Massive Entertainment just entered the big league. Their previous games, the Ground Control series, have something of a cult status amongst RTS diehards largely because of their innovative system which involved zero resource management – whilst World in Conflict continues this trend, almost everything else is different. Gone are the sci-fi stylings, to replaced by gritty real world warfare. Well, I say real world, but of course World in Conflict is an alternate history game, and the plot is of bigger importance than the vast majority of RTS games.
It is 1989. The Soviet Union faces collapse in the face of internal economic decay, and attempts to blackmail Europe into offering it vital aid. When Europe refuses, the Red Army rolls across as far as France, leaving NATO and its US assistance trying to hold back the tide. But then the Soviets become even more audacious, and stage a cunning assault on the US home soil itself, catching the good guys completely by surprise. Cue World War III... WiC's plot is very much like that of the tongue-in-cheek 2000 RTS classic C&C Red Alert 2, albeit with a heavy dose of seriousness, and played out in a much more impressive engine taking full advantage of seven years' progress. In fact it's pretty safe to say that WiC is the most beautiful RTS ever made. This is the kind of gorgeous carnage we've been steadily moving towards for years – buildings implode and collapse, spewing vast clouds of ash and debris into the air. Helicopters spin and break up as they are hit by anti-air rockets, smashing into the ground and crashing down cliffs. The fuel air bomb burns with a blinding core of light, flattening houses and turning a portion of the sky black. To top everything off is the tactical thermonuclear weapon – the detonation of which is surely amongst the most impressive effects yet seen in a game. But it's not just the big money-shot effects that impress – water reflections are sublime, craters and explosions just as good, and almost every event in the game is immediately powerful and aesthetically convincing.
But what of the gameplay? Some have attempted to use WiC to carve out the supposed "RTT" or Real-Time Tactical genre niche. I don't buy into it. WiC is an RTS, it's just that it focuses on greater control of a smaller amount of forces. To compensate for this, you're able to use a regenerating pool of points to spend on calling in additional forces to replace those the pesky Russkies (or the Americans or NATO should you be playing a skirmish or multiplayer) have turned to scrap. This means that battles take place in waves and that forces have to be chosen carefully to maximise your combat effectiveness. Heavy artillery might be devastating, but it's little use if you haven't set some points aside for other units to defend it. Battle success helps you gain tactical aid points which can be used to call in – you guessed it – tactical aids, which come in three flavours (intel/backup, precise strikes, and indiscriminate weapons) and can include such monsters of particle effects as the fuel air bomb, carpet bombing, precision artillery, the daisy-cutter bomb, napalm, chemical weapons, and so on. There are various skirmish and multiplayer modes including tug of war (capture points across a front to steadily push the enemy back into their half) and domination (capture a majority of points to deplete the enemy's control and attain victory) and these modes are very team-focused – you must choose a specialism (armour, infantry, support or air power) to complement that chosen by your allies and crush all who stand before you. For those who find all this a bit futuristic, if four or fewer players are present, "few players" mode can be activated, greatly boosting the reinforcement points available and loosening unit access restrictions.
There's a wonderful sense of flow, pace and momentum to WiC's gameplay, and all these features carry over into the enormously impressive single-player campaign. What's staggering is the way the story is told – it starts in media res with the attack on Seattle by stealthy Soviet forces and eventually backtracks to give greater depth and exposition to its colourful cast of characters. Between-mission sections are given voice-over by none other than Alec Baldwin, who does an excellent job along with the rest of the voice actors. By the end of the campaign you really care about the likes of Colonel Sawyer and Captain Webb as they face the seemingly insurmountable odds with you, and some of the both in-engine and rendered cutscenes are incredibly impressive. Not giving anything away, look out for the one involving a bungled helicopter attack late on – astonishing stuff. Some of the settings are amazing as well, the music often excels even if it occasionally becomes repetitive, and the very final moment before the credits roll put a huge smile across my face, which not a lot of games can do to this grizzled gaming veteran.
In short, WiC is one of the best RTS games ever made, and points the way forward for the whole genre. As the game ends it hints that you might be needed again, signalling a sequel or an expansion pack – and whilst that normally evokes cynicism or even revulsion – this is one of those rare occasions where I look forward to one appearing.