The successful World of Tanks formula goes airborne

Wargaming.net proved they could make a pretty mean free-to-play MMO with World of Tanks. But why stop with World War II-era combat on land when you can conquer land, air, and sea (insert evil cackle here)? World of Warplanes represents the second of the company’s three stages of domination, and it’s got everything it needs to equal its sibling in terms of popularity. Except for a catchy abbreviation, that is. I’m fairly certain “WoW’ is already taken.

As far as truth in names goes, World of Warplanes is right on target. It’s all about 15-on-15 aerial battles, and except for a brief but necessary tutorial to get you acquainted with the basics of flying and firing weapons, it’s all player-versus-player (PvP). If you’re not fond of pitting your skills against other human opponents, this isn’t the game for you.

World of Warplanes

The controls are as simple to pick up as a flying game could possibly make them. There’s no throttle (save for a boost button that can temporarily increase your speed), so all you need to worry about is your altitude and heading. Climbing slows your plane, and doing too much fancy stickwork headed away from the ground is a good way to stall the engine. Anecdotal evidence suggests the mouse is the preferred way to fly, but the game supports just about everything: keyboard, joystick, and PC-compatible gamepad all work.

Like World of Tanks, the game features 10 tiers of vehicles from five different countries – the USA, Germany, Great Britain, the USSR and Japan this time, sorry France – that increase in power as you advance through the tiers. The matchmaking system is designed to get you into matches quickly with teams that are roughly equivalent and have planes from just two different tiers, and while it’s possible to team with friends to ensure there’s a familiar face on your side, most of your time spent early on will be battling alongside and against strangers.

The victory conditions aren’t quite as intuitive as in WoT, where the object is to destroy all enemy vehicles or capture the opposing base. The latter method works just fine here, and is the way most battles end. But there’s also a concept called superiority: once one team has a lead in the number of planes and ground targets destroyed, it starts building up superiority. If the trailing team can’t blow something up to reset the meter, it loses once it reaches 100 percent.

World of Warplanes

Fortunately, one class in World of Warplanes consists of ground attack planes whose job is taking out buildings (or boats on maps with water). Fighters are the most common units, tasked with shooting down other planes up close and personal, while heavy fighters straddle the line between the other two classes. For beginners, fighters are the way to go, as their role is the most straightforward and they have the best maneuverability.

Battles are limited to 15 minutes, but in practice, they’re typically over in half the time. There’s no real hiding or feeling out process like there is in tank fights, and both sides tend to find and engage each other quickly. The tradeoff is that even the wimpiest Tier I fighters can stand up to more than a few machine gun hits, so making a single mistake doesn’t mean instant death. Actually, scratch that, one mistake that will get you killed (and will happen when you’re a newbie) is running into an enemy plane, which almost always ends in both vehicles plummeting to a fiery doom. It’s also the most likely action to earn you a nasty remark in the chat window, as “rammers” are looked down upon.

Win or lose, you’ll be awarded both experience points and credits based on your performance. The XP is necessary for researching new weapons, engines, and frames for your planes, and unlocking all modules on a specific plane opens the next rung on the tech tree. Since Wargaming is on point with its knowledge of real-life military hardware, there’s a good chance you’ll learn something about mid-20th Century planes as you move through the tiers, going from biplanes to jets along the way. Some of the tech trees are pretty limited right now – the Japanese have only one branch – but the development team has stated it can see 100 planes per country down the line.

World of Warplanes

Credits can also be used to buy special ammo and consumables, and large amounts are needed to buy the higher tier planes. One thing that helps is paying for a Premium account to get 50 percent more XP and credits per battle. This is completely optional, and it’s perfectly possible to play World of Warplanes completely for free at no disadvantage, as long as you understand it’ll take a lot of battles to move to the next tier. Happily, Wargaming.net accounts are now unified between games, so Premium status can benefit your plane and tank garages simultaneously.

A high-end PC can really get the most out of the game’s higher graphics settings, which put many free-to-play games to shame. Even my four year-old laptop managed around 50 fps on the lower settings in the heat of battle, and while a small but vocal minority of players complained about excessive lag during my review period, I didn’t personally notice a problem – I did, however, have the whole client crash on me on occasion. The soundtrack isn’t fancy but features some inspirational music to fly by, and the sounds of spinning propellers and bullets tearing up your wings are probably pretty accurate.

Now that I think about it, I hope to never find out. Wargaming.net manages to find the sweet spot between accuracy and playability for a second time with World of Warplanes, offering a slightly more twitch-based alternative to the World of Tanks experience that nevertheless will appeal to much the same crowd. Oceans, get ready: they’re coming for you next.