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War Thunder is primed to make its move.
On June 3, indie developer/publisher Gaijin Entertainment will attempt to slay rival Wargaming’s two-headed World War II gaming dragon (World of Warplanes, World of Tanks) by releasing a free-to-play PlayStation 4 version of its own World War II vehicle battler: War Thunder. This PS4 version is a cross-platform port, which means that PC and PS4 aces will battle in one large community.
It’s a gamble. War Thunder is counting on an influx of new blood (and money) from PS4 players to keep up with its major competitor, which is developing a third title, World of Battleships.
And it just might work.
I took a look at War Thunder for the PS4 and compared it to World of Warplanes/Tanks. The titles are similar, but War Thunder has several distinct features that I found made it more appealing than Wargaming’s efforts.
What you’ll like
Tank combat rewards pinpoint aim, not a manipulation of physics
War Thunder gives players the choice between tank or plane battles. The two modes play out in different ways. Aerial battles are quick and chaotic while tank battles are slow and methodical.
Players who choose ground warfare will enjoy War Thunder’s sophisticated targeting system. The sight on your tank will change colors based on what you are looking at: white for nothing, red for a heavily armored section of an enemy, yellow for a lightly protected section, and green for a critical spot.
The basis for combat focuses on tank anatomy. A shot to the meaty armor will do nothing while a blast directly into the driver’s hatch will destroy the tank in one hit. When I first started playing, this was infuriating. I would spend 20 seconds rolling to the battlefield, get shot twice, explode, and repeat the process.
Eventually, I grew to love the color-coded system. If someone pulls off an insanely good [or insanely lucky] shot, it should be a one-hit kill. Once I learned to place myself out of harm’s way, the tank mode of War Thunder became about positioning, short maneuvers, and great aim.
War Thunder’s combat also chooses to obey the laws of physics, which can’t always be said of its competitor.
Take a look at this World of Tanks video of me getting shot through a hill [twice] then firing a panic-round into the ground that hits the enemy:
This type of thing does happen in War Thunder, too, but it seems to happen a whole lot less than it does in World of Tanks.
Realistic dogfights that require constant training
I prefer the fighter plane aspect of this growing WWII vehicle-simulation genre.
I spent my first few hours trying to weave through trees, mountains, and desert cliffs on some pretty decent maps. My joyrides led to the discovery of some neat little features that help distinguish War Thunder from other dogfighters.
If I flew around inverted or maneuvered the plane in a dangerous way, a G counter would light up, and my screen would go black. My pilot was passing out from the intense forces I had just put him through.
I couldn’t get my guns to work, either. They would jam up at different intervals and take forever to reload. I would fire at the little gray dot to lead my target and still miss 95 percent of the time.
And don’t get me started on my maneuverability. Most of my strafing runs turned into inadvertent kamikaze missions.
Then I discovered this screen:
Above: Pilot/Gunner progression in War Thunder.
Image Credit: GamesBeat
It turns out everything sucked for a reason. Training helps pilots black out less often. Gunners need to learn how to hit their targets. I spent all of my points and noticed a marked improvement. War Thunder’s system provides for pinpoint specialization. I could just throw all of my skills into great gunners if I wanted. So this offers a strategic aspect here that isn’t present in the vague progression available in World of Warplanes.
Above: Pilot progression in World of Warplanes.
Image Credit: GamesBeat
My guns still jam at random intervals, but I like that. This is a World War II game, after all; machinery should be unruly.
The Realistic Battles mode shows flashes of brilliance
Realistic Battles removes the training wheels and thrusts the player into a real-life combat mission. Everything that an actual WWII pilot had to worry about, like takeoff, fuel, ammunition, and landings, is now your responsibility. Failure to monitor these variables will lead to a swift return to the main menu. Players have one life in Realistic Battles mode.
Each team in War Thunder starts out with a full score meter that decays as the enemy team secures objectives and gets kills. One particular Realistic Battles map has an ingenious set of objectives that could shake up the entire genre. The map allows players to land on one of three neutral landing strips in order to capture it for their side. The enemy’s total score drops for as long as you hold the strip. Other players can still lower the opposing team’s score by destroying each other.
It is an absolute win-win. Those that just want the Player vs. Player action are free to pursue it, and players that are looking for objective-based play get a chance to pull off something different and challenging.
And trust me, it is challenging:
The only problem is that War Thunder isn’t using this odd landing mechanic to its full potential. In my first 50 Realistic Battles, I only got to play this map once. I got in and crashed, and I never saw the beautiful map again. That’s why I can’t remember the map’s name.
I would really like to see War Thunder add this capture-the-point-by-landing-on-it mechanic to all of its Realistic Battles maps.
Above: Not the best angle when chasing someone.
Image Credit: GamesBeat
What you won’t like
The controls are difficult to master
War Thunder was built for the PC. Its controls were designed for a keyboard and mouse, and they don’t translate to a controller well.
The fighter plane controls aren’t that terrible, but the camera movement is. The automatic camera gets caught under or on the sides of your plane during maneuvers. A console gamer’s natural instinct is to try to maneuver the camera with the right stick, which will only roll your plane and make the problem even worse. It’s best to just accept that you will crash into trees and mountains periodically due to the camera’s inability to keep up.
The tank controls on the other hand — well, those are a bit of a disaster.
A level one tank moves like a drunk, pregnant cow:
Basic movement improves as you upgrade your crews and tanks, but the command prompts of the tanks’ auxiliary skills replace one headache with another. For example, if I want to call for artillery support [a barrage of massive shells on a certain area], I have to press R1 and Triangle at the same time, then use the right stick to aim it, and then press R2 to launch it. That’s a lot of steps to take mid-battle.
I also encountered a mistake in the command prompts. If your tank is on fire, a prompt tells you to press R1 and X at the same time. I followed these instructions the first few times it happened, and my crew died. I actually needed to press R1 and circle. A very fixable bug, but one that will annoy hundreds on launch day.
Planes and tanks don’t commingle as often as they should
In order for War Thunder to crush its enemies, it needs to take full advantage of its biggest strength: It has both planes and tanks.
World of Warplanes and World of Tanks are two separate games. They require two clients and use two different in-game currency accounts. Even if these games were vastly superior to War Thunder [which they aren't], they would still never be able to mix.
Unfortunately, War Thunder hamstrung itself from the very beginning. All five of War Thunder’s playable nations have planes, but only two nations have tanks: Germany and the Soviet Union. This doesn’t provide for the balance necessary to put two air teams and two ground teams together on the same map. There will always be a lot more pilots in the queue. I found that when I searched for a match as an American, British, or Japanese pilot, I ended up in air-only battles nine times out of 10.
I think this problem is fixable. Adding tanks to the other nations would be the ideal solution. Relaxing the player queue — which always attempts to pit an all-Allied team vs. an all-Axis team — might also help.
Above: Top: Tank Queue. Bottom: Plane Queue
Image Credit: GamesBeat
War Thunder surprised me. I am not very good at it, but I still have a lot of fun playing it. Because it is a free-to-play game, some players will download it on a whim and quit 20 minutes in due to the poor controls. Those that brave the steep learning curve will be rewarded with a realistic combat simulator that could be truly great one day.
War Thunder will be available for download for the PlayStation 4 on June 3. It is currently available for PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a free PlayStation 4 download code for this review.