World of Warplanes – MMO Game Review
Passed Inspection: Wide range of historical planes, accessible controls, effective match-making
Failed Basic: Purchase dependent, extensive built-in grind, very little in the way of immersion, straddles the line between flight sim and arcade game
In the last couple of years, Belarusian company Wargaming has taken the world by storm. Its flagship game, World of Tanks is a global phenomenon enjoyed by more than 78 million players, and Wargaming hopes to match that success with that game’s follow-up, World of Warplanes. The thing is, World of Tanks‘ widespread appeal is due to three very important things: easy-to-learn controls, good match-making, and a wide variety of war machines. Strangely enough, when taken to a higher altitude these elements aren’t nearly as compelling.
In various ways, World of Warplanes clearly demonstrates Wargaming’s efforts to make its games accessible to casual players. The most obvious is its control system. Flight sims can be daunting to the uninitiated, and World of Warplanes addresses that head-on by utilizing a simple mouse and keyboard approach. A brief three-part tutorial helps new players learn the ropes, enabling them to join online battles within mere minutes. Even without the tutorial, the controls are easy enough to figure out: the camera moves with the mouse, planes bank and turn with the S and D keys, and a temporary speed boost is activated with the W key. The weapon loadout is handled just as simply, with the left mouse button firing the main gun, the R key firing rockets, and the B key dropping bombs. The F key also enables a more zoomed-in view for handy ground targeting, although the default view is broad enough to make the zoom more or less superfluous.
Basic comprehension of these controls is enough to jump into Standard Battle mode, the point of which is to score points by taking out enemy ground targets, or to destroy all of the enemies’ aircraft. To start, you’re given five Tier I aircraft, among them the Gloster Goldfinch, the Nakajima Type-91 and the Boeing P-12. All of these are light and fairly easy to maneuver. You also get your own aircraft hangar to keep them in and where you can customize the look of your planes, beef up their engines, and upgrade their weaponry.
Of course, getting used to your new flying machines takes time so don’t expect to do too well your first few battles. At their longest, battles last around five minutes and when you’re just starting out, they’re likely to be much shorter—and much more fiery-death-oriented. Fortunately, once you’ve died you don’t have to wait out the rest of the battle as a spectator, since you’re given the option to return to the hangar. If you elect to go back to the hangar, you’re disallowed from using the plane that’s still engaged in battle (it’s considered engaged even if it’s nothing more than a smoking ruin on a hillside) until that battle’s over, but the good news is, you can enter a new battle right away with any of your other aircraft.
If you choose to stay in a battle to cheer on your team after you’ve been shot down, you can use the left mouse button to shift the camera’s view among other allied planes. This is actually a decent way to study more experienced players’ techniques and get familiar with the map without having to focus on staying alive.
Whether you survive or not, once the battle’s over, stat screens display how you and your team did and, if you care about such things, your hangar-accessible Service Record shows you other pertinent things such as the number of battles you’ve been in, how many you’ve won, lost and survived.
Experience in battle grants you two types of currency: credits and free XP. These are used to purchase new aircraft and upgrades for your existing ones. A third currency, gold, is awarded on rare occasion, in little dribs and drabs, but for the most part must be purchased from Wargaming’s online store, using real-world cash. (Wargaming.net‘s site shows prices range from US $6.95 for 1,250 pieces of gold to $159.99 for 40,000 pieces.—Ed.) Strictly speaking, gold and what you can purchase with it (Premium accounts and aircraft) aren’t necessary to play World of Warplanes, but if you choose not to spend any real money, you’ll have to accept that you’ll be flying the same planes forever, or resign yourself to an extremely long and tedious R&D grind.
This is a shame, because the role-playing aspect of World of Warplanes—with fewer monetary barriers—would be for some players, the whole point of the game. Things can easily get expensive because in addition to being able to purchase and upgrade aircraft from Germany, Japan, the U.S, the U.K. and the U.S.S.R., you can buy all kinds of consumables such as optical sights, armored accessories and high-octane fuel. Further, you can recruit a barracks full of pilots whose skills can also be upgraded. Pilots can be trained for specific planes and can be granted more Stamina, Increased View Range and better Fire Fighting ability. They can also become better skilled at dropping bombs, firing projectiles and maneuvering difficult aircraft. Once again however, this system is somewhat hamstrung by its dependency on gold/real-world money. It’s also missing—for lack of a better word—flavor.
It’s hard not to feel Wargaming missed an opportunity here for some interesting role-playing. As you create your roster of pilots and customize your planes, it’d be good to feel a sense of ownership, teamwork and “fighting the good fight.” It doesn’t really happen though. World War II evokes (at least for Americans) nostalgic images of daring missions performed by courageous flyboys bound by cocky camaraderie. World of Warplanes’ presentation has none of that romance and because of this, it’s pretty dry. This discouraging lack of character extends to the battlefield as well, where the game straddles an uncomfortable line between flight sim and arcade game.
World of Warplanes is played from a third-person perspective with the camera placed outside the plane, and some distance behind it. While this makes sense technically, since you’re a commander directing pilots rather than a pilot yourself, the effect is oddly distancing. You spend the battle looking at the tail end of your plane (and your often weirdly inert gunner) and that makes it hard to react all that strongly when your plane gets shot down. It’s like you’re a spectator all the time, not just after you’ve done a tailspin into a sand dune. You die, hit the hangar button, pick another plane and enter another battle. Die again, hit the hangar button, pick yet another a plane, enter another battle. And so on. While this formula beats being forced to sit around waiting until the battle’s over or having to pay through the nose every time your plane is destroyed, it makes the game feel much like (insert the name of any online shooter here); the only difference is that with each repetitive and meaningless death, you respawn in a different battle rather than the same one.
Of course, not fearing death is only part of the problem. The player base’s general lack of teamwork also contributes to the game’s sense of emotional distance. Battles are entered and exited so quickly, there’s little opportunity to bond with other players or devise plans of attack. Occasionally, one player will attempt to direct the rest and that player is then summarily ignored as everyone zooms as fast as they can to their fiery demise. There’s also little-to-no sense that teams are working together to take out ground targets. Because of this, one battle blurs into the next, especially since at first only two maps are available in Standard Battle mode.
This is all fairly disappointing, but there is some good news. The game’s inherent repetition can be mitigated by doing crazy in-air stunts like buzzing ground targets and winning games of airborne “chicken.” It’s also pretty cool to end up the last pilot alive on your team and still bring home a victory. Best of all is the feeling you get when your team has those rare players who role-play as World War II flying aces and they wish you a hearty “Good hunting!” Moments like these can leave you breathless, laughing out loud, or downright pumped to win one for FDR (or the Queen, Stalin, the Emperor or the Fuhrer) and Wargaming deserves credit for that.
They also deserve credit for the effort they’ve made to create a game that’s as good-looking and sounding as World of Warplanes is. The game’s planes look fantastic, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them transform as you paint them and purchase mechanical upgrades. Its environments and atmospheric effects are equally nice (it’s especially hairy flying through fog on the Harbor map) and the orchestral music score has just the right amount of pomp and heroism. On top of this, every screen and menu is highly polished, making for a presentation that’s clean and cohesive.
In the end, World of Warplanes is a prime example of unrealized potential. It’s not realistic or immersive enough to be a flight sim, but it’s not stylized or simple enough to be an arcade game. And although it tosses in a morsel of role-playing, it’s not enough to sink our teeth into, and its World War II flavor only leaves us wanting more. As a result, it’s the kind of game likely to attract airplane buffs with lots of disposable income or gamers looking for quick, non-taxing combat. World War II die-hards and flight sim enthusiasts are likely to give this one a pass.
Armchair General Rating: 75%
About the Author
Neilie Johnson is a twelve-year veteran of the video game industry. Currently, she works as a freelance narrative designer and game journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.