Regardless of the graveness of the world situation, with battles raging across Africa, the Middle-East and Eastern Europe, kids and big kids alike will always find time for war games. From zooming around the playground with your arms out stretched, ack-ack-acking out loud as you strafe an enemy battle ship (a.k.a. the trout-faced playground monitor) to stalking around a paintball field like you're Rambo, humans continue to enjoy playing at war.
Of course, video games play to this tendency more than most, with war-torn cities presented as mud-stained obstacle courses to negotiate, and large-scale theatres of war offered to us as elaborate games of digital chess.
It's the latter template that Tom Clancy's EndWar follows, playing out as a birds-eye turn-based strategy game, with you as the stylus-wielding commander-in-chief. Placed in a near-future setting, you must choose from three recognizable factions and set out on a world-spanning tactical campaign.
The premise of EndWar is that, in approximately ten years' time, tensions arise between the US and the ascendant United States of Europe. Into the mix comes a resurgent Russia, seeking to reassert its place on the world stage. Tom Clancy or no Tom Clancy, it hardly takes a great leap of imagination to consider such a scenario, but its plausibility certainly adds a little more weight to proceedings.
In gameplay terms this means taking control of an assortment of land, sea and air units and directing them towards meeting each level's objectives. These usually take the form of one primary goal (such as taking over an enemy base) and several optional secondary tasks (such as destroying all attack choppers within a set number of turns).
As mentioned, you take it in turns with your opponent to manoeuvre each of your units, with the combat decided by a rock-paper-scissors match-up of individual unit strengths and weaknesses. Each clash is played out in a small animated scene, with tanks laying into artillery and infantry storming bases. It certainly adds drama and gives you a visual indication of how each of your units is doing.
From our description so far (and from looking at the screen shots) you'll no doubt be reminded of Nintendo's own take on turn-based warfare, Advance Wars, and there's no doubting that EndWar bears more than a passing resemblance to that venerable series. The main structural difference is in EndWar's splitting of each turn into two phases: movement and attack.
While you instruct your units where to move on the bottom screen, your opponent doles out attacking commands on the top screen, and vice-versa. This changes the flow of the game quite significantly, and it's evidently an attempt to make you think a little more carefully about the consequences of your actions. In practice, however, we found the extra layer a rather unnecessary complication, and we never felt that we could read the battlefield quite as instinctively as we could in any of Nintendo's efforts.
This relative lack of user-friendliness is carried on in the slightly bland graphics, which lack the vibrancy and unit distinctiveness of its rival. They're not bad by any means, but we couldn't help but pine for the clarity in style of the game EndWar so clearly apes.
We weren't especially bowled over by the story either, which consists of a series of generically macho figures spouting reams of dull exposition, while still managing to find time for some cringe-worthy clichés. At one point a European officer (who sounded very American in our head) managed to slip a quip about the dubious quality of British food into a serious briefing concerning a Russian invasion of the UK. I guess in Tom Clancy's future Jamie Oliver chokes on an olive before he can rescue the great unwashed from their culinary ignorance.
Of course, the story is very much second to the tactical action, which is never less than solid. Although you'll find yourself rather funnelled towards your goal on some of the slightly constrained levels, there's usually the scope to take a slightly different path to victory. Certainly, unlike Advance Wars you never feel quite so hesitant to use an ostensibly unsuitable unit to pick a fight. If you have an enemy unit flanked or even surrounded by multiple units of your own, you'll reap the benefits with a multiplying attack bonus.
Other than a generously sized campaign, EndWar boasts a decent collection of one-off scenario maps, with additional examples unlocked as you progress through the campaign. There's also a local two-player mode, although we would have liked to have seen an online option, as the tactical scope of this sort of game is never fully revealed until you've put the hours in against a string of well-matched human opponents.
The icing on the cake comes with a level editor feature, which could potentially provide patient sorts with more hours of fun than the rest of the game modes combined. Again, the option to share these online would have been something special, but we're not sure if Nintendo would allow such a feature, so we won't hold it against the developer.
While Tom Clancy's EndWar never quite manages to outshine its obvious inspiration, and comes across as slightly dull and uninspired in places, it is an undoubtedly fine strategic experience. It also manages to add a number of well-conceived features of its own, and possibly edges out Advance Wars in terms of strategic complexity. Those serious about playing at war should certainly check it out.