Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars Review:
Robert Benchley, the American essayist and lampooner, said it took him 15 years to realize he wasn’t a great writer, “but I couldn’t give up because by that time I was too famous.” By the time Ubisoft bought the right to affix Tom Clancy’s name to its games, the writer had long-since departed the world of the mortals and transubstantiated into an intellectual property. Like Robert Ludlum, he doesn’t even need to write the books that now bear his name. Instead Clancy is a kind of sensibility: leaden, conspiracy-minded, and agitated with dense military jargon.
Whatever creative impulse first haunted Clancy’s pen has been lost, replaced with dozens of bastard children that parrot the style in as many different formats as can be profitable. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is his latest off-spring, a turn-based strategy game whose best qualities are efficiency and diversion. As a game of numbers and rules it’s perfectly entertaining, but as a video game embellished by writing, art, and audio artistry it’s an empty vessel.
The Dials, the Levels, the Buttons, and Knobs of My Kingdom
Defiantly ignoring most of the biggest developments in recent foreign affairs, Shadow Wars tells the story of a political conspiracy in Moscow affecting unrest in Kazakhstan. As the simpering Soviet cold warriors threaten to take control of Russia and upset the balance of global power, America’s Ghost unit is ready to save the world. As the game begins you’re shot down over Kazakh airspace and separated from the rest of your Ghost crew.
The first several missions have you reuniting with each of the six other soldiers in your group while learning the particulars of each class. There’s a Commando, Sniper, Medic, Heavy Gunner, Stealth, and Engineer classes, each with their own attacks, secondary weapons, and movement ability. You’ll sometimes fight alongside local soldiers, but the core of the game is keeping each of your six characters alive across the 35 single-player missions in the game. At the end of each level you’ll be awarded star points for all the objectives you completed, which can then be used to level up you characters.
While there are only six characters, they can each do quite a lot. Richter is the heavy gunner and he can fire, throw grenades, or shoot suppressing fire, which does less damage but prevents the target from moving on their next turn. Banshee, the stealth fighter, can use a silenced SMG, attack with a knife, or go invisible. Each character also builds up points in a Power Meter whenever they attack or are attacked. When the meter is full a super powerful attack is unlocked. Environment also affects gameplay, with bonuses or penalties given depending on terrain type, elevation, and cover. Even on the simplest maps there are a lot of variables to manage, and the long story campaign will give occasion to explore them fully.
The Drab Dimensions of Playing War
Like most other games spun from the Clancy sensibility, Shadow Wars’s visuals favor drabness above all else. Browns, grays, blacks, dark blues, and sunset oranges fill out the color palate in a way that makes it hard to differentiate characters and different environmental tiles. Played in 2D the game sometimes looks unintelligible on the top screen, a flat blur of mud and pixels. Turning the 3D effect on enlivens each map significantly, making it clear that green smear in the corner was actually a tall tree offering cover. While the game is controlled with the d-pad, you can swing the camera around within limits using the circle pad. It’s a neat effect but you’ll never have to do it for gameplay purposes, which is a shame.
I imagine there could be a great turn-based combat game made using the 3D effect, a camera connected to an over the shoulder view of a character, while subjugating the chess map overhead view entirely to the bottom screen. This could bring out the tension between knowing where your objective is and not knowing what lies between you and it. Instead, Shadow Wars is utterly traditional in its presentation and design. Even its story--presented in dialogue bubbles--is done in by reductionism. The Ghosts are an angry but multicultural group of heroes while the Soviets are balding white vampires in heavy wool.
Shadow Wars has a few other modes to keep players’ invested after they’ve wrung their hours of diversion from the story mode. There’s Skirmish, which is basically just more maps to play against the AI. There’s also a strange multiplayer mode that eschews any kind of online or local wireless play and instead asks players to hand the 3DS back and forth for each turn. Both additions work in the most basic sense, but neither offers meaningful embellishment to the main experience.
It’s My Turn But I Don’t Want to Take It
Shadow Wars is a fully functioning turn-based tactics game that’s as true as ever to the brand it bears. Yet there’s nothing in it that transcends the machinery beneath its stoic exterior. It’s a number balancing game without any sense of poetry in its parts. Like other Clancy works, it favors expediency over emotional satisfaction, offering a grand matrix of variables to describe how things happen in each map while sparing the players prolonged confrontation with why they happened. It’s not a simple game, but it’s a traditional one that doesn’t take any risks with the genre. It’s puzzling, dense, visually incoherent, and inspired by the writing of a man who seems only to have perpetuated his fame with elaborate distractions.