Much has been written about World in Conflict's multiplayer gameplay. After all, with the conclusion of the recent multiplayer beta test, players had a chance to check out the game's cool twist on real-time strategy gameplay. Rather than build bases and gather resources or micromanage huge armies, you take part in a team game, playing an important role on a World War III battlefield. However, we haven't really had a chance to check out the game's single-player campaign. So when we got a work-in-progress version of the game recently, we dove right in to find out how the single-player and story are shaping up. Please note that the following includes slight plot spoilers.
World in Conflict is about what might have happened if the Soviet Union had decided to go down fighting in 1989 rather than collapse internally. The Red Army invades Germany and Western Europe; thus, US forces are rushed in to reinforce its allies. However, with its forces away, America is vulnerable, so the Soviets invade the West Coast, landing in Seattle. It's a heck of a premise for a game, but we were surprised to see where everything goes from there.
You play as Lieutenant Parker, a promising young officer in a battalion headed by the fiery Colonel Sawyer, and serve alongside the brash Captain Bannon. World in Conflict spends a lot of time developing these characters and the overarching plot, which itself seems fairly ambitious, as it seeks to tie together this global conflict. The story is told through stylishly drawn cutscenes and Alec Baldwin's narration. Baldwin's narrator talks from the perspective of one of the participants in the battles, so he sounds like a soldier writing his memoirs. As you'd expect from an actor of Baldwin's stature, he's excellent in the role.
We played missions from the middle of the single-player campaign, but they weren't set in the US. Rather, the first mission was set in France, and it's a flashback to the early days of the war, prior to the invasion of Seattle. The Soviet Union wiped out the US Sixth Fleet early in the war, paving the way for an amphibious invasion of Southern France. Your American unit is sent to assist the NATO forces attempting to repulse it, paving the way to liberate Marseilles.
Each mission features primary and secondary objectives. While the latter objectives are optional, they can be very helpful, as the Marseilles mission shows. Your first objective in the mission is to seize a key lighthouse facility atop a seaside bluff, but you only have 25 minutes to do it. These kind of timed objectives are common and add an appropriate amount of tension because you don't have a lot of leeway to experiment. If the clock is ticking down and you're running out of time, you have to start gambling. On the way to seize the lighthouse, you can also seize a vineyard to accomplish a secondary objective. Those aren't required, but doing so can often help you out by opening up new drop zones (by which you can receive reinforcements), as well as additional units. Capturing the hill allows you to also recapture some antiair units, which will be a bit helpful later in the mission.
Once the lighthouse is secure, it's on to the next objective, which is to clear a village at the base of the hill where the lighthouse is located. If you seized the aforementioned vineyard, you'll get a couple of heavy artillery units. These are basically rocket launchers that can absolutely shred buildings and units. If you played the multiplayer beta, then you know that artillery has an impressively long reach to it, so you deliver devastation from a distance. If you station the artillery atop the hill, you can use your ground units to slowly advance and act as spotters for artillery fire. Thankfully, there's not much issue with collateral damage in the game, so you can literally destroy a town to save it. Once the village is cleared, your next job is to fortify it in preparation for a Soviet counterattack. This is done by stationing units in various objective points, which slowly fortifies them with machine gun, antitank, and antiaircraft positions. You then have to withstand waves of attacking helicopters and armor, but if you're smart, you'll have dropped a repair vehicle onto the battlefield to bring damaged units back up to full health. If you can survive that, congratulations are in order because you've accomplished the mission.
The next mission involves an assault to liberate a French town. We noticed that each mission changes up the units that you can requisition in battle. In the prior mission, you operated mainly with a handful of armored units and artillery. In this mission, you're assigned with infantry squads and light tanks. Infantry comes in different forms: There's regular infantry, antitank infantry, and snipers. All of them are vulnerable in the open, but if you get them in a building or a wood, they can ambush passing units effectively. The key to this mission is to seize the two bridges leading into town and then capture a couple of Soviet artillery units, which you can use to level fortified positions. There's nothing better than exploding buildings and houses in which Soviet infantry are garrisoned. Once you seize the town, you have to turn around and defend against a fierce counterattack.
After your adventures in France, the story begins to really veer around the globe. This time, it's off to the Artic Circle and Soviet territory, but you aren't exactly invading. A stealth bomber on a recon mission has crashed, and you have to recover the intelligence then rescue the crew. The start of this battle has you leading a handful of Norwegian Ranger squads with no possibility of reinforcement until you achieve the opening objectives. Thankfully, the Norwegian Rangers have plenty of forest cover to rely on and can call in artillery strikes, which can be used to take out enemy antiaircraft positions. Once the area is clear, reinforcements arrive. You'll then be able to draw upon armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns in this mission. But you must also seize a train station and search for the pilots before extracting out of the level.
Things get a bit tougher in the following mission, which is an assault on a Soviet submarine base. You have to capture a couple of subs and defend your position against an incredibly lengthy counterattack. You do this to buy time for engineers to scour the subs for intelligence and destroy them. A secondary objective involves taking out a nearby Soviet helicopter base, which will make your job defending a bit easier, but you'll still face wave after wave after wave of Soviet armor. In this mission, you get reinforcement with a mix of infantry and heavy tanks. But the key is to rely on tactical aid, which you can use to call in artillery and air strikes. Tactical aid plays a crucial role and is available in different forms in each mission. One mission might have paratroopers and carpet bomb strikes, while another will feature napalm and cluster bombs. Unfortunately, we didn't have the option to draw on tactical nuclear weapons in any of the missions that we played, but what we did get to play with was still pretty fun. You gain tactical aid points by simply killing the enemy or doing your job to help the battle, such as transporting troops around or repairing vehicles.
The final mission that we played brings the action back to American soil, though this is still all part of the story prior to the invasion of Seattle. The Soviets have landed Spetznaz commandos on Governor's Island and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. You have to root them out and will actually provide air support in this mission for all the ground troops. You get a mix of Cobra and Apache attack helicopters, but you only have a limited number of them, so you have to be careful. Unlike in other missions, where you can simply requisition replacements almost as quickly as units are destroyed, there are only a handful of spare helicopters available in New York for you to use. The climax of this mission also has you saving the Statue of Liberty, so make sure you preserve your helicopter force as soon as possible.
Each mission that we played featured a nice change of pace from its predecessor, along with different tactical situations and challenges. It takes about an hour or more to get through each one, but thankfully, you can save at any time during a mission. In fact, you can create multiple save points. That way, you don't have to restart the mission from the beginning if you fail.
If you were afraid that the single-player would become a huge management mess, you can stop worrying. You only have a finite amount of requisition points that you can use to purchase units. If you go for the heavy and expensive units, then you can only have about four to eight of those at any one time. So not only do you have a relatively small number of units, but you'll also want to keep them together to maximize their firepower. You also still feel like your part of a much larger battle because you'll have allies fighting on your flanks, which are controlled by the computer.
World in Conflict also remains one of the most visually impressive games of the year. The battlefields are large, and the environmental destruction is awesome. Napalm strikes burn down forests and towns, while carpet bombings shatter buildings and vehicles. The scale of the game and the destruction is amazing. During the first French mission, you'll get to the top of the bluff and look around to see the countryside torn apart by explosions and fire.
When you put it all together, it's not surprising that World in Conflict collected many of the strategy awards from last month's E3 Media and Business Summit. The gameplay is innovative and refreshing, while the graphics are excellent. The rest of the production values also appear first-rate. The game is really coming together in the final stretches, and it appears that it'll be ready to ship in September.