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War Stories Hands-On Preview

Neilie Johnson Posted:
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This week Wargaming, the makers of World of Tanks, revealed they're ready to take their mega-popular free-to-play game to a whole 'nother level (or should we say, “Tier?”) with a single-player/co-op experience they're calling War Stories. With the big news ready to break at this month's GamesCom, they invited us to their Chicago office last week to try the new mode ourselves. From what we saw, the new casual-friendly mode is set to do right by its thus-far-overlooked PvE fans and bring an interesting new dimension to World of Tanks.

As Wargaming has it, the aptly-named War Stories was born to serve World of Tanks players wanting a less, shall we say, socially punishing online experience. As Lead Designer Jeff Greg put it:

“There's a need and a desire, especially in the console audience, to have a less acerbic environment. There's an audience that really wants to see a narrative-driven experience...while still having all the tenets we hold near and dear to our hearts: tank progression, climbing tech trees, picking your nation, all the stuff that comes with World of Tanks.”

To that end, the last four months the Chicago crew has been toiling away on four new single-player/co-op stories. The first two—the two launching on August 21—are called Brothers in Armor and Flashpoint Berlin. The first sends players to World War II Russia as American tank commanders to introduce their Russian Allies to the American M4 Sherman “Emcha” tank. It serves as a tutorial of sorts for new players while telling the story of one tank squadron's battlefront experiences. The second serves as an alternate history of the post-World War II Berlin Blockade.

We got to play both of these War Stories, each of them spread over three different chapters. Before starting, a character customization screen let us choose our commander, and we were surprised to see the option to choose a female version. Though World of Tanks players are still around 93% male, Executive Producer and Creative Director TJ Wagner said it was historically accurate, and that it was important to him for players be able to play as whomever they want.

Character customization appeared to be a somewhat moot point though, once Brothers in Armor started. The cool intro animatic told the story of an American soldier, Colonel Peters, so you play as him, at least the first time around. As Peters, you meet up with a group of Russian soldiers, and at first it's an uneasy alliance. By the end of chapter three though, you're brother in arms.

This War Story serves as a great way to bring new players into World of Tanks. The animatics, voice-over directives, story-specific geography, and optional objectives make the map feel more alive, more in line with what single-player fans enjoy. It walks you through steering, shooting, using consumables, all while making you feel like a hero. On top of that, its optional objective (seizing German tanks and turning them against their former owners) was satisfying. Upon finishing Brothers in Armor, you get to keep the M4 Sherman tank, and you unlock something called Challenge Mode, which lets you replay the map as many times as you want, using any tank in your garage.

The next War Story, Flashpoint Berlin, casts you as a Brit, Captain Thompson of the legendary Desert Rats. It begins cold and overcast, and by the end you you're battling in an insane blizzard. Secondary objectives here range from finishing the map within set time limits, to getting through it without ammo or health pickups.

Both these War Stories provide an interesting range of terrain and weather conditions. And though we only tried single-player with AI allies, we can only imagine how the fun would increase with a friend by your side. There was the occasional AI hiccup (for instance, AI enemies getting stuck in narrow streets, thus allowing themselves to be picked off like fish in a barrel) but remember, this is a new thing for Wargaming. Lead Designer Jeff Greg conceded developing the AI was a challenge (read more about this in our interview with Jeff and Lead Environment Artist Andrew Hura) and said that War Stories is still subject to the main game's multiplayer server architecture. Still, from what we saw during the demo, they've made a good start.

Though facing the AI challenge in-house, in the interest of time Wargaming Chicago outsourced the War Story animatics to UK design firm, Kennedy Monk Ltd. The firm's resume is impressive, counting Deus Ex, Just Cause, and Crisis among its successes. For War Stories, it created the “story wrappers” around each mission (according to what the community wanted and Wargaming's design specs) and provided art and dialog by different artists and different writers for every chapter. Wargaming also made a smart move hiring composer Inon Zur of TERA, Dragon Age: Origins, and Fallout 3 and 4 to create a custom score and dynamic music system.

In addition to the two War Stories available at launch, Wargaming says we'll see two more before year's end: another alternate history story set in London called Operation Sealion, and yet another involving the Cuban missile crisis called Kennedy's War. Even more exciting perhaps, to fans of World of Tanks' special event/holiday modes, Executive Producer TJ Wagner confirmed a lunar campaign has already been outlined, and production starts on it soon.

Though War Stories' original intent (according to Creative Director TJ Wagner) was to attract new players, Wargaming hopes multiplayer fans and World of Tanks veterans will enjoy it too. To that end, they're building in special War Stories rewards, and at this writing, all single-player content will be free-to-play. TJ Wagner: “We talked about making missions sellable, earnable and the first four campaigns we're doing this year, they're all free. We want to see how much players like the content, how they're using the content, what they ask for. I'd rather monetize it the same way multiplayer monetizes, and then it's the same experience for everybody.”

No question, War Stories represents a new evolutionary step not only for World of Tanks, but for free-to-play console games. Whether or not it works? Well, Wargaming and World of Tanks fans  won't have to wait long to find out. War Stories launches worldwide August 22 on the PS4 and Xbox One.


Neilie Johnson

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She's been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she's pretty sure she's got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.