War Thunder: Ground Forces – MMO Game Preview
Promising: Beautiful graphics. Huge battlefields. Combined arms air-ground interaction. Authentic ballistics and damage models. Multiple levels of realism. Customizable camouflage and decals.
Worrying: Flawed matchmaking and opaque “battle rating” system. Unintuitive and fiddly crew skills system. The need to research/unlock repair kits and fire extinguishers frustrates and prolongs the grind. Long repair times can be annoying
War Thunder: Ground Forces is the second phase of the War Thunder MMO. The first phase was the launch of air forces (read my preview of War Thunder: Air Forces here). When the naval component comes out, players will be able to fly, drive, and navigate, planes, tanks, and ships in a single seamless battlefield. Ground Forces just entered open beta, so many features are subject to change as Gaijin responds to player feedback. I’ll focus on what seems to be the core features of the game so you can get a feel for whether War Thunder: Ground Forces is for you. In my opinion, Ground Forces is a solid, promising game that has carved out its own unique niche that will be very satisfying for tankers and history buffs.
First off, a comparison to fellow tank-driving free to play MMO World of Tanks is inevitable (just as I covered the difference between the original War Thunder and World of Tanks / Warplanes on my blog). I can’t say that one is better than the other—they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Instead, they occupy different niches. To borrow an analogy from first person shooters, War Thunder is the Red Orchestra to World of Tanks’ Call of Duty, i.e., more realistic and with a sharper learning curve and a more thoughtful pace as opposed to the frantic, but more balanced, action of World of Tanks. In describing War Thunder’s features I’ll reference World of Tanks so that veteran tankers will know what to expect.
The biggest difference between WoT and War Thunder is their damage modeling. Unlike WoT, War Thunder’s vehicles do not have hitpoints. Instead, the game’s ballistics simulator determines whether a shot penetrated, bounced, or caused armor spalling, then determines which (if any) modules or crew members were damaged. Killing an enemy requires knowing how to maximize your odds of penetration and where to aim on each specific tank to score a critical hit. Unlike World of Tanks, where you always know (roughly) how many hits are required for a kill, it’s entirely possible to blow up an enemy’s ammo rack on your first shot. Conversely, a shot to penetrate but hit nothing important.
Ballistics are modeled more realistically than in World of Tanks. Unlike WoT, the player must manually elevate the gun and estimate the range to target. Additionally, different ammunition types fly at different velocities from the same gun and can have dramatically different trajectories; APCR tends to fly flat and fast, while HE tends to be lobbed in a pronounced arc. Like World of Tanks, different shells have dramatically different penetrations at various ranges. AP and APCR have higher penetration at close ranges, but HEAT shells have the same penetration at 10 meters or 1,500. Unlike WoT, the different ammunition types even have different terminal ballistics; APHE shells with their bursting charges are more likely to do damage than pure AP or APCR, while sometimes APCR will do a ‘through and through’ and hit nothing important. It pays to carry a variety of shells into a battle and know the advantages and drawbacks of each.
The other key difference from World of Tanks is in the size of the maps and the engagement ranges. You could fit a World of Tanks map into a corner of a War Thunder battleground. When you’re flying a plane in a combined arms battle, you can see that the tanks’ battle arena is in turn just a small corner of a humongous battlefield. Consequently, the engagement ranges are closer to what they were in real life. Whereas in World of Tanks 500m is considered a long-range shot, you can potentially shoot and kill targets a kilometer or more away in War Thunder. The Kursk map, currently only available in Simulator mode (more on that below), is truly huge. Like its namesake battle, it is tens of square kilometers of wide open-killing ground. Cresting a ridge on Kursk to see dozens of enemy, friendly, and AI tanks battling it out while planes wheel overhead is breathtaking.
These massive battlefields would be less impressive if the graphics couldn’t keep up, and Gaijin doesn’t disappoint. The tanks themselves are rendered in HD every bit as good, if not better, than World of Tanks newly upgraded 9.0 graphics, and on top of that the terrain is gorgeous. Grass sways in the breeze. Wheat fields ripple as the steel beasts drive through. Pillars of smoke dot the horizon from burning hulks. My computer is too old to run the game at a playable framerate on maximum settings (appropriately called “Movie” in the graphical options menu), but even at medium settings it’s very immersive. All the pretty polygons are backed up by solid sound design—each tank gun has its own unique sound, shell and artillery impacts are bone jarring, and the “thunk” of your tank being penetrated will cause your heartbeat to race. In tanks with hand-cranked turrets you can even hear the crew frantically spin the wheels as you grind the gun around toward a target. The only problem on the sound front is the spotty voice acting, but that’s a very minor complaint. In a related complaint, Gaijin desperately needs a native English speaker on their staff, as the game, website, and press releases are still full of mistranslations and awkward phrases. But, again, it’s more an amusing quirk than a serious problem.
Like in War Thunder air forces, players can customize their tank’s camouflage and paint scheme, all of which are rendered in glorious high definition. They can pick premade camo schemes, then rotate, enlarge, or even distress the pattern to simulate battlefield wear and tear. You can choose to drive a factory-fresh, gleaming feldgrau Panzer III or a camouflaged T-34 that looks like it’s been attacked with a chainsaw and sulfuric acid. You can also add decals. Inevitably, players do all sorts of fun and creative things with them—I put grinning shark’s teeth on my KV-1 turret. Just be warned, if the idea of seeing a Panzer IV in checkered motley (see screenshots below) gives you indigestion, take your Tums before playing, because it seems there’s always that one guy in a match. If you’re a real stickler for authenticity, you can even create and import Custom Skins. These can be anything you want; I expect some players will want to use authentic Nazi, SS, and Soviet markings that are banned from the game at large, though I must note that any Custom Skins you use, unlike standard camo schemes and decals, are client-side and thus visible to you only. This is the best of both worlds—the hardcore history sticklers get to drive a Tiger with authentic Totenkopf skulls and swastikas, while people who don’t care for them don’t have to see them.
Just as in Air Forces, Ground Forces comes in three different realism levels, so you can choose what best fits your playstyle and mood. “Arcade” is where most players will get their start. Killed players can respawn in as many different vehicles as they have garage slots (and all vehicles other than heavy tanks get at least two spawns each). The ability to respawn in all modes keeps the potential one-hit-kill damage model from making players overly cautious. All enemy tanks spotted by your crew or allies are highlighted with a name above the tank and a red silhouette. You still have to manually aim the gun, but a shot drop and penetration indicator is provided.
“Realistic” mode is a step up the learning curve, and players can only use one vehicle (or plane) in a match, but get a respawn in that tank, as long as it’s not a heavy. The main difference from Arcade is you get no shot drop or penetration indicator—you must estimate the range and aim manually.
“Simulator” mode is the real meat of the game. In simulator, you get no aiming assistance whatsoever. Furthermore, you can only play from the commander’s cupola or the gunsight; there’s no third person view at all. Finally, enemy tanks do not get marked with names or silhouettes, even if your crew has spotted them. You have to use your own eyes to find targets. The use of trees, bushes, and your own camouflage for concealment is critical. This is the hidden gem of War Thunder: Ground Forces—intimidating at first glance, but surprisingly accessible (far more so than in Air Forces) and full of depth. Now that I’m more familiar with the game, I play Simulator almost exclusively. Arcade is only for familiarizing myself with a tank and for the occasional quick laugh. Simulator mode is where War Thunder really hangs its hat and declares the clearest difference between itself and World of Tanks, and in my opinion is the game’s real heart. Again, it may not be for everybody, but it can be extremely satisfying to put in the work and be rewarded with a kill.
Another neat touch is War Thunder’s use of artillery. Most of the time light tanks will have great difficulty penetrating heavy tanks and even some mediums except at point blank range. To make up for this, lights and some mediums can unlock the ability to call in AI controlled artillery. Those howitzers can disable even a heavy tank and can allow a concealed light tank in a good position to rack up the kills. Unfortunately, tanks cannot (yet) mark targets for friendly aircraft, but that may come in a future patch.
Whereas World of Tanks and World of Warplanes are separate games that never interact, one of War Thunder’s big ambitions has always been the interaction of players in the air and on the ground in combined arms battles, and they’ve achieved it here. Planes can drop bombs and strafe tanks with cannons and rockets, while players in AAA vehicles can fire right back. For anyone worried that tanks would be utterly helpless against planes, let me put your fears to rest. First, planes have great difficulty spotting player-controlled tanks—again, use of concealment yields great rewards. Second, lining up a bombing run and hitting a tank, especially a moving tank, requires real skill. Anybody hoping to jump into an IL-2 Sturmovik and effortlessly dominate a match is in for a rude surprise.
I have a few concerns, but since this is still in a beta, there’s ample time for Gaijin to tweak and even radically overhaul every feature mentioned here. First off, I’m not a fan of War Thunder’s new ranking and matchmaking system. Instead of the 20-tier system from back when I reviewed War Thunder: Air Forces, everything is crammed into five tiers. This can lead to some weird mismatches—little tanks with 20mm and 37mm peashooters can potentially go up against other Tier I tanks with heavier armor than they can penetrate, and heaven help them when they are in a match with Tier II heavies. Again, the lights have access to artillery and APCR, but those benefits must be unlocked first. To complicate things, each tank also has a “Battle Rating” which somehow influences the matchmaker in some arcane way. Again, it’s a work in progress, and I wish they would go to a more transparent ten- or twenty-tier system.
Speaking of unlocks, Ground Forces makes players grind for some features that I feel should be built in. The biggest problem is that, upon unlocking a new tank, you must play a few matches to unlock repair kits and fire extinguishers—yes, you will be playing your first few matches without the ability to repair a damaged track or put out an engine fire. If you’re immobilized or your gun is knocked out, you are officially out of luck and have to abandon that tank. Or, you can throw some real money (Golden Eagles) at your tank and unlock them immediately. This feels more like a cynical money grab than anything else Gaijin has done. The time required to repair an immobilized tank is also quite long – sometimes several minutes if multiple modules were knocked out. This is more authentic than World of Tanks 15-30 second repair times, but it can get seriously frustrating and break up the pace of a match.
My final point of concern is the length of the matches, particularly in arcade. Capture points change hands and force a win so quickly that some arcade matches are over in less than five minutes. I’ve played single-point capture matches in a slow KV-1 and not even gotten to see an enemy before my team has lost, which makes me feel very disconnected from the results of the match. I’ll say this for World of Tanks – if your team loses by capping (capturing the objective point) there, it’s because your team is either mostly dead or have otherwise screwed up royally. If you lose early from capping in War Thunder, it’s because more enemy tanks rushed the cap earlier than your own teammates. Things are much better in Simulator mode, where matches are mostly won by killing the enemy team and point captures take a longer time.
Having covered where Ground Forces falls short, let me clarify: this is a good game that I enjoy. It occupies a different niche (especially in Simulator) than World of Tanks and I have been happily switching between the two games depending on my mood. WoT is great for when I want to crack open a beer, load up a Panzer IC and play Mario Kart with guns or roll around in my mighty TOG II, reveling in my massive hitpoint pool and the fun lack of realism. I reserve War Thunder’s Simulator mode for sober forays into a more authentic brand of tanking. Overall, War Thunder: Ground Forces is a solid, engaging start to what I expect will continue to evolve and grow into a fantastic game experience unlike anything else out there.
About the Author
Matt Richardson is a freelance social media consultant and web traffic analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a degree in History from Davidson College, with a special interest in military history and the Civil War. He has rotted his mind with video games since childhood. You can follow Matt at @MT_Richardson and read his blog at Ritalingamer.com.