Wargaming.net are expanding on the phenomenal success of World of Tanks by throwing their lumbering World War II machines into the air and hoping everything isn’t going to come crashing down. Adopting the same model as its predecessor, World of Warplanes has you accruing credits to buy new, faster, flashier planes with which to dominate the airspace with. But nailing the slow, ponderous pace of tanks where terrain and positioning are just as important as skill and teamwork isn’t quite the same as achieving success once the theatre of war is dogfighting and bombing runs.
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The instant you’re hit, the certainty of your continued existence goes out of the window. The fundamental difference between a tank and a plane is that, once the engine of a tank stops working, it’s still a pretty dangerous threat, because it’s going to sit there with its big old cannon firing big old shells in your general direction. You can still get kills with a damaged engine, in World of Tanks. Get your engine hit, or your engine on fire, or your wing shredded into a useless frame of wood and metal, and you can’t turn into a stationary turret, firing on incoming fighters. You are going to /drop/. You’re going to struggle to keep this writhing animal in the air, and you aren’t going to be doing any killing.Once you’re hit, the dice start rolling. And it’s everything you can do to keep yourself from becoming a smear on the ground of mainland France.
It’s this uncertain fragility that makes World of Warplanes altogether more thrilling than it’s slower paced older brother. Playing through my first few games, there was something liberating about being one of the smaller, more agile biplanes. All the big boys, the players that have played for months and months, had vast fighter bombers, or at least something that is built more for speed and durability than manoeuvrability. It means you can turn tighter circles, and spin speedier barrel rolls once they’re on your six. It also means you’re basically a paper plane, waiting for some dick with a BB gun to come along and punch some holes in your delicate aerodynamics. You go down fast, and you go down hard. The trick is staying out of strafing lines. The credits come in fast, though, giving you more than enough to upgrade within a few victories, or a few more defeats. You can grab yourself a Warhawk, somewhere on the fighter-bomber spectrum, but much closer to fighter than bomber. The difference is immediate, and drastic, leaving you tailing behind as the lighter fighters on your team start to elevate, headed for the heavens so that they can rain down hell. You’re stuck in the purgatory of a thousand feet or so, which is right in the firing line. Altitude is what separates the classes of plane, like oil and water. The big guys stay low, headed for the enemy emplacements, while the little guys flit among the clouds, duelling with one another before swooping down to mop up the cumbersome heavies.
Each game has a pair of victory conditions, each one leading you to the win screen if you can pull it off. Either you can destroy enough of the enemy base to slip into victory, or you can wipe out the entire enemy force, or at very least achieve air superiority, should they be cowards and hide down in canyons and low, rolling hills. It means there’s this odd mix of all out gunning it at one another and hanging back, waiting for the more heavy-hitting bomber classes and then dealing with those. If all your fighters climb and climb to deal with the opposing swarm, you’re going to be left defenceless when those big bastards come creeping up your flanks. But if you don’t head up, you’re sacrificing the higher ground to the enemy, and you’re going to end up dive bombed to oblivion. The difference in plane type makes itself abundantly clear the instant you find yourself in the pilot seat, too. The smaller the plane the easier it pitches and yaws, whereas they might find their engine pootling out before you even reach 400kmp/h. On the other hand the bigger chassis take a bit more work to wrestle into a turn, but their larger engines let them zip along. The controls themselves seem intuitive enough, although there’s more than enough functions in the bindings to make me ignore a vast swathe. Instead I just mapped the essentials to my gamepad, and got straight to work.
There is a threat that by sacrificing hills and towns for wide open spaces a lot of the tactics that make World of Tanks so compelling are going to be lost, but by that same token those hills and towns are still there, they’re just a thousand feet below you. I’ve seen planes sweep down into a canyon to lose a tail, only to surge upwards and force themselves into a stall, so that they can end up behind their pursuer. The availability for tactics is still there, it’s just more esoteric this time around. Similarly, right now there’s a problem in a frustrating amount of time between each game, for the most part taking upwards of two or three minutes before it finds a game. Sometimes it’s absolutely fine, with only a few seconds between hitting the button and finding yourself in a game, but so far it’s the most glaring, obvious flaw. But then this is a beta, and that’s precisely the sort of thing that will improve over time. There’s no reason to think World of Warplanes isn’t going to mirror the success of Wargame’s previous title, as it’s very much doing the same thing, only with a different kind of vehicle. And the fact that this particular kind of vehicle is so much more immediate, spectacular and thrilling really isn’t going to hurt it any, either.