Is there any conflict nobler than World War II? It had everything – it was the last great war of manoeuvre, featured a clear villain, and featured all arms of the military going hell for leather at each other. If you’re a war-nerd, it’s the last great conflict; everything else since then just leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
A bit over a decade ago, it became the flavour of the age with gaming, too. From EA’s Medal of Honor on, the bocage of France and the humble M1 Garand became as familiar to gamers as the corridors of that famous base on Phobos. But, like many good things, it got overused. Game after game delivered little new apart from re-hashes of levels and weapons we’d seen too many times before. True innovation in the setting seemed impossible.
Until World of Tanks, that is.
An MMO – kinda...
Wargaming.net, the gang behind what is – to be perfectly honest – our new favourite game, call World of Tanks an MMO, and they’re kind of right. The problem is, when most people think MMO, they think World of Warcraft and classic fantasy RPG setup in a persistent world shared by many players. World of Tanks borrows some of those ideas, and it certainly features a massive amount of players, but really it’s lot more like any large online FPS in its structure and the way games are set up.
The game’s premise is deceptively simple – there’s no story to play through, no quests to complete. Each game is simply fought between two teams of 15 players, as they each seek to dominate the other team’s base or take out all its tanks, on one of a dozen or so maps that range from the fields of France to Egyptian deserts.
We say deceptively, because while those Quick Battles will be what you spend most of the time doing, the rest of the game is about earning XP, researching upgrades for your tank, and then unlocking new and better vehicles as you play. This is the classic RPG side of the game, as each tank can be fitted with a mix of suspension, engines, turrets, guns and more. With each game, you earn both XP (which can be spent on researching), and credits (which you spend on actually purchasing upgrades and equipment).
Even your crew advances, and when they reach a certain level of competency can be upgraded to certain specialty skills.
The progression from tank to tank follows a pretty complete tech tree for each nationality of American, German and Russian (British tanks are coming in a future patch). You start out in a tiny, 1930s era light tank, and then move onto your choice of self-propelled guns (SPGs), medium tanks, heavy tanks or tank destroyers. Each type of tank is then broken up into better and better tiers, and the tanks themselves can sport up to a dozen upgrades each. You can choose to unlock everything on a particular hull, or simply focus on unlocking your next tank as soon as possible, depending on how you want to play.
Some of the choices, especially in weaponry, offer really different styles of play. Generally, if you’re going to be playing with one particular tank for a while you’ll upgrade every non-weapon component to its best possible option, but different weapons will often suit different play-styles.
And that great thing – all of this is available in a game which is free to play. You can purchase Gold, of course, which allows you to unlock a Premium account (that lets you earn XP faster, and unlocks features like Clans and voice chat), buy even better ammunition and other equipment, but even playing for free you never feel like Premium players have that huge an advantage. We ended up dropping money on the game purely because we want to support it.
For all the tweaking and angsting over whether to mount a 75mm gun or 105mm gun on your Hetzer, the meat of the game is the actual combat. For all that its controls are quite simple, and familiar to any FPS player, the game’s actually very deep in its modelling of tank-to-tank combat.
Each tank in World of Tanks is modelled accurately after its real-world counterpart, right down to speed, turret traverse rates, and armour thickness. The game’s ballistics even model angle of attack and spotting distance, though the latter is abstracted somewhat to allow for vehicles with better optics and higher turrets to actually have an advantage. It’s not perfect, but it does make for an interesting interlock between light tanks and artillery – when used correctly, a light scout tank can spot enemy vehicles for SPGs to rain down HE shells on. Medium tanks can then exploit the gap, giving time for heavier vehicles to move up into position. At the same time, tank destroyers can watch out for enemy counter attacks, or defend critical junctions. That, however, is just one example of tank tactics, and it’s a credit to the developers that many real world tank tactics work perfectly in World of Tanks.
Graphically, the game’s nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done. It’s probably the one area where the game really shows its free to play roots. That said, there’s destructible terrain, hit decals, a great view distance, some wonderful explosions and very little texture pop-in or stuttering.
It really is amazing that this game can be enjoyed as is for zero cost, and yet made even better by spending a few bucks. Premium accounts need to be regularly paid for, and we’ll certainly be doing just that.
World of Tanks has done the near impossible and knocked Bad Company 2 off the Atomic default gaming roster. If that’s not high praise for an out of nowhere game from an independent publisher, we don’t know what is.