Review: War Thunder (with Ground Forces)

Seven months after the game was released for the PlayStation 4 in the EU, and almost two years after the game went into open beta on PC, War Thunder has finally arrived for PlayStation 4 on North American shores. A free-to-play massively multiplayer pre-World War II to Korean War era (1939 to 1953) combat vehicle simulator, War Thunder is nothing if not ambitious. Originally titled World of Planes, the game was soon after renamed War Thunder to both distance itself from the similarly titled World of Warplanes and to better reflect the long term goal of having the game encompass not only air forces, but also ground and naval forces as well. It’s clear developer Gaijin Entertainment wants the game to be THE premiere multiplayer vehicle combat sim, and their background developing titles like IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey and Birds of Steel seems to have served them well.

Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Publisher: Gaijin Entertainment
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Available On: PC, Mac
Release Date: Available Now

BRB-Score-4

I first played War Thunder back in September 2013 on PC when the games open beta was just kicking into high gear. The Ground Forces expansion which added tanks had not yet been implemented. Things like aiming and hit detection were a lot rougher back then. Nonetheless I had a lot of fun and even spent money on the game. High praise coming from a wary F2P curmudgeon like myself. Alas my PC rig was just not very good. Even though War Thunder has very reasonable system requirements, I still had to trim down my settings much more than I liked. It felt like such a waste not being able to play the game at its best. Driven by this and the bevy of new titles that hit us every holiday season, I tucked War Thunder away, just waiting for me to get a new PC. Or as fate would have it, a PlayStation 4.

The very first thing I took note of after booting up the game for the first time on the PS4 was that I had to create a new account. My old PC account could not be used. This slight annoyance is a result of Sony Computer Entertainment policy rather than a mistake on the part of Gaijin Entertainment though. The hope is one day this will change and accounts could be merged. There’s obviously different circumstances at play, but knowing another MMO, Final Fantasy XIV, was able to share one account across three different platforms (PS3, PS4 and PC) makes not being able to do so in War Thunder sting a bit more than it would otherwise. Hilariously, you CAN use a PlayStation 4 account to play on PC.

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Gaijin Entertainment has made an obvious effort to make the game inviting to new players and migrants from the PC version. War Thunder supports head tracking via PlayStation Camera. The game supports a mouse and keyboard option. This is important because while the game is playable with a controller, the sheer complexity of combat makes a mouse and keyboard noticeably better. The camera while using a controller can drive you mad. Cross-platform play with PC players is also supported. Every PlayStation 4 player gets a free decal. The console version also get a piece of exclusive DLC in the form of the US attack plane the A26-C Invader. PlayStation Plus subscribers get another free decal as well as a 15% discount when purchasing content. Unfortunately the game does not have trophy support at this time.

Once you’ve created a new account and made it to the main hub you immediately feel overwhelmed and a bit confused. War Thunder is a deeply complex, detail oriented game and the User Interface is not very good at organizing the vast array of menus into an easily understood system. With a possible 350 planes, 70 armoured vehicles, not to mention research trees, vehicles modifications, crew improvements, campaigns, modes, general options and more; there is an incredible amount of information being pushed at you. War Thunder has a number of clever tutorials in-game that do a good job of explaining the basics.

That said you’ll have to do some secondary research on your own outside the game to really understand the finer points. Luckily the main website has treasure trove of clear information broken down just waiting for you to dig into. In-game other players tend to be ruthless but offline, as a community, they are among the best I’ve interacted with in my many years of gaming. The sheer complexity of War Thunder forces a base line of maturity from devoted players. It’s not hard at all to find excellent guides in the official forums or YouTube. The relationship between Gaijin Entertainment and their community is obviously a strong one and it shows in how the two have come together to make a title as vast as War Thunder enjoyable for everyone.

You start off with a number of starter (reserve) planes from the games five playable nations (US, USSR, Germany, Britain and Japan). Only two nations currently have tanks: Germany and the Soviet Union. Having focused on Japan when I had previously played the game on PC, this time I decided to place my focus on Germany. I did dabble with the other nations offerings though of course. You can take your vehicle(s) of choice into three different types of battles: Arcade, Realistic or Simulator. Arcade is the most forgiving, with a “leading marker” making aiming much easier when flying as well as simplified damage and physics. Realistic is a bit more difficult, with more realistic damage and no “leading marker.” G-forces matter, your pilot can easily black out and you can even tear your plane apart if you’re not careful. Realistic mode requires players to land to repair and reload. This is by far the best and most popular mode once you have learned the ins and outs of the game.

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Simulator mode is the crucible which separates the Red Baron‘s from the John Doe’s.  In this mode only the first person view of the cockpit is allowed. Physics and other elements are tweaked to be as unforgiving as they would be in real life and the mode is not recommended at all if you don’t have a flight-stick. Support for flight-sticks has not been implemented yet on PS4 but it will be in a future update. The Realistic and Simulator game modes are where you’ll be heading if you want to play any of the games joint forces battles (Tanks and Planes fighting together).

The game also supports purchasable single player campaigns complete with WWII-era footage of real battles in the mission briefings. They are a nice change of pace from the often brutal multiplayer experience. They serve as a good place to master the basics and enjoy a bit of history. There’s a number of scenarios and dynamic campaigns you can play on your own or with 3 friends in online co-op.

Once you’ve got your bearings and actually start a battle you instantly understand why this game has such a large and loyal fan base. Gaijin Entertainment has said they have over 5 million players now. Flying in formation high above the clouds with a couple buddies, then diving at breakneck speed towards the enemy, air whistling, engines roaring and guns blazing feels and looks incredible. The maps are massive and lush. The attention to detail when it comes to specific planes and tanks in War Thunder is astounding, inside the cockpit and out. The game looks and runs very well on the PlayStation 4. Wings get chewed up by machine gun fire, pilots are gunned down through their canopies, armour is hammered and vehicles burn and explode with a satisfying, visceral feel. The terrain does have some rough spots to it, as the majority of the attention has been paid to the vehicles themselves, but it still looks like the battlefield you’d expect it to.

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When it comes to selecting your vehicle, even slight differences matter. Some vehicles have multiple versions denoting their various real world incarnations. Do you want a faster tank or one that can go to toe-to-toe? Do you want to fly a bomber or an attack plane? Have you invested in modifications and crew training? The depth of customization and choice carries over into the battles themselves in a very tangible way. The game is all about earning what you get and does a good job of showing you some sort of tangible reward or improvement even when your latest battle did not go so well.

The differences between Tank and Plane combat make it feel sometimes like War Thunder is two games in one (soon to be 3 games in 1 once Naval forces are eventually added). Having driven tanks and planes in a non-simulator game like Battlefield, with the complexity of driving those vehicles trimmed down to just the basics, diving into War Thunder makes me feel like I’m 16 again. Just learning how to drive stick for the first time after having learned to drive on an automatic.

Flying comes with a whole set of different variables to consider than pounding the ground in a tank does. Flying is a seat-of-your-pants adrenaline rush whereas driving a tank feels much more tactical and deliberate but still immanently satisfying. Whether you’re weaving through the mountains hunting down a pilot who just killed your wingman or angling for the best long range shot at a tanks weak point, both vehicle choices have a lot to offer. The Ground Forces expansion which added tanks is nowhere near as fleshed out as its plane based counterpart but it is undeniably fun. Especially once I started to pick up on just how important “playing the angles” and deliberate targeting was when it comes to tank combat.

Each battle nets you XP and Silver Lions, which, alongside research, will allow you to buy new planes/tanks, new modifications and train your crew. Golden Eagles, the in-game currency you purchase with real money allows you to buy months of Premium status which, like many F2P titles, gives you certain bonuses. It also allows you to buy premium vehicles which come pre-packaged with a locked set of modifications. Which is nice if you just want to have something with all the fixings to go into battle with but does not give you any tangible advantage given how many other factors are always at play. The best planes in the game are NOT premium ones.

You basically use Golden Eagles to help you acquire things faster but there is nothing you can buy that gives you a decided edge over people who have less cash. There are lots of “starter packs” which will be very familiar if you’ve played a F2P game in the last 5 years. I spent most of my Lions and Eagles expanding available bays to house more vehicles, fast tracking a few planes and speeding up research. For a F2P game War Thunder is not in your face constantly asking for your money. The biggest incentive I found for spending real money revolves around how long you have to wait to research things.

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Rival developer Wargaming has World of Warplanes and World of Tanks that both offer similar experiences to what War Thunder does, albeit not on PlayStation. Wargaming even has a third game in development called World of Warships, meaning they’ll be gunning for War Thunder on all fronts. However, those are all separate titles with no chance of joint forces combat and no cross-platform play. War Thunder’s Ground Forces is not as fleshed out as World of Tanks is yet, but even so I definitely preferred it. World of Warplanes versus War Thunder‘s aerial offering may just come down to taste for most players but here too I have to side with War Thunder. So I guess I’ve picked my side in the great combat sim war.

Deep mechanics and loads of customization options
Attention to detail
Cross-platform and mouse/keyboard support
Fair Free-to-Play model
Vast menu system could use a major overhaul
No trophy support yet
Steep learning curve
Playing with a controller is less than ideal. Camera control in particular.

I’m by no means an ace yet but I’ve very much enjoyed my time with War Thunder so far. With the PlayStation 4 library still relatively sparse and the summer dry spell starting there has never been a better time to give this game a try. War Thunder has a pretty brutal learning curve and can be more than a bit overwhelming at first. But if you stick with it you’ll find a game that rewards you for your investment. It’s the closest gamers can come to understanding what World War 2 era battles looked and felt like (minus infantry). The game has an absolutely fair F2P model, receives constant updates, has a good relationship with its community and its ambition only seems to grow even more each year. War Thunder is a brutal blast and I hope to see you all on the battlefield. I need the target practice.

Review copy and Ultra Advanced Pack provided by Gaijin Entertainment
Official Game Site

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