I got a chance to sneak over to Ubisoft's San Francisco office during the Game Developers Conference and sit down with Michael de Plater, creative director Tom Clancy's EndWar, to talk about the upcoming voice-command strategy game. Better still, I also got a chance to actually play it—and what I saw impressed me.
De Plater said that part of the impetus for the game was the fact that, as real-time strategies have evolved, the genre has left a lot of people behind. People like my dad, even people, in some cases, like me. People, basically, who aren't interested in dealing with a Zerg rush five minutes into the game and instead want to play something a bit closer to, say, a detailed and realistic game of chess.
"One of the things we hear a lot of us is 'I used to love real time strategies, but it's gotten too complex'," he said. "So we decided to make a tactical game, slow the pace down. We call this game strategy at the speed of thought."
While the developers put a lot of effort into both the game design and user interface to make it pick-up and play, that doesn't mean it doesn't have depth.
For instance, the game, due out on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this fall, only has seven unit types, such as anti-tank, tank, light infantry and helicopters. But there are about 300 upgrades for the units. And the units, which gain experience during combat, keep both their experience and upgrades from battle to battle on the game's more than two dozen maps. With that in mind, the game has the ability to evacuate units in the middle of battle. If you get them out before they die you can still use them in the next match.
All of the buildings in the maps are destructible. Nothing new, but EndWar has a fairly sophisticated MMO-ish online component that looks at the game's 40 territories at the end of each day and averages out the outcome of all the matches to decide which of the three factions won which territory.
So the pick-up-and-play isn't really about the game being easy as much as it is about it being accessible. A key component of that, of course, is the voice commands which allow someone to play an RTS on large maps on a console without getting frustrated. The voice commands let you manage the battlefield from any location on the map.
"One of the fundamental differences between a mouse and keyboard and this is the level of precision," de Plater said. "So a big part of the AI is that you give commands like a general.
"War should be a series of intelligence decisions."
In other words, you can't tell your units to take cover behind a building during an attack, only that they should attack, the rest is up to them.
Verbal commands are typically broken down into three steps. First you say the unit's name, then the order and finally the goal. For instance, to move a unit you just say "Unit three move to Yankee"
To create a group you say "Calling all gunships create team, red team."
To order a group to attack you say "Red team attack hostile one."
The game is surprisingly good at recognising not just when you get it right, but even when you say it wrong. The main problem, De Plater said, is where people put the microphone. Too close and it can cause some major distortion issues.
The game starts off with a simple voice tutorial that teaches you, not the game. This way gamers' are taught what to say instead of teaching the game to learn a bunch of different ways to do the same thing.
After talking with De Plater a bit about the game, he handed over an Xbox 360 controller and headset to let me give it a go. Within minutes I was ordering troops around the battlefield mostly flawlessly. In fact, the few times I misspoke and used the wrong command, the game still knew what I was getting at.
The game felt an awful lot like a one-player version of World in Conflict to me. You don't have to construct units or bases, instead, you spend all of your times issuing commands and keeping an eye on the battlefield. The fact that you don't really use the controller for much more than moving around on the map or holding a button so you can talk to your online opponents, the game felt much more immersive than your typical strategy title. I felt as if I was viewing a battlefield from a far, issuing commands to my troops and watching, like one might a chess match, as my tactics and the tactics of my opponent unfolded.
Having said that, there are some potentially game-killing stumbling blocks. I didn't see any issues with the friendly AI while playing around with the game, but when you have zero direct control over your units if they get that wrong then the game is dead in the water.
I also really didn't play enough to get a sense of how challenging the game would be to play. A big issue, I think, is that Ubisoft can't make your units too smart. As many of you pointed out, you don't really want to play a game that essentially has you saying into a microphone "Get out there and kick some arse for me."
Finding the correct balance between no-neck, brainless AI and a self-reliant army of ass-kicking automatons has got to be tricky—and it's where this game will live or die, I suspect.
What does surprise me is that, at least based on my time with it, the unusual interface, using mostly your voice to control the game, won't be an issue at all. It seems both seamless and a function that actually adds quite a bit to the experience.