Review: Worldshift (PC)

Publisher: Playlogic International
Developer: Crytek Black Sea
Genre: Real Time Strategy
Release Date: 11/11/2009

If you were to plot the timeline of the RTS genre, an interesting trend would occur. Games who focused more on setting than features would rise first, then be supplanted by games that focus more on features than setting, then both would be eclipsed by games that automate things like resource management and focus more on action. After that, it resets to the beginning, with the setting taking precedent but including all of the prior enhancements. This cycle is probably true for just about any genre, but it seems more obvious to me in the RTS field. Take the early days: Command and Conquer was the “near-present” military game. Warcraft was the “medieval fantasy” game. Dune II and Total Annihilation were the “far-future” games. Then, with the genre firmly entrenched, new twists started to show up, such as naval and aerial units, tunneling units, large-party multiplayer, hero units, and multiple resources and tech trees. Some games ignored the gathering of resources altogether, except for land, such as Z. Now, RTS games have almost as much in common with role-playing games. To that end, we now present Worldshift, from Crytek Black Sea Studios. Is it time to take command? Let’s find out.

1. Story/Modes:

First, let us get the background out of the way. In the future, humanity had reached kind of paradise through technology. Then a giant meteor, here called Shard Zero, crashed into Earth and devastated most of the habitable land. Cue fast forward a few hundred years, and the surviving humans have collated into a handful of mega-cities. Well, the humans that you and I would recognize as human, anyway. There are also tribes living in the jungle realms that have sprung up, mutations capable of communing with nature. There is not much cooperation, and even less peace, between these two groups. Then, to make things just a bit more interesting, an alien race known as the Cult shows up. A combination of Zerg, Borg, and the Burning Legion, this group of aliens is here to put an end to all life in order to attain its goals.

The actual plot of the game involves the mixing of these factions in a conflict over the remaining resources on Earth. You start playing as the humans, on an expedition into a jungle region in order to survey it. During the mission, your father is killed when his position is overrun. You end up being framed for the death, and go into exile. Despite the obvious hook for some Shakespearean pathos, Denkar, the main human hero, scampers off to the desert wastes to live in exile. I was expecting someone to jet back to Future-Denmark to lay around the beatings, but apparently this little Hamlet just doesn’t care. For the plot, the rest is a very predictable story involving the gathering of forces, shifting of allegiances, and common enemies. Worldshift is designed more around multiplayer though, and even the main screen is constantly running a chat window to make it easier to find people to play against.

Story/Modes: Very Good

2. Graphics:

Put simply, this is a very pretty game. It’s bright, colorful, and features an interesting design theory, especially for the Tribals home areas. Battles look very good. Explosions will briefly light up the screen and send bits of smoke and parts flying. The weapon and spell effects are well done, especially with the graphics cranked up. Characters that go behind terrain will have a silhouette show up to make it easier to see where they are. That terrain is, in places, stunning, with distorted reflections in ponds, waterfalls, gently swaying trees, and more. It gets even better when you get to devastated areas, as the land really looks blasted. Occasionally you will come to a pit in the land that you can look through, and you will see lava flowing below the blackened rock. Each of the factions have a great aesthetic. The humans are the now common “giant, hulking monster-men” found so commonly in Warhammer 40K and Gears of War. The Tribals look like three fingered, pink-skinned Dranei from World of Warcraft, especially in the face. The Cult have a very cool “cobbled together” look. Part shaped plasma fields, part mechanical suits, and part organic remains, these guys look intimidating. Individual details on the units also stand out. For instance, the humans have a melee class called a Ripper. Basically a cybernetic version of Wolverine, each of the individual claws stand out, and little blood trails show up if it impacts something organic. If there is anywhere that the graphics stumble, it is in the view size of the screen. I wish you could pull back just a little more.

Graphics: Incredible

3. Sound:

There is a lot of voice work in this game, and most of it is perfect. Some of the specific voices might get on your nerves, but that is to be expected when you are telling some guy to go here, then here, then there, then over here. Humans respond in a military manner, the Tribes tend to accept your orders for the glory of nature, and the Cult, well… if you are using a hero unit, then it will speak, but most of the typical units just chitter away. Again, it is like the Zerg: you can’t understand them, so just know that they are making a noise in assent. The music ranges from the decent to the awesome. There are a lot of heavy, pounding tracks while you wage your campaigns. Weapons effects and battle noises don’t disappoint either. There are a lot of different weapons, from lasers to machine guns to organic blasts of fire and ice, and each of them sound unique. While there might not be any specific things that stand out, everything meshes together nicely and there isn’t anything bad.

Sound: Great

4. Control/Gameplay:

The basics of the genre shine through. The mouse controls just about everything, including the camera, unit selection, and ordering. Most of the advanced controls get handled automatically. While some units, especially the hero units, have special powers that must be activated, most of the grunt work for, well, the grunts, is handled automatically. Grenades, for instance, will randomly be used by your Trooper units. Like a lot of extra powers, they have a percentage to activate, but it isn’t guaranteed. This adds a random element to the fights that is both welcome and interesting. War is chaos, after all. The other special powers include area effect blasts, targeted damage effects, instant heals, and group debuffs. There aren’t any huge upgrades to the game control from past titles in the genre. You won’t be creating waypoints and patrol formations, or building elegantly designed deathtraps out of base positions.

Play is markedly different in single player versus multiplayer. For the single player campaign, your units are limited. A few heroes and a few normal units will be all you have to complete your missions. In order to facilitate success, you might have a healer, or a commander that can requisition more units if some fall. Multiplayer is different, and much more traditional. Build a base, expand your forces, and send skirmish units out to find and crush your enemies. Is there a twist? You betcha. Completing missions and finding certain chests on the maps will give you items that you can socket to increase your abilities. Let’s say that you favor the Ripper unit I mentioned earlier. You might find an item that adds damage over time to melee attacks. You can socket this for the Ripper unit between missions, and from then on all of your Rippers will have that benefit. Here is where the tactical fun comes in. What if you find an item that grants the Ripper the ability to heal slightly if not moving? Which is better? Well, it depends on how you play. Each mission might have a series of awards for you to pick from to buff your forces, and because the nature of the campaign doesn’t lock you into one faction, you can swap about the upgrades and bank them for later. Or you can trash old ones and recycle them in the hope of getting more, or developing stars, which you can use to buy permanent upgrades.

Control/Gameplay: Very Good

5. Replayabilty:

The replayability of Worldshift comes entirely from the multiplayer option. There is not a great reason to play the story again, as it just doesn’t grab you enough. You can, however, replay those missions in order to get more of the reward items. The real reason to keep this game around, though, is the online play. There are modes up to three versus three that you can play. With the multiple factions and the multiple ways to socket items to buff your factions, you have a game that is essentially infinitely replayable, at least as long as you can find a group to play. Can’t find friends? Then you have the option of tossing AI friends and foes into the mix if you just feel a need to practice.

Replayability: Great

6. Balance:

Unit balance is the bane of any RTS game’s existence. Too weak, and you’re not going to waste time on it. Too strong, and once you’ve got the Super Death Engine 3000 up and running, you’ve got the game won. Worldshift is primarily an infantry game. That makes it very easy to balance, and it shows. Each faction has basic ranged, melee, and mixed fighters. The support units tend to be your Hero units, who can buff and heal and do above average damage. The Humans have the Lord Commander, who can use a special power to draw all the aggro from a certain area of the map and use his giant stack of hit points to tank. The Tribes have people like the High Priest, who can freeze his enemies for a short time and also generates a healing field. Something else that I’ve never seen before, or at least haven’t recognized before in this type of game, is a range basis for effectiveness. Take the Tribal Warrior. His main weapon is a long rifle. His character portrait has an indicator of how much damage he does at what range. At long range, his shots do a respectable thirteen points of damage. As the range gets shorter, his damage drops. This turns games into an exercise in managing positions. You will want to keep your melee fighters as a barrier to your ranged units, while using your high damage units to pump out fire or your healer units to buff and heal. It turns the usual “infantry is good versus air, air is good versus vehicles, and vehicles are good versus infantry” balance into something else, and it works well. Too often in this type of game you can see people run a group of soldiers straight into another and have them firing from point blank range with no change in effect.

Balance: Great

7. Originality:

Let’s go back for a second and talk about the settings for RTS games. Total Annihilation is one of the best examples of a sci-fi RTS to this day. The Warcraft series revels in its high fantasy setting. Most games of this sort cling to the setting they create. Worldshift throws a bit of a curve ball in this as well. Starting with a post-apocalyptic setting occupied by the nearly extinct humans – thanks, Shard Zero – you add in the magic users and shamanistic feel of the Tribals. The Cult turns in a performance that is completely alien, mixing things up makes for a fresh take, and so does the search for items instead of the same old tech tree that most RTS games follow. Seeing a Sorcerer lay a freezing wave on a group of mechs takes some getting used to. Eventually, though, it all comes down to point, click, and kill, but complaining about that would be like calling out Modern Warfare 2 for an excessive use of bullets.

Originality: Very Good

8. Appeal Factor:

The attraction of Worldshift lies entirely in its bright colors, varied factions, easy to control units, and the infantry level aspect of the game. If you are looking for something with a larger scale, you won’t find it here. Troop carriers dropping waves of men and armor would have been nice to see, but you will have to go elsewhere. Also lacking is a sense of direction or control on the story side. I wanted to see the effects of my actions much more than was presented. I also wanted to be able to plan and decide on missions before being forced into them. This control fits into the scheme of a hero-oriented RTS, but it turned me off. Still, if you want a few hours of diversion and some fun power-mixes, pick it up.

Appeal Factor: Good

9. Addictiveness:

For RTS fans looking for something different, Worldshift is a good option, or at least a good start. The issue is that without a great story to keep you interested in the single player campaign, and multiplayer that has been done better elsewhere, the hooks that would keep you invested in the game aren’t as well represented as they could be. The matchmaking isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either. Much of this is likely due to the lack of a service to handle matchmaking for you aside from a general game search. The game of “hunt the upgrade” is fine at first, but it quickly loses its luster. Especially since you can’t swap in the middle of a mission. Does that make sense for balance reasons? Sure, but it fails to inspire when it comes to a feeling of “Wow, that’s cool, what does it do?”, and without that instant gratification, the missions quickly turn into slogging repetition, which kills the game. Putting in instant gratification is a much better way to keep your player base going.

Addictiveness: Medicore

10. Miscellaneous:

There are two things that need to be talked about here. The first is a game issue, the second is potentially much more serious, but possibly not the game’s fault. First off – why can’t I save during a mission? You will encounter checkpoints in missions that will, in the event of a catastrophic failure of leadership, allow you to replay from that point. If you would rather save the game so that you can come back later, you are out of luck. There is absolutely no way to save in the middle of a mission, leave the game, and re-load. Some will say that this is to up the tension; I say that this is total crap. Now, with how the items are handed out, I can almost forgive them, but Black Sea made a huge misstep here. Sometimes real life intrudes, and I don’t want to start a 30 minute mission over again just because the developers want me to.

The second issue might be a operating system issue, or it might be a game issue. Several times after exiting the game I had to reinstall it, as the drivers only worked for a few loads. I also had a crash where I had to do a system reset to get my computer back. I’m not blaming Worldshift entirely, but since prior to installing the game my system was fine, and nothing changed except for the installation of this program, I kind of wonder if it was just Vista or not. And a search of the forum for known issues turns up a whole lot of “reinstall the game and try again,” which isn’t really a ringing endorsement for patches or updates being handed out. When your support system just asks you to try again there is a problem.

Miscellaneous: Mediocre

The Scores
Story: Very Good
Graphics: Incredible
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Great
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Very Good Game

Short Attention Span Summary

Worldshift won’t change the RTS genre, but it is innovative enough to be worth your time if you’re a fan of the genre. Taking three different settings and tossing them together could be a recipe for disaster, but the game easily blends magic, science fiction, and modern military aspects to create a unique take on the genre. With bright, flashy graphics and fun voice and sound effects, Worldshift won’t let you down in the aesthetics department. Some new twists to the hero and minions viewpoint are fun, and the controls are never so complex that you don’t know what you are doing. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a letdown as well, as everything is kept very simple. Once you get enough of the single player campaign, multiplayer opens up the game for a huge amount of unique matches, as long as you can find enough people to play with. This might not set the world on fire, but it does provide enough of a shift in perspective to keep you entertained.

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