Land Of The Free is an ongoing look at the state of free-to-play gaming.
It begins with the crackle of gravel as the tracks roll onward, running over that initial, hesitant silence. The sound slows, before stopping completely, and that’s when the low whine of the servos in the turret start to sing. There’s a clunk as it stops to regard its target. The pause, here, would seem be to provide space for a pithy action one-liner, and it lets you be the one to come up with one: "Tanks for the memories!" Then there's a sound like broken thunder as it sends a shell towards whatever unfortunate was under the barrel of that particularly wide gun. The explosion, then, is distant. It sounds somewhat anti-climactic. If you’re where the tank is. Alternatively, if you’re where the shell is, I think that’s going to be a little more climactic. A little more final.
That’s a tank, to me. But that’s not a tank to World of Tanks.
You aren't there, in that world. This is a world devoid of people, and perhaps that should be obvious from the name. The thing is, it’s not until you’re on the battlefield, a dozen tanks on either side, that that absence of people on the ground becomes quite so obvious. It doesn’t last, and once you’re in the swing of things, it doesn’t matter at all, but it seems to go against all your presumptions about tanks, at least at first.
Despite being mobile angry death houses, tanks are primarily to provide support for troops. It's the tiny heroes that win the war, not their converted tractor chariots. While of course there were some pretty big tank battles in the second world war, they’re more akin to TF2’s snipers than anything; in that, if you’ve got one and the other team doesn’t, it’s going to make a massive difference. Put one on the other team, though, and they all but cancel each other out. I like to think that World of Tanks is that nullification played on a massive scale, while all the troops are fighting it out in Day of Defeat.
But even within all that cancellation, there are different types of tanks, and that's where the interesting dynamics lie. Some are small and weak, and others are huge and armoured, able to load colossal cannons on their turrets and punch holes the size of watermelons through each other. You’d think this would all gear the game up into a ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ mentality, the ultimate phallus contest, where penetration is king, but really, there’s a place for everyone, however dinky. Angry houses they are, but they don’t discriminate.
Because even though there are some small and weak tanks, they’re also crazy fast. The Leopard, one of the German Light Tanks, can get upwards of 70kph, and trying to track something that fast with a tank gun is nigh on impossible. On top of that, faster tanks can get right up into the enemy team’s face and start radio-ing their positions back to base. And back at base is where the artillery is camping out and hunkering down. The strong but slow class, the howitzers.
Artillery, as you might think, are slow, fragile, and pack the biggest punches in a game of considerably explosive fistycuffs. Except, without a team out there reporting back positions, they’re all but useless. When they do have that information, they can quickly turn the tide of any battle by sky-hammering the baddy tanks into so much scrap.
It’s this cohesion that best characterises World Of Tanks. It allows you to be useful even if you don’t really want to be. There are times when your friends abandon you and leave you to face down the IS-3 with your T-46, but really, that’s usually because they’ve got the common sense to know that they’re not taking that great hulking bastard down. And you’re hanging around to make a pointless stand. So you’re the idiot. Unless, of course, you didn’t really realise that your shells are just going to bounce off. Which means you didn’t swat up on the numbers. So you’re still the idiot.
World of Tanks has numbers. A lot of numbers. Penetration percentage, accuracy offset, suspension weight, engine capacity, armour thickness. If you’re at all interested (and self preservation has a habit of making things interesting), you can figure out the best set up possible to keep you running while they splutter and explode. And it’s this customisation aspect that makes World of Tanks more than just a game about two groups of tanks shooting at one another. It's two groups of tuned, tinkered, tailored tanks shooting at one another.
So how does that work? Well, playing in a battle gets you experience. Or, more accurately, doing damage to enemy tanks gets you experience, and winning gives you more. You pour experience into research, which unlocks better equipment, and eventually other tanks. Finding your gun, while thick and meaty, doesn’t quite have the penetration you want? Pick up something longer and thinner, and you’ll be able to punch right through. Same goes for your engine, although that’s a far more vertical progression through bigger and bigger horsepower, letting you become an ever faster hunk of dangerous.
Everything can be upgraded, including your radio, and when you’re playing as artillery or anti-tank, it’s all but essential, as radio range dictates how far away your allies can relay coordinates back to you. As your tanks get bigger and better, the weight limit comes into play far more, with you having to trade off one component against another, and really streamline what you’re trying to do with each particular tank.
Progression is a thing that feels particularly tangible thanks to the introduction of a tier system, placing each tank into one of ten tiers, each of which gets pitted against one another when you fight the battles, although there is some overlap. So when you start out you’ll be against tiers one and two, and then you move up to three and four, and so on and so on. The advantage of this, not just in having you enjoy seeing the tanks around you become more impressive and iconic, is that you rarely come up against something you can’t hope to fight. Of course, that’s a generalisation, and with quite so much ability to pick different guns and penetration values, you’re bound to run into difficult opponents. You just have to hope one of your mates has a bigger gun, so you can be emasculated, but still get out alive.
All these guns and tanks don’t come cheap, either, and you earn money in battles just like experience. If your tank gets knocked out, that’s going to cost some to repair. Same with the shells you fire, and the components you equip. The bigger and more expensive the tank, the more it’ll cost to fix up. Luckily, the bigger the tier you’re fighting in, the more money you get from each match.
At the same time, there’s gold available for purchase with cold hard cash (the real pocket-filling stuff), which you can convert into the in game currency, or buy a premium account with. OR BOTH. The premium account gives you increased experience and money, and lets you form platoons (read: teams) and play with your friends. It’s a little bit of a hard sell for a game where if you can act with tactical nous, you do that much better, but at the same time, nearly everything is available for free, apart from a few specialist tanks and ammo types.
World Of Tanks is starting to reach the end of its closed beta now, with a huge patch just on the horizon that’ll add an entire American set of tanks, along with supposedly eliminating the slight issue of teleporting tanks at range. As those additions come in, along with more maps, there’s every reason for this to become brilliantly successful. Just so long as you keep the penetration in mind.
We’ll have an interview with Wargaming.net, the Developers, up in the near future. In the meantime, go get a tank.