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World in Conflict

When two tribes go to war... there'll be some lovely particle effects

World War III has become amazingly homely since it became clear that we're not actually going to be forced to fight it. While we spent the '80s looking at the sky, dreading the slowly arcing path of an ICBM across the blue, we can all now happily sit back and watch a nuclear mushroom cloud explode in its full DX10 splendour - and alternate between giggling and going "Woah".

We won WWIII by not having to fight it and the only side which really matters was the victor. The human race won! Result! Now let's all play Armed Assault, Defcon and this RTS powerhouse, World in Conflict.

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You may know the developers Massive from their previous cult RTS hits, the Ground Control games. It's easiest to consider World in Conflict as their spiritual sequel, taking a lot of the ideas and spinning them off in a fascinating direction.

Historically, Massive have always been bored with the RTS conventions. Resource management? Base building? Hour-long multiplayer games with nowhere near enough fighting? Screw that: let's do something different. So instead, you control a small number of units - rarely more than ten - and you manage them intensely, considering every step deliberately. While it's fast-paced, it's also a game about details, full of micromanagement.

With only a half-dozen units and no economic layer whatsoever, you may think this game punishing. One misstep and, whoops apocalypse. To get around this, you have a points reservoir to spend on air-dropping units into the battlefield in your deployment zone.

When a unit is wiped out, its points slowly trickle back into the reservoir, and you're able to spend them anew; the closest comparison is respawning in an online FPS. Its elegance is the root of the multiplayer's brilliance and the major reason why - for all its beauty - the singleplayer game fails to be as consistently exciting as it should be.

Let's deal with the campaign first, to get the sour stuff over with. It's a traditional linear string of missions, each divided into a series of sub-steps, connected by a narrative where the brave Allies (the US, basically) fight back against a desperate USSR who - outraged by the success of New Kids On The Block and assorted capitalist degeneracy - invade 1980s Europe and even manage to sneak into Seattle (presumably there's not enough good coffee in Russia or something).

On one level, it admirably showcases much of what's genuinely great about WiC: the superficial elements. For God's sake, look at the superficial elements. Whether it's showing the tranquillity of cloud movement or the annihilation of rain forests, WiC is beautiful. In fact, I'd argue as of today it's the most beautiful game on the surface of the planet (You might want to read the review on p56 - Ed). In-engine cutscenes such as that of a young girl looking up at a sky filled with parachutes capture perfectly the sense of a cold war turning hot.

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As you play, you earn support points through your victories, which can be then used to bring in the various big guns. In fact, in certain parts of the singleplayer campaign, the limit is removed and you can just unleash trillions of dollars of ordnance at the damn Russkies (the campaign is from the US side only). Here, only the time required for reloading guns holds you back.

Problem is, in singleplayer that thrill fades in too many missions. In some the ability to call in reinforcements is removed and it's these that work best, creating genuine tension as you try to keep your troops alive and use their abilities to your optimum advantage. When you can call in troops, the most overwhelming assaults - which the game tries to imply you're unable to hold off - feel lacking.

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