Depending on who you talk to, RPGs may be seeping into games everywhere, or RTSs may be doing the same. While I think that it’s the former, Worldshift is obviously a game that started as an RTS with upgradeable, leveling odds and ends and not the other way around. It is by no means alone in this category. Warcraft 3 made this design mishmash both successful and popular and Relic has (surprisingly, given their strong RTS background) approached the issue from the opposite direction, producing a wonderful squad-based tactical RPG that only slipped into “full” RTS mode in multiplayer.

Worldshift may not stray as much into RPG territory as I might like, but it weaves together the RTS and the RPG in a likable, if somewhat fiddly, fantasy sci-fi package. The world of Worldshift is highly derivative. It takes a huge amount of effort to involve oneself to any degree in the machinations of this world. Essentially, “primitive” humans, Zerg-like things, and mechanized humans live in a universe that leans a bit more toward sci-fi than it does toward fantasy. It’s a world that reminds one of Warhammer (in that Warhammer has, and always will have, thinly veiled orcs and elves in space), albeit through a softer, European lens.

Tribal leaders, grand warlords, mysterious aliens, and more completely unexpected characters, races, and “plot twists” are in store for the attentive player. That is, they are in store for the player who treats this like a game with a story. The much more sensible path involves treating the main campaign as a glorified leveling and item-collection exercise. Trust me; the latter is by far the more rewarding path.

As you play, you shepherd along a gang of completely forgettable space-fantasy types. More importantly, you play through twenty or so missions that teach you all that you need to know about Worldshift. You’ll escort, guard, explore, and conquer all in the name of something mystical and futuristic. You’ll also collect, bit by bit, pieces of loot. These come in the form of miniscule upgrades to your “skills.” These skills in turn are nothing like typical RPG abilities. You won’t find a gem or glyph that upgrades your fireball skill. Instead, you will find items that add to the health, power, or versatility of one of your units.

When you first encounter these items, the clarity of Crytek Black Sea’s purpose becomes clear. With so many units (it’s not quite Starcraft but in a multiplayer or single player match, you will have tens and tens of units, using 6 to 7 basic unit templates), there really isn’t much point to investing in unit-specific items and loot. Much more sensible is the army-wide approach. This alien artifact adds to all of your healers’ powers, or perhaps, it boosts the damage of your Guardians (large, floating leader creatures).

This might not sound like much, but the mechanic is built into every bit of Worldshift. Every time that you finish a single player campaign mission, you are given a choice of two artifacts. You pick one and move on to the next mission (since you will play as every faction over the course of multiplayer and campaign modes, the bonuses and items you get can apply to any of the three factions). While the drops are random, the one or the other choice at the end of each level does allow you to clumsily build a certain kind of army for each faction. In my game, I chose to beef up the health and special powers of my mages.

While all of that might sound enticing and fun, buyers should beware: Worldshift is almost completely boring in its execution. It’s really unfortunate, when you consider the game’s expansive multiplayer (deathmatch and a really fun co-op setting that brings to mind a co-op round of DotA), strikingly beautiful and strange futuristic alien planets (bright colors, strange flora, and beautiful landscapes abound), and an interesting two-tiered unit system.

Units come in two varieties: simple troops and leader units. The simpler kind is comprised of archers, melee units, and healers. The leader units can range from giant mechs to powerful enchanters. All have their respective powers (I really love the mid-range floating unit that summons hoards of uncontrollable broodlings), but once you engage in combat, everything falls apart. You can’t order formations, units offer little feedback (visual or aural) when you select them, and combat is often difficult to interpret. I often didn’t know that I’d won a fight until the last second because dead units are hard to tell from the living ones.

To malign the game’s feedback, AI, and tactical options would be to attack the multiplayer, mostly. In single player, the game really starts to fall apart. I encountered a number of game-ending bugs, including hard locks, missing checkpoints, and other annoyances. The game also features levels inhabited by super-powerful hordes that you must avoid or sneak past. The game never informs you that stealth is the only solution to these conundrums. Since there aren’t any in level saves, you will play some missions multiple times before you figure out how not to die. It’s frustrating and incoherent, and it speaks volumes about the lack of balancing that Worldshift flaunts at every turn.

I really do like Worldshift, but it is a like tempered by annoyance and incredulity. With a multiplayer set up like this, it’s amazing that the team didn’t create more tactile, tactical combat. Worldshift plays like a game transported into the 2000s from the 1990s. Every chance it gets, it reminds you of how games used to be and how they shouldn’t be. With a patch or two, the stability issues could be fixed, but I wonder if the rest of the game can be given the solidity it demands.

RATING 7 / 10