WorldShift (PC) Preview

I have to admit; I had fairly average expectations going into a demo of PC real-time strategy title WorldShift earlier this week. That's not to say I had any actual preconceptions, but I've been shown countless similar-looking RTS games over the years, and let's just say it can frequently be hard to tell them all apart.

As it turns out, WorldShift is being developed by Bulgaria-based Black Sea Studios, responsible for 2005's well-received Knights of Honor. This game takes a very different tack to that one; its videogamey premise sees aliens attacking a far-future Earth where an extraterrestrial shard has turned much of humanity into mutants, and a global plague threatens to dessicate the planet. To my surprise, in certain ways it draws as much from Diablo as from StarCraft, giving the game a unique angle that should help it stand out among its more typical competitors.

In time-honored RTS tradition, the humans, mutants, and aliens serve as the game's three opposing factions. In the single-player mode, the humans and mutants team up to drive back the aliens and find a way to stop the plague. I was unfortunately unable to see any of the single-player mode, but representatives promised I could get my hands on some full preview code in advance of the game's planned March completion.

What I did see was the game's more unusual mode, its take on a cooperative play dungeon-crawler. These missions serve as the somewhat logical extension of a property RTS games have always shared with most PC dungeon-crawling RPGs: the point-and-click control scheme. As you work through the single-player campaign, you unlock additional co-op missions that support up to three players; hopefully, a few of these are available right out of the gate, with no need to unlock.

Before a co-op mission begins, each player builds a force from a given number of points. A mission briefing gives an idea of what to expect, providing context for the most appropriate units to choose. There is no resource management in these missions. Players start in different locations on the map, but eventually meet up and progress together.

Gameplay here is similar to what one often sees in early RTS missions, pointing and clicking along with a finite troop count, but fleshed out. There is a definite focus on micromanagement--you aren't going to want to simply have your entire force selected and right click along. Medics should be kept close to crucial troops, while sniper assassins should be positioned towards the back, on high ground.

In a useful bit of UI design, when multiple units are selected, you are given an ability bar that contains all of the combined abilities of the individual selected troops. In between battles, you also have access to RPG-like skill trees that allow you to boost your units' stats and abilities as you earn experience gems in battle. For more immediate rewards, you can receive standalone items for beating bosses and completing goals in levels, and equip your units with these items in later battles. Every player is guaranteed the same drops for completing the goals--no ninja looting.

Scripted events and added reinforcements are common in the co-op missions which, like many dungeon-crawlers, feature randomly generated maps based on various environments. I saw a jungle trek littered with oversized insects and capped off by a massive eight-legged cylindrical robot boss. After completing the boss, more insectoid enemies swarmed in, the result of killing certain "pet" enemies earlier in the mission. Had those pets been left untouched, the final battle would have been easier, but fewer points and items would have been awarded.

Black Sea hopes players actually take advantage of the three allowed co-op slots--these missions aren't designed to be completed alone. "It's like an MMO where you have to know your tactics. We don't expect players to beat a dungeon the first time through," said Andreas Balfanz of German publisher RTL Games. "But one of our developers went through with two players and was still able to beat it with the right tactics.

I saw a bit of the more traditional player-verus-player multiplayer, which does feature base-building and resource management, but only to the minimal degree. It's hard to get a sense of multiplayer gameplay based on the short demo I was given of that section, but it was useful for getting a sense of the flavor of each faction.

According to Balfanz, the humans are influenced by Roman ideals--they are the game's toughest, most tank-like units, a regimented and battle-ready society. Units are heavily armored, and some available units are robotic. There is influence from a number of militaristic states.

The Tribes, the formerly human mutants, are a more shamanistic society with a religious tint, heavy on healing and inspired by the Mayans. They can summon up Underworld creatures, hulking demoic beasts, to serve as more combat-oriented units.

The alien Hive is something of a mix of StarCraft's Protoss and Zerg--the army commanders are tall, sinister aliens with advanced weaponry, while the grunt troops are scuttling, insect-like swarms. I was told the influences behind the Hive include not only Starship Troopers but also Doom and rocket launchers.

Each race having its own distinct sub-factions within it gives a good amount of variety, despite each race having only about a dozen unit types each. Balfanz noted that each unit has a unique passive and active ability set; each race also has a set of its own global abilities that the player may use independently of any specific unit. For example, the Tribes have damaging weather effects as well as an area-of-affect healing spell that may be cast anywhere on the maps, while the Hive can create an infestation of aggressive insects on the battlefield.

Since my first look at WorldShift did not consist of hands-on time, I can't give an informed judgment about how it plays, but I am definitely intrigued, particularly by its co-op play options. As any gamer knows, co-op makes everything better.

Black Sea Studios plans to finish WorldShift by March 2008, at which point RTL Games and producer Keyfactor will publish the game under RTL subsidiary Black Inc. in Germany. The companies hope to have secured publishers for North America and the larger European markets by then--if they have done so, the game will see a worldwide April 2008 release.

For more WorldShift images, check out our screenshot gallery and concept artwork gallery.

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