We're Playing It, and So Should You: War Thunder
The concept of "free-to-play" has become the dirty word in the video game world, right up there with Gamergate or Bobby Kotick. That's primarily due to the fact that 99% of all FTP games are shit, totally unrequited shit. They usually require large amounts of grinding to get new characters, items, or other in-game things, and put all of the really exciting things behind a pay wall. Even worse than that, they restrict how often you can play a game due to an energy system that allots you a certain amount of energy, giving you more over time. Of course, you can always use real money to buy more energy. It comes off as money hungry, but enough people buy into it that it has become one of the most profitable forms of casual gaming.
With that in mind, War Thunder has become my new go-to free-to-play game, replacing Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2. While TF 2 and DOTA 2 are fun, the unlock system in both games is through random drops. I don't really have a problem with random drops, except for when I play TF2 for a couple hours without a drop, only to get one after playing for 10 minutes the next day. It's jarring and upsetting, especially when the drop is a chest that requires a real money purchase of a key to open it. That's the Valve way; it's in all three of their big titles, and will continue to plague their games. However, in War Thunder, aside from a handful of planes for each country, everything is unlockable just by playing the game, which is a refreshing change.
War Thunder puts the player in the control of either tanks or airplanes from the Spanish Civil War to the Korean War, allowing the player to switch between five countries on the fly. Each of the countries (USA, Germany, China, Britain, Japan) have their own research tree with a large amount of vehicles to choose from. I have spent most of my time in the US tree, taking to the sky in Hellcats and Corsairs, shooting down opposing players. The amount of planes per research tree is truly astounding, with multiple variations on a single type of plane, allowing for a player to pick a plane that truly fits their play-style. If the player is looking for power over speed, there are assault fighters, and then if the player wants real power, they can choose a massive bomber.
Most free-to-play games lack the polish that is present in AAA titles due to the fact that the game exists solely to string the player along. However, War Thunder's developer Gaijin has put care into the development of the visuals for the game. All of the planes are masterfully rendered, and look great in combat. Along with a third-person view, all of the cockpits are accurately rendered for a first-person option that presents an interesting challenge to the player. There is also a large variety of levels in which you can engage in aerial dogfights, ranging from Russia to Berlin, all with interesting terrain to navigate. There are few free-to-play titles with the amount of polish that War Thunder has.
The gameplay is also fantastic, as it offers a choice between a realistic or a more arcade-style battles. The arcade-style features a leading target reticle to help with aiming at enemies, immediate start in mid-air, and a more durable aircraft. It's an easy way for beginners to the genre to get their feet wet and learn the basics of dogfighting. The realistic mode however is tough, even for a experienced player such as myself, mainly due to the realistic durability of the plane, which only takes one or two hits to be destroyed, and the lack of aiming reticle. It's a challenge, but one that yields more rewards for the players. Both match types offer options for experienced and newcomers alike. There is an option for campaign that allows the player to either play historical campaigns or dynamic campaigns that follow real-life events.
The real appeal of the game is being able to upgrade your planes and then take them out to battle, chasing down opponents and engaging in massive dogfights. The two main in-game currencies, silver lions and golden eagles, are used, along with research points, to purchase planes and modifications for those planes. While additional golden eagles are scarce in quantity, more can be purchased with real money, the silver lions are plentiful and used for almost all of the purchases in the game. Spending silver lions will allow the player to buy newly researched planes, plane modifications, and even select specific armament upgrades in-battle for the plane. After every match, research points and silver lions are rewarded to the player along with medals for specific in-game achievements such as taking down a plane two levels higher than the player's plane. It's exhilarating to get a new plane and take it out for a spin, shooting down enemies and bombing bases.
My only issue with the game is that there isn't enough variety when it comes to match type, unfortunately. There are only two, either "Ground Strike", which focuses on destruction of enemy ground units, or "Domination", which requires taking over enemy airfields. With a game that involves dogfighting, I was a little surprised that there weren't escort missions or search and destroy missions. They would be a welcome addition to the game, adding more variety for the players.
War Thunder is what all free-to-play games should aspire to be. It has epic battles, access to 99% of all the in-game content, and deep customization all without having to spend a dime. Pair that with excellent gameplay and stunning visuals, and you get an exciting entry into the ever-growing free-to-play landscape that should satiate fans of both war simulation and dogfighting games alike.
(Note: I haven't really gotten a chance to play the tank warfare, mostly because I haven't been able to get into a match.)