Games 12/30/08: Endwar, Rise of the Argonauts

Endwar
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, tobacco reference, blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

A real-time strategy game just isn’t a real-time strategy game without a mouse and keyboard at the ready. But console game developers remain undeterred, plugging away for nearly a decade in hopes of properly emulating what remains a PC-or-bust experience.

If you don’t mind potentially annoying your neighbors, family and/or yourself, Ubisoft might have the most intriguing approach yet, even if the game in which it’s packaged isn’t quite as compelling.

Though you can play “Endwar” with a controller, there really exists no point if you’re not on board with the game’s gimmick. As strategy games go, “Endwar” rates on the lower end of the sophistication and excitement scale. Never mind that the story actually manages the miraculous task of making World War III boring: In “Endwar,” you’re more general than mastermind, ordering units around the map but forgoing any sort of in-depth resource management and unit construction, which is the arguable bread and butter of the genre’s best.

The reason “Endwar” can justify this simplicity — at least this time around — is because of how little you need that controller if you have a headset and no qualms about talking to a machine. Every action, ally and enemy in the game has a corresponding voice command, and the game’s system for managing those commands is so intuitive as to become second nature after a couple missions.

More importantly, “Endwar” understands you. The game’s voice recognition technology is stunningly good, and its ability to acclimate itself with your voice after a single, five-minute voice recognition test almost defies logic. Some of your orders inevitably will go misunderstood, but the ratio of hits to misses is so laudably lopsided, it’s possible to forget you’re dealing with artificial ears and lose yourself in the experience.

Whether the brilliance of the voice mechanic is enough to counter the rest of the game’s failings will vary from player to player. “Endwar’s” bare-bones unit hierarchy becomes transparent fairly quickly, and were it not for some shoddy troop A.I. and one unfortunate game mechanic that cheaply rewards near-defeated armies with freebie WMDs, the game would be disappointingly easy for disciplined strategists. Multiplayer (four players, online only) naturally makes for a better experience — voice chat remains possible thanks to an on-the-fly toggle — but the simplicity still trickles down, making this less of a clash of strategies than what’s available from more fully-formed strategy games.

All that said, “Endwar” remains a respectably entertaining start with a potentially game-changing mechanic that really works. If Ubisoft can slide this technology into a strategy game with PC-level trimmings, the platform gap might finally disappear.

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Rise of the Argonauts
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Liquid Entertainment/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, mild sexual themes, violence)

The end of a year inevitably brings with it stories and moments in which we reflect on time gone by and remark at how far we’ve come.

Thus, it’s fitting that “Rise of the Argonauts” — which carries the distinction of being the last game of significance to arrive in 2008 — does something of the same thing, however unintentionally. Whether it was rushed out the door to meet a release date deadline (likely) or whether Liquid Entertainment simply lost its way (unlikely), “Argonauts” brings with it numerous problems that better games long ago abandoned.

On the surface, “Argonauts” is a pretty easy sell: It’s an action-intensive role-playing game based on the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The major players, from Hercules to Zeus, make appearances, and “Argonauts” gradually doles out tools and attacks to allow you, as Jason, to wreak all manner of bloody havoc. Done right, this is pretty much fail-proof.

Unfortunately, “Argonauts” has serious problems doing it right. The game’s framerate stutters and chugs regularly, without warning and often without reason. Sometimes, the action stops completely, and sometimes, it doesn’t start back up again unless you reboot the console and lose any unsaved progress. Collision detection occasionally hiccups in bizarre ways, the camera too frequently swings around to unfavorable angles, and the characters often animate jerkily even when the framerate is behaving.

If you can circumvent the technical issues, other problems still loom. “Argonauts” is a pretty talky game, which would be fine if the “Mass Effect”-style dialogue trees actually worked like they do in that game. But bad writing and worse voice acting make these exchanges a chore. You can blow through cut-scenes and dialogue exchanges if you wish, but your dialogue choices affect your character’s growth. If you want to take advantage of “Argonauts'” brightest asset — a character-building system in which you appease Gods of your choosing and attain abilities modeled after their respective attributes — you’ll need to pay some attention.

All that’s wrong with “Argonauts” might be forgiven if the game got combat right, but such is not the case. Attacks and combos are plentiful, but those technical issues, along with dull enemy A.I. that makes it entirely too easy to button-mash your way through most of the game, are deal-killers. It doesn’t help, either, that the attacks don’t actually feel as powerful as they look, or that “Argonauts” insists on slowing the game down — and completely disrupting the flow of the action — every time you finish an enemy off.