I cannot figure War Thunder out for the life of me. It’s a pseudo-arcadey free-to-play game in the vein of World of Tanks, except in this one you fly a variety of WW2-era aeroplanes around maps that are unfailingly gorgeous trying to shoot down the opposition and bomb enemy ground targets. It’s also a grognardy1 dogfighting simulator where you have to worry about altitude and air speed and the actual combat part is limited to split-second high velocity diving gun runs at enemy aircraft. Each is accessed through a different game mode, and how they’ve ended up being so wildly different despite using exactly the same engine and the same assets is worth taking a closer look at.
There’s actually three game modes in War Thunder: Arcade, Historical Battles, and Full Real Mode. Full Real Mode approaches the insane level of realism seen in games such as A-10 where your view is locked inside the cockpit and you have no game HUD making things like target identification and tracking easier. It is, again, an almost completely different experience to Historical Battles and Arcade, and its complexity results in it having a very high barrier to entry that I have no hope of clearing, and neither will 99% of the people who play War Thunder. Historical Battles are a somewhat more gamey compromise between realism and accessibility; third-person view is always available and you can switch through a series of alternate view modes, and there’s also a detailed HUD telling you where the bad guys are (as long as your pilot can see them – more on this later) meaning it’s not quite as claustrophobic as Full Real Mode. However, there are plenty of other restrictions: you only get enough ammo for a few seconds of fire from your machine guns, and once you’re out of ammo you have to fly back to and land at an airfield to rearm. You also start quite some way from the actual contested points on the battlefield and have to take off and fly there at the start of every battle, and since having an altitude advantage is basically the key element of winning a historical-grade dogfight it ensures that the beginning of a Historical Battle is nothing more than four to six minutes of slow climbing up to your flight ceiling. Then you can start looking around for bad guys to shoot.
This is basically how it worked in WW22 but it doesn’t necessarily make for a fun game experience. The very few times I’ve tried to play Historical Battles what’s happened has been that I’ve spent several minutes climbing to combat altitude, flown over to the target and then immediately been attacked by players in aircraft with better climb characteristics than mine. Combat in Historical Battles consists of a high-speed swoop out of the sun with little time for the target to react, and usually by the time they realise what’s going on their plane is shot up to the point where they’re easy prey for their attacker on a second pass. It can be tactical, with classic dogfighting manuevering like the Immelmann and the split-S making its way into the equation, and the question of altitude and velocity is always at the forefront of your mind, but that’s only if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing – and I never figured it out despite half a dozen attempts – then Historical Battles are just an exercise in masochism. Unlike a lot of the stuff I diss I think there’s actually a good game in there if you have the patience to learn how to play it; it’s just that that barrier to entry is still set quite some way above what I’m willing to tolerate from a multiplayer game.
It is a very good thing, then, that Arcade mode exists. This is War Thunder’s excellent bread-and-butter game mode which attempts to address many of the complaints I just made in the previous paragraph: planes spawn in the air so there’s no tedious takeoff phase, and while your ammo hoppers are as tiny as ever it’s not necessary to go back to an airfield to rearm, instead having to wait out a fairly long reload timer that’s nevertheless a great boon to the pace of the game since you don’t have to spend precious minutes landing, waiting for the reload and then taking off again. You also get a limited number of respawns when you get shot down; War Thunder steals World of Tanks mechanic of having purchasable hangar slots for your active aircraft, except this time you don’t just take them into a mission one at a time. Instead you take all of your hangar aircraft into an Arcade mode battle, a gameplay change that has a huge, huge impact on how the thing plays out.
War Thunder’s planes are just as fragile in Arcade mode as they are in Historical mode, you see. The damage model is complex and satisfying, with shot-away or burning aircraft components having a significant effect on how the plane handles and a chance for every bullet to be a one-shot kill if it hits the pilot, and the only real change that’s been made is a handling buff so that you don’t rip your wings off by going into a high-speed dive that the plane can’t tolerate. Don’t let the “Arcade” moniker fool you into thinking that this mode is in any way forgiving, since Arcade for War Thunder actually means occupying that odd middle ground between a conventional shooter and an actual simulator that World of Tanks does, and it takes a bit of practice to get the hang of its little foibles. Being able to respawn in the middle of the fight helps a lot with this, as it takes the penalty out of death and greatly speeds up the learning process; it also keeps the tempo of the fight feverishly fast as new planes constantly spawn and dive into the fray.
Thanks to the game mechanics it’s inherited from Historical, though, Arcade mode is about as far from a mindless spawnfest as it’s possible to get without being Historical mode. Because every player has five or six planes to fly battles rarely end in the annihilation of one team or the other, and instead hinge on each team’s ability to complete the mission objective. This is usually destroying a bunch of AI controlled ground vehicles/ships which slowly advance towards and fight each other while you’re dogfighting with the enemy airforce, or else capturing contested airfields by landing at them. It’s possible for one team to be very, very good at shooting down aircraft and yet lose the battle because they didn’t focus enough on destroying ground targets, which I feel is as it should be because otherwise the bombers would have nothing to do.
Ah, the bombers. There’s several classes of plane in War Thunder and the developers have actually done a damn good job of making them all viable – the higher tier jet fighters obviously massively outclass biplanes, but since you’re only chucked into battle with people flying planes in a similar tier to yours this is a matchup that will never happen. Biplanes are slow and have weak guns, but they turn at a phenomenal rate and are extremely maneuverable, meaning that if your monoplane fighter gets into a turning fight with one close to ground level you’ll have at least a fifty-fifty chance of losing because you won’t be able to get them off your tail. Instead you have to use your superior speed and climb power to hit them quickly and then zoom away before they can retaliate – so you do have something of an advantage, but only if you’re intelligent enough to use it properly. Meanwhile the bombers are insanely tough targets, able to soak up multiple belts of MG fire without being significantly inconvenienced and always with at least one AI turret gunner to make life difficult for any fighter with the temerity to actually try taking one on. Bombers also often have a height advantage that makes even reaching them in the first place a massive pain the arse; if you want to kill a bomber and he’s not accommodating enough to come down to you, you’ll have to finish him off very quickly before he dives away – and despite their huge size bombers actually have a very respectable dive speed. Shooting one down in a fighter is therefore appropriately difficult – that is, unless you happen to be flying the Beaufighter.
I admit I’ve fallen in love with the Beaufighter a little bit. It’s a huge heavy fighter that handles like a brick but which makes up for it by being armed not with dinky little rifle-calibre machine guns, but instead mounts a pair of beefy 20mm cannon. The cannon have even less ammo than normal guns and take twice as long to reload, so you have to be a very precise shot, but oh my god they do so much damage. High explosive ammunition makes a big difference in the world of War Thunder; instead of putting a neat hole in somebody’s aircraft a single round now has the potential to explode an engine or blow off a wing, and the damage potential is so great that even bombers have to respect the firepower that a lumbering Beaufighter can bring to a fight. It’s a sitting duck for any fighter smart enough not to take it on in a head-on pass (I’ve lost count of the number of fighters that have tried this and instantly exploded), but its cannon allow it to absolutely wreck anything in its sights. I know that higher tier aircraft will come with cannon as standard, but for now they mark the Beaufighter out as something special because it’s one of the few aircraft at its level with access to them.
As far as tiering and free-to-play grind goes, War Thunder is a bit of an odd one. XP grind is starting to kick in now that I’ve reached tier five (of twenty) but the game is staggeringly generous with free cash and repairing your planes after a battle is always cheaper than the reward you get for finishing it in the first place. After fifteen hours of play and more than fifty sorties, I have yet to feel any need to spend any real money on the game. There are simply no restrictions on my play beyond having to level up to get access to more aircraft, and I’m actually perfectly happy to keep playing in my current planes because Arcade mode is really fun; its as accessible as the game will get and the high skill ceiling means it hasn’t even started getting old. While I’m told the cash grind increases significantly at higher levels I’m still wondering how on earth the developers are hoping to make any money on War Thunder when it’s an unrestricted high-quality game that they’re essentially giving away for free. From a business point of view, it seems like madness. From the point of view of a player, though, I couldn’t be happier with it; it’s not without its flaws, but the complete and utter lack of pressure to spend makes me forgive the occasional bit of jankiness in the interface and the low intelligence level of War Thunder’s playerbase3. It won’t be for everyone – if you didn’t like World of Tanks I doubt War Thunder will change your mind on the concept unless you really really like aeroplanes – but it’s one of the most solid free-to-play titles I’ve played so far, offering both short-term fun and long-term depth and absolutely chock full of holy-shit-did-you-see-that moments as something explodes prettily or a crucial piece of your aircraft falls off at an inconvenient time. I’m very pleased with it.
- If you’ve never come across this term before, it’s usually used to refer to the sort of wargame player who values historical verisimilitude more than they do simplicity or ease of play and inevitably ends up buried under a mountain of unit counters festooned with NATO symbols. ↩
- When fighting the jet-powered Me-262 American pilots in prop-powered planes learned to jump them just after they’d taken off from their airfields and were still trying to climb up to an effective combat height. ↩
- It’s an odd split. There’s a significant minority who are really, really good at the game, and dogfighting with these players is an unalloyed pleasure. However the majority are so idiotic that they prefer to ram their plane into the ground chasing a heavily-damaged target who was going to crash anyway rather than let somebody else get credit for the kill. I get the feeling a lot of the smarter players move up into the Historical mode, a leap which I am currently unwilling to make. ↩