Get the tactical splendor of a strategy game with the pace and visuals of a shooter.

World in Conflict is a gorgeous game that can be as rewarding as it is demanding. If you’re playing it alone, you’re not going to get a lot out of it beyond pretty graphics. But with other players, and especially with other players who understand a) how it works and b) that they have to work together, this is a unique and gratifying real time strategy game you won’t want to miss.

The central point of World in Conflict is, ironically, teamwork. Using a sleek online interface called Massgate, you can jump into a multiplayer game in progress and pick an area of specialty. Your options are tanks, infantry, helicopters, or support units (such as artillery and mobile anti-air guns). Everyone has a pool of point to spend, but the prices for each unit are adjusted by your area of specialty. So if you want tanks, you’re not going to be able to afford anti-air guns. This is, hopefully, where the other players come in. By combining units, players can work their way around the rigid paper-rock-scissors interplay.

Games are short and the pace is unrelenting. Although you rarely control more than a handful of units, you’ll always have your hands full. Your input is constantly required, whether it’s moving your units, ordering reinforcements, sending your teammates messages, or calling in tactical powers. World in Conflict moves quickly, and things die fast when they’re countered effectively. You’re never entirely safe. Suddenly, your units are just gone. But with your points constantly refunded, you’ll be able to get back into the fray in a matter of seconds.

An adjustable game speed would have been nice not just for gamers who want time to breathe, but more importantly for those of us who might want to enjoy the graphics. Visually, this is an absolutely spectacular game. World in Conflict loves the camera, no matter where you put it. Up close or from on high, it’s an almost impossibly opulent mosaic of explosions and smoke, craterable terrain and flammable trees, collapsing buildings and debris, swiveling turrets and bobbing chasses, loping soldiers and banking helicopters. This is the most exciting engine we’ve seen since Doom 3.

As a single player game, there’s not a lot here. The campaign is a fairly goofy affair about a Soviet invasion via cargo container. Between cutscenes, Alec Baldwin reads ridiculously somber passages about the horrors of war. There are some entertainingly ridiculous moments (Valiant National Guardsman saves baby!) and even some licensed music, but the actual gameplay is a set of heavily scripted missions, designed to gradually introduce you to the different units and their powers. You can also play skirmish games against bots, but the main problem is the AI. It’s incapable of playing the game in any meaningful way. Instead, it simply spits out units and runs them around willy-nilly, invariably in single file so they’re easier to pick off one at a time. You might lose a game to the AI by being overwhelmed, but certainly not by being outsmarted.

It’s disappointing that the three sides — the USA, the USSR, and NATO — are the same except for their accents and artwork. Also, there’s a lot of nuance among the tactical powers that will be overwhelming to new players. You earn points as you play, which you can spend on a variety of special powers, most of which are various types of air strikes. By the time you’ve figured out and called in the right attack for any given situation, the situation will likely have changed. This part of the game isn’t nearly as accessible as just shuffling units around and watching awesome graphics of stuff blowing up. But along with the need for teamwork, this is where World in Conflict shows its depth.

Ultimately, this depth, drawn partly from the interplay of units but mostly from the interplay of players, is what keeps the game going. As you’re playing short match after short match, as easy and compelling as pulling another potato chip out of a bag, you’ll get a sense for the group of people playing with you. It’s very much the real time strategy equivalent of team-based shooters such as the Battlefield games, Team Fortress, or Quake Wars. That guy’s good, that guy sucks, that guy’s a lone wolf, that guy is new but he’s trying, and that guy keeps killing me, so I’m gunning for him next.

In a way, World in Conflict is the opposite of what drives most real time strategy games. The idea behind a typical RTS is that you’re looking down from a god’s eye view, with complete and total control over all your units. It’s the genre for control freaks. But that won’t be the case here. Get used to helplessness, and get ready for an exciting new twist on real time strategy.