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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars

Developer: Ubisoft Sofia
Publisher: Ubisoft

It's time to give Julian Gollop more money.

Julian Gollop, maker of X-Com: UFO Defense and Laser Squad: Nemesis, has never been one of the sexy names in game development even though his games are extremely well-designed. On top of that, turn-based strategy games have never been a particularly exciting genre for most. Yet, somehow, Gollop and Ubisoft have made the best game currently available for the 3DS.


Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is set in Russia in the near future. You have six soldiers that each have different skills and have to use them to finish a whole lot of missions. Duke is the leader, Haze is a sniper, Saffron is the medic, Mint is the engineer, Banshee is the scout and Richter is the minigun-toting tank of the crew. In order to accomplish your missions, you'll need to deploy each of these effectively.

If you've played games like Fire Emblem, Advance Wars or Shining Force, you'll know how this game will play out. You take a turn and try to kill their dudes, and the enemy takes a turn and tries to kill your dudes. Being a Ghost Recon game, this is obviously modern combat with guns, grenades and rocket launchers.

Terrain matters. If you have higher ground than your opponent, you'll cause more damage to them. If you have the low ground, you'll take more damage. If you're in a bush, you'll have a little bit of cover. If you're behind a fence, you'll have a little bit of cover from the front but not from the side or back. If you're in a building, you'll take far less damage.

The characters are a ton of fun to use. For example, Mint can deploy a turret. If you know you have to defend a position, you can deploy the turret to provide you what amounts to another helper, albeit one that doesn't move. Banshee is especially fun to use, as she is unable to be attacked by enemy units as long as there isn't a unit directly next to her. She also has a backstab move that can either kill or take the majority of an enemy's health, which requires you to gamble a little bit. Move her in close and go for the kill, or have peck away at opponents from afar?

Missions are pretty varied. For example, one mission has you rescuing friendly soldiers from a building. Then, you have to defuse a bomb on a ship. You race across the map to a control tower to open up a pathway to the ship and then defuse the bomb. In the meantime, of course, you're taking fire from enemies and have to hold off as many as you can.

In another mission, you navigate the corridors of an enemy base and plant bombs. Then, you track down the last position of an enemy leader to gather intel, defend Mint for a few turns and escape before you get inundated with enemy soldiers that pour in.

It's surprising that the missions don't seem to repeat themselves, considering that there are so many of them. I'm 12 hours into the game, and according to the save screen, only about 20% complete. It's not like I dawdle through the missions, either, as I would guesstimate I've completed about 25 or more of them. With that in mind, there's a lot of variety here that will keep you entertained for a really long time.

The 3D also goes a long way toward making a humdrum-looking game in 2D look like a great in 3D. You can see what terrain is higher. You can tell what areas are traversible by your crew and which ones aren't. You don't need some sort of artificial marker to tell you what is what because the 3D effect handles that effortlessly.

Shadow Wars is by no means perfect. I would have liked if line-of-sight was better implemented. For example, let's say two enemies are standing, one in front of the other. Both can take a shot at me. Realistically, the one in back would shoot his friend on accident, but not in this game. I suppose they left it that way to make it easier to use for newbies or people not generally disposed to play turn-based strategy, but I ask you: Would a person who doesn't like turn-based strategy pick up a turn-based strategy game? Watering it down just makes those who want real strategy frustrated.

The sound is very blah. Characters will grunt when they take damage, but those sounds aren't uniform. A character can get hit three times in a row and use three different voices to grunt in pain. That's weird to me. The music is a little disposable as well, but it's not bad.

There's something else odd: Your characters are bullet sponges. They can get hit repeatedly, make their odd-sounding grunts, and keep on moving. However, when one of them dies, the mission is completely over. It doesn't matter if you've spent half an hour on the mission. Shadow Wars doesn't care. The mission is failed and you must start over.

It explains why everyone (including the medic) can take ridiculous amounts of damage, but it's also a little annoying when all of your progress is wiped out because someone gets bushwhacked. How about this for the next game: If your character dies, you have two turns to get your medic over to them and revive them. Maybe they would only revive with half of their hit points and can't have their normal allotment back until the next mission. I don't know. I'm not the designer. Just figure it out for next time, OK?

Also, Banshee can be overpowered if you do it right. For example, I learned the sneak-attack move with her and also gained the ability to gain a crazy amount of Action Points, which enable you to do super-charged attacks. In one mission, I had her running around behind enemy lines and systematically murdering almost half of the opposing force with backstabs and good timing. It was hilarious, but almost game-breaking.

Plus, the AI will do hilariously stupid things. They'll charge past soft targets and go for tougher characters. They won't coordinate attacks. They'll charge a bad position and get mowed down. It would be great to take this game to multiplayer, but the only multiplayer option is local hotseat multiplayer. This is the kind of game that's BEGGING for internet multiplayer. Make it happen in the sequel, Ubisoft.

There's a big backstory involved in this game, but the best thing I can say about the story is that it exists. It's convoluted and pretty much only exists to further the gameplay. There's a guy who wants to take control in Russia, and some other guys who... I dunno. I lost track after about 10 missions. You don't need to follow it in order to enjoy the game.

Even though I have some gripes, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a very solid turn-based strategy game. I'm also sad that a turn-based strategy game is currently the best game on a Nintendo system. That's the sort of thing I would expect from the N-Gage or PSP, not from a system created by Nintendo. Come on, get it together, Big N.

Final Grade: B+