Launch titles are a tricky thing—on one hand, you want a game to play on your newly purchased hardware; on the other, you have limited options with the majority of games released alongside a system ranging from really bad to merely okay. With the Nintendo 3DS just released and its launch library now available, it’s important to discern which games are worth your investment—Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars certainly is.
Graphically, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is kind of ugly. The character models and environments are all rendered in 3D (3D modeling) and clearly don't push the system to its limits with low polygon counts and bland textures. The 3D effects (the ones where the images "pop" out of the screen) add depth to the game, but never go out of their way to do anything interesting or (thankfully) gimmicky with the tech—the way the 3D looks is like cutting a hole in the top of a shoe box and peering through it at little, plastic army men. The 3D doesn't pop out of the screen as much as create a window for you to peer into this world. It does have a clearly defined sense of depth, but it's nothing to drool over. The visuals are very basic and were clearly not the focus of the game's development, but they get the job done.
Gameplay, however, offers basic but deep strategic combat while incorporating RPG elements that allow you to improve your team. You're given a team of six Ghosts to control throughout the robust campaign, and each Ghost has a specialty (Sniper, Heavy Weapons, Medic, etc). Each character also comes with a special ability attached to a gauge that fills up slowly after each action—the special abilities come in handy when you find yourself backed against a wall and can act as a sort of panic button (I played on the hardest difficulty for each of the campaign missions, so use of the special abilities was essential).
In game, selecting a character will highlight moveable areas in white and action areas in green—action areas are areas where a certain action can be used (for example: if you have your medic selected and have the med pack equipped, areas around squadmates within moving distance will be highlighted green indicating you can heal those units. Or, if you have selected a unit with a weapon equipped, areas you can attack from are highlighted in green). There’s also added depth to the strategy of choosing where you attack from and what enemies to attack due to return and support fire—if, when attacking, you are in range of an enemy’s attack, those enemies can return fire and provide support fire, so it’s best to choose a location where you’ll receive as little return fire as possible while still delivering an effective attack.
The bottom screen provides useful information about your Ghosts, their equipment, enemies, and an area map. When you have a Ghost or enemy highlighted, their gear will be displayed on the bottom screen; this allows you to view that unit’s move range as well as weapon effectiveness (each weapon has a rating based on three ranges (short range, medium range, long range)—this allows the player to see at what range a weapon does most damage and that weapon’s accuracy). The area map is an equally useful tool by displaying enemy locations and points of interest.
Prior to beginning a mission, the player is tasked with choosing the mission difficulty (of which, there are three options), and each mission contains a series of objectives (some of which are "starred"). After completing a mission, you are given stars (the amount of stars given is determined by the starred objectives) which you can use to upgrade your characters and equipment. It's a nice touch that adds some sense of depth and customization to an otherwise straightforward strategy game, but it's not a robust leveling system and you're encouraged (i.e. restricted) to level your squad uniformly.
There's also a ranking system dubbed "Persistent Elite Creation" (P.E.C.) which allows the player to rank up (with ranking tied to the difficulty a mission is completed on). As stated earlier, there are three difficulties and each difficulty opens a new tier of "Eagles" that can be earned (for example: a mission on easy might give you one or two eagles, but playing on the next difficulty up might get you two or three). After completing a mission on any difficulty, the only way to earn eagles for that level is to play it on a higher difficulty. Each eagle you earn increases your P.E.C. score and you rank up after you have accrued the required amount of eagles.
Completing campaign missions can also unlock skirmish and multiplayer challenges. The skirmish missions are objective based and similar to (but separate from) the campaign missions—like story-less side missions that expand the game's content (which is a good thing). I haven't played the multiplayer but, from what I've read in the instruction manual, it has players passing a 3DS back and forth (think controller swapping from the days of NES… except with a handheld console). The lack of local wireless and online multiplayer is a bit of a letdown, but there's plenty of content in Shadow Wars to keep you occupied for many, many hours (especially if you're striving to gain max P.E.C. rank).
Story in Shadow Wars is lackluster and cliché; never evolving beyond a formula of "bad people are doing bad things." This would be much more bearable if you didn't have to click through text of uninteresting plot developments and unneeded character banter that is often cheesy and poorly written. Another issue with this is mission failure; if you fail a mission, you have to go back to the mission select screen, choose the mission you failed, click your way through all the text and dialogue again, and then you can finally proceed with playing the mission. It's disappointing to me that a game bearing Tom Clancy's name manages to be so uninteresting when it comes to plot.
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars might not be the prettiest game on the 3DS right now and it's not going to blow you away with its added depth, but it's likely to give you the most content for your cash while being a satisfying experience. It's a fun game that's deep enough to keep you engaged, but simple to the point where it will never really astound you. It's certainly good (especially for a launch title) and provides a game that isn't needlessly gimmicky by overusing the 3D effects of Nintendo's new system because it knows it can stand on its own merits as a game.