Review by MJEmirzian

"Decent content, but fails on the fundamentals"

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a turn based tactical level strategy game for the 3DS. Its main claim to fame is that Julian Gollop, creator of X-COM, served as the games creative director. Shadow Wars' strategic content and depth is passable, if a little generic, but it fails to get the fundamentals right. The UI is bare bones and awkward, combat speed is painfully slow, and there are far too many bugs and crashes.

At Shadow Wars base you have a typical turn based shooter with cover, suppression, return fire, lots of guns, and a few AOE attacks. Unit types don't do enough to differentiate themselves, mostly carrying some variation of a gun and some grenades. The added features like medics, stealth units, super moves, command points, and turrets are nice, but overall I felt the game was too shallow. Enemy variety is more or less non-existent. You don't even face off against enemy recons, and the enemy engineers don't drop turrets. As the game progresses, it becomes too easy to use AOE attacks to obliterate large groups of enemies. I would have liked to see limited medic healing instead of infinite use, which would discourage turtling and inefficient play. I also find it disappointing that units don't block line of fire, so everyone can shoot through everyone else. I'd compare Shadow Wars' depth to a simplified Front Mission 4 or 5.

Campaign missions vary widely in complexity and length. Each chapter typically has a few short missions where you mow down some scattered resistance and complete a few objectives. Near the end of the chapter you'll get longer missions with several scripted events, enemy reinforcements, and objectives. You'll almost never run across unique enemies or bosses. Most of the campaign involves mowing down generic grunts on the way to a glowing tile, then mowing down more generic grunts and heading for another tile, etc. Quite a few missions have too much dead time where nothing is going on except either you or the enemy slowly moving across the map for minutes at a time. The campaign can feel repetitive and boring at times, especially considering the games middling depth.

Some of the skirmishes can be entertaining, though. They're usually more structured and puzzle-like than the campaign maps, offering specific or unique challenges based around mastering the games depth. And yes, there are two maps that pit you against a horde of zombies. A few skirmishes are more challenging than anything found in the campaign.

Shadow Wars provides 3 difficulty settings. The easiest mode is suitable for casual players. The hardest mode has some room for error, and strategy vets won't have a problem with it, but your average gamer will likely be squashed. Getting a perfect score requires clearing the campaign and all skirmishes on Elite. If any of your main cast dies during the campaign you fail the mission, which is a nice way of ensuring the player can't be too reckless.

The scoring system in Shadow Wars is decent, but leaves loopholes for less skilled players. Quicksaves are available which makes variable damage irrelevant. This is especially true of gunner units that have damage ranges where the maximum is 4-5x higher than the minimum. The lack of turn count rating allows the player to sit around collecting command points or healing before triggering the next part of the mission. it also allows players to turtle and play poorly as long as they complete the mission eventually. On the plus side, there's no level grinding available and levels are capped by chapter, ensuring you can't dump every point you get into one unit.

The pace of combat is unnecessarily slow and frustrating, even when animation speed is set from "normal" to "fast", which should instead read "slower" to "slow". Unit movement and action is very slow, with deliberate pauses after every unit moves or attacks for no particular reason. No combat animation or movement can be skipped. The CPU can take up to a minute to take its turn when it has 10 or more units and sometimes wastes time by shuffling units back and forth for no reason whatsoever. This is especially aggravating during the many missions where enemy reinforcements appear on the opposite end of the map and spend several turns moving towards your forces. Turn based games already have the stigma of being slow and boring, and deliberately designing your game to be even slower than it has to be with no options to skip animation is unacceptable.

The user interface is spartan, missing features you'd expect from a modern tactics game. You can only press R to switch weapon types at certain points during the target selection menu tree. Sometimes you have to back out entirely just to switch their weapon. You can switch between squad members with L, yet R is unused when not selecting an allied unit, and you can't switch between enemies at all. There's no button to hold to temporarily speed up the cursor movement. The cursor trail doesn't follow the typical 'chart your movement path' style where you can make as many loops and twists as you like. Instead it follows a simpler logic that always follows the most direct route. This makes it more complicated and tedious to approach a unit in melee range from a particular direction. I found myself wrestling with the UI far more than I would have liked during my playthrough. There are also a lack of options, with only the ability to turn music on/off or adjust animation speed.

You can tell that Shadow Wars was the development teams first attempt at a tactics game engine. Slowdown usually happens when there are smoke or fire effects or too many units on the screen. The engine doesn't feel strong enough to handle some of the stuff thrown at it by the developers. I've experienced repeatable crashes, random crashes, and several critical bugs just in the process of a normal, non-bug testing playthrough. There are also plenty of reports on the net of bugs, crashes, and saved games being erased. It's probably the buggiest tactics game I've played since Age of Empires: The Age of Kings.

At this time (Jul 2011) it's hard to recommend Shadow Wars if you don't already own a 3DS, which is still $250 USD. The 3DS is hardly what I'd call a mature platform for strategy titles, especially considering that systems are region locked. However if you do own a 3DS it's worth picking up since it can be found for $20 USD or less already.

Strategic Depth: Low. Not a whole lot going on here. Generic cover shooter with a few frills thrown in.

Strategic Difficulty: Low-Intermediate. Even on 'Elite' difficulty, Shadow Wars doesn't pose much of a threat to vets.

Overall Score: 6.3/10. Slightly above average game, but too many downsides to recommend unless you are desperate for a handheld tactics game.

Reviewer's Playthrough: Played through campaign and skirmishes on Elite

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 07/07/11

Game Release: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (US, 03/22/11)

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