No-one swaggers like Wargaming.net. Rocking up to E3 2012 in sensational style, the undisputed kings of free-to-play draped the convention halls in their colours, parked a real warplane outside the doors and set up shop in a lavishly-appointed paddock dripping with monitors, competitions and uniformed trade show models. In the face of this obvious opulence, the likes of Activision and EA looked somewhat strapped and meagre by comparison.
It's the sort of wanton behaviour that sometimes backfires, but Wargaming.net have indisputably earned their success and goodwill. By creating a top-quality product with World Of Tanks, a tactical masterpiece that rewards skill over microtransactions and encourages users to play together without ever having to pay a penny, they've rallied a massive player base to their banner, hungry for each new update and tech tree.
Wargaming.net plans to expand their Royal Family over the next year with two new titles, taking the tactical simulation action to entirely new theatres of war. World Of Warplanes is set to transport the team-based action to the wild blue yonder, so after being impressed by an early build at Gamescom 2011, I was keen to see how the project is shaping up after an extra year of development. To cut a long story short, it's going to be the next big thing.
World of Warplanes takes a familiar tack in terms of gametypes. Two teams of fifteen players will throw down in furious one-life furballs, strapping into a massive selection of realistic warplanes from World War II up to the start of the Vietnam war. As with World Of Tanks, different planes boast markedly different handling characteristics and combat roles, from lumbering bombers to nippy interceptors and insane prototype jets like the German Messerschmitt Me 262 Jet Fighter. Though the upgrade system is still under development, its modular structure will allow players to customise their modular machines with authentic (I'll be using that word a lot) faction-based technology that was used in real engagements, meaning that we'll be able to look at documentaries of famous battles and think, "wow, I fly a plane using that exact configuration."
To accommodate this new sense of scale and speed, the varied maps are now twelve times larger than World Of Tanks, scaling up to 16x16 if the majority of players are using the faster jets. Not only will many of these levels contain diverse topographies, such as valleys to fly through, bridges to fly underneath and streets to strafe, but they also house a selection of ground targets for each team. Destroying an opponent's bunkers, silos and tanks will score points for your side, ensuring that each wing will want to take a balanced selection of units into battle. Massive bombers and attackers will make light work of an enemy fortification using the slick bombing mechanics (just point and shoot, basically), yet they will need to be stalwartly protected by vigilant wingmen piloting interceptors. Teamwork is already a huge part of the World Of Tanks experience, and Warplanes will seriously up the ante.
Flight sims fell from grace for a number of reasons, but unintuitive controls are arguably the genre's greatest weakness. When designing World Of Warplanes, Wargaming.net set out to ensure that the mechanics feel authentic without providing a barrier to entry. To that end, the default control scheme uses an accessible mouse/keyboard setup, with players dragging around an on-screen vector that indicates their direction of travel. Velocity and flaps are mapped to WASD, and the system becomes second nature after a couple of minutes of play (though, in fairness' sake, I should point out that I accidentally wrecked my ME 262 by engaging a rival aircrafthead-on, much to the amusement of the hardcore beta players). The result is a simulation that can be enjoyed by everyone, and that lets us take care of business without being constantly forced to engage in pointless busywork. World Of Warplanes will also support gamepads and joysticks, letting more advanced players enjoy a traditional flight sim experience with none of the aggravating learning curve.
The visuals have improved in leaps and bounds since Gamescom 2011, showcasing some glittering water effects, crackling heat haze from the ME 262's engines and dynamic lighting that will allow players to hide in front of the sun or wrap themselves in shadow. Real-time damage modelling is extremely impressive, with bullets ripping smoking holes through canvas wings and fuselages. It's a nifty cosmetic touch, but taking damage will directly factor into the gameplay, such as limiting manoeuvrability upon taking hits to ailerons or flaps. In terms of visual customisation, players will be able to unlock a range of camouflage options, but squadron markings and decals are automatically assigned, and taken directly from classic planes, pilots and units. The community is hungry for authenticity and Wargaming.net are eager to deliver.
In terms of monetization (in contrast to several F2P games I could mention), World Of Warplanes will still focus on skill over cheeky monetization. While we'll be able to buy premium ammo and a few cosmetic flourishes, it's not going to be possible to pay to win, and an elite free pilot will still dominate an inexperienced whale in every engagement. Wargaming.net would never have been successful had they allowed us to purchase success instead of earn it, and World Of Warplanes will continue in this laudable philosophy. Players will spend money because they want to deepen the experience, not because they feel they have to in order to complete. Relying on goodwill and community rather than cynically chiselling at every opportunity can be a risky strategy for a free-to-play game, but considering the success of World Of Tanks, it's clear that Wargaming.net have the right attitude.
So, in short, World Of Warplanes is set to be the next big thing in the free-to-play market: a skilful, authentic flight sim that doesn't compromise on thrills or accessibility. In fact, it's going to be the next... well... World Of Tanks.
Wargaming.net: A Website Will Rise
Now that WoT has surpassed thirty million players worldwide, Wargaming.net feel that their portal is due for an update. Instead of the slightly confusing setup running at the moment, Wargaming.net is going to become a common point of entry to the franchise: a safe and secure environment that's solely designed for players, not investors. Users will be able to securely transfer resources between all three games and indulge in social features through a unified ID, netting the three disparate titles into a single battle for world domination.
Taking over the world requires a strong base to build from, and hopefully this new front-end will deliver a cohesive point of contact for players when it rolls out later this year.