Rank And File
I wanted to like World in Conflict – I really did. Breathless reviews dripping with words of love-wrought sweat, describing impressive visuals and Soviet power, tend to make me giddy. Unfofrtunately, World in Conflict is not all that it's cracked up to be. In no place is there a graphical or storytelling failing; indeed, if one completely ignores the gameplay, World in Conflict is excellent. Pity it wasn't made as a movie.
When I first sat down to the game, the cinematics and high-quality graphics put me in the mindset of playing a fantastic game. Good particle effects, quality animation during in-game cut-scenes, and short movies between levels - all highly stylized and interestingly writing - reeled me in. Just dropping a nuke is absolutely amazing, as if you were in a movie, only you didn't have to put up with Tom Cruise's general insanity. Combined with excellent script-writing, which made no scene feel like a waste, World in Conflict starts to look good.
The unusual thing about the graphics is that combat is most manageable when you're zoomed far out of the combat. At that distance, all the tanks look similar, so you'll spend a lot of time squinting at the different icons than the actual models to distinguish your vehicles. Aside from having slightly thicker lines, the icon for the medium tank looks identical to the icon for the light tank. I can already feel the prescription on my glasses changing.
Stepping back from the graphics and the gameplay, World in Conflict is extremely well-written. While pacing is a little awkward at moments, the dialog is solid and the voice acting is wonderful. The arc of the single-player campaign covers a Soviet invasion of Seattle and Europe, and how a particular army unit fights off the Soviet advance. While some of the details strain credibility, once you get beyond the start, the rest of the game follows an interesting and reasonable track. Bits of real-world military projects make their way into the script in meaningful ways, so those of us that remember late 80's politics will remark on how well tuned the game is to its setting.
When played, however, World in Conflict is itself conflicted. The user interface and unit balance conjures up a reduced version of Supreme Commander. Your individual units aren't tough, and you'll watch lighter vehicles and infantry die at a high constant rate unless you're extremely precise in how you manage them. At the same time, the emphasis on taking cover in buildings, regular off-map reinforcements and abilities, and a constant sense of total war across the battlefield strongly evokes Company of Heroes. World in Conflict is neither game while trying to be both.
The primary conceit – and the only interesting feature that World in Conflict brings to the RTS genre – is force management through points. Players of tabletop Warhammer will be well familiar with this idea. Each unit has a certain point value, and at the start of a battle, you select units until you're out of points, drop 'em into the battlefield, and go. This puts emphasis on getting the most bang for your buck, so having repair vehicles is a must. Infantry, thanks to their short lives and their lack of offensive power, are never worth the investment. You'll spend pretty much the entire game running around with a bunch of tanks, an APC for wasting infantry, and two repair vehicles. This set-up nullifies just about every situation.
Much of your success depends on calling off-map artillery at the right places. Or, more accurately, called down wherever you feel like. The artillery is governed by a point system, where each major artillery strike has an associated cost, and you steadily regenerate points both over time and by defeating opponents. As the game is balanced, however, there's no reason to discriminate carefully – calling down regular artillery strikes wherever you feel is not only possible, but preposterously effective. There's nothing to prevent you from leveling a city with artillery before rolling through. Good bye centuries of culture, hello smoking ruins!
Unit balance is also awkward. There are supposedly three factions, but there's really only one faction with three different skins. Not only is there no distinction between sides, but it's actually pretty hard to distinguish units. Allegedly different tanks are near equivalent in feel and appearance. Sure, heavier tanks can deal and take more damage, but most every unit behaves the same.
Infantry, apart from being generally cannon fodder, are strange. While tank-killer infantry are amazingly effective against, well, tanks, they're pretty much useless against lighter vehicles and other infantry. This is not wrong, per se, but it ends up reducing much of World in Conflict to a rock-paper-scissors styled gameplay in a genre where that just doesn't cut it. When compared against the richly defined unit roles and capabilities in Company of Heroes, World in Conflict feels preposterously vanilla.
While there are special abilities that can be used to turn battles, they really don't scale well in the game, and in late levels I found myself ignoring them entirely in favor of tight formations and lots of artillery. Shock, awe, yawn. Who knew dropping 200 mortar shells onto a city can be boring?
Another oddity is how the other side is so curiously silent. The Russian soldiers never say a thing. There's never any Soviet radio chatter, and the sounds are so indistinct that you can't differentiate one side from another by ear. Music isn't particularly noticeable either... except when it's horrible. There's one cut-scene where extreme devastation is being shown to the dulcet tones of... 80's pop. Wait, when the hell did Aerosmith and Paula Abdul become epic war music?
Multiplayer mode is where World in Conflict comes closest to being fun. Though many of the problems of the single-player balance haunt the multiplayer experience, the point-based reinforcements offer a rapid and unique kind of game, with more importance on picking your battles than controlling resources. There's a lot of fertile ground in that style of online play, though World in Conflict is ultimately too bland in its underlying mechanics to exploit this opportunity properly.
Overall, World in Conflict is not bad, but if you've been keeping up to with other RTS titles, it will not come across as much other than a well-written single-player experience. But for folks who have not jumped on Company of Heroes – and if you haven't, what's wrong with you? - World in Conflict is a perfectly viable game. It's not bad – it's just not particularly good, either. At the end of the day, World in Conflict would have made a better movie.