At Sierra's recent press event, we had the opportunity to go hands-on with World in Conflict, Massive's upcoming game of global conquest. We're pleased to say that the game is shaping up to be a unique game of team-based strategizing and tactical unit management. If you can conceive of a Battlefield game that takes place with RTS-style unit movement and requisition, then you're somewhat close to envisioning what you can expect from World in Conflict.
Before we got into the game, though, we were treated to a rough draft of the game's first cinematic trailer, which explained a bit of the backstory. The game takes place in 1989, right as the Soviet Union was on the verge of economic collapse. Instead of the gradual shift toward democratization that took place in the early '90s, though, in World of Conflict the Soviets decide to spur on their economy by invading the US, landing forces in Seattle and spreading outward from there. The US forces are obviously not going to take that sitting down, however, resulting in open warfare between the two superpowers.
When you load up a game of World in Conflict, you're going to be asked to take on the role of a commander in either the Soviet or the US armies. As in Battlefield 2, it appears that multiplayer games of World in Conflict always force two armies against each other, with individual players attempting to work together to spur their side into victory. Each of the factions here seems to be evenly matched, however, with no disparities in abilities immediately apparent.
After picking a side to play for, you have to choose your role before you're allowed to drop in to the battlefield. There are four roles to choose from: air, infantry, armor, and support (which basically consists of artillery and antiair units). The role choices are interesting in that they unlock powerful units for you of your chosen sort, but they don't completely restrict you from delving into other types of units.
For instance, if you play as an air commander, you'll be able to access the powerful Apache chopper (which is unavailable to commanders of other roles), but you'll still be able to buy tanks and some support vehicles. Of course, the most powerful units from the other roles will be locked to you, but even the basic units from those roles will wind up costing more for you than they would if you specialized in that role. So your role here is a specialization, but it isn't going to prevent you from buying units from outside your specialization if you wish to do so. And if you ever get tired of your role, you'll have the choice to lose all of your units on the field and switch to another role at any time.
When you've selected your specialization, it's time to get into the game and deploy your units. The deployment situation here is interesting: There aren't any resources to collect, but you still have a limit on how many forces you can deploy at any given time. This is your replenishment number, which acts as a population cap, in effect. If the cap is around 6,000 (a typical number for the maps we were playing on), then you'll start a round with around 2,500 at the outset and slowly build yourself up from there, with more replenishment being allocated to you over time. If you purchase enough units to use up all of your replenishment, it will stop accruing until some of your units are destroyed, at which point it will begin counting up again. This system handily negates the need for resource gathering, allowing you to focus solely on unit deployment and combat tactics.
When you want to deploy units, you select them from a drop-down menu (with more powerful units obviously taking up more resources than weaker ones) and choose to deploy them. It takes around 15 seconds for the units to arrive, and it'll be another 15 seconds after that before you can call for reinforcements again, so even though you can call in for reinforcements across a large section of the map controlled by your map, it's still difficult to plop them right where they're needed without planning ahead.
As with many other games of this stripe, control of the map's territories is indicated by a number of flags scattered about the area. These flags aren't controlled directly, though, but are instead surrounded by two or three control points. In order to capture the flag, you have to have units from your side inside each of the control points simultaneously. This system makes it fairly unlikely that you're going to be capturing any three-point flags by yourself, since you'd need to have at least three units remaining alive, and spreading them out in this manner will leave you open to enemy forces. Working together with your teammates will usually be the key to capturing these points and ensuring that the enemy doesn't manage to take them back.
As you capture flags, you'll start to shift the balance of power in favor of your team. There's no real penalty to possessing fewer flags than the other team, but if you don't remedy the situation in short order, the other team can build up enough power to eventually win the match without having to wait for the timer on the match to click down all the way. When one team controls more flags than the other, a power bar on the top of the screen will start shifting in their favor; if they manage to fill it completely, then they'll automatically win, but if their opponents wrest control of a few flags and take back a majority, then it'll obviously start shifting the other way. Since it's impossible to completely destroy your opponent's armies, ruthless aggression isn't really rewarded, unless it's in the service of capturing control points.
The combat itself is immensely satisfying, even in the pre-alpha build that Massive was showing off here. The variety of units offers up a good amount of rock-paper-scissors balancing, further advancing the goals of putting together good teams and working together. For instance, if you choose to throw down with a bunch of choppers, you'll be able to quickly move across the battlefield to dispatch infantry or artillery units, but you're unable to land them to take over control points. A fleet of tanks may be able to quickly push toward an enemy control point, but can quickly find itself destroyed by RPG soldiers stationed inside buildings. Recognizing the threats that you face and working together with your teammates to overcome them will be a key to succeeding here.
Of course, if all else fails, you'll always be able to fall back on your tactical assistance powers. As you destroy enemy units and capture control points, you'll earn up to 50 TA points over the course of a round, which can be spent on a variety of different effects. At their most innocuous, these powers include a quick radar scan, which reveals enemy locations on a section of map that's hidden by the fog of war, or a paratrooper drop, for quickly capturing a control point when you don't have enough units.
However, if you're willing to expend more of your tactical assistance points, you can call down some truly magnificent displays of firepower on your foes. The powers that were most often invoked during the play-through we experienced were the simple air-to-ground bombing run and the offscreen artillery shelling. As you proceed up the ladder, though, powers like napalm strikes and air-to-air missiles become available, allowing you to cause some lasting damage to enemy forces, even if they're mobile. Last but not least, expending a full 50 tactical assistance points will let you call in a tactical nuclear warhead, which decimates a huge chunk of real estate, causing it to be temporarily irradiated, and even damages any unit attempting to enter it. It obviously takes a while to save up 50 TA points (although teammates can trade them if they wish), so nukes aren't common, but you can expect a couple to drop during a given 10-minute round.
With the delicate balance of capturable flags and the teamwork requirements that the game seems to be working toward, it seems that World in Conflict is going to hold a lot of appeal for anyone who likes online, team-based gaming. You'll have to wait a while before you can start simulating the hot cold war, though, as the game isn't scheduled to come out until summer of 2007.