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