It's an all-around great real-time strategy game that also happens to stand out from other games in the genre.
Do you like Red Alert 2's real-world whimsy but not its cartoony panache? Is science fiction too outlandish, fantasy too geeky, and history too dry? Would you like real-world considerations like ammo, time of day, and weaponry to figure into your tactics? Do you want to minimize resource management and face a challenging artificial intelligence? And do you like flashy graphics? Although World War III: Black Gold is the only real-time strategy game to meet all these criteria, you don't have to be picky to appreciate it. It's an all-around great real-time strategy game that also happens to stand out from other games in the genre.
Topware Interactive's Earth 2150 and its follow-up, The Moon Project, were among real-time strategy's best kept secrets. Although very popular in Germany (they were developed nearby in Poland), they didn't catch on very well in North America. When Topware collapsed earlier this year after some financial mishaps, it seemed that would be the end of its fine work. Not so. Newly reorganized under the unfortunate name Reality Pump, the company has engineered its Earth 2150 engine into something with a tighter focus and a real-world appeal. World War III: Black Gold is both a worthy sequel to the earlier games and a great game on its own merits.
Never mind the back story, which is a superfluous device to pit Russia, the US, and Iraq against each other. Each of these three sides uses tanks and helicopters as their meat-and-potatoes units. The Russians, who are skilled at field repairs, get regenerating vehicles. They use chemical weapons that bypass armor and kill enemy crews so they can capture their vehicles. The Iraqis can camouflage their units for stealthy maneuvers and ambushes. They also get truck bombs and SCUD missile launchers. The US gets long-range mortars and structures that can call in powerful air strikes from F-15s and batwing B-2 bombers.
Few of these advantages are hard and fast, though. World War III blurs the distinction between the sides, and you'll have access to different tactics no matter which side you're playing. For instance, the Russians have their own SCUDs and bomber air strikes. The Iraqis get chemical weapons, too. The US has a stealth helicopter perfectly suited for ambushes and sneak attacks. But each skirmish will play out differently depending on how you spend your money to unlock the branches of your tech tree. Do you research powerful tank ammo or missiles? Do you try for the chemical weapons or the air strikes? Do you focus on helicopters for speed or mortars for range? And how much should you spend trying to counter what your opponent might be doing? Do you research filters to counter chemical weapons or flares to counter missiles? Will you need a communications center to counter jammers? Should you upgrade your Stinger antiair missiles or your TOW antitank missiles? The beauty of World War III is that it forces you to make choices that have a significant impact on how the game plays. In fact, whether you win or lose can be determined by these choices just as much as it's determined by how much "gold" you gather. In many real-time strategy games, the gold is almost the sole deciding factor.
The "gold" in World War III is oil, the game's only resource. You simply build a pump on an oil well and the money rolls in automatically. Earth 2150 and The Moon Project were unbalanced because one side gathered money using this hands-off method while the other two sides had to manage the sci-fi equivalent of peasants hauling the resources from a mine to a refinery. This extra step of busywork has been completely removed from World War III, and the game is much better for it.