Monday, 11 July 2011

Tanks, World of

Do you have any idea, any idea, just how interesting the history of tank combat is? I'll tell you; shit is incredibly interesting. Did you know, for instance, that the differences in Soviet and NATO tank tactics can actually be observed in the design of the tanks themselves? The ruskies favoured aggressive, advancing-under-fire doctrine, and consequently, the tanks are low-profile and manoeuvrable. NATO didn't play that way, oh no. NATO doctrine dictates that you roll up on the crest of a hill, exposing just your turret, depressing the gun and blasting on fools from behind the protection of geography. The extra gun mobility needed by this approach requires a taller turret, giving the vehicle an increased target profile, though one that is ideally hidden in a hull-down position of cover. Ain't that interesting? No? Well, shit. Guess I'll skip the ten thousand word essay on armoured warfare. Fortunately, the knowledge isn't required to enjoy World of Tanks, an interesting free-to-play game from wargaming.net.

It's not easily genre-able, this one. It's probably an action game, firstly- standard battles pitch teams of 15 tanks up against one another on a variety of maps. To succeed in battle, you need to employ some degree of strategy, since it's just a little more complex than your average Black Ops match, though the same could maybe be said of . In addition to the rootin' tootin' shootin' side of things, we have some RPG-style progression out of battle- you buy tanks and upgrades for them with credits earned in battle, and watch your crewmen increase in skill like some kind of militarised Pokémon. An unusual game, then, but a good one? Maybe.
A garage brimming with my totally sweet vehicle selection.
You start off with three frankly heinous little wagons in your garage, one from each of the Russian, American and German lines. After a few battles in these poorly armed, slow, paper-armoured deathboxes, you might have scraped up enough funds and experience to upgrade. In terms of vehicles offered, World of Tanks is certainly impressive- there are five classes of vehicle- agile Light Tanks, versatile Mediums, powerful Heavies, long range SPG (self-propelled gun) artillery wagons and ambush-focused Tank Destroyers, with each nation having intersecting lines for each class in ten tiers of increasing potency. There's a whole lot of historical accuracy here, with tanks from the inter-war period through to the early '50s, though dozens of the tanks available seem to have been prototypes that never saw combat. Nonetheless, the attention to detail is commendable, almost alarming- each tank has realistic options for equipment and meticulously detailed models, including the positions of crewmen and essential parts with regards to incoming fire. I saw a thread on the (well-trafficked) official forums where digital tankers were genuinely digging up blueprints and design documents for these sixty or seventy year old machines to find the ideal spots to place that killing shot.
Into the fray! I took a screenshot before the enemy appeared because I did not wish to put virtual lives at risk.
The progression system is solid. Players spend experience to to unlock new parts for their tank, which also unlocks further research- the classic 'tech tree' approach. There's a lot of depth, here; researching appropriate advancements is vital to keep your tank competitive, and there are a hell of a lot to choose from. Engines, turrets, guns, suspensions and radio units can all be swapped out. Most of the parts available are straight upgrades, but each tank generally has a range of guns available with variations in rate of fire, accuracy and firepower. There is an awful lot of fucking grinding, though, which can prove a real pain. I wanted to get into the Russian Medium tank line, which includes the legendary T-34 series and ultimately the venerable T-54, arguably the first true Main Battle Tank; a delicious prospect, as I'm sure you would agree if you knew what that meant. However, to get even as far as the T-34 (a vehicle without which your sorry ass, reader, might well be speaking German), I had to progress all the way through the light tank line. Light tanks suck man balls, though, and grinding through was a real drag. Because there is so much grinding (this is an MMO, after all), I worry that it would be all too easy to stick a whole lot of man-hours getting locked into a line that isn't as much fun as you thought it'd be. This is reduced a little with recent additions to the tree whereby you can move more easily between classes, but it remains a concern.
The pre-round period is filled with tension, motivational speeches and shit-talking.
The actual gameplay is pretty fun. Two teams of fifteen vehicles line up against one another on about a square kilometre of semi-accurate historical battlefield. To win, a team must either destroy all enemy vehicles (there are no respawns) or capture the enemy base. A lot of work has gone into the combat; intricate mechanics are present for spotting enemy vehicles, shell penetration and tank damage. There's a potent one-more-match mindset the game invites you into, probably because of the one-life system, reminiscent of Counter-Strike. To survive in combat, you must be fairly thoughtful- positioning and movement is key. Speeding out into the open battlefield will almost certainly leave you with thirty tonnes of burnt out paperweight in short order. Unfortunately, some of the tactics are nullified by the relatively compact maps. These play too much into the hands of the heavy tanks; their crazy armour and god-like firepower is quite a bit more helpful than the extra mobility of the light and medium vehicles. It’s not that badly balanced, (though the developers are Russian, so the Soviet tanks have characteristics between ‘exaggerated’ and ‘nightmare death chariot’) and they are working on it, but the issue is present. Another balance issue comes from matchmaking. Since the available tanks range from inter-war experiments to two-hundred ton prototype tracked mountains, there’s a tier system, and you theoretically get matchmade with tanks around your own tier. I think you can end up with too many extreme-tiered tanks; it’s not much fun to play in a team with five tier-fives against one with five tier-eights, but this seems to happen all too often. It’s not crippling, and if you find the wrapping paper of your mid-tier tank torn asunder by the berserk child at the controls of some steel monster, you can just leave the battle and start one in a different tank, but too often I see a tier-four light matchmade with some tier-nine heavies, and pity that fool.
This guys about to taste some hurt. Or he would be if i hadn't got a bloody ricochet.
For a free game, the production values are great- tanks are meticulously modelled, and a whole lot of effort has clearly gone into their recreation. In fact, for a free game, what faults it has are pretty minor. That said, for a free game, there are an awful lot of ways to spend money on it. You can buy a premium subscription, increasing your credit and experience income, premium vehicles if your time is too precious to grind through the trees to get tanks the proper way and premium ammunition to penetrate thicker armour. You start with a (fairly healthy) five garage slots, and more can be purchased for real money, stuff like that. The devs have, I think, struck that difficult freemium balance where paying real money is both worthwhile and non-essential; even the extra-penetrative shells don’t give much ingame advantage since they don’t do more damage than the standard ammo- essentially they just mean you are less hosed against tanks tougher than your own. At higher levels, the income bonus from a premium subscription is the surest way to make any kind of progress, yes, but at no point is it essential, which is very agreeable.
So, if you find yourself with a desire for some WW2 armoured action, but no desire to pay for it, I could not, in good conscience, recommend any game over World of Tanks. Since various goverments and school boards have rejected my calls for the art of tank combat to become a mandatory part of primary education, it might be the only way you can learn this vital skill.