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'World in Conflict' Is Unfairly Forgotten, Free Right Now, and Still Great

Massive Entertainment's gorgeous and innovative Cold War tactics game is worth revisiting as Ubisoft gives it away for free.

I don’t know if plans for conventional warfare during the Cold War were ever more than a fantasy dreamed up by generals, defense officials, and military contractors. Arguing that it was tank divisions and fighter squadrons keeping the peace during the Cold War—and not the world-ending arsenal of nuclear weapons maintained by the great powers—was both a dubious proposition and an enormously profitable one. At a time when war was never less practical or advisable, defense budgets swelled to purchase expensive, luridly destructive weapons.


Most of that weaponry never really fought its war. Uses may have been found for it in other conflicts, but the Ragnarok of technology and maneuver warfare never came to pass. The would-be Pattons and Napoleons of the Fulda Gap had to content themselves with their dreams.

And speculative military fiction like what you’ll find in Massive Entertainment’s World in Conflict. By all rights, it’s a game that should be nothing more than an exercise in military hardware pornography… but finds both beauty in its destruction and pathos amidst its carnage. Ubisoft is giving the ten year-old game away free this week, and all you have to do is either sign up for Uplay or accept your free copy if Ubisoft has already annexed a corner of your hard drive. But in this case, I think you should genuinely make time to play a widely overlooked, under-appreciated game.

Massive Entertainment is an under-appreciated innovator of the MOBA genre. They weren’t working in the DOTA mould so their contributions tend to be forgotten, but Massive was one of the studios that quickly understood what was possible if you stripped base-building and economic management out of the equation RTS equation. Massive’s Ground Control games helped point the way toward an evolution of the RTS model… well before most developers and publishers saw the opportunity.

World in Conflict is probably the pinnacle of that model. Cutting-edge for its day, it still has lush visuals even by today’s standards (the character models I can’t vouch for). It’s meant to be a team-based MOBA where each player commands one “arm” of the combat force: tanks, aircraft, support units, and infantry, and the trick is maximizing your own strengths while helping your allies cover each other’s weaknesses.


In addition to that, however, you’re also able to call in off-map assets like heavy artillery, strafing runs, and other support assets all the way up to tactical nukes (which are still the most spectacular and horrifying nukes in strategy games). Over the course of each battle, armor formations vanish in clouds of explosions, infantry are consumed in cyclones of shrapnel, and the entire map is churned into a kind of postmodern Verdun.

God help me, it’s glorious. I mean in the unholy and unhinged way that Apocalypse Now or the Peleliu assault in The Pacific is glorious. It’s horrific to contemplate, yet there’s a part of you that cannot but help be enraptured by the scenes you and your fellow players are painting on the map. And while you shouldn’t be wasteful or foolish with your forces (especially thanks to one of the best veterancy systems in real-time games), World in Conflict doesn’t pull its punches: These are battles won by who is left when the after-image of the nuclear detonation has faded away.

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But if the game design is entirely about the meaninglessness of human will in the face of digital era warfare, the story of World in Conflict is entirely about the importance of our own frailty. With the Soviet Assault expansion, the game opens on a jaunty Soviet tank commander eager to lead his men through the Brandenburg Gate, a man as unprepared for the reality of war was he is thrilled by its prospect. A gung-ho national guard unit in the Pacific Northwest, licking its wounds from a disastrous deployment in Europe, finds itself one of the last bulwarks against Soviet occupation in a full-scale version of Red Dawn.

Not a lick of it makes a bit of sense. It’s like Season 7 of Game of Thrones but with more Abrams tanks: armies warp from one corner of the earth to the next with hardly a word of explanation. Patently bad and nonsensical ideas are endorsed and executed without a second thought. But that means the game goes from one memorable battlefield to the next: The farmland and countryside around the Cascade Range. The Norwegian Fjords, with troops fighting under the aurora. The coast of the Mediterranean as western Europe’s final defenses collapse.

But somehow it all works. It never rises above the level of one of your better Larry Bond books, but its heart is what makes World in Conflict more than a dated technology showpiece. It wants to let you have your absurd fun with unholy weaponry… but it also needs that violence to mean something within its fiction. Like the best action movies, it’s aware of its own implausible gratuitousness while telling a story full of characters for whom it is real and tragic. Years later, I remember many of the battles, but I also remember my faint regret for the characters who were eventually forced to confront the fact they weren’t the heroes, and had maybe even become the villains.

Postscript: Some intrepid fans have found a way to get multiplayer working again. It’s a bit fussy, so hit the forum thread to see some useful links to get online play up-and-running with this free Uplay edition. It’s a minor (okay, MODERATE) pain, but the multiplayer is SUPER fun.