World in Conflict (PC)
World in Conflict is the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde strategy game; when you first jump into the single-player campaign you get the feeling that, while it certainly looks like a million bucks, its scripted missions and 'lead you by the nose' design don't leave you too much to get excited about. Then you fire up a multiplayer game, and the brilliance of World in Conflict becomes readily apparent.
The premise of the game is much like the Cold War classic film 'Red Dawn.' The year is 1989 and the Cold War is anything but cool -- in fact the Soviet Union has decided that now is the time to strike the United States by invading...Seattle. Sneaking men, weapons and armor aboard cargo ships, the Red Army attacks the Pacific Northwest with swift precision, catching the National Guard napping while the base Army group scrambles to get troops to the hot zone to hold off the attack.
In the campaign you play the role of Lt. Parker, a junior officer tasked to help lead the defense of the homeland. The campaign stretches through 14 missions, which are linked together via game-rendered cut scenes narrated by a gloomy Alec Baldwin.
The game isn't one of resource gathering -- you are given troops and armor and are allowed to bring in reinforcements from time to time and also use Tactical Aid such as artillery barrages and air strikes, which cost resource points, but it isn't so much about managing your 'base' as it is about tactical planning. While this is not a bad philosophy, the missions themselves are a problem. Each is heavily scripted, and they are basically broken down into a chain of objectives that you have to accomplish. Things like 'rescue these trapped troops' or 'destroy this Soviet Army Group' are typical tasks.
The Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just as scripted as the mission design. Both the U.S. troops and that of the Red Army are none too bright, which makes the entire campaign feel stale and uninspired. It's easy to get sucked into the fact that the game is gorgeous and the explosions violently realistic, but poor AI and bad mission design make the pretty scenery somewhat of a moot point. The low quality AI also extends to the offline skirmish games against CPU-controlled bots. The AI never uses planning or tactics but instead just inundates you with superior numbers.
The units are also identical outside of color, name and appearance. It's odd that the United States, NATO, and the Soviets have no advantages over one another from a technology and equipment standpoint. Sure, this makes balancing the factions easy enough, but it also waters things down a bit. In fact, it feels like the single-player campaign is just a big 14-mission training exercise to get you prepared for the real game -- which takes place online.
The multiplayer design is what saves World in Conflict from mediocrity. It uses an interface dubbed Massgate, which allows you to hop into a game at any given time. There's no need for planning or waiting around until someone offers you a match -- just log in and hop into a battle and have at it. Upon entering, you must pick a specialty focus such as infantry, tanks, support or air units. You are given a pool of resource points to spend on building your initial army, but your specialty choice determines the price of each unit type. In this regard the game feels like a team-based online shooter but instead of medics, snipers, and heavy weapon players you have the 'tank guy' and the guy who controls the helicopters.
Teamwork is absolutely essential in World in Conflict. The player that decides to be the loner usually gets picked off quickly -- proper coordination is crucial to team success. The matches don't last too long, which places further emphasis on working together and is another boon to the game -- it's easy to hop in and play a 30-minute match and not have to dedicate two hours at a time.
With such a tension-filled multiplayer design, hopping into a random game can lead to some frustrations, because with its unrelenting pace you're bound to run into some unforgiving players. If you make a mistake, rest assured that your teammates will let you know -- repeatedly. Thankfully, you can also form clans or use a friend list, which is by far the best way to enjoy the game if you're not one who enjoys being yelled at by impatient teammates.
World in Conflict is not for those who like their real-time strategy played at a leisurely pace; the game moves at a breakneck speed, and a speed setting would have been appreciated for those who simply need a little extra time to think things through, because you are constantly on the go -- moving units, calling in air strikes, and so on.
As the multiplayer game is demanding, you'll need a high-end PC to get the most out of the presentation. World in Conflict is the best-looking strategy game on the market. From the destructible landscapes to the spectacular explosions from an air strike or artillery barrage, it is a jaw-dropping spectacle, but seeing the game as it was intended to be seen demands pretty beefy rig. The minimum specs simply won't cut it here. While the game will run on as little as a single core 2.4 GHz machine with a good video card, you won't be able to turn on all of its bells and whistles, and this is the sort of game you want to see in all its intended graphical glory.
In the end, World in Conflict is a game for the real-time strategy junkie. It's not intended for new players or those who like to stop and smell the roses, or even those who are after a deep and rewarding single-player campaign. It's for speed demons that live to play multiplayer matches in short, exciting bursts. If that's your bag, your ship has officially come in.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by Crispy Gamer.