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Ghost Recon Shadow Wars is a turn-based strategy game I've wanted for some time. Although it lacks the creeping mystery of a Fog of War and the knife edge nervousness of Opportunity fire, by putting 3D to maximum use Shadow Wars still delivers an engrossing fiction in which to get consumed.
Many gamers cite their favourite games of all time. A good subset of those would also cite UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-Com) as one of those games. As well as providing a deep Turn-Based Strategy experience, UFO managed to create a setting that drew players in and immersed them in the world.
Ghost Recon's legacy is that of Julian Gollop, designer of UFO: Enemy Unknown, Laser Squad and now this turn-based strategy game based on the fiction of Tom Clancy. It's a good collaboration, with Clancy's reputation for gun-porn and military fetishisation seamlessly interweaving with Gollop's penchant for strategy scenarios. The result is that every squad ability is significant and must be treated as such.
Those looking for a game to show-off the 3DS will be drawn by Shadow Wars' immersive draw depth, similar to Pilotwings Resort or Ridge Racer 3D. However (and lets avoid the science bit where possible) 3D visuals are generally more effective the closer the object is to the viewer; the top-down viewpoint of Ghost Recon allows the camera to command the player's attention, whether it is the eyeball scratching appearance of overhead power cables, or the plummeting depths of a ravine besides your troops' path.
At one point your squad are hunkered down inside a building for cover, you can really see the impact of the 3D display. The roof is semi-transparent so that units can still be seen indoors; but more than that they actually appear to be within the building. Turn the 3D effect off and the units inside the building look a bit muddy and disordered -- but with proper depth cues it is easy to distinguish the soldier on the ground.
It's not just gimmicks though, the story is also effective.
It's not just gimmicks though, the story is also effective. I realised I'd fallen for the story a bit too much when I found myself arguing with the videogame logic of only being able to use four of my six soldiers for a particular mission. They were travelling as a team, why wouldn't they all be in the mission?
It's a pity the only multi-player option is by passing the 3DS between players (although this does arguably make it more accessible than games which demand the presence of two consoles and two copies of the game). I still missed the ability to play with friends over the Internet.
The cut scenes, although using the 3D pretty well, did drift on a bit. I found myself doing a lot of clicking through, even though I love a good story. It's a shame that while the in-game cut scene for the air strike beautifully displays a Raptor unleashing its Air-to-Ground missiles in movie-quality 3D, a neighbouring animation for orbital satellite beaming power to the ground is achieved with some low quality and blocky stills (ed: giving away its last gen DS roots it seems).
It's also a pity that those few edges could not have been more carefully buffed, because it belies what is a deeply satisfying, compelling and enjoyable game; a game that will still have something to offer six months or a year from now, let alone as a launch title.
Amongst the solid visuals and game play there are a few missteps though. Being a Gollop title I was surprised it lacked any FOW (Fog Of War: whereby units are visible to the player only when within line of sight of at least one friendly unit). Much of the atmosphere created by games like UFO is from the tension of creeping into a Barn not knowing what is lurking in the dark corners.
Knowing where the enemy are denies the action much of its tension.
Knowing where the enemy are at all times changes the dynamic of these encounters and denies the action (and story) much of its tension. Additionally, Ghost Recon's missions are all prescribed -- there are no randomly generated encounters. This seems to be a feature of modern games which prefer to direct the player experience very closely. I would have preferred the option to have a random skirmish mode to increase the game's life.
Finally, while the new return fire system works well and incorporates the ability for team mates to respond to enemy attacks, I was expected to find an opportunity fire option as well. One of my favourite aspects of Laser Squad was setting up a squad member behind a door, or round a corner with action points remaining. If anyone came into view he could then jump out and shoot even if it wasn't my turn.
It's telling, though, that my main complaints with this game centre on what it doesn't do, rather than what it is. What Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is, in my opinion, the strongest launch title available for the Nintendo 3DS - story, visuals and gameplay all work well together. The fiction is engaging and creates a great context for the game-play encounters.
[Chris Jarvis writes the Novel Gamer column where you can read his Shadow Wars fiction.]
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