Of course, the graphics certainly help. With its DirectX 10 patch, it seemed that nothing could dethrone Company of Heroes as the visual benchmark for the RTS genre, but World in Conflict just about outdoes it, partly because the heavyweight artillery and airstrike attacks make for such spectacular fireworks. Close-in troop and environmental detail is a little lower than CoH, but it’s still roughly in the same ballpark, and the lighting, particle and smoke effects are probably the best I’ve seen outside of a cutting-edge FPS. Running on a Core 2 Quad with an Asus GeForce 8800 Ultra card, the experience is breathtaking, but owners of lower-end PCs shouldn’t be disappointed either. In the game’s DirectX 9 mode you’ll have to put up with slightly less impressive lighting and smoke effects – not to mention some less luxuriant grass and foliage – but the explosions still have a positively gobsmacking impact, and you’ll still be bowled over by the graphics.
Interestingly, even the multiplayer mode shows evidence of potent cross-genre pollination. While you can play with a limited number of friends, the game encourages you to play a part in larger drop-in, drop-out games where you struggle for control points and take on a role: either Infantry, Armour, Air or Support. The feel is very reminiscent of Battlefield 2 – down to the inclusion of ranked matches and player profiles – and as in that game the key to success is understanding your role and playing your part, not grandstanding or making lone-wolf runs for glory. I haven’t had the time to get too involved myself, but I suspect that both online and on the LAN-party scene, World in Conflict will be very big indeed.
Are there any complaints? Well, I’m not sure the setting is explored as thoroughly as it could be. Massive has tried hard by adding inter-mission cut scenes that are obviously meant to give the story a human context, and there’s the occasional nice use of eighties music or a juicy snipped of classic cold-war paranoia in the dialogue, but for much of the game you feel you could be playing any modern military RTS (though at least such things are relatively thin on the ground). I think there’s also an argument that, at times, the player’s actions are rather too restricted – as in the military FPS games that World in Conflict takes its inspiration from, you can feel like you’re being dragged from one objective to another without any real time to make choices of your own. Arguably, Company of Heroes took a similar objective-based approach but gave you a little more scope to do your own thing. Still, given the drama and pace of World in Conflict, I think it gets the balance about right. It might not be as revolutionary or as brilliant an RTS as Company of Heroes – it’s excellent, but not a genre-redefining masterpiece – but it’s still easily the best I’ve played this year.
Action packed, adrenalised and undeniably spectacular, World in Conflict is the first RTS to give Company of Heroes a run for its money, and the current front-runner for RTS game of the year.