units apart from the enemy’s. Overall, though, the graphics aren’t exactly system pushers, but they do the job well enough, and animations are smooth.

Graphics: Above Average

Sound
The music sounds pretty much like you’d expect and fits the theme of the game well. However, the soundtrack lacks variation, or at least the tracks sound rather similar to each other, so you might grow bored with listening to it after a while. Fortunately, the music really plays more in the background, so it’s not too annoying. Everything sounds like they’re supposed to – explosions sound like explosions, gunshots sounds like gunshots, and so forth. There’s even snippets of voice acting when you highlight an infantry unit, which while nothing exciting fits into the game well. A voice will also chime in with “move” at the beginning on the move cycle, but I haven’t heard it do the same for the attack cycle, which is a small but peculiar inconsistency.

Sound: Decent

Control and Gameplay
Many strategy games contain an element of luck. Fire Emblem is probably one of the more prominently notorious examples of this. Random chance determines your stat gains upon leveling up. Its whims are what determines whether the enemy lands that critical despite the probability of them doing so being in the single digits or if you’ll be spared, at least for the turn. It also decides whether you’ll land that finishing strike or fumble in spite of the odds being heavily in your favor.

None of that applies to this game.

This has both benefits and detriments. The strength of the units involved and their position relative to each other (and whether ally or enemy units are within close vicinity) are the only two factors that decide the outcome of the battle. Knowing that, you can predict exactly how battles will turn out and try to manipulate things in your favor, as attacks occur exactly in the order you put them in. However, this also means you can’t rely on any miracles to save you in a precarious situation (unless you count any blunders by the AI as a miracle, which come by rather scarcely if at all).

Moving and attacking occur in two different phases of each cycle, as you’re issuing orders to your troops via satellite, then having them execute them all at once. This took a bit of adjusting for me because I’m used to moving and attacking at the same time with one character at a time. I’d move a unit, then try to attack with them only to have to remind myself that it was still the movement phase. Or I would go to move a unit, then look down and see it’s the attack phase. Nonetheless, I was able to adjust quickly.

Your opponent is always in the opposite cycle you’re in (when you’re moving, they’re attacking, and vice versa). This system is a double edged sword because on the one hand, it allows you attack your opponent before they move. Of course, that also means they can do the same to you, so if you miscalculate, you may not be able to get a besieged unit out of dodge in time. It’s an interesting mechanic, but the satellite screens that pop up slows down the gameplay flow. Granted, an “update” to the device used to communicate commands eliminates this screen, but there’s still a wait between when you confirm your moves and when they’re actually carried out, as you also have to wait for your opponent to finish their turn. You can see what they’re doing on the top screen, which can be helpful if you’re a diligent observer.

The number and proximity of your units and your enemy’s units to each other are calculated into combat bonuses. Combat bonuses affect the amount of damage inflicted and taken on both sides. Having an ally unit on any side of the enemy will give you a 10% bonus, while having an ally directly opposite of another ally and next to an enemy will net you a whooping 50% combat bonus. Naturally, the same applies for the enemy. Units can also block each other, and if a unit approaches a threatening unit, they lose their remaining movement range. Jamming occurs when two units surround an enemy unit, restricting their movement.

You can’t take back a move once you select it, which is a bit of an annoyance, considering you’re not moving your units one by one, but rather inputting commands and then having executed all at once. Granted, it’s nothing gamebreaking, it just means you have to think very carefully before moving a unit. But it’s a strange omission considering many other games that have you move one unit at a time include the option. Plus the action isn’t even taking place simultaneously with you giving directives, so I don’t see any reason for not being able to cancel and reissue a move order. The good news is that when you select a unit to move, you can see if they’re within attacking range of enemy units when you hover over a space, or see an enemy unit’s attack and move range (depending on which cycle you’re in) by placing the cursor on it, which aids with strategizing.

Either the buttons or the stylus can be used to control the game. Both work efficiently and are easy to pick up, so it’s really a matter of preference. I found myself using a mix of the buttons and the stylus most of the time. For me, selecting units and a spot for them to move to and confirming my commands is faster with the stylus than scrolling through the map or menus (though you can do it that way too), while bringing up the map and cycling through the information page is expedited with using the shoulder buttons. But your mileage may vary.

Units gain experience for each enemy they damage or kill. The more experience they accumulate, the stronger and more resilient they grow, so it behooves you to keep them alive. Yes, you can build more units, but resources are limited, meaning you can’t just perpetually create new units to replace ones destroyed in battle. Plus, units without experience aren’t as effective as more seasoned units. The only way to heal units is to place them in a building or aircraft carrier or with repair vehicles (which are also limited in quantity), so caution is essential to survival.

There’s enough idiosyncrasies to set this game apart from the likes of the Advance Wars series, while retaining some elements that made those games enjoyable. While the whole issue commands through satellite is an interesting mechanic, it also disrupts the flow of the game.

Control and Gameplay: Great

Replayability
Storyline-wise, there’s no real reason for you to replay once you’ve gotten through all the missions. However, there are other incentives for replaying missions. You can earn medals for fulfilling certain conditions in each mission, such as destroying specific units or achieving victory within a certain amount of turns. Naturally, the better you do in combat, the higher your score and the better the the associated star. The possible color stars you can get, from highest to lowest rank, are platinum, gold, silver, bronze, and blue. You lose points for losing buildings and units being damaged or destroyed. You gain points for enemy units you damage or destroy, buildings captured, and remaining resources. Unlocking medals and obtaining higher ranks unlocks maps to play in Battle Mode. So if you’re compulsive about unlocking everything and achieving the highest rank on every map, the game will last you a while. If you’re not, this’ll have a more average shelf life.

Replayability: Decent

Balance
Although each faction supposedly has an area it’s most adept in – the UF specializing in technological and urban warfare, the JSF in speed, stealth, and precision, and Russia in heavy weaponry and armor – they play pretty much the same way. It’s too bad, really, as it would’ve been interesting to pit these different battle styles against each other.

Of course, various units do better or worse against other types of units. For instance, anti-air units tend to obliterate, well, air units. Others can’t even attack certain types of units, or can only attack from afar. In one of the tutorial stages, I was forced to send an infantry unit against a tank when the player character basically went, “Oh gee, I wonder what would happen if I send this infantry unit against that tank…” Yes, I know they were trying to prove a point, but I found that a bit absurd because just about anyone can figure out that having an infantry unit try to take down a tank is like attempting to demolish a brick wall with a feather duster. Really now.

Should you commit a tactical error, the AI will exploit your blunder to its advantage. If you leave a unit isolated, expect to watch it get ganged up on. You can also kiss goodbye any weak units within firing range of enemy units, even if you try to have it retreat ASAP. If you’re looking for a challenge, you’ll certainly find it here. If you lose a mission, you’re offered some reinforcements, which helps tilt things in your favor if you’re having difficulty with a mission.

Even on the so-called “easy” branch, you’ll still run into stages that test your strategic prowess. For example, in one battle, your goal is to destroy the anti-air artillery units. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, guess what the bulk of your units are. The first time I tried that stage, I got down to one submarine with maxed experience and full health. For kicks I tried to win the battle with just that lone sub, but eventually I had to restart because all the enemy units moved inland and the sub couldn’t touch them. I did get past that mission on my second try, though – ironically enough, primarily with two helicopters (although I had to be careful of how many units they were in attacking range of). Even with odds stacked against you, they’re surmountable if you utilize what you have strategically.

Balance: Good

Originality
The separation of moving and attacking into two different phases provides an interesting deviation from the usual “move and attack with one unit at a time” that most other console and handheld games in this genre use. Not to say anything negative about the latter, but it’s still a change of pace nonetheless. The game also does a good job of simulating orders being transmitted via satellite. The idea of actually fighting through a World War 3’s also an intriguing concept, but unfortunately it’s underdeveloped.

Originality: Above Average

Addictiveness
Battles can take a while to complete, limiting the appeal of playing through multiple missions in one sitting. Fortunately, you can save anytime and pick up where you left off if you need to put the game down for a bit. That being said, I did find myself wanting to finish whatever battle I was in, as they actually are fun to play through (OK, that, and I want my victory – let’s not mince words here). I do wish there was the option to turn off animations, though.

Addictiveness: Good

Appeal Factor
The “Tom Clancy” name attached to this game should help it move copies, considering the popularity of the series that falls under the umbrella of titles that fall under that name. Anyone tired of the anime-style artwork seemingly pandemic in other games in the genre should enjoy this. I personally have nothing against anime, but I’ve heard complaints about the lack of anything without anime on the DS, so there you go. The lack of Wi-Fi support does bring down the appeal a bit (I’ll say more about that next section).

Appeal Factor: Enjoyable

Miscellaneous
The lack of Wi-Fi support is disappointing. Other strategy games on the DS like the Luminous Arc games, Fire Emblem:Shadow Dragon, and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin have it, so I have no idea why such a feature would be omitted in this game. Yes, you can trade maps and battle locally, but that’s really only useful if you know other people who own a DS and this game. Being able to go head-to-head with people and share maps online would’ve added to the game and made the map editor more useful.

Also, I did encounter one strange little bug when a heavy artillery attacked my bomber. The bomber supposedly had no health left going in the battle, yet it was still standing after the artillery was through with it. Granted, I’d moved it into the carrier during my movement phase, but still. Considering I’ve only encountered this once and that it did display the correct amount of health left in the bomber after that, I’m willing to write this off as a one-off. But it’s still an oddity present in the game.

Miscellaneous: Below Average

The Scores
Story/Modes: Good
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Good
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
Miscellaneous: Below Average
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
The plot serves it purpose of giving you a reason to be fighting all these battles, but it won’t be what compels you to keep playing. The separation of movement and attacking into two different phases might take some getting used to, but it’s actually an interesting thing to play through. If you’re looking for a strategy game on the DS with a Western feel or just looking for another strategy game for the DS, here you go.