The devil is in the details.
Earth, 2001: A projected oil shortage has led to widespread panic and mayhem, followed by a splitting of the Earth into three factions: the UN (USA), the Russians (of course), and Iraq (hell, they're bad). If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to take this situation seriously, then you're ready to dive into JoWood Productions' new World War III: Black Gold.
While the story elements clearly have no foundation in reality and are based on the most overwrought twentieth century war clichés ever, they could be a lot worse. As awkward and ironic as "playing" World War III sounds right now, the ridiculous story line partially excuses it.
Besides, World War III isn't for people concerned with story lines or psychic dominators. The game is firmly in the mold of Earth 2150 and The Moon Project, due in large part to that fact that all three games come from developer Reality Pump. As a result, WWIII is a hardcore, slow-paced customization-fest.
WWIII is a strategy game with a heavy emphasis on technological development and vehicle customization, and a converse lack of emphasis on building and resource management. Money is gained by building oil derricks and is the only resource in the game. The only buildings you need are generators, derricks, supply depots, airports and drop-zones. As opposed to constructing buildings or units, they're delivered by helicopters. While the helicopters can be shot down, you get to decide which side of the screen they come from, making defense of your importers a non-issue.
The main choices in the game stem from the tech tree. For example, should you augment your humvee force with mortar launchers, or develop heavier armor such as tanks instead? Do you want to spend money on nukes or scuds, or should you research defenses capable of dealing with a missile threat? Of course, some technologies are useless while others are absolutely essential, and figuring out which ones will undermine your enemy's battle plan is half the fun of the game.
In order to research technology (everything is technology; everything must be developed before you can start ordering it), you go to your handy tech-tree and click on the desired technology. You can queue as many technologies as you want, but you can only develop technology one item at a time. It's difficult to say whether or not this unorthodox emphasis is better or worse than the traditional building paradigm, but it isn't the only thing that distinguishes WWIII from the other RTS games.
WWIII seems to be a lot harder than your average RTS. The AI can be pretty tricky and definitely sends a lot of stuff your way. Some campaigns and the battles within take hours of intense strategic struggle to resolve.
Such difficulty is achieved by the extremely intricate unit balance, which is a direct result of the extensive technology tree. There are lots of strategic bases to cover in WWIII, and determining the chink in your enemy's armor is crucial, especially in multiplayer games.
On the other hand, the differences between the actual factions aren't as pronounced as they could be. Potentially, this game could have three extremely different single player campaigns with vastly different play styles and units for each faction. But this isn't the case.
As opposed to being the underdog it ought to be, Iraq is awfully similar in armaments to the US and Soviets. Of course this was done for the sake of a balanced multiplayer game, but things could have stayed balanced and still been a little more diverse. Just look at Starcraft or Red Alert 2.
Also, WWIII is really slow. The units sort of bumble around, and even though the pathfinding is much improved over Earth 2150, it seems like it takes forever for units to move down that same path, perfect formation or otherwise. Units do move more quickly when traveling on roads, which is a nice detail, but does little for the gameplay other than slow down off-road units.
To add a little gruel to the molasses that is WWIII's gameplay, units can run out of ammo. This just sucks. Sure it's another nifty little detail, and nifty little details can make good games great...so long as they aren't included at the expense of the game's pace and playability. This game is so anal retentive it will drive you insane.
Graphically, WWIII is boring. It's all 3D, but the textures are plain, the colors are lame, and the units all look too much like their differently equipped counterparts. You can make teams, the same as any other RTS, which helps distinguish similar looking units from their friends. But that doesn't change the fact that differently equipped vehicles look nearly identical.
Having said that, the lighting effects are brilliant. Since half of the game takes place at night (it's day for a few minutes, then night for a few, etc. etc.), all the little tanks and jeeps have headlights that come on, enhancing the game's overall visual effects. As another cool detail, you can turn off your headlights at night, making it harder for the enemy to see you. Then you can creep within range and launch a barrage of blazing missiles, which dazzle the eye while reducing the enemy fortifications to rubble.
The camera work is fantastic. You can zoom in and out and rotate very smoothly. The only problem is that you never really need to. Wanna check out how boring your units really are? Zoom in on em! Wow, that's plain! But for the most part it's tactically advantageous to be zoomed way out, same as any other RTS.
The sound effects are pretty standard, while the music is this melodramatic, cliché, ominous battle stuff; it's fine when you're winning, but infernal if you're getting your butt handed to you.
WWIII also comes with multiplayer options, but if you're new to the game, you'll get massacred. Seriously, there are a lot of dirty little tricks buried deep in the crevices of WWIII, and you better make sure you have a handle on at least a few of them before setting foot on a multiplayer battlefield. All but the shrewdest of gaming goblins need not apply.
Overall, World War III: Black Gold is a deep, hard strategy game that offers tons in the way of customization and length. There are three sufficiently long single player campaigns and some very stiff online competition. Unfortunately, there's even stiffer competition at the Best Buys and Comp USA's in titles like RA2: Yuri's Revenge. Unless you've played and enjoyed some of Reality Pump's previous titles, this may not be a war worth fighting.