While "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is a popular Tears for Fears song from the 1980s, it's also a fitting song for World in Conflict, the upcoming World War III real-time strategy game from Sierra and Massive Entertainment. And we mention that song in particular because it's actually featured in the game. World in Conflict will capture the atmosphere of the late 1980s with a licensed soundtrack that would seem fitting for a Grand Theft Auto game. Of course, Grand Theft Auto doesn't have the high-tech warfare and massive amounts of destruction that World in Conflict will. We got a chance to experience the game ourselves at Sierra's Gamers' Day, so we can report on the carnage firsthand.
World in Conflict is set in 1989, at the height of the old Cold War between democracy and communism. However, instead of dying out quietly, the Soviet Union has decided to go down fighting, causing a world war. The game will pick up in the midst of that struggle, approximately a year after fighting begins in Europe. With its forces deployed to fight overseas, the United States is vulnerable, particularly the West Coast. The Soviets take advantage of that by launching a massive invasion of the US, landing in Seattle and moving inland from there. The single-player campaign, approximately 15 missions long, will center on a group of American commanders involved with trying to slow and reverse the Soviet advance. For example, there's Colonel Sawyer, the confident and calm leader; Bannon, a brash and whiny officer; and Webb, the mediating voice. The story and its accompanying cutscenes will explain the relationships between these officers and the background to the war itself.
We got to play the third mission in the campaign, dealing with the battle to recapture Pine Valley, a remote town that's been taken over by the Red Army. To introduce the mission, a cutscene shows the townspeople panicking while the invasion force of Soviet paratroopers land (with "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" playing in the background), along with the arrival of the American forces on scene. Between sniper and mortar fire, Colonel Sawyer explains to his subordinates the plan of attack, and it's up to you to carry out the orders.
This is a tactical real-time strategy game, and the core gameplay revolves around commanding units effectively. There is no base building or resource gathering whatsoever. The Pine Valley mission starts with you having command of a Bradley fighting vehicle and an engineer team, and your first task is to seize a nearby gas station that's defended by Soviet armor. You have a couple of options at this point. You can summon reinforcements to try to seize the gas station immediately, or there's an optional objective that you can pursue, namely taking out a sniper atop a smokestack. However, it would take the Bradley a long time to destroy the concrete smokestack with its gun, and sending the engineers to plant demo charges around it would get them killed pretty fast. The solution is to load the engineers aboard the Bradley, have the Bradley drive up to the base of the smokestack and pop a smoke grenade, and then have the engineers pile out and plant demo charges. Once the charges are planted, have the engineers jump back in the Bradley, drive away, and then detonate the explosives and watch the smokestack collapse. With that, you have an idea of the tactical possibilities in the game.
Now it's on to the main objective. To seize the gas station, you'll need a lot more than just a Bradley and engineers. Thankfully, World in Conflict's reinforcement system is designed so that you can quickly call in fresh units. You're given a limited budget of points that you can use to purchase units. The more powerful a unit is, the more points that it costs, which makes sense. In this case, you can call up three or four extra Bradley fighting vehicles, some infantry and antitank squads, and a Humvee. Select the type and number of units you want and just hit "deploy" and a huge cargo plane swoops down from the sky and airdrops the reinforcements to the ground. It's a pretty cool sight to see.
The neat thing about this reinforcement system is that there's no need to worry about ever running out of units. Whenever a unit is destroyed, its points are gradually recycled back into the main pool, so you can replace them relatively quickly. You'll never, ever run out of points, so you can always bring in fresh uints. Another neat thing about this system is that it lets you experiment with different tactics, as you can switch from one type of unit to another if you discover they're badly suited for the environment. For instance, while tanks are useful on the outskirts of Pine Valley, once you enter the town the fighting is suited toward infantry that can garrison buildings for cover. While having an unlimited reinforcement system isn't exactly realistic, lead designer Magnus Jansén said that it's designed to keep the pace and the action level of the game up. And while it might seem that the challenge is taken out of the game if you effectively have unlimited units, Jansén said the challenge will come in the form of timed objectives throughout the campaign. When you get down to it, what's important is going to be the type of units that you bring to the fight and how you use them.
For example, once we had our small armored task force of Bradleys assembled, it was time to take the gas station. Even with the armored personnel carriers, our forces were outgunned by the Soviet tanks. Still, the game rewards the use of tactics. We had the infantry load into the Bradleys; just select all the units and hit the Y key, and infantry will automatically board the nearest vehicle. Then we had the Bradleys drive up to some buildings adjacent to the gas station. While the Bradleys engaged the tanks, the infantry unloaded (hit the U key) and garrisoned the nearby buildings for cover (hit the H key). Meanwhile, while the Bradleys engage the tanks with their canons, you have to activate their special abilities manually. You do this by selecting a Bradley and clicking on the power in question. Smoke grenades can provide concealment against fire, while the TOW missile button lets you use tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided antitank missiles. Using these tactics allowed us to destroy the Soviet tanks and seize the gas station.
Another interesting aspect of the game is the node system. To seize the gas station, you have to control two nodes at opposite ends of the station by moving units into them and clearing them of the enemy. Once you control all the nodes to a point, you have control over that point. Meanwhile, nodes automatically fortify as long as you have units in them. In this case, the gas station nodes automatically built up machine gun positions, but we've seen in multiplayer antitank and antiaircraft positions, as well. Once the gas station was safely fortified, we could move on to our next task, which was seizing the town itself by capturing three central nodes.
While this was going on at the gas station, other American forces were battling in the distance. These represented the forces under Bannon's control, as he was tasked with capturing a supermarket while we captured the gas station. Massive wants it to feel like the battlefield is alive with chaos, even the parts of it that you aren't in. This also plays a role in the game, as you might have to come to another American unit's aid, and sometimes if you try to help them out they'll tell you to buzz off and mind your own objectives. It certainly doesn't hurt that the scale of the game is so large. You can pan the camera around and see miles off into the distance, and you can watch as the battle destroys the landscape. The graphics in World in Conflict look pretty darn good, and we were playing the DirectX 9 version of the game. The town and surrounding countryside are sharply detailed and make for a nice, picture-postcard setting, save for all the explosions going on. Sierra and Massive plan to include a DirectX 10 version with the game as well, so the visuals could potentially look even better.
World in Conflict's mix of high-tech combat, beautiful visuals, and intriguing premise makes this a real-time strategy game to keep an eye on. After all, World War III is a topic that's barely covered in gaming, and World in Conflict's approach captures the combined arms essence of modern warfare. Plus, we want to know more about the story, which was developed in cooperation with best-selling techno thriller author Larry Bond, who also cowrote with Tom Clancy the classic World War III novel Red Storm Rising. While a Soviet invasion of the USA may have seemed a bit unlikely, Jansén said that Bond was one of the government consultants whose job it was to imagine how such a thing could happen. We'll find this out for ourselves when the game ships later this year.