In the strange and persistent absence of a new Advance Wars game for the 3DS, I was grateful to The Otaku Judge for recommending Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars to me earlier this year. Shadow Wars is a military-themed SRPG which might help scratch the itch for those hankering for a new AW game. Rather than gathering resources and building units, Shadow Wars gives you control of a team of around six operatives who level up over the course of the game. In this sense, it’s a bit more like XCOM or Fire Emblem, with an important difference: if any of your units die, you fail the mission, as you can’t recruit new units to your squad.
Shadow Wars is part of the Tom Clancy universe which includes the Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell franchises. I’ve never been a big fan of these games, partly because I don’t like quasi-realistic first-person shooters. I suck at this style of game, and would much rather play something more slapstick and unserious like the Hitman series. Also, the Tom Clancy games are generally based around a very gung-ho valorization of American military power which sticks in my craw. Shadow Wars is no different, as the story sees your team of American ‘Ghosts’ carry out various black-op missions in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. The pretext for this is a cliche-ridden tale of Russian military and mercenary groups following a programme of violence and aggression to terrorize their peace-loving neighbours, and the Ghosts are the only thing standing against them. It’s basically a neo-con fantasy, which some players will be into, but it’s not for me.
As far as the dialogue and exposition goes, the writing is eminently unimaginative, with your squad engaging in by-the-numbers military banter and characters largely conforming to strict archetypes. But the draw here is the gameplay rather than the story or the script, and Shadow Wars largely does a good job of delivering a satisfying SRPG experience. Although your squad only consists of a few members, they level up after almost every mission, with linear but very long skill trees. You can then customize their loadouts so they can specialize in, for example, anti-personnel or anti-armour weapons. The game takes a distinctive approach to SRPG fireams combat: unlike something like XCOM, your characters can never miss, but have strict range requirements. So, a sniper has better range than an assault trooper, but has more restricted movement. If the character is out of range, they can’t shoot. It’s a simple solution, and removes the element of frustration when your sniper misses a 95% chance-to-hit shot for the umpteenth time, like in XCOM. You also get access to explosives, drones, and so on, as well as unlocking special attacks which can really help turn the odds against your opponents. It’s sort of like real life when the technologically superior force can just call in an airstrike and wipe out half the map.
The greater certainty in the gameplay perhaps contributes to Shadow Wars being a relatively easy game. The campaign is surprisingly lengthy, but is relatively light on challenge, and anyone who has completed games like Fire Emblem or XCOM should probably dive right into the top difficulty setting, Elite. I played it on Veteran and failed maybe one or two missions in the whole campaign. As you progress through the story you unlock Skirmish missions, which are usually based around a certain idea (hold a position with a group of snipers, complete a mission with only engineers, etc). Some of these are quite cool and there is a decent amount of content here. If it was released now, most of those skirmish maps would probably be paid DLC. However, I got bored before finishing them all. There is also a versus multiplayer element, but I didn’t try that. As the game is now five years old or more, I’d be surprised if there was much of a ‘scene’ around it.
The environments are quite well-rendered, and the game features some in-engine cutscenes which look surprisingly good in 3D. There is also a fair amount of character art which is pretty decent for the most part. On the other hand, the character animations in missions are rather minimalist, as are the tinny sound effects, and the game’s score is forgettable and generic. All that said, Shadow Wars is still likely to deliver a reasonably engaging experience for anyone looking for a portable, military-styled tactical RPG. And, considering that 3DS games generally hold their value pretty well, Shadow Wars is comparatively cheap now and should only take a nibble out of your bank account. Just don’t expect it to match up to the offerings of Intelligent Systems or Firaxis.