[5 February 2009]
I’m a long-term relationship kind of guy. My lady and I have been together half my life. I still live in the town I was born in. Heck, I’ve only changed haircuts once (I blame the ‘80s for not producing more durable haircuts). When I pick games, it’s the same way. Sure I’ve had flings with those zero-committment, zero-replayability games before. I mean, who hasn’t spent a few frenzied nights with Portal and Sands of Time? But when I really settle down to pick a game, I want a keeper. I am here to tell you that World in Conflict is one of the keepers.
Briefly: World in Conflict is a fast-paced real-time strategy game with a strong single-player experience and a multiplayer component so well thought out, it feels like playing pickup games in an arena. It’s set in an alternate version of the Cold War, and it’s been out since ‘07, so it sells for thirty bucks new. If you have any sort of warm feelings for war games, you should buy this one now. There’s even a sequel (World in Conflict: Soviet Assault for PC/Xbox 360) planned for March 2009, though by the time you’re done replaying World in Conflict, its sequel will be discounted too.
Now I know that if I’m going to rate an RTS on longevity, I shouldn’t get too far without bringing up its grandaddy: StarCraft. There are other such games, but none of them are 11 years old and still retailing for twenty bucks at Target. None of them are professional sports in South Korea for that matter. StarCraft is an institution. World in Conflict is not StarCraft. For one, it’s faster than StarCraft, with no need to erect buildings, and most missions featuring time limits. There’s no resource management. Your reinforcements are air-lifted in based on an assigned set of points, so you just pick what you want and watch for parachutes. No attention need be paid to peons collecting gas and crystals. There are also fewer units under your command and no tech tree.
“But wait,” you say. “I like all those things.” Me too! I loved WarCraft and StarCraft and Dawn of War. But what you get in exchange for those things is real excitement. It’s not about building a force, it’s about attacking with one. There’s no instance of “I’m in UR base, killin UR d00ds.” You don’t have to babysit a command center with Zerglings and autoturrets you couldn’t care less about. You’re a squad commander. You have a limited number of units, and you apply them with care and precision. Despite its genre, World in Conflict feels less like StarCraft and more like Counter-Strike.
If I’m taking a squad of helicopters to assault an island fortification, I’ll have them swoop by and then peel out to avoid the anti-aircraft fire. If I’m lucky, I can tease one of the opponent’s helicopters out over the open water where I can annihilate it with impunity. And since my flyby revealed the AA guns’ locations, I can call in an airstrike to blast them off the coast. If I execute that move a few more times, I can wipe those Commies right off that island and save the Statue of Liberty.
That brings us to story. Russia invades Europe, then the eastern U.S., then Seattle. The game starts with the invasion of Seattle, and the depiction of a huge U.S. city being subjected to a full-on invasion is real enough to be unsettling. When the opening cut-scene showed a terrified army officer tearing around in his Humvee yelling “Who’s in charge here?” into his radio and hearing back, “You are right now, sir!” I was hooked. Most of the story is told in medias res. You start from that invasion, and after a few missions, you flash back to Europe and “re”-live the war from the beginning. After you return to the present, you fight to the climactic finale and save the free world. A note: at some point you DO get to save the Statue of Liberty, and it IS rad.
The story isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s good. The characters have a life to them, and the cut-scenes really do put you in that setting. The plot is a little over-wrought and somewhat repetitive at times, but it’s solid gold compared to much of what passes for game writing these days. The voice acting is great, and the music fits the rest of the piece without really standing out. This all comes together to paint a believable depiction of a war that feels immediate though it’s set twenty years ago. And again, what’s really impressive is that the story is still compelling on repeat viewings. Going through old missions, I don’t skip the cut-scenes. How many games can you say that about?
There are several modes of play online and tons of maps. It’s team-based, and each player takes a role as infantry, armor, air, or support and selects from a subset of the game’s unit types (you can disband your squads and switch roles at any time). Because communication is key, voice-chat is available, and there’s a sophisticated system of way-points to help direct your team-mates. I have no trouble finding games when I want, and the players there are classier than I’ve found with certain other games.
Controls are easy to pick up, well-described by the tutorials, and follow many of the conventions set by other RTSes. The visuals are really very good. I spend most of my time way up in the sky looking at unit icons more than actual tanks and soldiers, but it’s fun to zoom down to street-level to watch one of my armored transports roll over the infantry of the invading horde. The three-dimensional nature of the game doesn’t feel tacked on like it did in Warcraft III. Changing the camera position often helps get a better handle on your situation. The levels are varied visually as well as in gameplay. The vineyards of France look very different from the frozen Rockies.
The multiplayer experience feels like it’s delivered by a professional wait-staff. It allows you to set preferences, and join the server that matches them best, or to look through a list of servers. It automatically records the people you play with as “Acquaintances” and lets you choose “Friends” from them. It awards you rank insignia and medals (points and achievements) when you do well, and it tries to match you with others of your skill level. You can even set it to resize the unit icons and always show health bars on friendly units in matches to better suit your style of play. One small caveat is that the auto-patch system didn’t work for me, and I had to download the latest patch manually.
So if you think today’s games cost too much and don’t deliver enough, pick this thing off the bottom shelf and give it a new home. If you’re a long-term relationship kind of guy like me, you’ll be popping tanks for years to come.