The thing that most people are going to talk about - so I'll get it over right at the start - is the nuclear bomb going off. Yes, World In Conflict is the real-time strategy that has a mini nuke to set off on the battlefield. It actually only devastates a few hundred metres, rather than the several kilometres that would probably get baked in the real world, but the effect is nevertheless jaw-dropping. Blinding bright light, soaring mushroom cloud, probable victory. Between this, Defcon and the Russian Federal government, it seems like thermonuclear weapons really are back in vogue this year. (And yes, I'm just reading in the news that Cold War is back on. Is this another case of life imitating games? And should I really be joking about nuclear war? I just don't know/care).
Anyway, World In Conflict does much more than make plutonium ordnance entertaining, it delivers alternate-history 1980s conflict, with NATO going into a ground war against the Soviet Union and its allies. In multiplayer this means 8v8 battles for territory, which basically works by taking over various important locations in a sort of Battlefield-meets-Ground Control way. You have a drop zone on one side of the battlefield, into which tanks and troops are (quite spectacularly) parachuted, and then the towns, valleys and hills between you and the enemy team must be fought over in classic unit-to-unit RTS style.
In the mode of Battlefield, and unusually for an RTS, you choose a "class" for the multiplayer matches, either as Infantry, Armour, Support or Air units. The kind of units you select will dictate how you end up playing, and there's the potential for some fairly complex interactions between team-mates as the various elements of an army work together to secure their objectives.
Infantry come in swarms and they snipe, fire bazookas at tanks, and repair things here and there, or simply let rip with their rifles. They're best employed from the vantage point of buildings, which provides them with cover and makes them tricky for all but heavy artillery to root out.
Armour comes with various breeds of the lumbering armoured things, and they're obvious the core firepower too. Capturing a point usually relies on these chaps being able to take a bit of a pounding. With some decent support they're formidable.
Support. This is, for me, the most entertaining class. It's sort of the medic and heavy weapons dude of World In Conflict. You get to bring in various sizes of mobile anti-aircraft batteries, as well as two kinds of artillery. Then there are repair vehicles that you can send out to patch up everything from tanks to helicopters in the field. Playing support means you can be extremely busy doing three or four things at once.
Helicopters, the staple of the final "Air" class, are actually a bit dull. You can drop in attack helicopters and some transport stuff, but it all gets shot down and it doesn't take long for anti-aircraft stuff to mince you. A competent team will not fall foul of choppers easily, despite the enormous amount of damage they can potentially deliver. Lone tanks, however, should be very scared indeed.
All this makes for some complex team-work. You can also see anything that any of your allies can see, so if you're a helicopter commander you can swoop in to save your beleaguered ground forces, or if you're artillery you can precipitate the shrapnel blizzard upon enemies from afar. I like to use the heavy artillery (which produces vast plumes of surface-to-surface missiles), while leaving it protected by some heavy anti-aircraft units.
Everyone also has access to some remote support. As you play you generate credit for calling in artillery strikes, supplies, chemical warfare drops, and even, at the very top of the tech tree, a nuclear bomb. "Friendly nuke!" your allies gleefully inform you, and you wonder if there ever could really be such a thing. It's glorious, a little scary, and only affordable if your team pools its resources.
If there's a major problem with World In Conflict then it's that these trump cards are a trump too far. I also found infantry a bit frustrating to use, but I was told in no uncertain terms by other beta-testers that I am mad and wrong. Perhaps I am. But then half the people you play with don't seem understand how the air support system worlds, or that helicopters are obvious targets, or that artillery can see you from miles away, or that it's worth saving up for big artillery strikes, or that you need to capture terrain to win - so I'm not the only person who hasn't got the hang of this fairly challenging RTS. That aside, the game's absurdly beautiful visuals are really kicking the crap out of my PC, and Old Bessie is no slouch...
We're also faced with oddly lifeless sound effects. Given the sheer visual clout of the whole thing I'd like there to have been a little more bass and violence in the noises of war. Nor is the game as physics-heavy as Company Of Heroes, which is perhaps unsurprising given the scale and the immensity of the whole thing, but still a little disappointing. And... well, I'm just trying to be critical. I've actually been having a ball.
As a final note: this game is from Massive Entertainment, the Swedes who tried so bravely to change the course of RTS world with their superb science fiction RTS, Ground Control, way back in the mists of 2000. I always felt like that game was a glimpse of what the future of the genre could, or should, have been. No one seemed to learn its lessons, and it seems like some of that is now coming to pass, thanks to the people who made the game in the first place. They're coming back with Hercules air-drops instead of drop-ships, and the Cold War instead of Galactic War. It's thrilling stuff. So bravo, Massive, I knew you'd do us proud in the end. In fact, I feel like I should be given this beta test a mark, so I'll give it "Unfinished Out Of Jolly Promising Start", and admit that I can't wait for more.