Available in early access on other platforms since 2013, War Thunder finally makes its Xbox debut with a full release this year alongside naval battles, the final piece in Gaijin Entertainment’s plan to bring together land, sea and air in epic free to play “total war” battles.
Over the years the game has slowly built itself up, culminating in a completely reworked graphics engine that allows the game to leverage the full power of the Xbox One X to deliver 4K visual quality alongside other enhancements. But is it a game still worthy of today’s standards, or has this war simulation already lost the battle?
In its current form War Thunder offers three very distinct ways to play. Air Battles bring together a vast array of planes from various nations in a fight to control the skies. Ground Battles see a whole shed load of tanks thrown together in games of capture point domination, and finally the Naval Battle beta brings with it a smaller selection of boats and ships to determine control of the seas.
To ensure that the game is as easy to pick up as possible, Gaijin have taken the smart move of giving each of these game types a completely unique control scheme rather than trying to shoehorn one set of controls across all game modes. This works well on a couple of levels. Firstly, each mode feels like a completely different game. This helps combat any sort of fatigue you might feel because you can just switch up the game mode if you fancy a break from dominating the skies, or if you find tank battles too difficult. Secondly, it means that each of the three types of vehicle don’t feel compromised in any way – far too often games throw in a variety of vehicles only to rely on one control scheme for them all, often resulting in some of the vehicles handling terribly. It sometimes feels like War Thunder is offering three separate games in one package… and in some ways it is.
The first time you start up each of the game types you will be given an introduction tutorial on controls and how the beginner vehicles work. Once through that you can continue through more advanced tutorials on various vehicle types, or just jump straight in. I highly recommend continuing the tutorials as vehicle types can come with a huge array of combat options.
Presentation overall is very nice, with incredibly detailed vehicle models that even have the entire interiors rendered so that damage can affect not only the visuals but also performance. Take hits to the wings and you’ll notice that flaps may not extend or that the engine begins to leak. It’s all very realistic and offers a great amount of immersion. Sound is suitably impressive too, with big orchestral soundtracks on the menus and great thumping bangs for each weapon. Again it all adds to the immersion.
Once you decide to get into a game you’re given three types of modes to join – Simulator Battles, Arcade Battles and Assault Battles. Simulator Battles are the most realistic, offering up expanded controls and options for those that want to become military buffs. These are also the most difficult and require deft use of controls in order to prevail. Arcade battles offer easier controls and simplified physics to deliver games that are more fun in nature and closer to the “point & shoot” feel of many modern shooters. Assault Battles are co-op experiences that see you and a team defending bases against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. These again are fun, though you would be best to research a few vehicles before jumping in here as later waves can be very hard.
Unfortunately Xbox keyboard and mouse support is not included, which makes Simulator Battles far too difficult, especially given that crossplay with PC players is enabled by default. You can switch this off, but even then it’s very hard with a controller. Thankfully Arcade battles feel amazing with a controller, especially with the planes; everything handles well and is easy to get to grips with and you soon find yourself twisting around the skies, taking out other players, and dive bombing ground targets to gain the upper hand for your team.
War Thunder offers a huge variety of vehicles, from fighter planes to anti aircraft tanks, and right through to naval destroyers and everything in between. You have a gigantic amount of choice when it comes to vehicles and each also has its own upgrade tree and cosmetics that you can edit. You start off with a couple of free vehicles and can upgrade them as you go whilst also researching new vehicles. Research points are gained for just about every action in the game and it doesn’t take too long to build a nice hangar full of upgraded vehicles. Each vehicle you decide to use will require a crew to operate and in a really nice addition each of your crews are also upgradable, offering better control of vehicles or quicker repairs and various other abilities.
The upgrades and vehicles can be bought via micro-transactions or using in-game currency – thankfully it isn’t too hard to build your upgrades through gameplay alone. Some though can only be obtained via micro-transactions and each of these comes fully kitted out when purchased. This does unfortunately mean that those with the cash can quite easily gain an upper hand in battles. Each pack usually comes with one to three vehicles and some in-game currency or premium options, however some of these packs are extortionate in price – the one currently available Naval pack for example (needed in order to play the naval battles beta) comes with just one vehicle, premium for 15 days and a pretty small amount of in-game currency for a whopping £39.99! That’s the price of a retail game for one vehicle and is something I think Gaijin need to take a long hard look at; these packs are becoming increasingly more expensive, while still offering very little.
Thankfully War Thunder is ultimately very playable without purchasing anything and that’s a really good thing as it is a game that can very easily begin eating up your free time. Each chance you get to knock out another player brings a euphoric rush that comes from knowing you had to be the more skilled player at that moment. It is a feeling that is often missing from modern games and one that will keep you coming back for more. Other little touches work to give you a nice squishy feeling every time you take out a vehicle; tanks for example show a nice little window in the top corner giving an x-ray view of the damage each of your shells does to the player you are attacking.
War Thunder is without a doubt an addictive game, but it is one that comes with a few caveats. However as a free to play title there really isn’t an excuse to not jump in and give it a go. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea that’s for sure, but if you do enjoy it you’ll find a deep and rewarding experience that doesn’t require you to drop a penny of your own money in.
Free to Play version reviewed – premium features not included