The debut of the 3DS has seen a number of releases and ports tailored to show off 3D effects, with some perhaps coming up short in terms of depth and content, but Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars 3D aims to set itself apart from the field. There is pedigree behind the development: the project lead, Julian Gollop, is a highly-regarded game designer who has specialised in strategy titles for over 25 years, and handheld games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars have also been cited as influences on development. The question is, does Shadow Wars live up to the standards of these classics?
It's not a great start. The storyline is, to be honest, rather cheesy: in an upcoming Presidential election in Russia the aggressive nationalist challenger, Yuri Treskayev, aims to cause instability and chaos in neighbouring nations. His fiendish plot is to damage Russia’s interests and prompt a loss of confidence in the incumbent President, thereby seizing power. In his way stand your ‘Ghosts’, a team of six special ops soldiers intent on foiling his plans. It’s not exactly contemporary story-telling – the Cold War finished a while ago – and the enemies represent a variety of cardboard cut-out villains, with your Ghosts conforming to almost every US action soldier stereotype. The story keeps things moving along, though, paving the way for the most important part of the game: shooting baddies and blowing stuff up.
In terms of the gameplay, Ghost Recon is turn-based strategy played from an overhead, third person perspective. The game is played using the D-Pad and a variety of buttons to select characters, view line of fire or select weapons. The touchscreen is used to give you all of the most important information to allow you to plan effectively: details such as an environment map, character’s health remaining, weapons options and ammo. Once you get accustomed to moving around the environment with the D-Pad the controls are intuitive and relatively easy to pick up.
A challenge for turn-based strategy games is to find the right level of immersion and challenge, while ensuring that it doesn’t become a confusing mess of weapon and attack variations. It is here that Shadow Wars truly shines, even though on paper there is a lot of strategy to consider. Your Ghost team characters, for example, represent six different classes of unit, each with its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses: the sniper is excellent at long range but cannot return fire, while the recon unit can avoid detection and execute fatal close proximity kills, but is vulnerable and weak when spotted. As you are introduced to each new character you learn how to use them most effectively, and it is thrilling when a well-planned attack pays off.
It’s not just a matter of understanding the team members, but also the environment you’re fighting in. The game encourages you to consider aspects such as shooting range, level of cover and the threat of return fire, to name just a few, as well as a power bar for each soldier that allows you to use special attacks. You are also tasked with earning command points to earn benefits such as extra power points for your team or, most fun of all, air strikes.
There’s a lot of strategic depth, but the development team have done a stellar job of balancing the gameplay so that it is suitable for gamers of varied abilities. The game can be played in three difficulty levels: Rookie, Veteran and Elite. You earn the most mission points, and can upgrade your team most quickly, in Elite mode. This hardest mode resembles playing a chess grand-master, as one sloppy mistake and you are well and truly on the back foot. In our play-through the Veteran setting felt just right: the AI was smart and challenging, and a couple of mistakes meant a seat-of-your-pants finish to the mission, without necessarily experiencing game over screens.
So, this is a strategy title with depth and excellent playability, but what about the all-important content? The most substantial mode is the lengthy single-player campaign containing 37 missions, some of which include a menagerie of objectives that will easily take over an hour to finish. Even skilled players will need well over 20 hours to finish the adventure, with less experienced strategists taking longer. Your missions take in a variety of locations, though the objectives are generally restricted to three key goals: shoot the bad guys, blow stuff up and activate or deactivate an item by entering a certain room or area. Some players may find the campaign starts to get repetitive, but fans of the genre and those immersed by the title will happily take everything thrown at them.
Secondly there are a number of Skirmish missions. These are scenario based levels unlocked by progress in the campaign; you are assigned specific ghosts to fight with, such as a team of gunners tasked with defeating a rival team of snipers. The missions are well thought out, and their completion adds to the same ranking system utilised in the campaign. These skirmishes are excellent diversions and add variety and further depth to the title as a solid extra feature.
The Multiplayer missions are also gradually unlocked with progress in the campaign. You choose from a selection of maps and two players are each given mini-armies, after which it's simply a case of taking turns to try to eliminate the other player. Unfortunately, this mode is executed on a single 3DS, with the players passing the device back and forth. Although not a major gripe, it would have been nice for local multiplayer as an additional option, as passing the system to the other player is stubbornly old-school, and there's no online play, which may disappoint some. However the sheer depth of content and number of play-hours in the title does make this omission more forgivable.
When considering the visuals it must be said that, particularly in 2D, this looks like a high-end DS title. There are some nice flourishes such as explosions and dust clouds blowing across the screen, but the graphics processor isn’t overly taxed. In 3D however the textures sharpen up, the characters look like miniature toy soldiers and the action is fun to watch, although the 3D doesn’t actually improve the gameplay in any way, so for longer play sessions we had the effect turned off. The sound is excellent, with a nice soundtrack and solid effects for gun-fire, explosions and so on. The dialogue is text only rather than voice acting, but considering the size and scope of the title this is not surprising.
Shadow Wars is without a doubt one of the most robust titles on offer for the launch of the 3DS. The negatives are few and relatively minor: the storyline and characters are forgettable, the multiplayer is a little clumsy and the visuals could be better. However, the developers have done a superlative job of creating a turn-based strategy game that can, conceivably, be appreciated by newcomers to the genre as well as experienced strategists. If you don’t enjoy this style of game, Shadow Wars does nothing new and will struggle to convert you. However, if you are interested in the genre or have enjoyed titles like this before, our recommendation is simple; buy this game.