Ever wondered what would have happened if the Cold War had actually kicked off? World In Conflict, the latest RTS (real-time strategy) game from Swedish developers Massive Entertainment, answers the classic "what if?" with a visceral fire-fight full of American patriotism, gung-ho army cliché and enough exploding buildings to make even the toughest of physics engines duck for cover.
Set during Christmas 1989, WIC virtually slices through the history text books with the Russian invasion of mainland USA via the West Coast city of Seattle. Driven desperate by a crippling economy, Russia has already trampled over much of Europe before turning its attention to the land of the free. With attention elsewhere (the Middle East), the Americans are caught with their pants down, and the embattled Rainy City descends into chaos.
This is where you come in. Immediately you're thrust into the action, a small-time army lieutenant called Parker under the command of the yellow-bellied commander Bannon, frantically trying to fend off the invasion with scraps, a panicking National Guard and the local police. The opening mission, which superbly sets the tone for the rest of the single-player game, sees you defending downtown Seattle from the invading Russians and rescuing citizens from a large dome structure. In-game cutscenes during the missions explain the specifics of each battle, while in between missions oil-like paintings move the story of the war forward, and sometimes act like small windows into the lives of the ordinary soldiers affected by the fight, all narrated by a low-key Alec Baldwin.
You're eventually forced East and head for the Seattle suburbs, where you meet up with General Sawyer, a hard-assed veteran who takes charge of the operation. We won't spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say you get to fight your way through Christmas, and, surprisingly, onto the fields of Western Europe via a four-month flashback before the US invasion.
'As an aside, never before have burning trees looked so pretty. Go go napalm.'
If you're thinking the story feels a little hammy, you're right, it is. The guys at Massive have openly admitted the game has been inspired by the 1984 Cold War film Red Dawn, and there's more than a smattering of Tom Clancy dotted around the scarred landscape. It's not surprising either: the developers drafted in Larry Bond, co-author of Clancy's novel Red Storm Rising, to make sure they had everything as authentic as an unexploded Cold War bomb.
It's not only the history books Massive are confident enough to tear up. They're having a go at some well established RTS conventions as well, and it's here that WIC sets the genre alight. Earlier we mentioned that you take the role of a small-time lieutenant with only a few units at your disposal. This is how you play the game, with rarely more than 10 or so units under your command at any given time. Instead of commanding hundreds of troops, you're in charge of a small force, a cog in the ever turning wheel of battle. On the map will be a dozen or so AI skirmishes all kicking off at once, coming together to form spectacular missions that rarely lose intensity. Like one of 10 other footballers, you follow orders, making sure you get your job done, and, if you're lucky, once in a while get the chance to make a difference and score.
It all makes for a more frenetic, action-oriented RTS than some others in the genre. There's no harvesting Tiberium for resources or scrambling up that tech tree in order to get that hero unit out. Instead, the player is given a number of resource points with which to buy units and deploy them in ever changing drop zones dotted across the battlefield, from a drop down menu in the top right of the screen. Your resource points are replenished as your units perish, you complete objectives and capture strategic points on the battlefield (done by moving your units into white circles for long enough to fortify them with turrets), making it simple to quickly fill holes in defensive positions or set up a strike team with parachuting reinforcements.
You'll also find yourself paying a lot of attention to the tactical air strike drop down menu in the top left of the screen. Again used by spending points, these 'special moves' rain down the pain on your enemies. There's one for every situation, from non destructive tactical aids like 'repair bridge' to devastating indiscriminate strikes like precision artillery, and all come in different degrees of power (and cost). These air strikes provide perhaps the prettiest pyrotechnics in the game, obliterating scores of buildings and razing dozens of trees in one vicious click of the mouse. Everything you see is fully destructible of course, with tanks rolling over fencing and street lights, and helicopters spinning out of control then crashing to the ground. There are funny moments too, with tanks sometimes flying across the screen when they've taken a particularly brutal hit. The background environments are as gorgeous as the explosions. At one point I ignored the carnage to gaze at an overrun Seattle, the sky red with parachuting troops, distant explosions and rails of fire reaching up into the heavens. As an aside, never before have burning trees looked so pretty. Go go napalm.
Gameplay quickly ebbs and flows between calling air strikes, reinforcing your force and making sure your units aren't getting their ass handed to them on a plate. Here, the game again excels, with simple, clean and effortless controls of your units, and some of the easiest micro management I've ever experienced in an RTS. The order palette is well designed, with each command easy to see. The two main buttons, one for offensive special abilities and one for defensive, are big enough not to be missed when the heat is on. Resupplying your infantry squads with reinforcement points is never a chore. Of course it's got the depth for micro-managing experts, but, in my view, WIC's order palette provides perhaps the most accessible way of managing individual units in recent memory.
Even something as simple as moving the camera feels clean. You can move without WASD just by moving the mouse if you wanted to. You can scroll super close, inspecting the running animations of your riflemen with military precision, or zoom out to get a more strategic eye on the field. Because you don't have that many units to command, you'll never need, nor want, to stray too far from the whites of the enemy's eyes.
If the campaign is worthy of an eight-out-of-10, then what elevates WIC above the very good RTS pile is the online experience, through official portal Massgate, which is as easy to navigate as you'd expect. You begin by picking a side, USA or Nato, or the USSR, and then decide what type of role you will play on the battlefield, armour, air, infantry and support. While you'll have access to every single unit, if you want to reinforce with one outside your role, it will cost you a lot more points than normal. What this does is force a degree of communication with your team mates - you won't win without each player fulfilling their role. You'll find yourself embroiled in some seriously intense games, where you'll constantly be laying down tactical aids, reinforcing your troops and coordinating your efforts in a paper, scissors stone fashion.
Success online really boils down to communication with your team mates and knowing what units work best against the enemy. So if you are the infantry player, you can pretty much deal with five units of tanks if you know your role well, and hole up some anti-tank infantry in buildings. If you're playing air, you scout with the additional visual range, and you need to be ready to do some serious damage quickly then get out just as fast. It's not about rushing your enemy ASAP, nor securing all the resource points and building up an army of immense force. A well-timed tactical strike or a well-placed squad of infantry can turn the tide of battle. WIC actually makes you feel like you can make a difference when playing against other online players, even if you're not a RTS veteran. This, for me, is perhaps the most pleasing thing about the game.
So communication is key online with WIC, which means it can get a bit ragged unless everyone is miked up and willing to talk. You can expect WIC to be a popular clan and professional gaming RTS, relying as it does on communication and bearing in mind how satisfying a win is when everyone is on the same page. Perhaps in anticipation of this, the developer has provided full clan support with forums, leaderboards and statistics.
So the sheer fun of the multiplayer warrants an extra review point. The game is a must buy for RTS fans. Experts will tear through the campaign quickly enough, but it's just the starter, whetting the palette for the main course, a hugely engaging multiplayer extravaganza. World In Conflict is brilliant RTS fun for experts and newcomers alike.