Bombs exploded behind me. I could hear them, hollow and ominous as they reverberated through my cockpit, but I dared not look behind me. Bullet tracers scored my vision and a rapid fire plunk, plunk, plunk sounded from the fuselage: I had a tail. I twisted my small fighter to point its wing towards the sky and slice the air. My plane was now a cut in the air and that much harder to hit. I dove for the ravine. My plan was a suicidal ruse. I would dare the steep walls to lose my pursuer. But this was War Thunder, a game where everything was a risk. I pulled out of the first bend to find my assailant turning back to the fight. Big mistake. That lack of daring was going to cost him.
When I came around, it didn’t take me long to sneak up behind him and lace his plane with bullet holes. It was no matter that I had only started playing the game a few short hours before. Or that I was just re-discovering my air-legs. The pilot didn’t have the commitment to follow me into steep-walled riverbed. He tried to evade but I had the bead on him. I ended that match tying for the lead in kills and feeling slightly mystified at how easily the game had slipped into being second nature. What so many games struggle to accomplish, War Thunder does with aplomb.
This ease might be the game’s greatest asset. That I could adapt so quickly and so easily is a testament to War Thunder’s impeccable design. The last flight game I played at length was 1997’s Red Baron 2, and I spent brief stints in the Ace Combat series and a short detour into Gaijn’s single-player Wings of Prey through 2010. Before playing War Thunder, I had tried just a few matches of Wargaming’s World of Warplanes, the game’s closest competitor. Certainly not enough to have a feel for the skies. The competitive community of War Thunder should have eaten me alive. It didn’t.
This may well be a testament to the quality of the matchmaking or even just dumb luck. Either way, my newbie plane, while not the prettiest thing in the sky, felt deadly. And when the time came that I blew up -- embarrassingly, by flying into a plateau -- I was able to choose from two others to hop right back into the action. Before my first multi-hour window was up, I had purchased a new plane, upgraded it, and was working toward my next.
Advancement in War Thunder works similar to Wargaming.net’s World of Tanks. Every match provides experience points and currency which can be used to research and unlock planes from five of the World War II nations. Weapons, engines, and crew members can be upgraded to provide advantages on the battlefield. Real money currency called Golden Eagles can be purchased and converted into game currency -- Silver Lions -- for faster unlocks. Surprisingly, this never felt unfair or even necessary. Match rewards strike the sweet spot of feeling rewarding but also just slow enough to warrant a boost here or there. Additional hangars, AKA plane options, AKA respawns, do seem a bit pricey, however.
I am actually a big fan of how Gaijin has monetized the game. You buy these extras but it’s not because you need to; it’s because you want to. You can, quite controversially, buy new planes with Golden Eagles, but cash-hounds will find themselves blown up by the more-skilled newbie. You can convert your Eagles into Lions and buy your way through tech-trees but at the expense of skill-ups and a major disadvantage against actual players. Gaijin has been good about keeping the balance and has its ear to the ground for feedback. It’s a good sign. Paying for a premium account, be it for a day or a month, offers the same good but not imbalanced advantages: extra experience and currency, more decals, and a higher limit on campaign missions.
But exactly none of this would work if the game wasn’t fun. Gaijin’s history as a flight sim developer shines through and allows War Thunder to be best-in-class for the market. Plane controls are tight and intuitive, blending the mouse and keyboard in the most natural way possible. Unlike World of Warplanes, planes have a sense of speed and responsiveness that is light to the touch. There is a nimbleness to War Thunder’s flight model that puts its competitor to shame. This is why I was able to navigate a ravine with only a few hours of gameplay under my belt. It is also why a newbie can log in and feel successful in even the most basic ship. Players looking for a little more realism can also take part in historical and full-realistic battles which ramp up the difficulty and completely change gameplay.
War Thunder is a riot to play. It has single-handedly reminded me of why competitive aerial combat is such a promising genre. Don’t let the naysayers fool you, though this game has more in common with Battlefield 4 than World of Warcraft, it is still a captivating experience worth every minute of your time. And with ground forces soon to be added, it only looks to be getting better. See you in the skies!
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMORPG player since the days of MUDs. He enjoys dabbling in every genre, even the newfound -RPG-less MMO. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight and read his blog of the same name today!