Free-to-play MMO air-combat sims are set to become a ‘thing’ with the introduction of the first World of Planes. No, I’m not referring to Wargaming.net’s World of Warplanes, itself currently in beta, but to Gaijin Entertainment’s War Thunder: World of Planes (confusing, I know). Both will be free-to-play games that offer a broad range of World War 2 aircraft, and both will be setting their sights on your wallet in 2013.
What does a game from 2009 about 1940′s air combat nestled in a 2012 micro-transactional framework tell us about the state of the free-to-play market? Let’s take a look.
War Thunder‘s roots lie in 1C Publishing’s IL-2 Sturmovik ‘Prey’ series, a less hardcore, console-friendly outing named Birds of Prey on Xbox/PS3 and Wings of Prey on PC. Made by ‘Prey’s developer Gaijin Entertainment, War Thunder is essentially a massive patch for Wings of Prey that delivers a hangar-full of new options for multiplayer, some graphics and handling tweaks and a flexible free-to-play model that should ensure a player base well into the foreseeable future. It can’t be overstated: this is Wings of Prey born again, with even the dynamic campaign missions bearing the same names, and the already-stunning landscapes and plane models recycled and spruced up for its modern audience.
War Thunder‘s UI would likely confuse World of Tanks players into thinking they were back in the tank-sim, and given that Gaijin owns the www.worldofplanes.com address, there’s clearly no shame here in copying an already winning formula. For starting players, all you need to know is to hit the big red ‘To Battle!’ button which throws you and your three rookie starter planes into a 32-player objective-based game mode. While these starting planes can feel woefully underpowered against more advanced players, they have a tight turning circle which can be used to defend attacks and spring ambushes on passing aircraft.
The landscapes are as stunning and as much of a revelation as they were in 2009′s Prey series. Beautifully coloured English pastures stretch to the horizon and the sunlight dapples delicately across the wings of your aircraft as your cannon fire leaves trails of smoke through the disintegrating fuselage of your enemy. Throw in 31 other players and a host of AI ground vehicles, and the varying gamespaces are invariably spectacular to look at. War Thunder‘s audio is a well-matched companion to its graphics, with each aircraft sounding exactly like you’d expect; the whistle and whine of dive-speeds and dropped bombs hitting a perfect cinematic note. A swelling orchestral score links everything together into a suitable dramatic package. War Thunder, is in short, incredibly well presented.
War Thunder‘s underlying difficulty levels are where the game really opens up. Arcade Mode is the most populated as it allows all aircraft types, gives you mouse and keys control, full external views, and takes a very lax approach to physics. You can climb your biplane like a rocket or turn your bomber like a paper-plane and this creates a chaotic gamestate where no one aircraft can dominate and you’re free to enjoy your chosen rides. Mouse-aiming works beautifully here, so be prepared to slaughter the poor fool that brought a controller to this PC party.
Historic Battles act as much more of a multiplayer Dynamic Campaign with WW2-themed stories and objectives where mouse/keys and external view are still allowed, but the physics are a little more stall-prone and spawns and ammo are limited. This is a nice midway point that might expose some players to the joys of flight simulators, and the extra Lions per kill (the in-game currency) certainly make it a worthwhile sojourn from your Arcade bomb-spamming. As with all modes, you have access to three types of aircraft and should pick the one that suits your play style best; from Fighters who are the best for air-duelling to Attack aircraft that have limited dogfight capacity but are great at speedy bombing runs, to the damage-soaking Bombers that decimate ground forces with heavy, high altitude bomb-drops.
Full Real Battles is the full simulator experience, and is criminally unpopulated. In this mode you’ll be managing trim and mixture while conserving your ammo (as you’ll need to land and rearm once you use it up) and the only markers are of your teammates if they’re within a very short range There’s a real challenge here, but with a single-spawn limit it’s unlikely to ever properly take-off without some tweaking to keep players in the fight. Also, in the beta you can only fly Russian or German planes in FRB mode, so you’ll need to spend some time in Arcade Mode levelling up to ensure you don’t take to the field in your now greatly outmatched biplane.
War Thunder has one of the most graceful and enjoyable grinds of any MMO I’ve ever played. There are nine possible aircraft slots for each of the six armies of which three are your starter planes, two more slots are easily purchasable using ‘Lions’and the remaining four with Gold which you’ll need to buy from the store. Grinding my first two slots took only two matches with 3 to 4 kills in each and it was another hour after that before I had an assortment of aircraft in all five slots. From there, it was another few hours to fit them with better weapons and then upgrade the crew.
At this point, for a grand outlay of nothing, I had enough aircraft in my Russian team to enjoy success in my online battles. Probably the longest part of the grind is levelling up your country so that you can then purchase aircraft in that tier, although my 10+ hours of gameplay has me sitting at level 6 in three countries.
Gold is your purchased ‘premium’ currency, that runs to $6 for 1000 Gold with discounts as you purchase larger amounts (to give you an idea of scale, my 9th aircraft slot was 1800 Gold; but then, there are six armies worth of 9th slots to unlock). It has limited but important uses, probably the best of which is to convert it into premium account time where 1200 gold can buy 15 days worth of massive boosts to XP and Lion earnings from each match. The cost to outcome ratio is geared much more in favour of the player than other games I play, I certainly feel that the $40 I’ve dropped into Gold so far has been worth it and is what I would have spent to buy the game anyway. ‘Lions’ can be earned from kills, assists and objectives, and flow more than freely enough to outfit your 5 free slots.
For each army, there are 30+ aircraft you can unlock with only a handful of them limited to Gold purchases — everything else can be purchased using Lions. That’s not to say you can unlock everything without paying real cash, as some of the later aircraft cost serious in-game coin that might take weeks of heavy play to earn… that is, unless you convert your Gold into Lions which works out to around $20 for 1.3 million Lions. With six armies of over one hundred and eighty aircraft and two major future expansions coming that introduce the same model for Ground units and Naval fleets, there’s either a lot of free-play or a gigantic black hole in which to throw your wallet down, but whichever way it goes you can comfortably stay competitive on a minimum spend.
In yet another nod to World of Tanks, War Thunder provides you with “Free XP” after each match which actually isn’t free and can be converted (relatively inexpensively) into useable XP with Lions. This is then used to upgrade the crews for your aircraft to improve various facets from aiming (specifically the gunners that can deck out your flying fortress) or increase resistance to G-forces meaning less time blacked-out on hard turns. Despite burying a tonne of free-XP into my crew I’ve not yet seen a huge difference in how the aircraft flies, but it might be the edge that hardcore players need. Crew can be quite expensive to train as well and if you change the plane in their current slot they’ll retain their bonuses but you’ll be smacked with a retraining cost. You can also convert the XP to level up another country so I was able to fly and develop my Russian aircraft but also boost my English level so I can buy Wellington bombers without grinding the other aircraft before it.
Far from a ‘Pay to Win’ game, there are two elements that stand against this most-hated feature of some F2P titles. Firstly, all aircraft are deadly in the right hands. I’ve had my fully kitted and crewed Lagg-3 splashed an embarrassing number of times by mere biplanes as the enemy pilot turns on on my tail and gets lucky shots into my wings or motor. Even heavily crewed bombers spewing machine gun fire in every direction are susceptible to engine strikes or wing-shear and apart from the odd jet, there’s nothing so far that dominates the airfield (although WT forum discussion currently holds that Russian planes are OP).
Secondly, jets and otherhigher-tier planes come at a nearly ruinous expense. At a million a piece with a crew that costs 200K and a round-repair cost of up to 40K Lions, these aren’t aircraft that are going to be regularly fielded. Free repairs are on offer for all aircraft so at best you might be able to play it once a week without incurring further cost. Lower order aircraft are either free (for Rookie planes) or very cheap right up to level 7.
So, what does a game from 2009 about 1940′s air combat nestled in a 2012 micro-transactional framework tell us about the state of the Free to Play market? It tells us that if you deliver great gameplay within a polished engine, and offer reasonable but not balance-altering pricing inducements, you’ll create an original and fun online experience that stands starkly against the host of F2P shooters we’re likely to see in the coming year. War Thunder is spectacularly fun, gorgeous and engaging, and with Ground and Naval units to be delivered within a year, it offers the most comprehensive sim-style ‘Theatre of War’ experience on the market.
Go on, join up, your first two plane slots are on me.
War Thunder is currently in open beta, you can download the latest client at the official site here.