Folks familiar with the Ghost Recon series may be accustomed to tactical military action from a third-person viewpoint, but they are in for a surprise with Shadow Wars. This is a turn-based combat game that plays out on tiled maps from a more or less bird's-eye view. In every mission, you assault your enemies and accomplish your objective while ensuring that none of your squad members perish. Success requires careful maneuvering and a strong knowledge of each soldier's unique and diverse capabilities. The difficulty ramps up smoothly during the very lengthy campaign, but even in the early going, one bad choice can result in a failed mission. This creates an engaging sense of tension, spurring you to be smart and use the richly detailed environments to your advantage. In addition to the campaign, there are a host of interesting one-off scenarios, as well as a two-player competitive mode that, while intriguing, can only be played using one system. This oddity notwithstanding, Shadow Wars is a great new entry in the Ghost Recon series that delivers tens of hours of exciting and engrossing tactical action.
Missions in Shadow Wars play out from the aforementioned elevated perspective. You survey the battlefield and use the D pad to move your cursor and direct your individual soldiers to move, fire, and perform other battlefield actions. The detailed visuals convey plenty of relevant information without feeling cluttered, and playing in 3D adds a subtle yet impactful depth of field. It feels like you're looking down into a little diorama, and the circle pad lets you temporarily adjust the viewing angle so the structures on the map don't obstruct your view. The grid-based maps include farms, villages, industrial complexes and caves, and each is littered with trees, fences, buildings, trenches, rivers, cliffs, and other elements that all have tactical ramifications. Some shield you from damage, others limit your movement, and many have an impact on your ever-important line of sight.
This concept determines whether or not your soldier can fire at an enemy, or be fired upon, and it's essential to keep it in mind in each skirmish. Advancing through an open field leaves you vulnerable to fire from all angles, but moving between trees and bushes can both obstruct enemy lines of sight and reduce the damage you take from getting shot. Entering buildings costs extra movement points, but you significantly reduce your exposure to enemy fire. Fences offer protection only from specific directions, and shooting down on an enemy from an elevated position makes your attack more damaging. Learning how to read the terrain is crucial to success, because these are just some of the strategic considerations you encounter. Fortunately, the touch screen offers easy access to clear, comprehensive information about any square you highlight, including movement cost, cover value, and effect on line of sight. You can also move to any square and view its lines of sight, so you can better plan attacks or avoid danger.
In the single-player campaign, your squad consists of a maximum of six soldiers (sometimes fewer, depending on the mission parameters). You are sent on various missions around Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, but the boilerplate story offers very little, and the characters are bland stereotypes. In combat, they are generally categorized as medic, sniper, gunner, commando, engineer, and recon, and each has unique attributes and weaponry. The gunner has a relatively limited movement range, but his minigun does a huge amount of damage, and he can return fire when he or a nearby ally is attacked. This makes him a good asset for securing a position, while the recon's stealth ability, which prevents enemies from shooting at her unless one is standing right next to her, makes her perfect for softening up enemy positions or taking out lone wolves (her unlockable melee attack is delightfully deadly, as well). The engineer's deployable drones are distracting to enemies and pack a powerful punch, and the medic's healing ability is invaluable. As you play through the campaign, you can unlock upgrades on linear, character-specific progression trees that grant new abilities and new weapons. These upgrades make each soldier more versatile and powerful, and seeing the results on the battlefield is very rewarding.
As you play missions and use your soldiers in different scenarios, the touch screen offers a bevy of information about all the soldiers on the field, both allied and enemy. It shows you how many tiles your soldiers can move, how many they can move and then attack (a key distinction), what their attack range is, and how much damage they will do at different ranges. You can also check out their unique abilities and keep an eye on the power meter that, when filled, enables a deadly super attack. On these battlefields, knowledge is power. Properly calculating the number of moves it will take to reach a building can make the difference between charging in unscathed and battle ready, and scrambling in half-dead under a hail of gunfire. The information you get from the touch screen is also reinforced with visual cues that pop up as you plot your maneuvers and show which enemies will return fire and what the projected damage of your attack is. Shadow Wars gives you a lot of information to work with, and this complexity creates an engrossing degree of strategic depth.
While the battle system may seem complex, the smooth learning curve teaches you new elements at a good rate that keeps you well prepared and ensures that you never feel overwhelmed. Additionally, you can select from three difficulty levels at the start of every mission. If you feel like things are too easy, upping the difficulty makes your enemies more aggressive and reduces the number of resupply items on the map (medkits, ammo boxes, and power boosts). The higher difficulty levels make things significantly tougher, but no matter what difficulty level you play on, you have to be careful. One bad maneuver can get one of your squad members killed, which results in a failed mission that you must restart from the beginning. Some of the missions can last upward of 45 minutes, but fortunately, you can save at any time during your turn and load your save whenever you like (including upon mission failure). Even with this safety net, the threat of failure looms large, imbuing each mission with a nice sense of tension.
The campaign can last tens of hours, and you unlock a bevy of stand-alone scenarios and multiplayer maps as you go. The specific scenarios offer a nice variety of challenges that use generic soldiers to create some interesting situations, like defending a lighthouse with only engineers and their turrets. Completing these missions (as well as those in the campaign) furthers your persistent rank and helps unlock more maps. The multiplayer mode pits two generic forces against each other, and the variety of soldiers and complexity of the maps ensure that the strategic depth translates well. It's unfortunate that the only way to play multiplayer is by passing the 3DS back and forth, however, because an online competitive option could have provided some more longevity.
Fortunately, Shadow Wars is not lacking in content, and there's enough here to keep you busy for a long time. Skirmishing against the enemy AI is challenging and rewarding, regardless of which mode you're playing. Learning the ins and outs of combat is very satisfying, and the great difficulty spectrum means even those who are unfamiliar with this type of game can get the hang of it. With rich environments, gratifying tactical depth, and engrossing action, Shadow Wars is not only a great value, but a whole lot of addictive fun to boot.