World of Tanks was released recently, and since it's free to play I of course had to check it out. For those that don't know, World of Tanks is an online squad-based world war II tank battle game. It's being billed as an MMORPG, but I'm not really sure why -- you spend your time alternating between a static lobby and mission maps, the game is PvP only, and there aren't more than a dozen or so people per side. It's much more like Counterstrike with tanks than an MMORPG. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just not very MMORPG-like. I'm going to describe the things I liked and didn't like, and just because I'm feeling kind of cranky I think I'll start with the negatives.
First off, I have to say it's a darn good thing the game is free to play. If I'd paid $50 for this I'd be pretty annoyed about now. The game, as I mentioned earlier, is not an MMORPG, it's just an online action game with a lobby and match making. I played for a couple of hours last night, and in that time I only saw 3, maybe 4 different maps. I'm hoping (assuming?) that more maps must become available as you unlock more powerful tanks, but I don't know for sure. Running the same couple of maps over and over is going to get old fast. It doesn't help that the objectives on each map are exactly the same - eliminate all enemies or capture the base. Speaking of the maps, at least one of them seems terribly unbalanced. The northern base has a ridge that defenders can park on and snipe oncoming attackers with little risk of counterfire. The southern base has nothing like that. So the northern team almost always wins. Yay?
Which brings us to the matchmaking, which also seems to be fairly unbalanced. Rather than pitting players in the same class against each other the teams consist of a mix of light, medium, and heavy tanks. That might be ok, except that it's entirely possible (and not unusual) for one team to get a heavy tank or two while the other team gets none. Heavy tanks are the kings of the battlefield, and with nothing to counter them on the opposing side they quickly win the match. This isn't like a team missing a class in WAR or WoW or Rift, because the game attempts to simulate armor penetration light tanks can't really hurt heavy tanks at all, while medium tanks can take them down but it requires a lot of effort. The worst part of my evening was coming up on an enemy tank, unloading shell after shell into it to no effect, only to have it turn it's turret around and 1-shot my little light tank. Realistic? Sure. Fun? Not especially.
That sort of ties into my issue with the game being extremely unfriendly to new players, especially new free players. Since the matches consist of both veteran and brand new players, and a veteran in a heavy tank is virtually untouchable by a newbie in a light tank, new players seem to serve as little more than kill fodder for the veteran players. Again, this wouldn't be such a big deal, except that you only get one life per match -- once your tank is destroyed you're done. If don't get any kills you don't get much xp or cash, and if your side loses you also don't get much xp or cash. A brand new player, then, is very likely to enter a match, get destroyed in moments, and get very little reward with which to improve their tank and increase their likelihood of performing well, let alone buy a higher tier tank so that they're not just cannon fodder. Also, once you're destroyed you have to sit there until the match ends. I'm assuming their must be some way to "ride" along with an ally in camera view but I never found it, so generally after being destroyed I'd alt-tab out and surf the net.
This brings me to the cash shop, which is my final gripe with the game. This really seems to be a "pay to win" game based on the cash shop, and the design of the game seems to be intended to funnel you into purchases to be competitive. Remember how I said newbies get crap tanks and are cannon fodder for everyone else? Well, that's unless you drop some real money for a better one. Real money can buy better tanks, upgraded ammunition, xp, be used to transfer xp from one tank to another, and more. Someone who visited the cash shop on their first day and dropped a bunch of money on upgrades would have a phenomenal advantage over a free player. Maybe that's ok for many people, after all even though a loss with no kills gets you minimal rewards, you still get SOMETHING. Someday you'll be able to compete as long as you keep playing. Still, I strongly dislike pay to win, and also dislike the thought that my opponent just smoked me because he bought a cash shop tank, not because he was more skilled.
So, a huge list of gripes. I must hate the game right? Already uninstalled it? Well . . . no. The game is still fun. The tank battles are something new and different, and Wargaming.net has gotten the look and feel of the game down very well. The graphics aren't very high tech, but they're solid. The tanks feel slow and substantial, and the pace of combat isn't quite so frantic as a typical FPS. The fact that my starter tank is so pitiful just makes any accomplishment feel that much greater. The high point of my evening was barreling down a hill at 40kph with an enemy light tank lobbing shells at me (and missing due to my speed) and I turned my turret, fired back, and scored a kill shot all while moving. That may have been my only kill for the whole evening, but it sure felt good. The kill boards take some getting used to, by the way. Since every player only gets one life per battle most players simply won't get any kills at all (especially on the losing side). That doesn't necessarily mean you suck -- there are only a limited number of kills that can be scored per match, and if one guy gets 2, then no matter what someone has to get 0. I kind of like that though, respawning tanks would just be stupid.
The game just has a very nice feel to it. Rolling along with your squadmates up a road (movement is faster on roads but less safe), seeing an enemy tank in the distance and scattering behind trees, bushes, and rocks before trading shots back and forth just feels very visceral and realistic. You can run over fences, knock down trees, and just generally feel like you really are driving a tank. It's not a hard core tank sim by any means, and I have no doubt many liberties have been taken with physics in the name of gameplay, but despite my gripes with the mechanics of the game I found the gameplay itself quite enjoyable. Now if I could just get a tank gun capable of actually penetrating enemy armor I might really start to enjoy myself . . .