The past twelve months have been pretty huge for real-time strategy fans. The likes of Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander and the franchise revival in Command and Conquer 3, each game while still all built on familiar RTS fundamentals, offered a distinctly different gameplay experience. World in Conflict is yet another unique and worthy addition to this list.
Forget all about base building, unit training and resource collection. World in Conflict utilises a system similar to developer Massive Entertainment's 'Ground Control' titles, wherein your units are air-dropped onto the battlefield and reinforcements are supplied periodically. The more units you currently have in your command, the slower your reinforcement allowance accumulates, ultimately moderating the maximum amount of units in the scenario.
A second resource pool referred to as T.A. (tactical aid) functions as your access to an array of off-map artillery, air-strikes, extra unit drops and of course the awesome nuke. These points are earned simply by getting kills and completing objectives.
The units themselves are divided into four distinct groups, armour, air, infantry and support and all function in the rock/paper/scissors function's you would expect. In addition to their regular attack, each unit has both a special defence and offence ability adding yet another level of micro-management, accessed easily via hotkeys. Speaking of keys, control is another area where WIC differs from its current competitors - camera control being manipulated by the WASD keys, movement that will be instantly familiar to any first-person shooter players. The similarities with FPS gaming don't end there as I'll touch on more later with multiplayer.
First up though, singleplayer. WIC features a fully fleshed out story-driven solo campaign - objective based gameplay scenarios linked together with in-engine cut-scenes and radio orders. The storyline itself, despite a susceptibility to cheese, has been surprisingly well executed - a fact almost certainly due to the involvement of military novelist Larry Bond, perhaps best known as the co-author of Red Storm Rising with one Mr Tom Clancy.
We're asked to imagine what would have happened if the 'Cold War' got hot. If the soviet and NATO forces came to blows and the arms race escalated into all out combat. The weapons are all modern day and this is World War III. The game kicks things off with the reds launching an all out assault on Seattle, putting you in control of an unlikely field commander as the US scrambles to pull together defences while trying to protect the bewildered civilians. Narrative aside, however, gameplay does get a touch monotonous. Push forward, secure new front, fight off waves of enemies with the odd side mission - perhaps a result of multiplayer tuned gameplay being pigeon-holed into a solo experience but nevertheless there's at least something there for die-hard war-time strategy buffs.
Graphically, World in Conflict gets all the ticks. The engine is amazingly scalable, allowing both panning views of the entire battlefield and the ability to zoom right in on individual troops at street level with a level of detail once again comparable to first person shooter. Performance is similarly remarkable - any top level gaming rig will be able to get the most out of this game, while older machines will still be able to obtain playable frame-rates if they cut back on some of the trimmings. The game does also support several DirectX 10 only features, but in this gamer's opinion, aside from the handy dual monitor option (tactical map on one screen, action on the other) it's mostly just fluff. Sure, volumetric clouds and terrain deformation do look pretty but don't add all that much to an already lush looking game - not enough to justify a card upgrade for DX 10 compact if your frame-rates are otherwise fine, at any rate.
Multiplayer is really where this game shines though, and it's immediately apparent that World in Conflict was designed very much with online competitive teamplay in mind. I mentioned the similarity with first person shooters before, well here's the big one - dedicated server support. As they did with Ground Control, Massive have once again distributed a standalone dedicated server package, meaning service providers can establish locally hosted public and private battle grounds for players to connect and compete on with low connection latency. Unlike the usual peer to peer model used in RTS games where the host often has a significant response time advantage. This is especially important as although the game is playable in 1v1, the chief gameplay modes for World in Conflict multiplayer have a sweet spot of about 16 players, 8 per side, something that just wouldn't be feasible peer to peer.
In the team-focused multiplayer modes, each player can choose only one of the doctrines (but can switch between them as the battle requires): armour, air, infantry or support, so tactical cooperation is vital to success. The interface allows for quick visual tactical requests such as requesting air-support or artillery, which will display an objective icon for your team-mates to accept. Voice chat is supported out of the box and tactical aid points can be transferred among your team mates. Almost have enough T.A. for that nuke? Ask your buddies to spare some of theirs.
The in-game browser is also a step up from your usual RTS affair, the Massgate service providing a global ranking system complete with buddy lists and all that jazz usually only found in the cream of first person shooters and online RPGs. For an RTS, there really is an unprecedented amount of attention devoted to online multiplayer in this game, it's going to simply be up to community popularity as to whether we start to see clans forming and tournaments running - the foundations have well and truly been laid.
All in all, World in Conflict is a worthy purchase for any real-time strategy fan or any team-based shooter regular that wants to try something different. The singleplayer, while well fleshed out, is ultimately forgettable, but the work invested in the multiplayer platform provides the potential for countless hours of real gaming entertainment here anyway. It's certain to please most visual-quality nuts and those nukes look spectacular no matter how you configure your graphic settings.