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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tom Clancy's Endwar

I recently picked up Tom Clancy's Endwar. I am not impressed. The game is largely unplayable, and it is a horrible example of how *not* to make a RTS. The game is rotten down to its very mechanics, not to mention a fairly stereotypical storyline (for Clancy, Russians are evil, and America sticks its nose where it doesn't belong, which is basically the storyline of Endwar).

The game's fatal flaw is in the actual combat mechanics. Every unit is composed of several vehicles or infantry groups (I've never seen an individual infantryman killed, it's usually 2-4 killed at one time). Each unit has a shield that prevents it from being damaged, which regenerates when the unit is out of combat. It appears that every vehicle can be damaged separately (though not targeted separately) so it is possible to have a unit at 50% health with all vehicles still alive. The problem with this is two things: First, that you can not target a specific vehicle to focus-fire on it, you can only target units. Secondly: You have to kill the shield on the whole unit before any vehicles take damage. It is clear that the shield level is based on number of vehicles/squads still active in the unit, because if half the vehicles are destroyed, the shield will only regen to 50%, but if all vehicles are present, but some are damaged, the shield will regen fully.

For an RTS, only being able to target a specific unit and not a specific vehicle in that unit may not be a bad thing, or at least not game-breaking, but this game is based on small-unit tactics. Every destroyed vehicle is vitally important to your strategy, because you have (at most) about 50 vehicles. So far, about halfway through the main campaign, i have had at most 5 units, and three of them have been infantry. Tactics really don't matter in this game. As long as you attack with a strong unit type, you will win.

Speaking of unit types, the game essentially has a rock-paper-scissors system, with a few additions. Tanks beat transports (i.e. machine-gun mounted APCs), transports beat helicopter gunships, and gunships beat tanks. Now, there's also the matter of fortified engineers (with bazookas) being gods as long as they are garrisoned, and canon-fodder when they are not. There is also artillery which is also essentially useless unless you want to kill buildings.

Now, rock-paper-scissors is a decent system to start with, but Endwar doesn't really go beyond it. Rise of Nations uses a type of this system, but it is extensive and changes throughout the eras. It is simple to use, but complex to master. Endwar is simple to use and simple to master, because there is not much there. Endwar also suffers from the problem of rock paper and scissors not being equal. For example, tanks blow the crap out of transports, and transports blow the crap out of gunships, but gunships take forever to damage, let alone kill, tanks. This might make some sense (tank shells can probably blow through lightly armored vehicles and anti-air guns will take down helicopters with ease, but a machine-gun from the air isn't very effective against an armored tank.) This defeats the purpose of having the system, because tanks can be more easily defeated by other tanks than by gunships.

The game also pauses the action to pop up helpful tips that cannot be immediatly closed. Also, the delay between finishing the mission and continuing to the next is very long.

The game does have a few redeeming qualities (though not nearly redeeming enough). First is the voice command system. This sytem never really worked well for me in practice, but it is a good system in theory. Because everything is mapped out in terms of unit numbers and waypoints, you can give verbal commands to "Unit 3 attack hostile 4" or "unit 1 to Foxtrot" so you don't have to manually command each unit. The unfortunate part of this is that, with only ten units to control, there is no reason to use the voice commands. Maybe if the game was much more expansive than it is, this would be useful or even neccesary, but frankly it is not.

Another redeeming quality is that of the after-action rewards. You are given money (used for various world-campaign functions) for various things in battle. You are given money just for being in the battle (base pay) and bonuses for winning, units surviving, enemies destroyed, and other things. This means that if you are very succesful in the battle, but fail the objective, you will still get something for your trouble. It also softens a "loosing spiral" that happens when a player is loosing battles, and has no money to build new units.

I'm going to continue struggling through this game and try to find something enjoyable, but nothing has shown itself to be promising. -VG

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