If you’re at all familiar with game designer Julian Gollop then you’ll know that the master of strategy has spent the best part of 30 years fusing his love for board games with the videogame medium. And in Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars he may just have come the closest to achieving his vision.
With the 3DS’s 3D slider pushed all the way up, the world of Ghost Recon extends deep into the screen of the handheld in such a way that it’s almost like a living board game is sitting just below a window, waiting for you to dip your fingers in and move the little soldiers around. It’s one of the most appropriate uses of 3D that we’ve seen on the system so far, and it’s also one of the best. The levels are designed in such a way that incidental details like telegraph poles and trees poke into the foreground while deep crevasses and waterfalls extend far below ground, to the point where turning the game down to 2D feels like a significant reduction in immersion.
This being a Gollop game, the visuals also play into the strategy, the 3D is used to accentuate different heights of the battlefield, which affect everything from line-of-sight to projectile range. The whole game is permeated by its creator’s experienced design, actually; despite being a handheld spin-off from a big-budget console series, it draws upon every facet of the strategy genre to deliver a polished and challenging experience. Every character has its own set of weapons and specialities with individual gameplay properties that demand you get to know them properly and play to their strengths as a team. You have to take notice not just of your own range, but that of the enemy, their ability to return fire and your potential to prevent that, the way units close to each other will provide support fire, and so much more.
With each new mission, Shadow Wars adds one factor after another to consider, starting with just the basic troop abilities but later incorporating things like accumulative power points that unlock single-use special moves, or bases that can be captured to earn overall commands like air strikes, enemy vehicles, secondary weapons, sentry guns, limited squad numbers filled from a pool of customised characters… the list goes on. Yet for all the layers of complexity that gradually pile up, Shadow Wars never becomes over-complicated, its considered Nintendo-like design carefully explaining each new element without labouring the point, and then following up with optional on-map exposition or pop-up help windows on the touch screen.
Shadow Wars could be criticised for not making any genuinely innovative steps forward in the strategy genre. But what it does do – integrating just about every conceivable feature of turn-based strategy into a single cohesive whole – is enough to make it one of the best handheld titles of its kind in years, and a surprising jewel in the 3DS launch line-up.