Set in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by the technology-based humans, nature-worshipping Tribe and sinister Cult, WorldShift is, at its core, a very simple RTS with all base-building elements removed. You control a group of characters that you steer around the map, right-clicking on everything you want to kill along the way. The twist to the gameplay is that you discover artifacts in every game mode that you can use to permanently buff your units, so you’re constantly improving the abilities of your army, which you can then take online to battle with or against other players. That’s the concept, anyway.
WorldShift was clearly designed with multiplayer in mind (you have to create an online account to even launch the game), and the single-player campaign is so bad that few players will muscle through it before heading online. Removing base-building may make the gameplay easier for new players, but removes any sort of strategy at all – there’s no balance between attack and defense; you’ll simply always be massing your forces into one large offensive unit and hunting down the bad guys. The story is cliché and boring, and the mission objectives are laughably bad, often involving avoiding enemies with stealth – no easy feat with your units’ broken pathfinding.
Multiplayer removes some of the campaign’s frustrations like the pitiful enemy AI, only to swap it for a major new problem: balance. Since WorldShift feature an MMO-style skill progression, the more you play, the more powerful you can make your units. But new players won’t be stepping onto a level playing field; WorldShift was released a year ago in many European countries. To make matters worse, WorldShift features no kind of level-based matchmaking system, you won’t know if you’re playing against a newbie player or a veteran with high-level units until you meet them on the battlefield. In one match, your skill may help you overcome a player of your same level. In the next, no amount of strategy will help you overcome the swarm of massively powerful tanks your opponent sends your way.
Even when you lose a match you get to keep the artifacts you discover along the way, but only victories reward you with reasonable amounts of “battle points,” which you’ll need to need to improve your skills. With the uneven playing field, it will take new players a long, long time to buff their armies to the point where they can reasonably compete.
If you can find some even-matched players to compete with amongst WorldShift’s small community (the most players I ever found online was 29), then there is some fun to be had with the online component. WorldShift’s maps are large and dense, with random item drops that award exploration even in the middle of a deathmatch. Better still is the co-op mode, in which you can team up with other players against AI enemies in objective-based missions similar to MMO raids. As with all other modes, co-op games provide you with artifacts and battle points used to improve your units. Unfortunately, most of the online community seems to focus on deathmatching, so finding an available co-op game can be a rarity.
The entire package is wrapped in a presentation that can only be described as “underwhelming.” The graphics are bright and eye-catching, but character designs are bland and your units are small and lack detail even at the tightest zoom level. The menus are dull and unhelpful, and good luck to you if you downloaded the digital version and have a question – there’s no in-game help at all, not even a list of hotkeys. The game script is terrible, featuring characters like “Frank N. Stein” and a plot that swings between bland and incomprehensible. Fortunately the music is nicely orchestrated, although it’s often ruined by horrid unit voice work.
The worst thing about WorldShift is its unfulfilled potential. The concept of an RTS with an online RPG is a great one, but too many factors hold it back from reaching the height of that concept’s appeal. Even if there was a more fair matchmaking system, the core gameplay is just too simple for experienced RTS players. There’s little strategy to the matches other than using the small handful of special abilities against the toughest enemies first. With some more depth to the gameplay and a better online matchmaking mechanic, WorldShift could have been an interesting evolution in the RTS genre. As it is, it’s just another mediocre game that began with a great idea.