What do you think of when you think of the new 3DS? In your face 3D visuals? The kind of bright, colourful graphics you might expect from the Wii? Slick 3D updates of established favourites, with neat Wi-Fi features bundled in? Yep. Us too.
So why is it that the 3DS game that is getting the most time at this end doesn’t conform to any of the above? Instead, it’s a top-down, turn-based strategy game, loosely tied into one of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy franchises. It’s not an update or a remake, the graphics are a bit grey, brown and grimy, and the 3D effects are relatively restrained. There’s no StreetPass or Wi-Fi gaming features to be found. If you’re looking for a game to show off the features of your new 3DS, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars really isn’t it.
It is, however, a horribly compulsive little game. For once, Ubisoft hasn’t even tried to push a home console action game onto a portable format, then tried to kludge things so that the controls and graphics just about work. Instead, we get a stripped-back, squad-tactic piece, with six members of an elite Ghost Recon team on a mission in Kazakhstan, facing insurgents mobilised by a Putin-esque Russian autocrat. Forget real-time strategy. Here, everything is turn-based. You issue orders to each squad member, one-by-one, moving them a few squares on a grid overlaid on the scenery, then telling them who to shoot at. Once all your guys have moved, the enemy has their turn, any third-parties have their turn, and it’s your go once again. It’s a curiously old-fashioned affair.
Old-fashioned, but effective. The mechanics are simple at first, with some clever use of onscreen displays to help you find cover, establish targets and weigh-up risks. As the missions go on, they grow less linear, and the game starts throwing in new weapon types and new troop types with new abilities, moving from the basic commando, sniper and medic roles to cover heavy weapons, stealth units and engineers. Characters and equipment can be upgraded, and drones can be called into action (or used against you). The maps get larger, multiple objectives come into play and - before long - you’ve got your hands full. On anything above the easiest difficulty level, it’s satisfyingly tough, making you look after the men and women in your command, keeping them in cover and healing them when they get hurt. After an hour or two, each foe taken down feels like a little victory, and you’ll find yourself utterly absorbed.
Nor is Shadow Wars bereft of charm. Whereas the grown-up Ghost Recon games stick very close to the po-faced Tom Clancy style, Shadow Wars is more Action Man or GI Joe, with cheerfully clichéd characters swapping banter at every opportunity, and even a few gags thrown in along the way. It’s also a meaty game, with a huge single-player campaign, a good selection of unlockable skirmish maps you can play against the AI, and a nifty little multiplayer mode you can play with just one 3DS. If we were taking one 3DS game on holiday in the next few weeks, this would be it.
However, keen as we are to start shouting “Here it is, the little gem that makes the 3DS worth having”, we have to say that Shadow Wars has one big cloud hanging over it. Surprisingly, it’s not the game’s stereoscopic 3D, which is actually used pretty well. The maps are chock-full of canyons, chasms and fissures to give the view a sense of depth, and we like the way Shadow Wars overlays character pictures and information windows at the front of the picture; it means nothing to gameplay, but it is kind-of cool. The 3D also works well when, at suitably dramatic moments, the camera suddenly pans down to give a different, third-person view of the scene.
Nope. The problem is that this looks and feels like a DS game that has been tarted up for the 3DS at relatively short notice. Characters, scenery, and buildings don’t show any signs of the sophistication and detail that we know the 3DS is capable of, and lavish surface and lighting effects are MIA. There’s really no reason why this game couldn’t have been made to work on the original DS, or on the PSP or iPhone, now we mention it.
And while we’re complaining, some kind of checkpointing wouldn’t go amiss. You can save mid-mission from the Options screen, but the game doesn’t make this clear early on, and it’s something you tend to forget until one team member dies, at which point the mission fails and you’re back to square one.
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars has a serious problem with presentation - this doesn’t look like a showcase game for a brand new handheld console. If you can see past the lack of eye candy, however, then you’ll find well-designed, easy to pick-up strategy game that will keep you busy for a surprisingly long time. Spruce up the sequel, Ubichaps, and you might have a winner on your hands.