Review by Steerpike
World in Conflict
Released September 2007
Available for Windows
“But World in Conflict is a masterpiece; unadulterated, absolute … perfect. It is ultrasonic, ultraviolent; melted, battered, folded, then melted and battered again until it possesses an unbelievable rippling strength.”
An Actual Conversation
Tuesday, 4:40 p.m. I am at work, playing Mr. Bounce. My cell rings.
“DUUUUUUDE. I just blew up the Statue of Liberty.”
“You what, now?”
“I just blew up the Statue of Liberty.” Pause. “That’s not true. I failed to prevent the Statue of Liberty from getting blown up.”
Conversations like this get you dragged off to Gitmo, if there’s anything to this domestic spying flap.
“Did you hear me? I said I JUST BLEW UP TH—”
“I heard you!” I use shorter sentences in spoken conversation.
“What are you doing right now?”
“At work?” Jay teaches high school; his workday ends before mine. “What are you doing?”
Playing Mr. Bounce. “I am working.”
“Stop it and go buy World in Conflict.”
I don’t like RTS games. “I don’t like RTS games.”
“Three words: Daisy. Cutter. Bombs. And nuclear weapons, I know how you feel about nuclear weapons!”
“I … I love them.”
“You love them! Go buy the game!”
I am hesitant. “I’ll check out the demo.”
The conversation continued, but I won’t, because from that point on it’s mostly my good friend Jay calling me names unsuitable for a family site. But, as ordered, I trundled home and download the demo for World in Conflict, a game of which I’d been vaguely aware and had heard glowing things about, but mostly ignored because it’s an RTS and I don’t like those.
I don’t use the word “masterpiece” to describe games very often. In my line of work, it’s a slippery slope—do it too frequently, suddenly everything is a masterpiece and you’re Play magazine, flinging 10s with reckless abandon, carpet-bombing the landscape (incidentally, something else you can do in World in Conflict) with perfect scores until you become such a laughingstock that you have to drop numeric scores entirely and even then you’re kind of a joke that people only subscribe to for the art and the features on Japanese imports and to make fun of your outrageously bad copyediting.
But World in Conflict is a masterpiece; unadulterated, absolute … perfect. It is ultrasonic, ultraviolent; melted, battered, folded, then melted and battered again until it possesses an unbelievable rippling strength. The actual experience makes your jaw tingle with adrenaline as explosions roar and buildings collapse, as perfectly rendered little soldiers and tanks do battle up close and personal as the greater war rages around them. The story and style evoke a Cold War hysteria long past but never forgotten, that us-versus-them twostep fraught with memories of the days when any upward glance might make real the looming fear of an American sky darkened by paratroopers. It’s a terror made manifest by Red Dawn and The Day After, by War Day, and On the Beach, the parade of Cold War literature that night and morning fed our fears with alligator promises of doom.
If you have even a passing interest in RTS games, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It’s less real-time strategy and more real-time tactical, putting you in command of small, manageable squads and no bases at all. Though the war is going on all around you, you almost never have to pay attention to more than one battle at a time—though you should check it out now and then, just to marvel and shudder at the awesome scope of it all, of your tiny company doing its tiny part in some huge and awful conflict. So even if you recoil from Starcraft or any of the other traditional representatives of the genre, you’d really do well to give this game a try.
If you’re like me and decide to check out the demo first, you should know that the demo doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a level hand-selected to grant you the most opportunity to experiment with the game’s capabilities. This is fabulous, but it also starts in the middle of the story and you have no real idea who the characters are or what’s going on. As World in Conflict is a profoundly people-centric game, that hurts the demo’s impact. So try it out, but don’t make your judgment based solely on that.
I watch the opening movie of World in Conflict and it makes me feel goosebumpy and cold—Cold War, that is. The visions it presents are cunningly designed to tweak at our greatest national fears, even for a younger guy like me who only saw the tail end of the stupefied conflict. Old and young can picture in their minds’ eye these images. Black tanks with red stars rolling down Main Street. American troops engaged in a ferocious gun battle outside a Burger King. State cops and National Guardsmen standing bewilderedly side by side as an amphibious steel column pours redly over a seawall. The sky darkened by a cloud of parachutes, descending over a burning city. A local news chopper spiraling, coughing black soot, shredded by antiaircraft fire, allowed before its destruction to shoot two seconds of footage, footage that will change everything forever; the Clip Seen Round the World: the Cold War is over. The enemy is here. And nothing is safe.
“What if,” asks World in Conflict, “what if the Soviet empire didn’t crumble in the late eighties? What if instead it decided to push hard into western Europe, gambling that—despite all the posturing of previous decades—neither side would be willing to commit nuclear weapons, thereby ensuring the whole offensive remained a manageable shooting war?”
Well, Europe would be hard-pressed, of course. And America would stretch its mighty hand across the Atlantic to help block the Russian advance there.
“Okay,” says World in Conflict, “and what if, once the bulk of U.S. forces are mired in the European theatre, the Russians launch a massive surprise attack on the United States? What if they hide a big amphibious invasion force in a thousands-strong fleet of cargo ships and send everything they’ve got at a crucial American port city?”
With most of America’s military bogged down in Europe, they’d probably take that city, and be able to move deeper into our territory quickly. And that’s precisely what they do.
The colossal Russian assault on Seattle is the first mission in World in Conflict, and though you will be victorious in your small corner of the battle, it’s quickly clear that the war is essentially lost. The first several missions of World in Conflict are designed to establish one immutable fact: America is getting its ass kicked, and the only company available to stop the advance is a battered, scattered, exhausted brigade that’s already been decimated by heavy fighting in Europe.
Swirled in Conflict
The leadership of this ragtag band coopts some surviving National Guardsmen and rallies outside Seattle under the command of the steely-eyed, battle-tested, tough-as-nails Colonel Sawyer, who is … not you.
You are Lieutenant Parker, somewhat lower on the totem pole of command, but you earned Sawyer’s respect by performing well during some of the European fighting. Parker is the quintessential everysoldier; trustworthy, stalwart, unfailing. You never see his face, making it easier to project your own onto his, but he narrates nearly all of the game’s story and appears right in the action with other characters, so you come to know him as well as you do everyone else.
This is largely because of Alec Baldwin’s performance as Parker. His exhausted, war-weary narration sounds simultaneously despairing and unflinchingly ready for whatever’s next. Baldwin’s Parker sounds … so … tired. Like he has fought for too long without rest, wants nothing more than for this war to end so he can go home, but somehow manages to retain an anorexic sliver of optimism despite the constant setbacks and crushing superiority of Russian numbers. It’s possible that this is just what Alec Baldwin sounds like when he’s bored; he may have simply blah-blahed through his lines like most other big stars who voice video games for beer money. But I don’t think so. I’ve never heard anyone sound so beaten yet so determined to go on. If that’s not acting, I don’t know what is.
The other cast members range from pretty good to a little over the top, and some of the writing—particularly for quasi-antagonist Captain Bannon—is hammier and more overblown than it needs to be to get the point across. Games are capable of more subtle characterization now than they used to be, and the creators seem to have forgotten that from time to time with characters like Bannon, who is such a monumental coward and weasel you wonder how he managed to make captain at all. The animated cutscenes also occasionally stumble, though the direction and camera work is good and the decision to mocap live actors for these scenes greatly increases the sense of reality. However, the very best story sequences in World in Conflict are the short vignettes, often involving minor characters and unconnected with the larger story. It is during these scenes that you remember each of these men and women are truly people, often struggling to understand the madness or find a place in it. The confusion at the Pentagon, the National Guardsman desperately trying to get his Mom to leave Seattle before the final push, the honest friendship between two lesser soldiers. These sections are the real emotional heart of World in Conflict, a game designed by people who have somehow captured the humanity of war in a bottle, then uncorked it for all to taste.
America: Fuck Yeah
Battles in World in Conflict focus on malleable primary and secondary objectives over comparatively small areas of terrain, often in the shadow of a much larger engagement of which Parker is only part. You are typically in control of a small squad of infantry, vehicles, support and airborne units. Rather than build bases to resupply, you call in reinforcements from the rear lines, spending points that slowly trickle back into your available pool as you suffer casualties. In this way you’re rarely under strength, and the focus can shift dramatically from being a sheer numbers game—like most RTS titles—to one in which you’ll really need to think things through and exploit the terrain and your unit strengths in order to take down enemy positions.
The thing that truly separates World in Conflict from the wannabes in the “strategy” department is the brilliantly executed and unbelievably satisfying implementation of realistic tactical support such as artillery barrages, napalm strikes, even the ever-popular Daisy Cutter bomb. After all, if you’re supposed to take out a fortified enemy emplacement, what would you do? You’d call in an AWACS to check out the area and pinpoint targets, then you’d knock over the heavy fortifications with laser guided bunker busters, then you’d soften the area up with artillery, then you’d move in your ground units. In regular RTS games, you just pour troops in until you run out or the location is yours. That is not strategy.
The 14 single player missions will leave you weeping for more. World in Conflict is great but actually so much fun that you’ll probably blaze through in no more than four or five sittings. Difficulty ramps up smoothly, from the early operations in Seattle to Parker’s recollection of the European campaign, then a quick trip to New York during which you can, if you choose, fail to prevent the Statue of Liberty from being blown up, then back west to Seattle for the mind-blowing endgame.
Unlike most RTS titles, you don’t see both sides of the story here. You’re the Americans and the Americans rule. Why would you want to play as those Commie bastards? It works really well in the context of this heavily story-driven game, where the Soviets aren’t another “faction,” they’re the enemy, the most dreaded and dangerous foe we’ve ever faced. Of course, your dreams of dropping an Iron Curtain around the Pacific Northwest needn’t be shelved forever; the upcoming expansion World in Conflict: Soviet Assault will allow you to do just that—but more on it later.
The game’s excellent multiplayer is also worth a mention. Team- and role-based, you command infantry, armor, air, or support. Units outside of your chosen group are available, but far more expensive. Each role has a part to play, and team cooperation is crucial. Tactical aid also plays an important role in online World in Conflict, as teammates can swap aid points and request aid at specific locations to support the group’s larger objectives. Even more than most team-based multiplayer experiences, failing to support your team will get you defeated in a heartbeat, not to mention vilified and abused on the chat channel. Multiplay is very high-adrenaline and very challenging, but also extraordinarily satisfying when you’re playing with a solid team that supports each other.
War … War Never Changes
Technology on par with that in Company of Heroes means that older computers will chug when running this game. Cranked to 11, it’s visually stunning, especially when you zoom in close and watch the painstakingly rendered troops and vehicles negotiate the landscape as artillery rains down from above. There is a heavy viscerality to this game, you feel everything you do and everything done to you. Every pounding explosion and howling shell: the dull thoomp of tanks exchanging fire, the sssssCHOW of a napalm deployment, the kindling crash of a house exploding, the blinding flash and horrible high-pitched wail of a tactical nuclear detonation—it’s all a hard punch to soft tissue. World in Conflict gets your adrenaline flowing as you scroll out to stare at the ruins of whatever town you’re trying to defend and see allies locked in combat miles away, as resupply planes roar across the sky dropping precious cargo on friends and foes alike. The concept of “living battlefield” reaches a whole new level. You are not there, not like a soldier on the ground would be, with explosions going off and debris flying around and death pattering lead everywhere you look. As commander, you’re a level above that; the explosions are a little more muted, the confusion ratcheted down to just manageable. You are of the war but not in the war, and that’s the way it needs to be if you’re to succeed.
Couple this with the inherent humanity of the game’s storyline, the recurring characters, and surprisingly uncorny patriotic zeal it will ignite inside you, and you’ll find yourself hungrily devouring each and every set piece, watching the destruction with greedy eyes. World in Conflict manages to balance a cautionary message about the horrors of war with a very real sense that it’s okay here—you’re just playing with army men, no one really dies. Take the caution, to be sure, for it is important. Recognize that each of those little dots are men with stories and fears and memories. But don’t get lost in that. As a philosophical experience, World in Conflict doesn’t forgo the awesome for lectures or allegory.
This game sold well and received great acclaim among reviewers. It was considered a contender for Game of the Year but fell by the wayside in the face of equally good and more artistically important titles like Portal and Bioshock. Still, it earns that word I don’t use—“masterpiece”—and wears it proudly.
Massive Entertainment is a Swedish studio known for its RTS titles; the popular Ground Control preceded World in Conflict, and the upcoming Soviet Assault expansion, until recently expected in early autumn, stood poised to not only expand the WiC universe but also introduce Xbox 360 players to the game.
Unfortunately, Massive is a tertiary casualty of the video game industry’s relentless consolidation. The merger of Activision and Vivendi Universal to create the world’s first megapublisher, known now as Activision/Blizzard, led to the shuttering of some studios and subordinate publishers. Massive actually survived the merger, but its publisher—Sierra, owned by Vivendi—did not. Massive is therefore without a publisher for Soviet Assault, and so far Activision/Blizzard hasn’t really seemed interested in picking up the title … rather surprising, considering the raves and solid sales of the original game. It seems likely that Soviet Assault will see the light of day eventually and unlikely that Massive will have to shut its doors, but the possibility is there. Offhand I’m inclined to say that since Massive probably lacks the financial stability to support itself long term, if ActiBlizzard doesn’t snap it up quickly, the studio will simply peddle itself out to the other superpublisher swimming in this sea, and Soviet Assault will be an EA release.
I don’t like RTS games, because I’m not good at them, their stories never seem to live up to the classics like Starcraft, and I’m irritated by the complete lack of strategy in a genre that makes its claim to fame on the use of that word. Every now and then, though, I dip my toes in to the pool … and I’m usually disappointed, as I was with such inexplicably popular disappointments as Supreme Commander. But World in Conflict is different, and very special. It has the story, it has the characters, the cast, the talent, and the beauty. It has the tightly tuned mechanics, outstanding missions, and unique additions to the gameplay model. It is, in a word, the kind of game almost anyone would want to play—particularly those who don’t normally like the RTS format. In fact, the only people I know who didn’t like World in Conflict are the really annoying strategy buffs, the ones who are unable or unwilling to accept any kind of realignment in their precious, hexagonal universe. Everyone else, even if RTS is a style of play that has never interested you, I say you’re doing yourself a disservice to ignore this one. It is a masterpiece, a towering achievement that has already found a home among my Most Beloved games.