No, it's not the same when the ground you're entrenched in has got "United States" written across it on the map. No, it's not the same either, when you're evacuating your neighbors next door rather than promoting propaganda on the other side of the Prime Meridian. And no, it's definitely not the same when the air strike you just called in is carpet-bombing a quaint slice of suburbia that could've been cut from a Thomas Kincaid canvas.
It's the late 1980's, the "Star Wars" program is in full swing, and it looks like in this alt-history scenario that the Berlin Wall isn't coming down anytime soon. World in Conflict's mantra is "War is coming home." But not only that, war is hitting home. It's hitting home in the port city of Seattle, Washington, where the Seahawks and the Mariners roam. It's hitting home where a National Guardsman can't get his paycheck sent to his wife and kid because, even as our nation's borders are collapsing, bureaucratic red tape is holding strong. And the scenarios are hitting home as these personal vignettes -- beautifully directed, as well as nostalgically-narrated by Alec Baldwin -- tell the tales of U.S. soldiers alternately building character under fire, or withering under pressure. These stories aren't just hitting home, they're hitting homeruns.
And it's these emotional differences that set World in Conflict on such a high shelf. Yes, the topography is faithfully recreated, the military units are realistically rendered, and the pyrotechnics are face-meltingly gorgeous. Producer Massive Entertainment used a masterful brush to paint all of those things. But it's the steaming, fresh-from-the-oven American apple pie that elevates the onscreen action to such an affecting level.
Gamers have defended Middle-earth in countless iterations of Lord of the Rings, invaded Azeroth in real-time strategies and massively-multiplayer affairs, and even reshaped the United States' infantile footsteps by way of Age of Empires 3 or even Medieval 2: Total War. Those realistic fictions, however, while providing plenty of scenario-settings for the mind and the eye, don't aim as readily at the heart when propped shoulder to shoulder with World in Conflict. Sure, the brain is a sophisticated piece of circuitry that can tell clear-cut differences between real life and video games. But trust me, it's impossible to declare neutrality in a game that will find something you consciously (or unconsciously) hold sacred as an American, and then puts a laser-guided bomb through its chimney or burns a swath of napalm across its backyard -- all within the first few chapters of World in Conflict's opening.
Following the new real-time strategy model, World in Conflict eschews raw material resource management for strictly military resource management: land, sea, and air units. No trees to cut down, unless you're bowling them over with an M1A1 Abrams tank; no monetary concerns, since calling in a well-timed artillery barrage is worth more than your life in greenbacks; and there's no food to shovel into a warehouse, since MREs will be the last meal most of these soldiers will eat anyway. And don't worry about constructing buildings; your job will involve a lot of the opposite.
You are Lieutenant Parker. Dependable. Calm under fire. Obedient, but speechless. The cutscenes cover up direct facial shots of you, pulling off a pseudo Mr.-Wilson-in-Home-Improvement effect, allowing players to step a little more directly into the protagonist's army boots. Parker is a field commander with the best the U.S. has to offer in grade-A, global domination hardware: light, medium, and heavy tanks; armored troop transports; amphibious vehicles; scout, transport, medium attack, and heavy attack helicopters; HMMWV transports (that's "Humvee" to you, civilian); and don't forget the anti-air vehicles, medium and heavy artillery (love 'em), and the medics of the battlefield, the repair tanks.
The remaining two "factions," NATO and the U.S.S.R., have one-for-one equivalents to everything the U.S. brings to the table. This evenhanded lineup from all three sides keeps multiplayer from turning into the typical rock-paper-scissors matches, and instead keeps battles on a potentially even keel. Multiplayer does show off significant play-style differences depending on which role you specifically engage with: long-range support units, ground-pounding infantry, armor battalions, or air forces. And in those significantly varying approaches is where an armchair commander will want to find their niche specialty. Which flag you fly under is little more than an aesthetic consideration. I personally found that air superiority will devastate the game's bots, simply because the computer was dumfounded (at medium difficulty, at least) in finding ways to improvise, adapt, and overcome four to five heavy Hind Gunships as I slowly called in light armor to capture map waypoints. I had considerably less luck employing the other three roles, however, so it's a matter making opportunities out of what you're good at, and exploiting what the enemy is poor at countering.
In a similar vein to Company of Heroes, securing strategic command points on the field of operations is key in growing your force's capabilities. Place your units into clearly-marked circles on the map to "capture the flag" at that locale. Have your units mark-time and they fortify their location, propping up anti-infantry, anti-armor, and anti-air battlements. These battlements aren't indestructible, but they're invaluable in the added level of defense they provide.
Online gameplay comes with the expected conventions of tracking player and clan profiles, instant messaging, in-game voice chatting, and leader boards. The multitude of maps and military units will turn this into a solid game of online chess for many players in the coming months.
Multiplayer is also a tad overwhelming if a player hasn't pushed through the single-player campaign, since the multiplayer pulls the stops on a huge number of menu options and command capabilities. The single-player branch of World in Conflict, of course, introduces each element at a solid pace, never bringing in too many new aspects at once, and giving the tutorial screens plenty of breathing room.
[For a retrospective, my first impressions
of World in Conflict were posted last month in the AT&T Blue Room.]