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Tom Clancy's EndWar

(Ubisoft; US: 4 Nov 2008)

I got a little blue tube to give me my views
Of a world in dischord, my mind’s unmoved
My nightmare scene’s on TV screens;
Data uncertain—information still being received
This is the voice of Fate.  It’s the voice of power.


-Pop Will Eat Itself, “The Fuses Have Been Lit”



Peter Molyneux is often credited with much of the formative work on the so called “god game” genre.  While many god games like Will Wright’s The Sims are largely business management sims, the perspective that Molyneux’s games, like Populous and Black & White, provided players is one of the defining characteristics of the genre.  The ability to oversee a world of creatures engaged in work and production and often ultimately the act of war in the case of many of Molyneux’s games, and to influence the outcomes of these events by ordering the denizens of such a world to fulfill your commands gives the god games their most “godlike” simulatory qualities.  Molyneux’s preference for turning the pointer on the screen in his games into a hand is an apt metaphor for the quality of godlike power that a player of such games feels.  As the “god” in charge of directing the creation or transformation of a world and ordering its inhabitants to fulfill that god’s wishes, the intrusion of the hand of god on such a world seems an apt metaphor for power.


Of course, the notion of gods that get their hands dirty by pawing away at landscapes and critters are a rather distant concept in Western mythologies.  The more meddlingly intrusive versions of deity, like the Greek and Roman gods, are long dead culturally, and the gods that remain maintain an invisibility that Molyneux’s perspective only mildly acknowledges.  Besides the intrusiveness of the godlike hand, a player is unaware of his or her own physical presence in Molyneux’s game.  Indeed, the notion of power being wielded physically and bodily is not one tremendously familiar in more civilized culture.  Instead, power rests on the ability to give orders in a more subtle way, not by manipulation through force but through words themselves. 


The God who has most thrived in western culture, the Christian God, is one that matches more clearly a modern conception of where power and authority is derived.  Leadership is evident through communicative acts in modern politics (via written law or executive order), not by pushing around the little guy.  God’s ability to speak light into existence—“Let there be light.  And there was”—or the revelation of the power of God being an expression of logos in the version of the creation story told in the Book of John—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—is a fairly sensible conception of the roots of authority and power in advanced cultures where those that wield the best rhetoric define and direct “the game” of life. 


Thus, it is unsurprising that Tom Clancy’s EndWar takes this premise of leading through words and literalizes the experience for the real time strategy game, a type of game that owes a great deal to the perspectives and style of gameplay of some of Molyneux’s own first god games.


By erasing the standard point-and-click element of directing the actions of soldiers on a battlefield, the image of the “hand of god” largely becomes an obsolete concept as EndWar invites the player to assume the role of a commander who directs the actions of his subordinates merely by overlooking the battlefield, sometimes through the omniscient perspective of a satellite (or at the very least floating insubstantially over the shoulder of a military unit), and then simply speaks his whims into existence.


In a sense, EndWar is no reinvention of the real time strategy game as it still focuses on allowing a player to move troops, choosing how to get them engaged in battle, and also getting them to work on upgrading elements of the environment to enlarge the player’s battle options.  Indeed, similarly gathering resources to build more impressive technology while ordering around squads of characters is the standard set of activities in most real time strategy games.  Instead, it is this alteration to the way that the player interfaces with the world that makes EndWar a more unique experience.


Directing troops largely with simple phrases like “Unit 2 attack Hostile 1” or “Calling all tanks: move to Bravo” is largely intuitive, and the voice recognition system is generally quite good (despite the occasional frustrating lack of ability to execute a hastily spoken or muttered command).  Additionally, because speaking lends an air of authenticity to commanding modern military troops, it also very simply feels right in a simulation of contemporary battlefield command.  The tone of the game speaks to a very basic modern sensibility that authority most often represents itself as a speaker that expects his or her directives to be followed and executed accordingly.


An equally authentic feeling of plausibility is generated by the plot that supports the gameplay.  EndWar simulates World War III in a near future, in which superpowers like the United States, Russia, and a unified Europe become adversaries as the result of a series of international incidents seemingly caused by terrorists.  The game is related to the novel Tom Clancy’s EndWar that was written not by Clancy himself, but instead by David Michaels.  However, the narrative still feels heavily influenced by Clancy’s visions of global politics driven by military intelligence and the machinations of back door political dealings—again, a vision of the world that in the case of Clancy’s novels has often felt fairly authentic because of the plausibility of his characters and the situations that involve them.  However, much like the more complicated plots of many espionage novels, many of the details that inform the game’s story sometimes get muddled along the way.  Of course, most of the story is told on the battlefields where the player chooses to fight, with the rest filled out through brief snippets of news sound bites and military briefings offered to the player between engagements.  Thus, the player may be left feeling the limitations of the modern day “gods” of political discourse—omnipotently authoritative on the field of battle but limited in understanding the broader scheme of things based only on the scattered and fragmentary reports that the national news and his own military intelligence provide him.


The game’s visuals are fairly simple, and it is a pity that the lack of variety in architecture makes every global hot spot look more or less like every other place on the globe.  Whether the player is fighting in the Southern United States, Western Europe, or the Balkans, it appears that the near future has generated some homogeneity in global architecture, which does not aid the otherwise authentic mood of this simulation.  This homogeneity in architecture and similarities in the overall appearance of military hardware also lend to occasional confusion when viewing the battlefield from over the shoulders of the player’s units themselves.  Though the game can be played from an even more simplistic and visually stripped down overhead camera that provides that godlike view that I was alluding to earlier, adopting such a satellite viewpoint makes the whole affair feel more like viewing a board game, or even an older war game simulation, than a next generation video game.


However, despite some visual disappointments and some sometimes spotty voice recognition, EndWar still offers a pleasing experience as a commanding officer who generally can feel confident that when he tells his troops to jump, they will.  The game feels right by meeting our expectation that a picture of contemporary warfare is best represented as a simulation not of the muscle and sinew or blood and guts of soldiering, but as a simulation of what we recognize as the “real” root of authority: the voice of power.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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