World in Conflict is a real-time strategy game that wonders, in a very loud and explosive fashion, what would have happened if Russia had invaded the United States in 1989. Interestingly, a quick look at Wikipedia shows that Jake Lloyd, the young 'actor' who would go on to play Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, was born in 1989. It's tantalising, isn't it, to think that if Russia had invaded the US back then, maybe Mr. Lloyd might never have been born and someone - anyone! - else could have taken the role? In fact, isn't it possible that George Lucas might never have got around to soiling the Star Wars legacy if a Soviet invasion had occurred? Heady questions indeed, and something that World in Conflict has no interest in whatsoever.
Instead, WiC concentrates, quite sensibly, on smacking large amounts of military hardware together. The campaign casts you as Lieutenant Parker and gets you heavily involved in all sorts of dramatically violent happenings, on both American and European soil. The campaign story is told surprisingly well, and is more interesting than the typically thin storylines used by other similar games. Narrated by Alec Baldwin and featuring some very nicely done cut scenes, the atmosphere of a world in, yes, conflict is well constructed. Larry Bond, author of numerous chunky Tom Clancy-ish novels, is credited as a story consultant and he seems to have had a beneficial effect. The moments in which the story focuses in on individual characters and their reactions to the epic events around them are terrific little touches.
Still, nobody in their right mind ever bought an RTS for the story so let's get down to business - the game. Massive Entertainment, developers of WiC, have built extensively on ideas used in their earlier Ground Control games. The focus here is entirely on combat, with no base building or on-map resource harvesting at all. Your unit building capabilities are limited by the number of reinforcement points you earn while in combat so you'll basically be ordering up whatever units you can afford at the time and waiting for them to be parachuted in. Military muscle is supplemented by Tactical Aids, such as napalm, artillery barrages and nuclear strikes. Tactical Aids are paid for with Tactical Aid points, which are earned by destroying the enemy and capturing objectives. It's an unfussy, streamlined system that keeps the game firmly focused on the business of blowing stuff up.
An immediate impression on entering a battlefield is that you can see an awfully long way. The intuitive camera controls let you pull up high enough to see for kilometres. Whole forests, towns and cities can be hovered over and it's quite possible to direct your units from way up high. It's important to keep in mind, however, that the fog of war remains in effect, no matter how far you can see. Your units have to be able to see their units, even though you (the player) can see every hill, mountain and tuft of grass. Nevertheless, the epic scope of battles is very impressive and the game engine handles it all with ease. It's a very scalable engine, so you should be able to find a good balance of frame rate and purdyness. With everything cranked to eleven, WiC can be absolutely astonishing to look at. You will, of course, need the latest and greatest gear to actually be able to play the game smoothly at these levels.
Each mission generally tasks you with having to capture and hold a number of objective locations. These are marked as large white (neutral) or red (enemy) circles on the battlefield. If you can get a unit inside the circle, and keep it there, the objective will slowly be secured. Quite often a number of objective markers will be linked, so you'll have to simultaneously capture two or more markers before a location is considered secure. A campaign mission tends to a be a hectic sprint from one objective to another, with any number of secondary objectives popping up along the way. The game puts a lot of effort into making you feel like you're part of larger events, as you hurry past raging battles or see devastating air strikes happening miles away. You'll often secure an objective, then be promptly ordered to get over to the opposite side of the map to fend off an enemy incursion. Friendly AI units will then move in to guard the objectives you've just captured.
The harried nature of the campaign missions can sometimes seem a bit excessive. All the 'Go there! Retreat! Quick, over there! Run! Behind you!" shenanigans certainly keep the pressure on but can also stop a mission developing any real flow or character. It can feel like a stop-watch timed collection of short, sharp mini-missions, which lends a fragmented feel to proceedings. While the missions aren't completely scripted, the player can definitely feel a bit herded along at times. The lack of base-building also means that a battlefield can lack a focus point, a piece of territory that's yours and somewhere to regroup and rebuild. The relentless hooning around that WiC demands can, oddly enough, make it all seem a little pointless and lightweight at times. When you've spent twenty minutes capturing a hill-top church, only to have to abandon it the second you get there and hurtle at top speed back down to the waterfront to recapture a point that the friendly AI has been programmed to lose, you do yearn to have a bit more control over the grand strategy of the battle.
Still, considering WiC unapologetically favours action over strategy, it certainly delivers in spades. The sheer, explosive impact of the game is an ongoing delight. Everything you see can be blown into little tiny bits or set alight - house, bridges, forests - and there are few sights more dramatic than calling in a heavy artillery barrage and seeing the shells arc in over the horizon before flattening a city block. The scale of destruction offered by a Daisy Cutter or a Nuke is an awesome, if slightly guilty, pleasure.
The real innovations in WiC are found in multiplayer. Rather than using the standard RTS approach, WiC multiplayer plays out much more like a game of Battlefield 2 than Age of Empires. Each side can have up to 8 players, each taking on the role of either infantry, armour, air or support. Players can drop in and out of a game at any time without bringing the game to halt - the AI simply takes over when a player leaves. Each player buys their units and then the two sides fight over objectives.
A good multiplayer game of WiC requires very close co-operation between team mates. Armour needs to co-ordinate with infantry, air needs to protect them both, and so on. The harsh truth is, though, that unless you're playing in a clan or with friends, this simply does not happen. In our experience, multiplayer matches saw constant pockets of combat going on all over the place, with no coherent frontlines or strategies. At times, it can be like watching 16 individual games that just happen to be taking place on the same map. While this is not a fault of the game as such, don't expect to be able to leap into pick-up games of WiC and get the full multiplayer experience.
With a little fiddling, you can set up a single-player skirmish mode via the multiplayer options. Just create a LAN match on your computer, then populate it with AI controlled friendly and enemy combatants. It's a little puzzling as to why a more easily accessible skirmish mode isn't on the game's front menu, but once you've sorted it all out, there's a lot of fun to be had fighting against the AI on the multiplayer maps.
World in Conflict is a big, ambitious game that almost seems too big at times. There's an odd feeling of disconnection from the game, possibly due to the fact that the scale of the battlefields can make your little units seem insignificant. Any game that incorporates nuclear bombs needs a lot of space to stop the nukes from completely dominating, but this makes the smaller, bread-and-butter units - the units you'll be spending the vast majority of your time with - kind of rattle around like dried peas in a tin. The lack of base building only adds to this distancing effect, in that units never really feel like your units, but more like some handy tools that have been parachuted in.
World in Conflict has to be given credit for taking a new and inventive approach to RTS multiplayer gaming, even though the full multiplayer experience may prove to be beyond the reach of most. While the actual game itself often feels cold and somewhat impersonal, the main campaign's story is unexpectedly engaging. There's no doubt that World in Conflict will provide hours of spectacular strategy gaming, but we can't help but feel that the visuals will ultimately prove to be more memorable than the gameplay.