Version tested: PC
I'm giving very serious consideration to the idea of detonating a small nuclear device in a major American city. Now that I've successfully made Eurogamer flash up on the screens of a dozen top secret US intelligence agencies (Kristan may be spirited away to some officially-denied torture dungeon, but just think of the page views!) I should probably explain that, ho ho, I'm just talking about the latest real-time strategy game to set PC hearts a-flutter.
Of course, everybody already knew that since World in Conflict arrives under the considerable burden of being known as "that explosions game where you get to use nukes". While the astonishing pyrotechnics are certainly eye-catching, it'd be a shame if the game were to be remembered solely for its big bangs, luminous walls of flame and rolling banks of realistic smoke and ash. Take away the apocalyptic bluster, and World in Conflict is still one of the most indecently absorbing PC games of the year.
That doesn't mean, however, that it's particularly original or groundbreaking. In terms of features, there's little here that strategy fans won't have seen elsewhere - most notably in the sci-fi Ground Control series, where Swedish developer Massive first attracted praise. The high concept here, that Soviet forces invade the United States in 1989, adds an interesting alternate-history wrinkle to the tanks-and-infantry template but what really makes World in Conflict grab you by the mansacks is the execution. It's immediate. Streamlined. Visceral. It plays like a strategy game, but feels like an action game.
While other RTS games, such as the monolithic Supreme Commander, have pulled further and further away from the blood and rubble of the battlefield, Massive has always stayed close to the action. Harvesting and resource management is most assuredly not on the agenda here. With a Soviet sniper picking off your explosives experts before they can bring down a key structure, you won't be distracted by how many paperclips you need to order for the War Office. In World in Conflict, you're not some high-minded mastermind overseeing the entire war, but a mid-level corporal following orders in a dirty urban scramble for survival. Battles will rage around you - AI allies and foes slugging it out on street corners, artillery fire raining down from both sides - but you've got to barrel on through. Don't engage every enemy you see. Don't assist every friend in need. Your task is focussed and clear. Fulfil your objectives, and do as you're told. Victory doesn't come from destroying every last enemy onscreen, it comes from holding them back just long enough to receive the next order. As you pull out and move on, computer controlled allies roll in to take your place. The illusion of being part of a larger, ongoing battle is terrifyingly real.
Rather than making the game frustrating and linear, this actually frees you up to indulge in some real real-time strategy. It's meat and potatoes military strategy at the frontline. How do you secure and fortify a town square against a platoon of heavy tanks, mere minutes away? How do you react when that force is joined by helicopters from the east and anti-tank infantry from the west? Can you spare the resources to deal with the enemy artillery over that hill? Will that carpet bomb you just called in obliterate enough of the advancing hordes for you to survive by the skin of your teeth? There's no time to mull it over, you just have to grab the units you have, send them into action as best you can and think on your feet every step of the way. And it's breathlessly exhilarating.
Single player campaigns are broken up into seven or more primary objectives, with optional secondary objectives cropping up as you move through them. Taking, fortifying and holding strategic command points is the meat of the game, but the circumstances of each objective vary enough that the task never feels repetitive. While a campaign may take an hour or more, it'll be broken down into smaller engagements where simply crossing a river or destroying one building requires careful planning. Maps are insanely detailed - witness the snowy footprints your troops leave in Cascade Falls, discarded Christmas decorations littering the streets - but of manageable size. You'll rarely be commanding more than ten units, and even when you split them up, they'll always be within range of each other. This isn't a game where you need to zoom up into the heavens to see where everyone is. Your camera hovers at roof level, roaming realistic streets looking for tactical advantages.
The top right of the screen is home to your reinforcements menu, from which you can call in whatever combination of vehicles and troops you like. Your choices are limited only by the number of reinforcement points you have - more are awarded for successful play, and when a unit is destroyed, its point value goes back into the queue and can be spent again after a certain amount of time. This clever mechanic means you'll never be left high and dry, at least in theory, but poor judgment and timing can still leave you defending the line with a handful of soldiers and one knackered tank. It puts the onus on you, the player, to make best use of what you have, planning on the fly not only for the current engagement, but for whatever comes rolling down the street next.
Units are selected and manoeuvred with the left-click/right-click method you'd expect, while sensible keyboard shortcuts and clear icons are available for everything else you need. For instance, your infantry become infinitely more useful if you station them in buildings. Two anti-tank squads, hidden in buildings on opposite sides of a street, can halt the advance of a medium sized armoured platoon with little trouble. You can select each squad, and right click on the buildings by hand - or you can click a button and they make for the closest building automatically. Vehicles can retreat, or follow each other, with similar efficiency. In a game where seconds count, such intelligent time-saving devices are incredibly useful.
The same is true of tactical aids – the catch-all title given to the awesome firepower you can unleash from afar. Napalm, tank busters, three artillery spreads of varying accuracy and power, air-to-air support, daisy cutters – there’s a lot of fun to be had just trying out each one, and working out the best ways to use them. Each comes with a price tag in tactical points, which refills over time. Each assault also has a deployment time before it hits – meaning artillery barrages against moving targets require some nifty timing - and a recharge period before it can be used again. While it’s tempting to use these options to bomb the crap out of the map, such an approach pales next to careful, considered deployment in the right place at the right time. This is also where the nuke option appears though, wisely, the game doesn’t dish these out easily. When you finally do get to drop the weapon you’ve been salivating over since first seeing the trailers, it’s done in a way that satisfies your thirst for explosion while maintaining a suitably sombre and serious mood.
The difficulty of the single player mode skews easier than most dedicated PC gamers will prefer - you'll want to ramp it up to Hard or above for a challenge - but there's a nice narrative flow and balance to the experience. As the Soviet invasion pushes east across the US, the scenery changes from city blocks to small towns, to mountains. The game also flashes back to the European conflicts which precede the invasion, and while the change of scenery is welcome, seeing tanks rolling through rural French villages leaves the game losing some of its distinctive edge and looking a lot like WW2 point-clickers like Company of Heroes.
Each campaign section is bookended by in-game cutscenes, phone conversations set to hand-painted slideshows and some fantastic narration from Alec Baldwin. The tone is just cheesy enough to tick off all the wartime clichés you'd expect - pregnant girlfriends back home, poignant children's toys discarded in rubble - but the game manages to inject character and intrigue into a scenario that could easily be dominated by destruction and mayhem. As beautifully presented as the single player game is, however, it won't last hardcore strategists very long. You can create your own custom scenarios to eke out more playtime, but most will make a beeline for the multiplayer, which is so rich that it's almost another game in itself. It's also where it really distinguishes itself from the competition.
I said earlier that World in Conflict plays like a strategy game, but feels like an action game. That probably caused a few hardcore PC gamers to balk, but it's really a compliment and this conceptual duality is most evident when playing online. Taking its cue from the Battlefield series, rather than the more obvious Command & Conquers of the world, the multiplayer World in Conflict experience is based heavily on teamwork and unit classes. When you join a game - which you can do at any time, thanks to a fairly slick drop-in system - you choose what sort of regiment you want to command. Infantry? Armour? Support? Airborne?
By forcing you to specialise, the game demands communication and co-operation with your allies. Barge in, start playing for your own ends and you'll get swiftly destroyed like the loose cannon you are. Work closely with other players, complement each others skills, and you become a formidable fighting force. When you find yourself playing with like-minded comrades, the result is fiendishly addictive. During the beta stage these two elements often conflicted - the casual drop-in access, coupled with a general lack of understanding as to what sort of game this was supposed to be, often nobbled attempts to foster an efficient team. Now that the game is open to all, it seems that this problem is receding. As more players get used to the idea of focussing their skills and collaborating with others, a decent community of clans is springing up and - touch wood - the prospects of finding epic, satisfying skirmishes are looking good. Lag was minimal in the matches I played and, for all the particle effects and impressive physics being slung around (zoom right in, and you'll see even the smallest chunk of debris gets pushed aside by passing vehicles) the game can be made to run on a mid-range PC without losing too much razzle dazzle.
So don't come to World in Conflict looking for a game that reinvents its genre. Come to it because it's an instantly appealing refinement of smart ideas, served up with gorgeous production values and back-to-basics strategic muscle. It's intelligently structured, so you can lose yourself for hours or indulge in a quick twenty minute skirmish, while the multiplayer mode is an absolute monster if you're willing to submit to its co-operative style. The ability to unleash monitor-rattling nuclear destruction at will is what will inevitably garner the most attention, but thankfully World in Conflict has the steak to go with the sizzle. Combining bite-sized accessibility and formidable depth in a genre as established as real-time strategy is no mean feat, but Massive has pulled it off. An absolute beast of a game.
9 / 10