World War II has long been a fascination of the games industry. It arguably reached a boiling point around 2002/2003 with the likes of Medal of Honor: Frontline/Allied Assault, Call of Duty, and Battlefield 1942, before fizzling out somewhat during the start of the last generation of consoles – mainly thanks to genre fatigue and a certain shooter series going all ‘Modern’. Personally,I still find myself pining for more games set during that time period and, while nearly all of the big budget shooter factories stay away from it, others have stepped into the void and carried on with different spins on WWII. Games like MMO Heroes and Generals, the return of Wolfenstein via Machine Games and probably the most popular of all, World of Tanks.
For the uninitiated, World of Tanks is a free-to-play online game where you collect a variety of WWII tanks on either side of the war effort and choose one to battle it out in teams of up to fifteen by either eliminating the opposition or capturing their base. The kicker here is that WoT is all about authenticity, so no cartoon explosions or jet-heeled Tigers here, the heaviest tanks are incredibly slow-moving behemoths with all the power that entails. Even the lightest of the tanks are still not much more agile than a pensioner on a brisk walk. This makes for an intriguing prospect: a methodical and strategic deathmatch scenario that isn’t measured in kills-per-minute and glory-hunting. Rather, it’s grounded in teamwork, tactical thinking and making the most of the class you choose. In this, you see how WoT has been successful. There’s already a raft of ‘me too’ online multiplayer games out there that try to feed off the likes of CoD, Counterstrike, World of Warcraft and League of Legends, so when something like World of Tanks shows up, it’s just different enough that it gets noticed, being free-to-play is then the hook that grabs the attention of the mildly curious.
World of Tanks starts you off with some fairly loose tutorials in matches with A.I. so you can get a grip of the control scheme. Pleasingly, these tutorials are how a lot of other games should be doing them. WoT prevents its in-game lessons being intrusive by plonking you in the exact situation you’ll be facing, giving you some basics, and letting you figure out the rest as you go along. Obviously there are nuances to the controls, and plenty of upgrades to learn about, but once the game has told you what button moves, and which one shoots, you can pretty much start playing, choosing to ignore new pop-ups if you’ve already figured them out. The upgrading and tank purchasing seems a bit overwhelming at first, even with helpful pop-ups (something made more confusing with several forms of currency), but this fades pretty quickly once you get into it a bit more and understand what goes with what. It’s a more fluid transition from learning to playing than most, giving the impatient a taste of what to expect as soon as possible without compromising their ability to play the game. After all the training stuff is out of the way, you will have to learn more on the battlefield proper. This is where World of Tanks unfurls into its true form.
Up until this point, World of Tanks plays the fool, acting like it’s a brainless shooter that features teams of tanks instead of a horde of mohican-haired Joey McSoldierfaces. Once you head online, the tactical side breaks out and you’re soon learning each tank classes advantages and disadvantages as you get pulverised by veteran players time and again. The temptation to barrel into battle and shoot the first thing you see is immeasurably high, and you probably will destroy an enemy tank or two, but it isn’t long after that when you’ll likely get immobilized and blown to smithereens and bam! You’re out of the game. Using buildings, rocks and hills as cover is highly recommended, as is learning what each class of tanks do. Smaller tanks can be used as decoys or traps thanks to their speed, while at the other end of the tank spectrum you have tank destroyers that work almost like mortar units that can bombard enemies who’ve been pinned back by teammates. Each class plays differently enough to be noticeable, giving some wiggle room to change how you use them once you start unlocking the various perks and upgrades.
It’s worth mentioning that there are no respawns in World of Tanks, you can request repairs if you’ve upgraded your crew, but chances are you’ll already be done for. Certainly during the earlier hours while you’re learning the ropes it’s a common pattern to see yourself destroyed before you’ve had a chance to retreat or retaliate. Having no respawns would make for a frustrating experience if you were forced to sit and wait for the round to end each time you went kaboom, so it’s refreshing to see that the developer Wargaming has dealt with that issue in the best possible manner.
Not only can you leave the current battle once you’re out and not suffer any penalty on XP and cash, you can hop into another match in any of your other tanks straight away. This keeps the cycle of play going smoothly, maintaining your attention by minimising the gaps between interactivity just enough that you get a breather, but not so long that you get impatient. This is something I’d class as essential in modern online gaming. You can fiddle about with equipment, upgrades and the like if you want of course, but the option to jump in and out is perfect for those just wanting to play a few rounds in the spare hour they’ve got. This is where you can tell Wargaming has perfected the balance between the needs of the casual player and hardcore player. Not many free-to-play titles grasp that concept, so to see it work here is cheering indeed.
Ahh, yes. Free-to-play. To some, these are three of the dirtiest words in the industry, and to be fair, there’s enough damning evidence as to why out there. To Wargaming’s credit, they can count themselves among the better examples of how to do it (though many might disagree on that). On the positive side of that is how the first few hours pan out. You get given a bit of a boost on cash and XP, a sum of gold coins (which are predominantly obtained with real-life currency otherwise). You also get to make some upgrades to your tanks, buy some new ones and start adding perks and equipment to your favourites. It’s a pretty healthy starting package to get on with whilst you learn the game, but inevitably, the flood of content slows to a trickle, and it becomes more and more clear that you’ll either have to play a lot of World of Tanks (which suits a casual market perfectly) or start spending.
Like any decent free-to-play game, World of Tanks gives you plenty of time to decide if it’s a game you’d feel happy about spending money on. The initial five or six hours with it are more than enough for you to know if you wish to continue. If you do so, then getting a premium membership is probably the best way to go as it gives you a permanent boost to XP and in-game cash. Of course, the game does want you to spend something on it eventually, but whether you do or not doesn’t stop you from getting at least a few hours to find out if it’s for you, free of charge.
As for balancing in the game proper? Well, I’ve seen the complaints made on other formats about a balance problem, but after nearly a week on PS4, I’ve yet to see anything I’d class as unbalanced or unfair. Plenty of personal bad decision-making and some unfortunate lag aside, I’ve found World of Tanks to be quite fair indeed. There’s less room for ‘winging’ it, and the more you experiment with tank classes and begin to understand about them, the more you learn about how to engage the enemy. I’m not saying there won’t be balance issues in a month or two, but right now, I see it more as some people claiming they’ve been gypped because of a lack of understanding and a disdain for the idea of not being the one-person army, winning the games single-handed. You can outfox a Rank VII tank in a Rank I in the right circumstances. Paying for better stuff is no guarantee of improvement in your skills, nor your luck.
I wasn’t sure going into World of Tanks if I’d get on with its pedestrian pace and free-to-play stylings, but I ended up quite enjoying my time with it. It’s the sort of game I’ll pick up now and again to play a few rounds, and that’s mainly down to the conveyor belt approach it takes to online play. It has a healthy selection of tanks and maps, if not a whole lot of game variety (you can do a bit of co-op with friends, a survival mode, and some practice stuff in addition to the main 15 v 15 mode). As free-to-play games go, it’s a pleasant, and surprisingly deep one. It’d certainly be no skin off your nose to give it a go at the grand old price of nothing. Of course, if you’ve been playing this for years already then there’s nothing really new for you, and there’s not the immediacy that the less patient will crave, but for anyone else, there’s little on the console market like it for multiplayer.