At least from a thematic point of view, World in Conflict is the sort of spiritual successor to Red Dawn, a vastly cheesy movie from the mid 80’s starring Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Charlie Sheen… (look it up on imdb if you’re curious). In the real world the cold war ended when the Soviet Union collapsed under an insurmountable national debt and ever-strained political resistance by satellite republics. The Russians in WiC decided instead to attack Europe. Then, while the world was busy paying attention to Europe, they attacked Washington State, sneaking in their units using a combination of container ships and commercial aircraft. Is this likely? Could a Russia on the brink of dissolution actually manage to wage war on two significant fronts? And if they were going to attack the US, why Seattle, and not, say, Alaska which has 1) oil and 2) an enormous geographic buffer between it and the rest of the US ground forces? Were they hoping the caffeine buzz would carry them clear through the Mississippi river valley? OK, so Massive has cobbled together an unlikely scenario to drive the single player campaign – how did they do otherwise?
Massive Entertainment has come up with a game that plays a heck of a lot like a highly modified version of their earlier Ground Control, only fought with a contemporary military and not some far-flung futuristic combat force. It is on the surface something like a resourceless RTS in that you don’t have peons/miners/harvesters/etc collect resources and you don’t build bases. Instead the game metes the resources out to you automatically in the form of dollars that can be used to purchase reinforcement units that are delivered by parachute, astonishingly quickly, into a drop zone designated by you. The second “resource” is support points, earned by destroying enemy units, which can be used to call in radar scans, support vehicles, weapon strikes, or the ever-enjoyable tactical nuke. By putting a ceiling on the total number of reinforcement dollars and support points that you can have, the game limits you to a fairly small fighting force, certainly no more than a dozen or so units, at any given time.
There are a large number of different units you can purchase split between air, armor, infantry, and support, and in the single player game it is necessary to become proficient to some extent with all of them in a cooperative rock-paper-scissors sense. In the multiplayer game this isn’t the case at all, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. Units can be clicked and grouped, assigned to various hotkeys, told where to go and who to attack and what formation to be in with the typical mouse and key commands. The camera uses W, S, A, D to pan and mouse movements to swivel and the wheel to zoom. I found it all worked quite well, though I’ve heard complaints that the Xbox controls are better. I don’t own an Xbox, and therefore have no basis of comparison, but I could look where I wanted to look and get units where I wanted them to be so everything seemed OK to me. Part of that is the magic of only having a small force to command, the other units in the battle run by computer allies in the single player or other players in the multi. Even on hard setting, I rarely found the single player game an enormous challenge and that the small force ran well with minimal micromanagement, though attempts to solve all primary and secondary goals in a mission would sometimes cause me to divide my forces into uncomfortably small pieces.
The single player game is fairly short (about 8 hours for me) and scripted to an almost ridiculously high level, serving something as an extended tutorial to help you get up to speed for multiplayer combat, which is really where most of the meat of the game resides. Using animated movies, still postcard images, and audio clips of phone calls and radio conversations all narrated by one of the Baldwin brothers (which I can’t for the life of me tell apart except for Steven who is the stupid blonde one), we are told the story of some national guard troops outgunned and on the run trying to mount some kind of counterattack against the advancing Russian army. Though the story clearly tries to make you care about some of these soldiers by doing sneaky little literary tricks like giving them names and throwing up pictures of their kids or phone calls to their wives, I didn’t find myself becoming emotionally invested in the story. Perhaps I’m just a coldhearted bastard. Goals involve taking and/or securing some region by physically placing units within a circle on the map and keeping them there alive until the game tells you the mission has been accomplished. New mission objectives (and new circles to inhabit) crop up as the mission progresses, so it is difficult to figure out how long the actual mission chain is until you have completed it.
As sort of cookie-cutter and limited as the single player game is, the multiplayer game is a full-contact battlepalooza. Either across a LAN or online using one of Massive’s servers, players may join a game instantly without waiting for the game in progress to be complete. As soon as you join you are allocated a load of reinforcement lucre, you order some units, and you’re into the fray in literally about 30 seconds. Without any slow buildup of resource gathering and base building, battles begin essentially immediately, and as you lose units in combat you are reallocated those dollars very quickly so you are never out of the battle for very long. In the multiplayer game you must select a role to play: armor, air, infantry, or support (you are told what roles other players in the game are using before you make your choice). Units in your chosen role are cheaper, so while not strictly limited to that role it is nonetheless wise to stick with it. To be really successful in battle a group would ideally work together with all their complimentary roles, but let’s be real here, we’re talking about the Internet. HughJass104, KillingMachine007, and BallsOfSteel362 by and large are not going to work well together, despite the integral VOIP function, so I think in the long term as groups clan up the battles are going to become very one-sided. I will add that the couple of dozen battles that I played in preparation for this review were for the most part quite close. While the game claims to have several multiplayer variants, all of them hinge on taking and holding (or keeping the enemy from doing so) some location or collection of locations for victory, and they all play very similarly.
Graphically, if your machine has the horsepower, WiC is a battlefield that comes alive with smoke and fires and explosions enough to blot out the sun. I ran at high resolution with most of the effects turned on in DX9. A friend of mine running Vista says it looks even better in DX10, but I haven’t seen it for myself, and I’m unwilling to install crippleware on my machine for the sake of a better tank explosion. Weapons sound OK. The nuke both looks and sounds realistic enough that you almost want to hide behind your chair. I’d like to make a comment about the in-game music, but at the moment can’t recall it. It either doesn’t have any, or it is completely forgettable.
I think as a single player game WiC is sort of a loser. The mechanics of the game are interesting, but the levels are too closely scripted to let you play it except in the way that the level designer wanted you to play it. Once you’ve played them through, and they really don’t take that long, I can’t imagine going through them again because most likely I’d end up, between the scripting and being a creature of habit myself, playing the missions essentially the exact same way. Multiplayer is far better. It is almost a cross between a strategy and an arcade game in that clearly some strategy will take you a long way, but you welcome to just jump into a game and blow some stuff up and then jump out without a big commitment of either time or brain power on your part. I found it quite addictive.