Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Ubisoft Sofia
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon meets Advance Wars. Designed by the man behind the X-Com series. In 3D.
It's difficult to imagine a more exciting mission statement. Commanding a team of hard bitten stock characters, you'll storm through a meaty campaign set in wartorn Kazakhstan; using isometric turn based strategy instead of third-person cover shooting. Its pedigree stems from the watchful eye of Julian Gollop, the British mastermind behind the venerable X-COM franchise - and whilst innovation is at a premium, his influence is very clear from the outset.
Shadow Wars will instantly feel familiar if you've ever played the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars or Metal Gear Ac!d. The action takes place on a square-based grid, with the ability to move your units a certain number of squares per turn and fire on targets in range. Each soldier packs a different specialisation, movement speed and weapons, meaning that choosing the right vantage point and action for each squaddie is the key to success. For example: assault rifles can be used to automatically counterattack enemies in range, while heavy machine guns can suppress foes to make them skip their next turn. It's basic, standard stuff, but the simple D-Pad controls and next available unit selection key makes commanding your platoon a cinch.
However, Shadow Wars is much more tense than most handheld strategy outings. If one of your units die, it's game over. As well as ensuring that your medic is placed in a central location, the key to success is making use of the different types of terrain and the advantages they offer. Taking cover inside a house or behind a bush is as simple as moving to that location - and clever unit placement will ensure that you take much less damage than you dish out. In-game saving is also a considerate feature, and absolutely invaluable for some of the longer missions that can take the best part of an hour to complete.
The touchscreen is used to devastating effect. Instead of displaying the game field, it shows at-a-glance details of the tile or unit you've selected. Terrain bonuses, skills, abilities and statistics are all laid out in an accessible, matter-of-fact way, with handy touch tutorials to let you know what a particular bar or number means. Tiles can be scoped out in advance in order to see whether (and which) enemies have line of sight, and whether or not they can counterattack. Knowledge is power - and Ubisoft has clearly taken this maxim to heart.
In addition to the meaty 37-mission campaign, players can also unlock standalone skirmish challenges and hotseat multiplayer games. There's no online multiplayer, but passing the 3DS unit around is still a fun and accessible way of sharing the experience with a friend.
Bizarrely, however, Shadow Wars completely fails to deliver some of the most essential mechanics that turn based strategy games need to include. The most glaring omission is the lack of a facing system: which means that units can attack any target regardless of the direction they're looking - and can counter just as effectively even if shot in the back. I can't adequately describe how truly aggravating it is to painstakingly manoeuvre behind an opponent to deliver the killer strike... only to have them take the same amount of damage as they would if you'd walked right up to him in broad daylight. And it's even more annoying to see them instantly whip around and shoot you right back.
There are other odd omissions as well, such as the inability to change your stance or go prone. Shadow Wars is still a tense and effective strategy experience, but one that would have been infinitely better if the emphasis was placed on stealth and occasional decisive strikes rather than constantly exchanging fire from cover.
Ubisoft's Persistent Elite Creation system is sadly wasted here thanks to the inability to create persistent elites. Your units can be assigned a few extra health points or abilities by participating in a singleplayer mission... but if you replay a level, you can't take your upgraded team with you! Or use them in Skirmish games! Or multiplayer! All the P.E.C. system really does is unlock a few extra skirmish maps or multiplayer arenas that arguably ought to have been unlocked from the get-go. It's a shame that gaining ranks doesn't unlock new weaponry, gear and abilities for your troops to use in any mode.
But after all that, we have to review a game for what it is - not what we'd like it to be. Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a good game. But it lacks the depth, mechanics and addictive draw to make it great.
Taken empirically, Shadow Wars is certainly no looker. Its bland textures and pixelated sprites look fairly ugly by themselves, but with the 3D depth slider ramped up, it suddenly becomes a very different affair. The world looks pleasingly chunky and realistic, much like a tabletop wargame diorama brought to life. Hills, vehicles and units pop out of the screen, and the uncluttered visuals make for an experience that can be played for extended periods without running the risk of headaches or similar ill effects.
- Effective strategy action
- Satisfying campaign and skirmish mode
- Chunky, attractive and functional 3D visuals
- Annoying lack of basic genre staples
- P.E.C. system is underused, little replayability
- Ghost Recon in name alone. No recon. Little stealth.
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a capable strategy game that occupies an interesting middle ground between casual and hardcore. Solid 3D visuals and a meaty campaign make this launch title well worth your money. It's a good start for the franchise on the 3DS, and we've got our fingers crossed for a tighter sequel.