Thursday, August 8, 2013

Get Your Snoopy On


It is one of those things where one game leads to another, which leads to another....  In this case the instigator was Red Orchestra 2.  As I detailed here, I've been having a blast with the Rising Storm expansion.  Well, after playing on a bunch of servers that also hosted the core Ost Front content, I started to notice that maps which favored armored warfare were coming up quite infrequently in the rotation.  Truth be told this is no big loss as I hate how RO2 restricts armored vehicles to players who choose the role of crewman/tank commander.  As someone who prefers to play infantry, I rarely get a chance to hop in a tank because of this restriction - how I wish Tripwire would ditch this limited class thing and embrace the more open system used by Dice's Battlefield 3!  Regardless, even though I do prefer gritty infantry combat, I did become wistful for the chance to slug it out in some armor.

So I started looking for a replacement and remembered Wargaming.net's World of Tanks.  Now, I was never much of a fan of this game because of the arbitrary setting - I mean, why is everyone driving around in tanks from the mid 20th Century?  Is this WWII?  Well, clearly not what with Soviet T-34s fighting alongside German Panthers!  Is it some sort of Girls und Panzer setup?  Possibly, but the game won't confirm it, even if this fan-made vid does....



 Seriously, what is it with Japanese men and their need to put school girls in bizarre situations?


Besides the weird set-up, there is the whole way the game portrays tank warfare - you know...without any realism to be had anywhere.  I said it from the get-go: if WoT wasn't going to stick with a hard, World War II realism, it should have just went with a fictitious sci-fi set-up where the jet fighter-like HUD and heavily abstracted realism wouldn't be a factor.  Instead, we get this weird mash-up of real world tanks in an otherworldly setting of unceasing tank battles that lack any context whatsoever. 

Still...still there is something beguiling about WoT.   For even as I was once again raging over the Alice Through the Looking Glass setting, I was finding myself becoming addictive to the elegant gameplay.  It was then that I realized the secret of WoT's success: forget World War II, forget the gritty intricacies of real world tank warfare, and just remember one of the most classic games of all time:  Atari's Tank!


Or the equally classic Battlezone, if you prefer.  Really, World of Tanks offers the same effortlessly addictive, no context armored battles as those two classic games, albeit, with modern graphics, and set in a MMO environment.  Once I realized that is what WoT was really all about, I began to find the experience much more comprehensible and enjoyable. 

So being newly addicted to Wargaming.net's magnum opus, I suddenly became interested in their next announced title, World of Warplanes.  Seeing how the game has entered open beta, I decided to sign up and give it a try - hence, it became the third game down the chain.

One thing I liked about World of Warplanes (henceforth: WoW) right off the bat was how I could log in using my existing WoT account.  That is a nice tie-in feature that adds a lot of convenience, and it would be that word - "convenience" - that would come to define WoW throughout. 

You see, WoW is nothing so much as WoT taken to flight.  Everything about the game is carefully modeled on the WoT experience, something that goes a long way in making this game as accessible, and as addictive, as its forerunner.  

Gameplay is, as you would expect from playing WoT, all about a third person perspective centered on your aircraft:


Everything is reminiscent of WoT:  the two teams displayed on the left and right respectively; the mini-map at the bottom right; hit points on the bottom, along with weapon keys/consumables.  Likewise, your craft has various pieces of equipment that can be damaged/destroyed, such as the engine, fuselage, weapons, etc.  What WoT player could possibly be confused by this set-up?  None!  And that is a good thing, I believe.

Even the gameplay is reminiscent of WoT.  As with the land-bound tanks, here we have essentially team deathmatch where the name of the game is to shoot down the other players...but with one new wrinkle:  there are ground targets that can be bombed/strafed, something that adds points to a team's score, potentially giving them the winning edge.  It is a nice wrinkle  - I often wished there was something to shoot-up with my tank's machine guns in WoT! - and adds a second pathway to victory, much as capturing the enemy's base works in WoT.

Strafing is fun...for the plane

Flying your plane has been simplified along the same lines as controlling a tank.  You control your plane's direction just by pointing with the mouse.  There are only two real throttle settings: 'W' triggers a speed boost that lasts only for a few seconds, and 'S' acts as a speed break - that's pretty much it!  There are a few nods to realism, for example stalls at low speed, but flying is heavily abstracted overall.  It sounds hopelessly simplistic, but I find it serves to help the player concentrate on the combat, which is the heart of the game after all. 

And the combat is white knuckled fun!  As with real dog fighting, it is all about getting on your opponent's six and blasting away with everything you have.   Hits are rewarded with some nice visual detail, such as getting to see debris fall from the plane.  Keep hitting the plane and the player is rewarded with smoke, and later, fire as hit points are whittled away.


Unlike WoT, however, the player will need to zoom out from his focused aiming mode often to avoid getting blindsided and having this happen:


As with WoT, I find the damage model to be similar to an "all or nothing" approach.  That is, it usually swings between a light damage state that merely affects your aircraft's abilities in battle, such as engine damage that eliminates your speed boost, to a catastrophic failure that sends you tumbling out of the sky with no hope of recovery.  However, I will say that I ONCE experienced an interesting predicament where my engine was completely destroyed!  However, I didn't fall completely out of the sky as I still had remaining hit points, instead I found myself slowly gliding down to a grassy field.  I never did find out if a safe landing was possible in the game though, as somebody went in for the easy kill and blasted away the rest of my hit points, sending me tumbling down in a fireball.

Visible damage is a nice touch

When death comes, it is back to the hanger, just as in WoT.  No respawning here!  One life per match remains the rule of the day.  Don't worry, as the player has at least four aircraft available at any time, he can jump into a different match with a different aircraft.  While in the hanger the player can also use earned research points to unlock new equipment that buffs performance, or even unlock entirely new aircraft...again, as with World of Tanks

There is one nice new feature in the hanger, though.  Now the player can see how many kills each of his planes have by looking at the number of stars, or some other symbol based on the nation in question, that are stenciled on its fuselage:

1/5 of the way to being an ace!

Wish WoT would get something similar for its tanks!

Overall, I found my time with World of Warplanes to be entertaining on the same superficial level of World of Tanks.  That isn't a knock, by the way.  However, I soon found myself thinking about trying the competition: Gaijin's War Thunder (the fourth game of this chain!).  When this title was first announced, I figured "okay, here we go with a poser trying to muscle in on Wargaming.net's action".  I still think that.  LOL!  Regardless, I signed up for this game's open beta too, and now think that it might well prove to be a very serious threat to World of Warplanes.  Here is why:

War Thunder's (WT) most popular mode is its "arcade mode", an experience that initially looks exactly the same as World of Warplanes, complete with the standard zoomable third person view:


Planes even handle in a the same way with the player needing to only point with his mouse for the aircraft to start moving in that direction.  Players DO, however, have more control over throttle in WT as in addition to having a temporary speed booster, as with World of Warplanes, the player can also set throttle at a range of 0 - 100% power, something that adds greater control.  But other than that, the average player would be hard pressed to spot a big difference between the two games. 

But then you hit the F2 button and this happens:

 ...and this:

 ...and this:



That's right!  In proper sim fashion, all the aircraft (not bombers yet, though) have fully modeled cockpits for the ultimate in flight sim immersion!  And let me tell you, this goes a LONG way in immediately making War Thunder seem a heck of a lot more realistic. 

But the realism doesn't stop there. Unlike WoW's use of a hit point based system, WT seems to realistically model damage.  That is, getting a kill doesn't seem to be tied to just whittling away HP on the other guy's plane, but is rather connected to doing actual damage to the plane itself.  So, for example, you can easily get a kill with a quick burst at the right location.  For example, look at this:


This guy was having a blast staffing my team's ground forces when I came up behind him and let loose with a burst or two of MG fire.  As you can see, I knocked some chunks out of him, but nothing major.  Nonetheless, this happened soon after:


You can seem him tipping over to the left here, just after I fired another quick burst.  The plane just suddenly spiraled out of control.  Why?  Turns out I killed the pilot with a lucky shot!  Yeah, you can do that in a HP-free system.

Of course, it isn't so much fun when it happens to you:

Where is the button for the windshield wipers?!?

Here, I had just played a game of chicken with an oncoming fighter.  We both fired and, it turns out, I won the day by shredding the enemy aircraft.  Mine, however, took quite a beating too.  In fact, my engine was killed, hence all the oil on my windscreen.  I was out of the fight, but could I survive the landing?

Get out of the way! I have no breaks!

I gently glided down to the ground...and BAM!  I lost control of my aircraft as the prop dug into the ground.  I skidded left and right, and almost flipped over at one point!  The plane, after skidding what must have been about 100 feet, eventually came to a stop and I could breath again.  I took a quick look out the left side and could see my wing all shot up and damaged, along with a fireball from an unlucky fellow pilot off in the distance:


My right wing was completely gone, snapped off in the crash!  But that was nothing compared to the surprise I got when I looked out the front:

It is a good thing that enemy ground troops don't attack crashed planes...yet. 

That's an enemy armored car motoring past on the left!  LOL!  I almost hit him! 

As you can see with this short story, War Thunder is already one of those games that just manages to create epic war stories that you just can't wait to share with your gaming pals!  It is also a game that takes air combat to the next level by making the damage seem more realism-based and less about just chipping away at hit points.

Speaking of armored cars, arcade battles in WT are similar to WoW's battles in that there are targets on the ground that can be strafed for points.  In particular, there are armored cars that motor towards the enemy's side of the map, sort of like "creeps" in your standard tower defense game.  These guys will slug it out between themselves when they get close, which adds some nice ground battles.  Of course, as a pilot you can help your team by chewing up the enemy's armored cars from the sky.  I will say that at this point I think World of Warplanes handles the ground aspect a bit better from a gameplay mechanic point of view.  In WoW, the ground attacks are icing on the cake in that the battle is usually going to be decided in the air.  However, in WT, the ground battle can prove decisive early on, especially if one team decides to focus exclusively on killing the ground troops.  I've been in more than one battle that ended before I even got in the fight precisely because of that reason.  In this way I think the ground battle portion of the arcade mode in War Thunder might be a bit too distracting from the air action at times.  

It should also be pointed out that WT differs from WoW in that you can bring multiple planes into the same fight, unlike WoW's one plane per player deathmatch rule.   So, after my plane was shot down as detailed above, I came back into the fight with the second plane that was in my hanger (only planes from the same nation can participate in the same fight).  Generally speaking, you can have up to four planes per nation in a hanger, so a single loss stings less than it does in WoW.

Speaking of the hanger,  you have a system in place similar to WoW's in that you can purchase new planes, and with the latest beta update, new equipment for your fighters that will boost their performance.  However, unlike WoW's "research points" system, WT requires players to reach a certain experience level before you can purchase new items.  The standard customization options are also present.  I also like how you can take a plane out for a test flight from the hanger, too.

If all of that wasn't impressive enough, consider this:  in addition to the aforementioned arcade mode, you also have a mode where you can participate in missions based on actual real world aerial battles, such as the Korean War battle I tried.  In these mission, you are limited to a single plane, and unlike arcade mode where you spawn mid air, these historical missions require the full take off, transit, and landing experience!  There is also a full realism mode where, as the name suggests, all hand-holding is removed and you really, really have to fly the plane - flaps, carburetor settings...the works!  Sim nuts will probably love this mode, albeit, it seems few people are using it in the open beta (I suspect both the historical missions and the full realism mode will prove popular mostly with the clan crowds). 

And if all that wasn't enough, there is even the possibility of setting up "custom" battles.  These are usually based on real world battles, too, but here the player can specify all sorts of starting conditions (weather, time, year), and invite others to join him or just go it alone against bots.  

As you can tell, War Thunder is a hugely ambitious project and it shows everywhere.  My experiences with this title amazed me at times.  Really, War Thunder is the type of flight sim that just a few years ago you would have been expected to pay top dollar to own!  Who says F2P is a bad thing?

So, there you go: two free to play games that are really quite good in their own ways.  I am really fascinated to see who is going to win this duel between Gaijin and Wargaming,net.  On one hand, Wargaming.net has a strong advantage going into this fight: they already have the hugely popular World of Tanks under their belt, and they have smartly designed World of Warplanes to fit into the mold set by its predecessor, something that makes moving from one to the other extremely intuitive (right down to using the same account info).  This is an advantage that must not be discounted over the long haul.  

On the other hand, you have Gaijin taking on the World of...franchise's monopoly by not just imitating, but innovating.  While they do offer an arcade-like experience as with WoW, they also have kicked things up a notch by adding just enough realism to placate those who are annoyed by WoW/WoT's superficial depth, in the process creating a seemingly fresh experience.  And, of course, they  have then added a lot more content in terms of gameplay variety with different modes of play on offer, as well as providing the much requested choice of a first or third person perspective.  And while Wargaming.net still has the edge on ground warfare with their World of Tanks mega-hit, Gaijin is already making it known that their own land and naval warfare expansions are coming just over the horizon (there is already a tab that suggests you will be able to switch from one to another within the same client!).  Seeing the amazing attention to detail displayed in the first person perspective cockpits, the idea of experiencing tank warfare in the same fashion is a thrilling one!  Wargaming.net may have something to fear in the near future...as long as Gaijin's ambition doesn't outrun its ability to deliver on the promise.  That will be key.

As for now, I love both games.  I find World of Warplanes to be a fun way to just jump in and have some arcade-like action.  However, when I want something a bit more immersive, War Thunder is the game I choose.   Seeing how both are free to play, this is truly a great time to be a fan of air sims, and virtual pilots should not miss experiencing either, albeit I think the more hardcore will naturally gravitate towards War Thunder.  

Pilot, you are cleared for takeoff.  Go get your Snoopy on! 


And since this is supposed to be a gaming blog with a political angle, I'll leave you with the following:



Sorry, I've got nothing else today.  :)







2 comments:

  1. Never heard of War Thunder, I'll have to check that out. I have tried WoT once along time ago and it was very intimidating. I'm not much into flight sim type games so not sure about WoW, but World of Warships is something I am interesting in.

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  2. I HATED World of Tanks when it first came out because I was expecting a serious tank sim and instead got an arcade tank game. However, now that I have gotten over that disappointment, I find myself hooked on it. :) As for War Thunder...it really surprised me with its quality. This is a full featured flight sim that just a few years ago you would have expected to pay $40 for, but this title is F2P. I think the devs also hit the sweet spot in balancing ease of play with realism for their "arcade mode". It is worth checking out. World of Warplanes is also shaping up nicely. Like you, I am not much of a flight sim guy - I rather fight on the ground, too - but both make for some nice diversions when you are in the mood for some aerial combat. I am also looking forward to both War Thunder's naval game, as well as World of Warships. People like to bash F2P, but truth is there are some nice games out there for free!

    Thanks for the comments! Glad you pointed out that comment problem.

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