And the award for most tanks in a single game goes to…

If you happen to be male and aren’t a pacifist, I don’t need to explain the allure of driving a tank to you. For everyone else, let’s just say that especially when it’s not in the real world, there’s just something cool about commanding several tons of metal, crushing things beneath your treads and blowing stuff up. World of Tanks lets you do all of that in 30-player tank battles on your PC – and it’s free.

The Belarusian company is responsible for unleashing the destructive young boy inside all of us in a game that is a unique compromise between history and playability. On one hand, World of Tanks features painstakingly researched and accurately rendered tanks and armored vehicles from the mid-20th Century arsenals of the U.S., Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France. Yes, the French apparently had tanks.

Yet controlling these behemoths took teams of trained men, and you get to do it simply by steering and moving with a couple of keys and aiming and firing your main gun with the mouse. There’s a little more to it than that, but the simple control scheme makes it easy to start playing without needing to know much else. And that’s a good thing, because the game has no tutorial and no AI enemies to fight, so you’ll be learning by trial and error against human opponents right off the bat.

World of Tanks

Joining your first battle is as easy as choosing one of your handful of starter tanks and clicking the battle button at the top of the main menu screen. The game uses a tier system to divide the more powerful tanks from the lesser ones, so as a beginner, you’re generally only going to be with and against fellow newcomers and veterans trying to level up for a nation they don’t usually play. The matchmaker isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done.

Battles take place on a variety of maps with different terrain drawn from real world locations. Winning generally means capturing the enemy base or wiping out all of the vehicles on the opposing team. If neither side has accomplished either goal at the end of 15 minutes, battles can also end in a draw, but since death is final (sorry, no respawns here), they rarely do in the lower tiers. If your tank ends up out of commission, you can follow allies still in the fight or hop into another game with one of your other tanks.

Several different categories of vehicles are at your disposal, and they all have their roles to play. Light tanks are used for scouting, locating enemy vehicles for the bigger guns of medium and heavy tanks to take out. Tank destroyers carry more powerful weapons that can snipe from longer range at the expense of thinner side and rear armor and a limited field of fire. Self-propelled guns, known in-game as “arty,” can lob devastating firepower at flushed out enemies but need to be protected from short range attacks.

World of Tanks

Going it alone with 15 tanks on the other side is a good way to get destroyed. Fortunately, a chat window and some keyboard shortcuts for some simple commands to attack certain areas or defend the base help keep things coordinated. Cover is important, as is staying mobile. Again, there’s not much in the way of instruction, so some lessons you’ll inevitably learn the hard way.

There’s also a delicate dance of random number generators that keeps the complexity invisible but also serves as a frustration at times. Ammo is rated separately for damage and penetration, so sometimes direct hits will cripple opponents and other times they will bounce off harmlessly. The slope of the armor can make a difference, too. And you haven’t really lived until you run afoul of the sighting rules, getting blown up by an enemy tank that appears to materialize out of thin air.

At the conclusion of each battle, you’ll get a detailed breakdown of how you and your team did, along with some experience points and credits. XP are used to research new parts and guns for tanks you own and to unlock better vehicles in each country’s tech tree. The credits are for making repairs, replenishing ammo (a good reason not to fire haphazardly) and mounting those freshly researched parts. Crew members also gain skill from each battle, eventually learning valuable perks and bonuses.

World of Tanks has taken some flak for how long it takes free players to advance to the higher tiers, and that criticism seems warranted. Let’s just say reaching the top branches of the tech tree may require you to forgo little things like eating and sleeping. Of course that may not matter for casual players who just want to hop in and out, and people who find themselves addicted have the option of paying for a premium account or buying in-game Gold to get through the process a lot faster.

Another thing that may keep you from simply dabbling in World of Tanks is that it does take a fairly powerful PC or laptop to run at a playable frame rate. It made the fans on my review laptop run as often as any current full-price MMO, and it’s definitely more robust than a lot of other free-to-download games out there. The payoff for that is the sound of shells exploding around your tank and the sights of shells leaving trails behind them as they whiz toward their targets. Many environmental objects are destructible, and let’s face it: Smashing through fences and crumpling cars with a tank is just plain fun.

The developers have biplane and naval games on the way that are intended to link with World of Tanks in one big virtual combat playground. For now though, it’s all tanks, all the time, and I feel safe speaking for all the red-blooded guys out there when I say that’s just fine.