So, here's a quick refresher: World of Tanks had tanks and War Thunder had planes, and then World of Warplanes had planes so now War Thunder Ground Forces, currently in closed beta, has both tanks and planes fighting in the same world. I feel like these free-to-play World War II MMOs are in an arms race, and soon they'll be adding submarines and blimps and, I dunno, flying saucers. Anyway, if you're wondering if Gaijin Entertainment is as good with tanks as they are with planes, I just spent a couple days rolling around in the Ground Forces beta to find out. Let's tank a look, he said, vowing it would be his only tank pun.
The best way I can sum up Ground Forces is: it's War Thunder, but now there are tanks. There's really no adjustment period, everything still works the same, the tanks don't feel shoehorned in, or out of place. It's still the same game, except, you know... tanks. There are few different types of missions, but as in the plane portion of the game, they all basically boil down to two sides squabbling over control points. War Thunder's three familiar game modes are also present: arcade battles with plentiful respawning and extra-helpful UI targeting elements, realistic battles (formerly historical battles) with scaled-back UI and limited lives, and simulator battles, with no third person view and no on-screen markers.
Currently, only two of War Thunder's five countries are tank-enabled, Germany and the U.S.S.R, each with a light starter tank and several different branches of progressively sturdier vehicles to earn. The level of detail is on par with the planes, which is to say, the tanks look very nice.
The controls are straightforward, and the arcade matches tend toward the action-packed side, with tanks speeding all over the map, firing constantly, and of course, lots and lots of ramming. In realistic mode, matches tend to be a bit more restrained and tactical, with players concealing their tanks behind boulders and hillsides, poking their snouts out just enough to spot the enemy and send a few shells their way.
These realistic matches are generally better and feel like a dangerous game of hide and seek, rewarding the more patient players and punishing those who try to conduct a tank derby. There are a few destructible elements on the maps, like stone walls, though I hope in the future there will be more objects to blow up, especially when someone is trying to use them for cover.
As with War Thunder's plane combat, taking damage doesn't simply mean a health bar gets chipped away. A lot can happen when your tank is hit, depending on where it's hit, and by what. Occasionally a single shell will completely destroy your tank or kill your crew, but other times your tracks will be damaged, or your suspension or transmission will get fried, or you might simply catch on fire. Some damage is fixable (at the expense of movement, leaving you quite vulnerable for long, nerve-wracking seconds), and sometimes a member of your crew, like the gunner or driver, is knocked unconscious, slowing your firing rate and reloading speed until they recover.
There are only a couple of maps in the rotation, which actually works well for a beta that only operates for a few hours a day. After a handful of matches it becomes easy to memorize the best positions, the bottlenecks, and the trouble spots, and to learn where the enemy tanks will rush from and where they'll take cover. Flying planes in these missions didn't feel much different from normal War Thunder business: ground fire is ground fire, and it's hard to tell if you're being shot at from an A.I. anti-aircraft gun or a human player.
Shooting down a player-flown plane with your tank, though? That is a crazy amount of fun. You can unlock a few vehicles that specialize in anti-aircraft fire, like the GAZ-MM (a truck with an anti-aircraft cannon on the back) and I suggest you do it as soon as possible. That's mostly what I spent my time doing, because shooting down planes from a tank is even more fun than shooting down planes from a plane.
Of course, propping up all this tank-on-plane-on-tank combat is War Thunder's elaborate network of experience points (apparently now called research points, or RP), Silver Lions (the in-game currency, earned while you play) and Golden Eagles (bought with real money and traded for in-game currency), and all the menus, sub-menus, upgrades, progress bars, and sliders that come with it.
Keep in mind that using RP to unlock a new tank doesn't mean you have a new tank. You still need to buy it (with Silver Lions), and naturally, buying it doesn't mean you can drive it. You need to hire a new crew (with Lions) or train an existing crew (Lions again) on how to operate your new tank. If you're out of Lions and just can't wait to earn more by playing, that's when you punch in your credit card number and buy some Golden Eagles.
Another thing to keep in mind: your tank, while new to you, is by no means a shining, polished piece of state-of-the-art technology. It's rusty and dingy and and while it'll get you around the battlefield, it needs improvement in all respects, like mobility (suspension, brakes, engine), protection (fire suppression, camo, armor), and of course, firepower. Don't forget your crew, either, the same crew you just plunked down a couple thousand Lions for. The driver, loader, gunners, and commander can (and should) be upgraded so they'll drive better, load faster, repair quicker, and spot enemies more easily. Naturally, just about all of this slider-sliding and upgrade-ifying can be sped up with an infusion of actual currency.
Not that spending a few bucks on the game is a bad thing. When I played the plane-only version some months ago, I spent about $15 buying Eagles, and I have no regrets. War Thunder is a lot of fun, and from what I've seen in the beta, Ground Forces will make it more so. I wouldn't push anyone to spend real money on a pricey premium tank pack just to get into the closed beta, but when the beta opens up, I would absolutely recommend spending a few hours, and maybe even a few dollars, getting your tracks dirty.