Monday, April 4, 2011

World of Tanks Preview - An F2P Tankstravaganza!

When it comes to Tank battles, only a few games have taken a remotely realistic view of them. Then World of Tanks comes along and adds location specific damage, a different architecture and hit box for every tank, and more variables than you can shake a stick at. It’s easy to get into because everyone can drive and shoot like a madman, but when you start playing it to win in platoons or team battles, you’ll find that this is much more deep than your standard arcade shooter!

Games are extremely quick to get into. Just a quick tap of the Battle! button at the top of your screen and you’ll instantly be in the queue to fight. Battles are fairly large scale, usually in the ballpark of 15v15. It’s rare, but if you’re queueing at odd times of the night in a high level tank, you might get a smaller 5v5 skirmish from the quick battle button. Teams are automatically balanced by tank ‘tier’ and role. Each side will generally get an equal level of tanks, artillery, and tank destroyers, preventing most of the crying that happens in role based games when one side is loaded up with a class. Want to queue with friends? No problem, you and two buddies can join the normal battle queue together. If you want to get more together though, you’ll need to form either a full team, or just split up sadly. It’s a good thing to prevent stacked teams via cooperation/voice chat, but it’s disappointing to be the odd man out sometimes.

Clan Warfare

The big team warfare in particular is something to get excited about. Multiple tournament formats are emerging, and a point system has emerged to prevent everyone from running around in maxed out heavy tanks. Teams have to pick and choose the right tanks, and right players for those tanks, when they execute their strategy. Battles of this format often result in crazy strategies, such as mass artillery and tank destroyer defense, medium tank hordes pushing down a road killing all in their path to the soft artillery underbelly, and psycho light tanks tearing around the map harassing bigger tanks like a swarm of bees. It's as fun to watch as it is to participate!

The Fervor of Combat - A typical round
One of my favorite tanks is the Panzer IV. It's a Tier 5 Medium tank that has below average speed, but one of its gun options is a massive howitzer capable of blowing a hole in anyone. Here's an idea of what I go through in a typical round.

Most maps have several 'lanes', think of them as paths that people tend to pass through. Fighting on a map consists of getting to a channel, evaluating a situation, and advancing or defending as the situation warrants. Since my tank is slower than average, I trail the speedy lights and USSR mediums as they surge forward along the west side into the sandy dunes. Dunes are an amazingly complex area, with several mounds, they serve as both cover from direct fire, and make life difficult on artillery to target you on the far side of one. However, it also makes it difficult to advance and leads to several standoffs.

The scouts meet in the southwest corner of the hilly dunes, and my minimap lights up with potential targets. Unfortunately, my engine being lacking, hills are not kind to me. Making an offensive move is difficult when your top speed is cut 75% trying to tackle any kind of elevation. I stick to the valleys between the dunes and we're in a bad spot. The enemy outnumbers us down here, and I watch a light tank in front of me eat a shell that blows off his tracks. He fights back, but the enemy retreats behind the hilly dunes in between shots. Getting your mobility removed is a death sentence, especially if artillery is involved, and a shell rains from the sky into his turret and down he goes.

The good news is that I've got some extra cover to work with. Destroyed allies and enemies will block shots, and the Panzer IV is a fairly compact package. Sporting a small hitbox, I'm able to park directly behind it and take shots on people as they come into view. I don't have to move to ge behind cover, so my accuracy is perfect, or well, as perfect as this howitzer can get. Firing this gun on the move and hitting a target at medium range is about as likely as winning a carnival game.

All I have to do is wait until they show enough of their tank to hit part of it and I'll take the shot. Boom, down goes a M3 Lee, one shot. Another pops its head out, and another round is fired--missed high. His shot nails my dead comrade in front and does nothing. I get ready for the killing blow, and an artillery shell flies overhead and explodes a foot behind me, doing minor damage but damaging my tracks. With my movement crippled, and the artillery inevitably loading up another shot, I know I need to get moving and take out whoever I can before another shot or two finishes me off. I charge the valley, soak up a heavy damage shot to my front end, and delay my blast until I know he has almost reloaded in order to get as close as possible. I let loose another round and it goes right through him.

Or so I'd like to say. My hesitation for a more accurate close range shot was my downfall, as the artillery lands a shell that kills my driver and finishes off my left track. As my crew scrambles to cover for the driver and get the track back up to a working condition, the enemy backs off further into the dunes for cover knowing I'm immobilized and another artillery round finishes me off. Bastards! Fortunately, I had some backup tanks behind me that were able to penetrate the line and eventually take out that artillery and win the round.

Victory and Progression
When the war begins, how does a side win? Well, besides the obvious destruction of all enemies in a game with no respawning, there is also a base that needs to be defended. If a player enters the enemy base area and is undisturbed for 60 seconds, that team wins regardless of the current odds. But rushing for this victory objective is hardly an option. The bases are large areas, and almost completely flat and devoid of cover. So going for a capture (which can be seen by all players when you enter the base area) instantly makes you a good target for everyone in the area, and especially any artillery that are still alive.

Once that’s done, you’ll receive credits and experience. The former is used for the purchase of new tanks, ammunition, and repairs. Experience is used to train crew members, research new parts on a tank, and research new tanks entirely. You cannot purchase a tank you haven’t researched, and it’s entirely possible to run a deficit after a battle where you fired a lot of rounds, died early, or a combination of both.

The Death Penalty, or lack thereof
Should you bite the dust early in a scenario, you don’t have to sit around and stare at your burning wreckage or watch your allies fight a futile battle. You can leave the fight right then and there and start a new one with a different tank until that tank’s battle resolves in victory or defeat. Credits and experience will still be rewarded as though you stayed there cheering your team on the entire time, which helps out those of us who tend to drive ahead of the pack, scout/skirmish, and meet an early end.

Alas, not all is right in war
There are a few frustrating issues in the beta though. Number one is map imbalances. Some maps have much easier access to cover, or an important chokepoint, or just flat out give one side a better firing position. Other maps, such as any map with tons of buildings, basically render artillery useless. It's wonderful to have variety in the maps and not just have them being mirrored over an axis, but it can be frustrating to have an uphill battle from the start.

Nothing is more frustrating than firing a massive artillery round across the map, have it right on top of an enemy heavy tank, and have it plink off and deal no damage. Note, this happens even with the most advanced armor penetration ammo the vehicle has to offer!

The game really needs more documentation and numbers when it comes to vision. Sometimes tanks are invisible while moving even a hundred feet away from you, and if you shoot from 400 feet away in the middle of the forest, every gun in the game will shoot at you 2 seconds later. Even people with thousands upon thousands of games played can't tell you the exact way radios affect the battle. Just the fact that the line of sight rule does not apply in this game may frustrate a lot players. If you can see me, I can see you--nope. Leading a charge and dying before you know what hit you is all too common as guns gain power, effective range, and accuracy.

Next, we cover the tank types themselves and the variety of playstyles they bring to the field.

The Tanks
Perhaps the best part about World of Tanks is how the tank battles play out differently according to what level the tank average is. A tank battle with all newbie tanks, or all heavies, will obviously play out much more different. But when you throw in multiple artillery on each side, or multiple tank destroyers, the pace and strategies used will change greatly.

Light tanks are speed demons that love to circle targets and fire while moving. They reload incredibly fast, but don’t pack a lot of punch or have any decent armor to speak of. You can still play these as you would a medium or heavy, it’ll just take more than the one or two critical shots to dispatch a target. Also of note is great acceleration and turning radius, the latter being one of the most important and most ignored statistics of mobile combat. Getting outmaneuvered in this game is death, and the light tanks are great at doing it and avoiding it themselves.

Medium tanks are the bread and butter of the game. With some having killer mobility almost on the level of a few light tanks, while packing a gun that can actually hurt someone, you can’t go wrong with a medium tank. While the light tanks only go up to tier 4, mediums can be researched all the way up to tier 9, and the tier 9 mediums can put some serious hurt even on the steel behemoths of the tier 10 heavy class. You also have a lot of variety in your weapon choices on most medium tanks. Some will sport quick firing, poor accuracy weapons good for close combat skirmishing in the streets, and others will have long barreled cannons for taking out approaching vehicles. Hell, some even have massive howitzers that can blow a tank apart in a single shot…. If the shot actually hits them with the barrel’s pathetic accuracy.

The big boys in the Heavy tier have the most HP of any tank by tier, and in general the most armor. However, they’re crippled when it comes to mobility. Top speed, turning radius, general horsepower, and turret traverse speeds are all lower than average. If you can keep your front to an enemy, you will win any slugfest. If they get past your gun though and start circling you, all the armor in the world won’t help you as they pepper you with shots you can’t retaliate against. Heavy Tanks are great in city warfare, where their rears and flanks are protected by narrow paths, and buildings defend them from incoming artillery or sniping.

If you’d prefer a more passive style, the Tank Destroyer is for you. Tank Destroyers pack long barrels, insane accuracy, and as much punch as any tank could pack for the tier it’s in. The downside is poor mobility in general and the lack of a turret. This means in order to shoot your foe, you must be facing them. You can’t drive one way and shoot the other, and this means if you get flanked or have your tracks destroyed, say goodnight. Tank Destroyers are often the ones that guard long choke points and abuse as much cover or foliage as possible to give them the first critical shot.

If you’d rather play field commander and rely on a little luck every now and then Self-Propelled Guns or SPGs, commonly just called artillery, are for you. 90% of your time will be spent looking at the map from a top down perspective as you line up shots from across the map. You have no armor to speak of and your direct combat skills are laughable as the moment you move your accuracy goes to hell. But if the enemy is spotted in the open, your ability to home in on the target and drop pain on someone who thinks they’re being clever is unmatched.

While the typical roles of each tank are the same, depending on the faction (USA, USSR, or German) and specific tank, there are a few that stand out and can play much differently than usual. For instance, the USA T30 heavy tank is the biggest tank the USA has to offer, but it has less armor on its hull than most medium tanks. It compensates by having the biggest damn gun in the game for a tank, and plays more like a Tank Destroyer than a Heavy Tank as a result.

The Presentation
Spending the last few months with this game, I keep seeing new things pop up in the sounds and graphics that put me in a complete state of awe. Buildings crumble, trees fall, shots whizz through forests and plink off sloped steel, and the overall feel of the game is just as it should be. The tank details are nothing short of wonderful, with gritty emblems and accurate designs to the era on each model.

It’s not going to blow you away, but for a free to play game that prides itself on being somewhat realistic, the graphics actually help rather than hurt its cause. Seeing the faint trail of an artillery shell can allow you to call out the area you think it came from, and gives your artillery the option of going for a counter barrage. Seeing trees fall can be an indicator of a tank charging forward, and enable you to line up a shot once they come into view or even fire blind and score the sick kill.

It’s very customizable, and runs quite well in a window should you prefer to multitask between shots. Since most free to play games only offer the most basic of options when it comes to graphical customization, this is a welcome change of pace.

A Truly Free to Play Experience
As we all know though, being a F2P game simply isn’t profitable on its own, so there is another currency in the game—gold. Gold is used to buy special tanks, special ammo, crew training, and can be converted to pure credits. The ammo is typically slightly better than a similar grade of ammo, but the tanks are negligibly better or even worse in a few cases. Crew training is automatic as you play the game and eventually everyone will be on the same level of crew regardless of gold.

The point is, the game isn’t decided by the credit card. The best tanks and pilots can all be trained and bought with time, and the grind for new tanks isn’t negated by the credit card either. Experience cannot be purchased! However, purchasing of gold right now will net you bonus tanks that will save you a lot down the road. 12,500 gold is enough to buy several fully trained tank crews, several hundred rounds of gold ammunition, and a special consumable or two for those games that come down to a 1v1 or 2v2.

With the release a week away, World of Tanks is shaping up to be the best free to play action option in a long time. With a surprisingly varied set of maps, tanks, and strategies, it has held people’s attention for its long beta and will continue to well into release!

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