Wargaming.net had a surprising success with World of Tanks, a free-to-play, quasi-realistic battle simulator with MMO elements. So they’re expanding the idea: World of Warplanes is now in closed beta, and there’s a World of Warships on the way too.
I recently got to spend some times in the closed beta of Warplanes. (The PR people offered me a special press account that I could use to immediately access all the best “pay-to-win” stuff, but in the interest of democracy, I chose to play as a regular old broke civilian instead.) For World War II buffs, airplane lovers, and flight-sim veterans, it will be a must-play, especially when you can try it for free.
However, I kept getting the feeling that there isn’t much to the gameplay yet, and I hope the title will dramatically expand, either before release or shortly thereafter. Fortunately, it almost certainly will—World of Tanks is much bigger today than it was when I reviewed it last year .
The absolute best thing about World of Warplanes is the selection of planes. For each of the three powers—the U.S., Germany, and Russia—there is an incredibly long tech tree, packed from top to bottom with expertly modeled fighters, heavy fighters, and ground-attack planes. The folks at Wargaming took immense pride in their square-foot-by-square-foot accuracy of the vehicles in World of Tanks, and it’s more than clear that they took the same pride here. If you love planes and history, it’s fun to just rotate the aircraft you’ve unlocked and look at them.
Once you take the planes into battle, however, a few of the game’s limitations come into play. So far, it seems that there’s only one mode—basically team deathmatch, but with the additional win condition of gaining “superiority” over your opponent by destroying their ground and water targets. Each player has one life; when you die, your plane remains in a wreck on the battlefield until the fight is over, but you can return to your hangar, pick a different plane, and join another match.
This mode is plenty of fun, and it takes only a minute or two for the matchmaking system to place you in a battle, but it’s easy to want more. With World of Tanks, the developers added a “Clan Wars” mode after launch, which created never-ending battles on a map of the world. It would be a good idea for them to do something similar here.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, the developers stuck with their formula of keeping things realistic, but not too realistic, straddling the gap between arcade and simulation. A cynic might put it this way: World of Warplanes is like a simulator, except not as authentic, and like an arcade game, except not nearly as exciting.
For example, take the controls. (Naturally, you’ll want to play with a joystick or at least a gamepad, though there are mouse and keyboard options as well.) You never have to learn to take off the way you would in a simulator—you’re airborne at the beginning of each match—and the developers took a bit of leeway to make the planes easier to handle. However, they didn’t take so much leeway that a beginner can just jump right in and destroy everything in his path. You’ll have to master the various features and maneuvers, have patience, and keep a steady hand if you want to shoot your enemies out of the sky. Further, each plane has its own personality when it comes to handling, and it seems that the developers were careful to make these differences reflect the handling of the real planes.
The planes here are pretty resilient, so it usually takes a ton of effort to bring one down, which makes the game feel slow-paced at times. Fortunately, though, there’s a mini-map, as well as arrows on your screen showing you where the enemies are, so it’s never too hard to find a bad guy to shoot. Also, while the damage is slow, it’s also fascinating in itself: You’ll suffer hits to specific parts of your plane, which affect how the craft handles.
As you play, you earn credits and something called “Free Experience,” and you can use these currencies to research and unlock new planes. (World of Tanks players can create joint accounts that share these resources between the two games, so start grinding now if you want a head start when Warplanes comes out.) You can also add technology to your existing planes, but you can’t pick and choose individual items yet—there are “modules” you can use to upgrade each plane with better engines, guns, etc. Hopefully full customization will arrive soon.
There are ten tiers of planes, and numerous planes in each tier, so the unlocking process will unfold very slowly. This is where microtransactions come into play. You earn plain old Experience in addition to Free Experience, and in return for Gold (read: cold hard cash), you can convert your Experience to Free Experience. You earn Free Experience at a small fraction of the rate you earn regular Experience, so by spending money, you can unlock things several times faster.
It’s hard to say at this point whether players will need to pay to be competitive. There are already a lot of players, but the matchmaking system still puts planes of very different tiers in the same battles—and the later-tier planes do have a pretty big advantage. I don’t think too many people will want to keep getting slaughtered until they make it all the way to a high tier, and sometimes it felt like that’s what I was doing. Then again, the lower-tier planes are plenty of fun to fly, so if the matchmaking system improves, truly free play might be a possibility.
In terms of presentation, World of Warplanes is impressive for a free title. There’s a limited variety of maps, but that’s not such a big deal—terrain doesn’t matter much when you’re fighting in the air, though you’ll come across mountains and clouds that can be tactically useful. Otherwise, the graphics are smooth and detailed, especially where the planes are concerned, and I especially loved the intense classical music, which keeps your adrenaline flowing even when the fights get tedious. The sound effects are well-done as well, thoroughly immersing you in the atmosphere of World War II dogfighting.
World of Warplanes is too arcade-like for a hardcore sim fan, and too sim-like for a hardcore arcade fan. But it’s just right for gamers in the middle, and its attention to the details of plane design is ridiculously impressive. When it launches, at the low price of free, dogfighting fans will definitely want to check it out.