Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It all ends in Paris

Tonight, Andrew and I embark on what will (hopefully) be Team Suck’s last foray into Resident Evil 5’s joke of a story mode. You’ll suffer my opinions in Saturday’s post-mortem; until then, let’s talk about Endwar.

Here’s the physical equivalent of the can-RTS-games-work-on-consoles debate: you can’t see it, but my hands are two beaks flapping wordlessly at each other like mute ostriches. Of course it can work – it just hasn’t yet. Developers refuse to commit themselves fully to the experiment, choosing instead to port existing PC titles in the hopes that something, somehow will click. It hasn’t. Surprise.

Or has it? Ubisoft released Endwar late last year, boasting that it was the first RTS to be designed exclusively for the 360. It used a shockingly functional voice-command system. It promised futurewar in all its violent splendor.

Expecting failure, I was surprised by what I found, and on the verge of declaring it the first successful console RTS. That is, until I reached Paris.

Here’s the story of Endwar: in the future, limited resources force the world superpowers to blah blah blah tanks and guns and space lasers. Don’t bother paying attention. The game’s story is told through a series of Frankenstein mission briefings, cobbled together by circumstance (Today you fight ________ for control of the city of _________. It is very important that you do not fail. Wear dry socks.). This is one of those games that claims to have an open-ended branching narrative; like the rest of those games, it ends up not mattering.

Endwar’s real draw is its control scheme. It recognizes the inherent inferiority of a gamepad in commanding units – already, it’s ahead of its competitors – and instead chooses to use as little of the pad as possible. Ordering a unit can be as easy as pulling the right trigger and saying “Unit One, attack Hostile Three,” or “Unit Two, move to Bravo” or “Airstrike Hostile One.” And it works. I can only think of a few times where an order was misinterpreted.

Sending units to fixed points – “uplinks,” or control points by any other name – on a battlefield limit the possibilities of engagement. Yes, you can manually point the camera and tap A to issue movement orders, but you’ll be too busy making other decisions. The gameplay isn’t as deep as its PC peers, but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in sheer energy. The camera sinks you in the action, letting you enjoy every gunshot and scream. And while the rock-paper-scissors of tank-beats-transport, transport-beats-chopper can get silly, tactics aren’t nonexistent. Ubisoft limited themselves wisely, choosing to make something simple and make it well.

As I said, I was happily stomping through the game when discontent punched me in the face. Paris was the crown jewel of my campaign. When attacking capital cities, the game tasks the conqueror with winning four out of four battles; in the final round, the attacker must defeat the enemy and seize his uplinks within ten minutes, or face a tsunami of reinforcements. Pathfinding issues that were minor annoyances became game-breakers in an urban environment. Transports came to a dead halt before obstacles. Infantry chose to take the long road. Units stood happily exposed while getting pounded by artillery. The battle hinged on minutes, and my men were taking their sweet time.

They had already simplified the gameplay and control – couldn’t they give the AI a little self-rule? I was denied Paris, and banished myself to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front.

Endwar is a noble experiment, and a good game. I mean, pathfinding woes are common genre-wide, and I can’t fault the units for getting a little turned around. It just proves that even at its current best, the console RTS is inferior to its PC peers. It can happen, but maybe not soon. My war ended with a wistful sigh, as my laptop groaned once more under the weight of Supreme Commander.