Version tested: PC
Occasionally I just forget how impressive certain games look. Perhaps it's information overload and I just have to delete the brain-file, but coming back to them I am appalled by what I've been missing. World in Conflict is a case in point. My screenshot-memory pegged it looking okay, but when I went back in last week and started to watch tank battles across the distant sunlit farmlands of North America, I was taken aback. This is a game that that doesn't even seem to be showing off. It's faultlessly, effortlessly beautiful. It was a little like meeting an old flame years later and thinking: "Oh. Damn." Memories revised.
Fortunately, perhaps, former romances don't tend to be relaunched by a new publisher, but that's what's happening with World in Conflict. All this Soviet Assault or "World in Conflict: Complete Edition" jazz is about the game coming out under Ubisoft rather than under original publisher Sierra. Thanks Ubisoft, because you've picked up and produced something that really deserves a second chance. World in Conflict's rebirth is a fine thing.
However, as the game's lead designer Magnus Jensen is keen to point out, this version of the game is more like a director's cut than an expansion pack. This is less of a full-on new campaign and more like The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, where the whole thing has had a going-over, and some new stuff has been dropped in: new multiplayer and single-player maps, with all the old ones tweaked, but no new units.
Unlike The Witcher, however, owners of the original World in Conflict are going to have to pay for the six new Soviet Assault maps and the revised single-player campaign. It's GBP 9.99 on Steam, and a similar price for Americans and Europeans, and it's rather hard to recommend that upgrade on its own. It's probably worthwhile if you definitely intended to play through the original campaign again, but if that didn't grab you, then this will be okay to miss out on.
As we continue this review bear in mind that this is a verdict for World in Conflict: Complete Edition - the relaunch of game with expansion included - rather simply Soviet Assault itself. The number attached to the end of these words is for the entire bundle - already impressively discounted - not just this add-on, which is definitely optional for people who already own World in Conflict.
(And as a quick aside, the entire multiplayer element of the game is going to be overhauled to bring all WIC players up to the same bar as Complete and Soviet Assault owners, for free. If you're a multiplayer WIC person, which I suspect some of you must be, it's worth bearing that in mind before you bother forking out any greenbacks.)
Anyway, with all that context and back-story out the way, let's talk game. World in Conflict is the virile son of Ground Control series: free of base-building and all about the tactical action. It pours tanks, helicopters and infantry into lavishly detailed real-world environments and supplements the blitzkrieg with some of the finest artillery and air support options gaming has ever seen. This is a game that could well serve as a kind of Church to the explosion: never have detonations been so exulted. They start out with tiny impacts of light artillery bombardment and scale all the way up to a nuclear bomb, via detours to napalm strikes and the splendid crump-thump of heavy barrages.
In fact, all this ordnance is the focus of the game: it's as much of a shooter as any RTS had been (up to and including Dawn of War II) with the various power-ups and abilities of the vehicles - smoke screens, missiles - and the incredible adaptability of the infantry, all coming together to create a rock-paper-scissors that never asks too much apart from that you kill the enemy real good. Bring choppers in to take on the tanks, make sure armour kills anti-aircraft, fortify the capture points, watch your flanks - it's never particularly complex, but it's action-packed.
The contemporary setting kicks it solidly into quite another ballpark from the hordes of World War II RTS games that seem to come rattling towards us each year, too. World in Conflict's setting is, of course, an alternative 1980s. It's a world in which the Cold War ended not with vodka-pickled Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, but with all-out hot, hot war. And that means a proper stand-up fight between all that Soviet and American tech that was designed to take each other, but actually never got it on. It's military porn fantasy for the hardware fanatics, and an explodey fast-tactics game for everyone else.
In this world the Russians land in Seattle, and proceed to make brutal conquest on the American state. Impossible, probably, but ridiculously entertaining as you take command of the confused and half-arsed American defence forces, fighting a botched running battle across the United States - and some scene-setting battles in Europe - culminating in a nuke set off in the snowy Christmas countryside, and a final series of battles against the invading forces.
What we hadn't had, until now, was the Soviet side of the story. The six new missions in Soviet Assault provide that, complete with the storyboards and characterisation for the new Russian characters to flesh them out as much as their American and European counterparts. The single-player campaign in World in Conflict was pretty good the first time around, but these time around it's epic. The Russian missions are all excellent - as you'd expect from a team that's had loads of time to get really good at creating its game. This is almost as good as RTS presentation ever gets - with only the astonishing bookend cut-scenes and dialogue of Dawn of War II casting it into shadow.
Whether you give a damn about all that, however, is probably going to rest on whether you enjoy the basic process of combat in World in Conflict. The slow reinforcement from air drops is a neat system that is perhaps better expressed in multiplayer than in single-player. The basic rhythm of World in Conflict is a skirmish followed either by advancement, or a carefully chosen next wave of units. The single-player campaign scripts a series of events and objectives which you must perform with the forces you have, and a stream of reinforcements that are parachuted in as the game progresses. In multiplayer this works brilliantly because you're forced to adapt to enemy attacks, and to break apart their entrenchment in the various capture points across the map.
In single-player, though, there's always the feeling that, well, it's all smoke and mirrors. You know exactly what's going to happen; if you weren't being told to fall back, or capture the bridge, or whatever, then the battle would certainly be more straightforward. WIC's single-player campaign feels like the kind of game that is designed to let you win, so long as you do as you're told. That leaves it feeling a little empty. Fun, but somewhat hollow.
Stick to the multiplayer and play as part of a team and you've got one of the PC's finest gaming experiences. The assault, tug of war and domination game modes provide enough variation that you're forced to take on a slightly different play style for each (the Battlefield-like Domination is what I prefer, I must admit), which means there's always scope for getting a little better at your game. It seems like a truism that playing against other people is always more interesting, but the difference is particularly stark here. No matter how polished and impressive the single-player campaign has become - or how hardcore, given that Soviet Assault introduces another tier of difficulty - other human players are always a better opponent.
Ultimately this lack of tactical substance in the single-player campaign means the game feels a little unbalanced in favour of the online gaming experience, but it's hard to punish World in Conflict for that when the rest of the game is so fine. Don't call it a comeback, but I'm glad to see this game sitting on the shelves again. And now that I think about it, this is one nugget of military gold that never left my hard drive in the first place.
8 / 10