Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Massive Entertainment
Release Date: September 19, 2007
Without a doubt, World in Conflict is the newest yardstick against which future real-time strategy games will have to compare themselves. Other releases in recent months may have expanded the genre's scope, but World in Conflict brings to the table what other modern RTS titles seem to lack: presentation. Between the fluid combat dynamics, interesting tactics system, epic storyline and the fresh take on multiplayer, we may not have to look any further in our search for the best RTS title of the year.
World in Conflict takes place in the doomsday version of the world that would have exited if the Cold War had escalated into a full-on war. In the game's plot, Allied and Soviet forces have been fighting pitched battles in Europe, and just as the tide seems to be turning and the Allied forces can see victory, the Soviets take the fight to the American homeland, with attacks on both coasts and a full-scale military invasion near Seattle. The player takes on the role of Lieutenant Parker, a seasoned military commander tasked with the ambitious role of pushing the Soviet invasion force back into the sea from which it came. However, it is found early on that the Soviet force is far more organized than initially thought, and before long, massive stretches of the U.S. coastline become heavily occupied by Soviet forces.
One of the strongest points of World in Conflict is its incredible use of the plot, from the engine's incredible cinematics conveying gripping and sometimes-harrowing moments of struggle and conflict to the character development that exceeds what's found in most video games, delivered by watercolor stills in between missions. In a genre generally (and often erroneously) considered to be about throwing massive amounts of nameless units at the enemy, World in Conflict literally and figuratively brings the battle home. Players will watch characters develop, begin to relate with them and, in some cases, not only deal with their deaths but also how their death affects those around them. Somehow, in a genre filled with cookie-cutter plots and characters, World in Conflict has delivered a story the likes of which is usually only found between book covers.
World in Conflict's innovation of the genre doesn't end with mere plot lines, however grand they may be. The way in which the gameplay and level progression is handled is one of the more unique aspects of World in Conflict. Rather than the player building a base, marching down the tech tree and racing to make more units than the other side, the title lets players forgo the repetitive actions of building up at the start of every level and simply airdrops in their units depending on the number available points in the reinforcement pool.
The number of points in the pool is limited by a cap that can increase or decrease during the course of a mission, and whenever a unit is requested, it has a point value attached to it. Heavy attack helicopters may cost 1,200 points, but a basic infantry squad many only cost 650, so a big part of the game's tactics is in simply using your points effectively to balance and tailor your unit selection to the task at hand. The types of units that the player can airdrop vary from level to level, allowing for some interesting takes on the gameplay, such as missions where you're only using helicopters to assault an island, or one where you start with an APC and a pair of repair vehicles and must support AI units as they attack the enemy while you reclaim abandoned tanks for your own command.
As an example of how the airdrop and reinforcement system works, at the outset of one level, you may only have access to tanks and infantry and are restricted to airdrop locations located within a wide swath of forest. Once you reach a certain mission objective, such as taking a town, you may get word that not only can you now airlift in artillery pieces but also that the Soviets are counterattacking and completely surrounding the town, making the town the only location where you can receive airdrops. The player's resource points recharge incredibly slowly when all of his units are deployed, but they accumulate fairly quickly if the player only has one or two cheap units deployed — or remaining. If a player is wiped out, he can quickly call his units back onto the field, and although the point recharge rate may be slow, a player whose units have lasted a long time might be able to deploy an additional unit or two. On the flip side, this means that many of the title's objectives are based on a set time limit, such as holding a position until backup arrives or clearing an area of enemies before an air strike is used, given its much greater potential for collateral damage.
The multiplayer mode captures the same scope of the single-player game, but it isn't quite the expected fare. Each map in World in Conflict is a massive affair, complete with differing elevations, strategic capture points, and areas of interest such as forests, bridges and cliffs. Unlike other RTS titles where all players who will participate in a match must first join a lobby, World in Conflict allows players to join and leave matches in progress. Given the scale of the maps in physical size and population (each side can easily number eight or more players), matches last a fairly long time and feel more like the Battlefield series than another RTS title. On some maps, each side begins with a certain amount of points, which are deducted when units on the side are killed; points are also deducted over time if the enemy controls more strategic points than your side does. In other maps, one side must attack and capture a series of strategic points in a predetermined order while the other side must do its best to counter the opponent's attempts. Once the timer runs out or the attackers capture all of the strategic points, the sides swap roles, and it's up to the previously defending team to try and do a better job to secure a victory.
In multiplayer, instead of being able to request all units at any time, players must first choose a specialization, which can be changed at will if the player has no units deployed; the available specializations are air, armor, infantry or support. The armor specialization allows the player to deploy various tanks and other armored units, while the air specialization is the armor's bane, with its various attack, scout and transport choppers. The infantry specialization lets the player deploy various types of infantry squads and troop transports, which aren't the most powerful by themselves, but if infantry units are deployed in buildings or under the cover of forests where they're relatively protected, they can use their anti-air and anti-tank launchers to great effect. Finally, the support specialization allows the player to deploy artillery and anti-air units.
What you may notice is that there are obvious holes in the capabilities of each specialization, which means that regardless of how skilled individual players may be, the only hope of winning comes with working together effectively. Armor can destroy infantry-occupied buildings to allow for a second player using transport helicopters to drop off a third player's infantry to help secure the area, while a fourth player with artillery units, three-fourths of a map away, bombards the advancing enemy counter-attack. To help facilitate instances like the above example, World in Conflict has full voice chat support in addition to traditional text chat. What it all boils down to is that although real-time strategy games have always required coordination among team players, it becomes a key factor in World in Conflict, where players are actually limited to playing the roles that they've chosen and are forced to rely on their allies to protect their weaknesses.
As players capture strategic points and kill enemy units in either single-player or multiplayer mode, they will gain tactical points that can be spent in a variety of ways. A small number of points may send a few A-10s to an area that you want to clear of enemy tanks, while using a few more points might allow you to target an area for a massive volley of artillery. The points are intended to be a means for players to do things that they would normally be unable to do, such as an infantry player sending in a napalm strike to clear a forest of trees and concealed snipers. Finally, if a team works together and each member gifts some of his tactical points to the same player, then that player can launch a nuclear weapon (the size depends on the amount of expended tactical points) to destroy everything in its radius, including units, buildings, trees and other objects, leaving nothing but an irradiated crater in its wake.
World in Conflict's graphics are stellar in either of the DirectX 9 or DirectX 10 modes. Missiles leave smoke trails as they stream toward their marks, forest fires can spread enough to make even the burliest firefighter weep, and the nuclear blasts pack a massive graphical wallop, complete with a blinding flash, a huge mushroom cloud and the screen going semi-black and white when the camera is positioned near the irradiated area. Units are all quite detailed, and the lighting and shadowing effects for the units and the environment are some of the best the genre has seen thus far. The cut scenes are easily some of the best as well, with human-like animations and use of camera angles and action that make them seem like snippets of a big-budget movie.
Real-time strategy gamers have become accustomed to things being done a certain way, and while World in Conflict makes massive and sweeping changes to the tried-and-true formula of RTS titles, it does so in such a way that makes other genre offerings pale in comparison. Other titles have their own strengths in realism, renown or longevity, but World in Conflict's biggest strength is that it's a fresh take on a genre that has been long stagnant, and it gets top marks in nearly every category. If absolutely nothing else, World in Conflict is a gripping title set in an alternate reality that could have been, coupled with gameplay quality that makes the title a serious contender for the best real-time strategy game of the year.
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