One of the coolest hardcore online games to come out recently is World of Tanks, which lets you drive World War II tanks around gorgeous environments and pummel enemies in duels between armored columns. The free-to-play game formally launched today in Europe and North America.

The game from London-based shows that it is quite possible to create a next-generation gaming experience on the web that appeals to hardcore gamers and yet is much more accessible than other kinds of hardcore games. That may be why the game has built a huge audience of 1.7 million registered users in Russia — surprisingly large for this kind of title — where it has been available since last year.

This is the kind of war simulation game that American video game companies used to make; but one by one, they all concluded that war games were a narrow market. They dropped out, leaving the market to pioneering Eastern European companies (’s development team is in Belarus).

The big draw of this game, as you can tell from these screen shots, are the gorgeous graphics. You can recreate World War II tank battles in online duels between two teams with 15 tanks each. The environments are realistic, allowing you to take cover behind burning vehicles or smoke screens.

The game is a persistent universe, or a massively multiplayer online game world. You can start playing for free but can pay real money to upgrade your tanks with better armor, ammo or decorations.

I’ve joined battle on a few occasions with a starter tank and a tricked-out vehicle provided by the developers. It’s a tough game to play, since you have to be an expert shot with your tank cannon. Enemies that are a mile or so away on the map can easily take your tank out with a well-aimed shot, so you have to be careful not to expose your tank’s profile on the horizon unless you’re ready to shoot. When you’re inside your tank, you can feel and hear the rumble as you drive around pastures, towns and hills. Your field of view is obstructed, but as soon as you get the enemy in your cross hairs, you have to shoot and move. Or else you’re toast. The shells thump on the armor when they don’t actually blow up your tank. And you see a nice explosion and fire when you take out the enemy. Your speed and reaction time really matter.

Players can compete against each other using the Clan Wars system that unites thousands of clans from all over the globe in a battle for global dominance. In Russia, players set a record for getting 91,311 players onto a single server. In the European and North American beta tests, World of Tanks recruited more than 700,000 players.

The title has been extremely ambitious, with development lasting more than four years, said Victor Kislyi, chief executive of Altogether, there are more than 150 armored vehicles to play from the U.S., Germany and the Soviet Union. You can flexibly upgrade your vehicles to try out different options or weapons.

“We used all the skills and expertise the team gained while developing our previous titles to create a truly unique and compelling game,” he said. “However, with the game’s release the real work has only begun for us as there are long-term plans of supporting World of Tanks by adding new modes, vehicles and a lot of other high-end content on a regular basis.”

It pays to play this kind of game with voice chat systems such as Vivox, which is integrated into the game, since it takes a lot of teamwork to outwit or surround enemies. If you venture out on your own, you’ll be picked off easily. I discovered this the hard way.

But what’s most impressive is that the company chose to push the outer edge of graphics quality in a fast-action online game.

Cool graphics look great on fancy computers and consoles, but they can often drag down the performance of an online game. You need a decent PC to run this game the right way, but it is built to scale so that people with older PCs can play it in some fashion. You can learn a little history as you play and upgrade your tank on a path, so it’s not just a tin can on tracks. has a 250-member development team in Minsk, Belarus. Since 1998, it has shipped 13 games, many of them based on World War II combat. In 2009 and 2010, the company was named the best developer in the former USSR at the Russian Game Developers Conference.