LOS ANGELES--Nothing says "Electronic Entertainment Expo 2006" quite like a round or two of a highly innovative multiplayer real-time strategy game. Which is why we took the opportunity to get our hands on World in Conflict, the upcoming multiplayer-focused strategy game for the PC from Ground Control developer Massive Entertainment. Though the game will have a fully fleshed-out single-player campaign (with a story that poses the hypothetical question: What if the Cold War conflict of the 1980s between Soviet Russia and the US had gotten hot?), World in Conflict is clearly all about multiplayer, as we saw for ourselves.
Unlike other real-time strategy games that require you to chop wood and mine gold for 15 to 20 minutes before you can actually do anything interesting, World in Conflict's multiplayer mode is much more like the multiplayer in a team-based shooter, such as Battlefield 2 or Day of Defeat: Source. In shooters like those, you generally play as a specific character class, which has a certain load-out of weapons and several specific abilities. In World in Conflict, you choose to play as one of four "roles"--infantry, support, armor, or air--which will determine the makeup of your armies and your general strategies in the game.
However, even though the game is founded on real-time strategy, the pace is all about continuous action. Each player begins the game with a certain number of supply points that can be used to purchase different kinds of units (such as snipers for players who choose the infantry role or heavy attack choppers for players who choose the air role). Once you've bought up your first round of troops, you deploy them at your starting drop zone, then immediately fan out with your teammates to capture various control points in the map, which increases your team's total control area (indicated by a horizontal "tug of war" display at the top of the screen between the Soviet and US teams) and also nets you "tactical points."
These tactical points can be spent on various one-shot tactical aids, such as the handy addition of new infantry via parachute drop, as well as powerful artillery and air strikes, on up to the game's most devastating ability: the tactical nuclear warhead. Though we had seen the nuke in action previously, actually using it turned out to be a highly satisfying experience (or at least, an uncomfortably guilty pleasure, given the state of real-world affairs in the current international climate). Nukes in World in Conflict come streaming out of the sky just slowly enough to see them coming (but too quickly to evacuate your troops, in most cases). These awesome weapons create a gigantic explosion that can wipe a medium-sized town from the face of the Earth with a humongous, fiery mushroom cloud that's visible from pretty much anywhere on the map (and since the game has been developed by the creators of the already large-scale Ground Control series, that's saying something). Nukes can also completely wipe out a player's contingent; when placed well, they can completely eliminate several players' forces at once.
But even the nuke isn't a game-ender. Yes, nuclear warheads do devastate their targets and permanently destroy nearby forests (which can otherwise provide cover to infantry units) and any nearby bridges, along with, well, pretty much everything else. But World in Conflict (eventually) restores pretty much all your spent supply points when your forces are destroyed. Getting wiped out is as good a time as any to change roles (similar to "committing suicide" in a game like Battlefield 2 to switch to a different character class), since you'll have regained all your supply points, so you might use the opportunity to switch to something like the support class, which has infantry troop transports and bridge-building vehicles. We played several rounds ourselves and tried out the different roles, each of which looks, plays, and feels distinctly different, and each of which has clearly been balanced against one another in a rock-paper-scissors manner. The best players online will definitely be the best teammates; to this end, Massive has plans to support not only voice over IP audio chat but also advanced chat options, such as filters to address teammates that only belong to certain roles. And interestingly, even though we've seen and played only the basic tug-of-war mode in which opposing teams fight over control points, Massive has hinted that the game may offer other multiplayer modes as well. If they're as dynamic and explosive as the one we played, we say bring 'em on.
While it remains to be seen whether most players will get the gist of World in Conflict--after all, not many strategy games play like first-person shooters--what we've seen of the game suggests plenty of fast-paced action, over-the-top explosions, and some really intriguing team-based mechanics. The game is scheduled for release later this year.