Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Tom Clancy's End War – Demo
If Tom Clancy ever decides to stop writing novels, he could probably live off of the royalties due him for all of the video games that bear his name. From his Rainbow Six franchise to the Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell series, it has been one success after another. Yet while many of these more recent games such as Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas, and their sequels have fit into the mold of the first- and third-person based, military-themed tactical shooters, with End War the Tom Clancy brand (if not the man – I have no idea how much input the guy has in the development of these games) is returning to its roots. Back in the mid 90's Clancy co-founded the computer game developer Red Storm Entertainment and released a series of strategic simulation games beginning with Red Storm Rising. After more than a decade we arrive at present day and are close to the release of Tom Clancy's End War, set to drop on November 4th here in North America and three days later on the 7th in Europe. The demo is currently available for free download on Xbox Live, just to give you a taste of what developer Ubisoft means when they claim that End War is "completely controllable through voice commands."
When going into the demo you'll first receive training on that very thing, which allows the software to encode your voice and test the voice-command recognition programming. This probably sounds cooler than it actually is, since all you're doing is repeating scripted commands such as "Unit 4 move to Foxtrot". You are told during this training session that voice commands are best given in a normal speaking tone. While I could easily do this when repeating a specific command, I wondered how fluid this would be in-game when I'm not sure what I'm saying as a say it. Allow me to explain. You can't simply give any command that comes to mind. If your units are under attack you can't simply scream, "Get the hell out of there!" and expect the game to understand you. As you might expect there are a set of pre-determined commands that the game will recognize. Don't worry, you're not going to have to memorize a list. End War breaks down the various commands available into 3 categories of who, what, and where. There are drop down menus associated with each category that you can choose from to string together a coherent command. In this context the command I mentioned earlier is chosen like this: Unit –> 4 (who) –> Move to (what) –> Foxtrot (where). As each selection is made from a menu of options another drop-down menu appears from which you select orders simply by speaking the words. Though early in the demo my voice commands were hesitant and a bit choppy due to my uncertainty of just what orders I wanted to give, the game still seemed to interpret them with no problem. I'm not sure if this was by design or not, but there is little to no instruction given to the more standard type of controller-driven controls, so it seemed to me like I was almost being forced to play using the voice-commands, which could be a rather ingenious way of highlighting this new gaming feature. The demo features limited gameplay of a single mission from the solo campaign and one level available for multiplayer skirmishes. I've only played the solo campaign mission, and as I said I spent most of the time playing around with the voice commands. My overall impression, though premature and very limited, is that it seems Ubisoft has crafted a solid real-time strategy war game with some striking technical innovations that should appeal to fans of the genre.
The New Xbox Live Experience
Microsoft is promising that the New Xbox Live Experience will be rolled out sometime in November. There are lots of new features that are being hyped by Microsoft such as their new collaboration with Netflix, but I'd like to talk a little about another aspect of the new Live. Ever since Live was developed gamers could identify themselves by a "gamerpic" – a small graphic pulled from any number of sources: video games, movies, TV shows, etc. You can have your favorite sports team logo, your favorite gaming character, or even the campaign ticket you're endorsing in the 2008 Presidential election. Some of these are free to download. Many of them are not, and you have to buy them with points, which you purchase with cold, hard cash. They're usually 80-100 points a pop, which isn't much, but if you've been downloading them for the last several years you could easily have spent a good deal of money on them. I bring this up because I wonder what's going to happen to the gamerpics when Microsoft rolls out the new avatar system in November? The avatar system seems to me to be Microsoft's ploy for buying into the popularity of the Wii's Miis with a "whatever you can do we can do better" mentality. That's all fine and dandy, but I come back to my earlier question, what about gamerpics? And more importantly, what about all the money gamers have spent on acquiring them? Will that money have gone down the drain (and into Bill Gates' coffers) never to be seen again? And how is this new avatar system going to work anyway? The impression given by Microsoft is that gamers will get to create and customize their avatar's to their heart's content, but at what cost? Is this new system going to lead to a entirely new category of DLC (downloadable content) that Microsoft will (over-)charge gamers for? I could easily see Microsoft offering gamers jerseys of their favorite sports teams with which to outfit their avatars, for a small fee, of course. For that matter it is still unclear to me if the new desktop design is going to be different enough that the current "themes" (more DLC that can be thought of as wallpaper for the Live interface) that gamers have will be compatible. Microsoft promises that gamers will get to keep both of these DLC items, but is keeping quiet about how they will change and what role (if any) they will have with the new Live. It appears there is plenty to be excited about with the New Xbox Live Experience, but I can't help but wonder if the overhaul Microsoft is planning is less about what is good for gamers and more about how to make more money off of them. I guess we will all get an answer to that when the new Xbxox Live is unveiled later next month.