The PlayStation 4 launch line-up may have suffered from some notable blemishes in the form of several major delays (InFamous: Second Son, DriveClub and Watch Dogs), but that has actually worked to War Thunder’s advantage. Had those aforementioned games seen release, Gaijin Entertainment’s competent World War II flight combat title would have probably been lost in the deluge of software on Day One. Delayed in the U.S., War Thunder made it out in Europe alongside Sony’s shiny new box at launch, bringing with it some of the most satisfying and strategic flight combat antics witnessed on a home console to date.
Originally released on the PC, War Thunder has little to prove to WWII combat aficionados; Gaijin’s pedigree, which includes the stunning IL-2 Sturmovik franchise, speaks for itself. This is a flight combat game through and through – at least until vehicles show up later down the line – with a Free-to-Play twist. Still in its infancy, War Thunder has yet to offer a full roster of gameplay options; several additions such as Custom and Historical Multiplayer Battles are not yet available. Still, for the sum of nothing, you get a massive line-up of aircraft – fighters, fighter-bombers and heavy bombers – some decent single-player and tutorial missions, plus the madness that is Arcade Battle.
For a WWII fanatic such as myself, War Thunder is pure plane porn. In comparison to competitor World of Warplanes, Gaijin Entertainment trumps its contemporary PC WWII fighter easily, offering a robust line-up of countries complemented by a comprehensive flight roster. Gamers can select from the RAF, Luftwaffe, USAF, Russia and Japan, and sit in the cockpit of some of World War II’s most iconic machines, from Spitfires, ME-109s, B-17s, Mustangs, to Zeroes, IL-Sturmoviks and JU-87 Stukas. However, in order to unlock the best planes, you’re going to have to strap on your grinding cap and prepare to invest in hours and hours of dogfighting action — that is, unless, you are willing to drop some hard-earned cash to bypass the process.
War Thunder is based around various tiers, ranging from Level I – 15. You’ll start off with rudimentary biplanes not unlike those from WWI, with the roster culminating in some of early jet planes like the Meteor or the ME-262. Plane trees are generally split into aircraft type, with fighters, bombers etc occupying their own tier. What’s more, you can upgrade your plane with an assortment of armaments to improve combat functionality and flight performance. This is done via Research Points (RP) and Silver Lions (SL), with the former essentially the game’s version of EXP and the latter in-game currency. You’ll need to fully upgrade a plane before researching the next one – a lengthy process in itself – and it’s here that the distinct bifurcation between grinding and investing in cold-hard cash rears its head.
Hitting square from the main menu sends you into a random Arcade battle, where legions of planes battle it out for air supremacy. Everything you do in the air nets you SP and SL, from scoring hits on enemy planes, destroying them completely, to obliterating enemy ground units and bases. There’s an overall goal for each game (such as holding and capturing an airfield or destroying the opposing team’s base), but you’ll earn rewards regardless if you fail the mission or not. At the end of each match, RP is distributed to whatever research you are conducting, whether it be unlocking a new plane or an upgrade for an existing machine. And from there on, it’s a case of rinse, wash and repeat, as you grind your way up the skill trees and unlock bigger and better aircraft.
Alternatively, you can plump for the other method of investing your real cash in Golden Eagles to buy upgrades outright and skip researching new planes — as long as you have the SL to buy them. Fortunately, Gaijin has seen fit to introduce a variety of denominations for the GA currency, so you are never forced to fork out an exorbitant sum unless you really want to — up to around £70 worth, actually. If you fancy shelling out a couple of quid for say, 500 GAs to facilitate the purchase of an upgrade or two, you can do that. Or, if you really want to advance up the tiers, you can plump for 5000 or more to circumvent the whole grinding process. Still, it would have been nice to see a few package deals on the go, perhaps say, the option of buying a combo pack featuring two fighters & upgrades for a knockdown price. However, overall, Gaijin has created a solid microtransaction process that ensures you are never forced to splash out on too much cash; if you’re only after a few hundred Golden Eagles, then the option is there.
Evidently, all this would be absolutely moot if the game played poorly. Fortunately, War Thunder remains one of the most enjoyable WWII flight sims released to date, let alone to grace home consoles. Despite the fact such games are intrinsically tied to joystick control — an option that isn’t yet available for PS4 owners — the DualShock 4 does a fine job all the same. While not as intuitive as a joystick, guiding a nimble fighter or lumbering bomber through the skies is a simple case of gracefully tilting the left analogue stick; the sensitivity of the controller is such that you can switch from a slight tilt of the wing or a tight bank by applying the appropriate level of pressure on the stick. It’s incredibly satisfying, and your plane responds superbly to your input. The right analogue stick meanwhile is used to perform some of the more fancy acrobatics that you’ll need to utilize to extricate your machine from some sticky situations, such the iconic barrel role and loop-the-loop, when used in harmony with the left stick.
Other controls are just as neatly woven into the DualShock 4 tapestry. Firing your primary weapons is done by hitting R2, while bombs and rockets – if available – are mapped to R1 and L1, respectively. L2 is a handy lock-on feature that guides your gunsights to your target, and can really help you if you lose track of your quarry. You can also look around by holding the D-pad downwards and using the right stick. All in all, the controls are more simple than you’d think, and despite being accustomed to having a joystick in my hand on PC flight combat sims, I didn’t really miss the addition of the rugged peripheral.
Dogfights, like their real-life counterparts, are truly a test of the ability of the pilot, though luck does play a small role too. War Thunder’s brilliant control and responsive machines ensure that fighting the enemy is a flight combat fan’s dream, as players dip into a melting pot of strategic, adrenaline-fueled air battles. Knowing your plane’s weaknesses and strengths becomes paramount to survival, as does your knowledge of your enemy’s plane. For example, flying a Spitfire, you can expect to turn like the best of them, while if you’re in a bomber, your inherent ruggedness and high service ceiling will serve you best in surviving the enemy onslaught. I found myself really tested when a competent player would sink his teeth into my six. On the flip side, I was able to down an enemy plane several tiers ahead of my trusty old Spitfire, nabbing healthy reward for it — a true testament to War Thunder’s reliance on skillful play, not to mention a bit of tenacity and patience on my part. Your skills will be really tested on the ‘Realistic’ and ‘Historical’ settings, which can be played in the single-player missions — sadly, they’re unavailable for online play.
Indeed, War Thunder’s most conspicuous shortcoming at the time of writing this review is its lack of game modes. Aside from Arcade Battle, there’s nothing else on offer for going toe-to-toe with other players. Fortunately, there’s plenty of tutorials to dip into, and the single-player missions and Dynamic Campaign encapsulate a wealth of different war theaters, from the Battle of Britain to the Pacific War — providing, that is, you progress far enough in the plane tiers to unlock new missions and playable countries. Still, the fact the PC version has Historical Battles and Custom Matches means PS4 owners are left feeling short-changed. I can’t fathom why Gaijin hasn’t yet seen fit to introduce these extra modes, but there’s enough here for the time being provided they do eventually turn up.
Visually, War Thunder is in a league of its own. The planes themselves have been meticulously crafted; sun reflects stunningly off the canopy, bullet holes and other degrees of battle damage are clearly discernible, from gaping holes in the wing, to damaged fuselages and black smoke seeping from your engine. From a few thousand feet, the environments are stunning, with green country-sides, suburbs and mountain ranges serving as a detailed backdrop to the on-going war in the skies. Only when you scrutinize the scenery from low altitude does the quality dip, but it still holds up remarkably well; even the ground forces look decent, although unless you’re strafing or dive-bombing tanks and AAA installations, you won’t really spend much time at tree-top level.
Equally impressive is the soaring musical presentation, which is only complemented by the superb sound effects, from the explosive flak to the satisfying thud of a Messerschmitt BF-109’s deadly 20mm nose-mounted cannon. Performance-wise the game is smooth as silk, and I encountered no lag when playing online or any kind of slowdown whatsoever — and my broadband connection is far from the most robust of offerings. Matchmaking is pretty solid, ensuring that if you’re starting out you won’t be pitted against players flying higher-tier mono-planes or jets, but rather those at or around your own level. Still, sometimes you’ll find yourself pitted against overpowered aircraft that will unleash hell upon on your planes.
In conclusion, if you’re a WWII flight combat fanatic or like me have a penchant for WWII aviation, then War Thunder will be right up your runway. As it stands, the game is lacking some key features of its PC counterpart, though there’s still plenty of compelling fun to be had by taking part in Arcade Battles, grinding up RP and SL to unlock better machines, or tackling the surprisingly challenging single-player content. Let’s just hope Gaijin will round things up with some of the more historically-accurate affairs from the PC version later down the line, because with it, War Thunder would really stand among the best PS4 games available to date. Tally-ho, chaps!