By Andrew Dodson on March 21, 2014 at 8:39am
I have so many games on Steam that it's ridiculous. I've probably only played 20 percent of them to any sort of completion. I have plenty of free time. I have a nice computer. Playing video games is literally part of my job here at Player Theory, and yet so many in my collection sit unplayed. So a few weeks ago, I can't tell you what I was doing perusing the free-to-play games on Steam. Why would I do that to myself? I don't know why I clicked on "War Thunder". I have no real interest in WW2 aviation sims. I don't know why I started playing it, but I did.
Since I installed War Thunder on my computer, I logged just under 60 hours in the game, and despite everything else that I own, I kept going back to it.
War Thunder is an online World War 2 aviation simulator that pits one team of planes against another. Currently, it is in an open beta. There are two main types of gameplay: There is "Domination," in which players have to land at airfields to capture them in an area control mode all the while avoiding being blown out of the sky by the opposing team. And then there is Ground Strike, where the objective is to destroy the enemy's teams AI-controlled ground units. Simple enough. Why do I keep coming back?
First of all, the game itself is absolutely gorgeous. The game starts, and you're suddenly in a beautiful mountain pass soaring over an island with a nothing but a layer of clouds beneath you. There are only a handful of levels, but they are beautifully rendered and come with different weather variants (clear, cloudy, etc.), so it's never quite the same twice. In a lot of the simulators that I'm use to, buildings and objects on the ground are painted in (flat on the ground) and only really look like something from high altitudes. In "War Thunder," there are trees, buildings, roads, bunkers, rocks. Everything is in 3D and rendered and definitely a major obstacle if you happen to run into it. One of the little things I noticed are the trees. If you get shot down and crash into a forest, a couple of trees might go down around your crash site. It's a nice effect.
The planes themselves also have fantastic models and a lot of them have their own individual cockpit view. As I mentioned before, I am no WW2 aviation expert, but that aspect really impressed me. It's not just the plane models that are great though but also the damage each plane can take during a mission; you can see each bullet make holes or dents in your plane's fuselage, and it really looks unique as opposed to some pre-rendered job. Taking damage also can have a direct impact on your plane's systems. Your wings can be shot off, your engines can be destroyed, and even your pilot can be targeted. You can keep flying and fighting with some of that damage, but if certain systems take a hard hit, you will notice, and flying your plane with any degree of control will become almost impossible.
"War Thunder" also has a huge variety of aircraft available to choose from. There are seven countries represented in the game (all the big players from WWII), and each country has dozens of planes. These aren't just different models, though. "War Thunder" stays true to its simulator nature. Each plane handles very differently from the next and each plane has its systems in the right place, which requires you to be smart when engaging an opposing fighter. You want to know where that plane's weaknesses are and hit them before they punch holes in yours. Being the proud American that I am, I have stuck with strictly planes from the USA. The P-39 Aircobra is by far my favorite so far. It's like piloting a plane made out of glass, but its forward 37mm cannon can shred just about anything else in the sky. Early on and despite it flying in very much the same way that you'd imagine a Greyhound bus to fly, the PBY-5 Catalina still ranks as one of the most fun I've had flying as a bomber.
With each aircraft that you unlock, there are dozens of upgrades you can get through a research point system. Upgrades to wing coverings, engine, secondary weapons - the developers thought of just about everything to make the game act like a simulator but also reward you for sticking with a plane and winning with it. While a factory model plane still has the ability to tear down a fully-upgraded plane as one progresses, you definitely see the edge that you get with just a little extra turning ability or a tiny boost to the engine. In addition to the research point system, there are also skill points reward to the ship's crew for being successful during a mission. You can use these points to upgrade the pilot of that crew, allowing him to take more G-forces without blacking out or maybe let him see enemy fighters coming in from a greater distance. Or you can upgrade the ground crew, and increase repair or reload times (upgrading reload times is VITAL).
Ah, yes ... points. While it doesn't unbalance things too terribly, the different point systems do cause War Thunder to grind on at times. You have to play matches for research points to unlock new planes, upgrade existing ones and you need skill points to get your various crews to be the best that they can be. There is a way around that grind, though. Like a lot of free-to-play games, there is always the option to simply buy points and speed-track your way to the top. Points by themselves aren't terribly expensive, but if you have money to put down, there are expansion packs available on Steam that give you a bucket of points and some power, premium planes that are otherwise unavailable to you in the game.
I suppose Gaijin Entertainment has to pay the bills somehow.
I have played almost exclusively the Arcade mode in the game, which is the simulator at its simplest. Yes, yes, I know, I'm a casual, but as I mentioned, I'm not really into military simulation that much. Arcade mode does allow you to get a glimpse at how the different planes handle, but otherwise, it is mostly focused on the game aspect. There are two other modes. Realistic ups the realism of the simulator, taking away the "targeting computer" and makes you take off from the runway (Arcade mode starts you already in the air). Going too fast in this mode or taking too sharp a turn can tear the wings off your plane. Then, to up the ante from that, there is the Simulator mode where everything is as real as they can make it. It forces you to use a joystick and you have to play from a 1st person perspective in the cockpit. I definitely recommend it if you're into hardcore simulators. I, however, will stick to my Arcade mode.
Right now, War Thunder has a new expansion coming out called 'Ground Forces,' which will allow players to enter the battlefield as a tank - making the ground vs air experience much more interesting and dangerous (for the pilots, especially. The AI is a terrible shot). 'Ground Forces' is currently in its final round of closed beta, so we should be able take a shot at it by the start of this summer.
For a game that is as free as you like it, War Thunder definitely packs a good punch. It can be a fun, casual game to play a round or two before work or bed (Arcade rounds rarely last more than 10 minutes), and if you're into heavy simulations, it will definitely let you have that as well. Fast, gorgeous and always interesting, War Thunder is a fantastic game for just about any kind of player with a remote interest in World War 2. Check it out for free on Steam and give it a play. Even if you end up just crashing and burning the first few rounds, you'll appreciate the way it looks all the way to the ground.