War Thunder is one of the more interesting titles on the free-to-play market: it more or less has established the standard for realistic vehicular combat, but simultaneously, the majority of the gameplay is largely involving suffering, punishment, and forced extraction of money from your wallet if you want to break even towards the higher ends of the game’s research tree.
We’re going to focus on Air Battles & Ground Forces, although the game has expanded to naval vessels, but that’s not really of any interest to myself nor do I think it’s the primary draw for most people. In general, I’d say War Thunder has probably in large been focused on its ground combat since that was released, and it shows, featuring some of the best overall game design from the title, but not necessarily anything spectacularly ground-breaking, either.
War Thunder’s general gameplay can be broken up into multiple categories, as there are multiple different vehicle types from planes, helicopters, armored fighting, and ships. As mentioned prior, we’re going to preclude ships because of both a lack of experience and interest by the author.
The major highlight of the title is absolutely the damage system, which is a solid mixture of in-depth and gameified mechanics. Vehicles have a wide variety of different sections and modules that all have their own damage tracking and what effectively amounts to a certain amount of health points. While health points seem fairly abstract, and in general, aren’t the most realistic method of handling damage, the wide variety of different mechanical subsystems typically covers this lack of depth. For ground vehicles, this works out fairly excellently, although for aircraft, this can be fairly detrimental as one or two bullet holes can immediately and nearly completely disable certain functions of the aircraft.
Typically, the largest issues with the aircraft in this regime tend to be areas like flaps or elevators and other moving parts, where a single bullet can easily knock them off the aircraft completely rather than simply reducing their effectiveness, but, simultaneously, it’s a far more robust system than a wide number of games offer. It’s quite enjoyable to blast apart someone’s wing, shoot their tail off, or completely bisect their fuselage – and if you can survive? Ha. It’s possible to fly back to base on a single wing – as long as you’re not too rough with it and the plane’s giving you enough control.
Ground vehicles are similarly robust, but unfortunately, unless you’re undergunned, you don’t really get to experience the true joy of the system: it’s not really those moments where you can penetrate something outright and knock it out of the fight, it’s scrambling around to fight a better armed and armored opponent – and winning.
These are, largely, the moments that make War Thunder special. Yeah, you have those times where you can rack up multikills, but that sort of dopamine rush isn’t really anywhere near the peak that the game can offer. It’s more when you start getting into those brutal, tight, close quarters knife-fights with ground vehicles that they absolutely truly shine. Have you ever wanted to feel like John Wick? Properly using something like the American M22 or the German Puma can give you that experience.
And while going up – or rather down – the tech tree can be a fun and exhilarating experience at first as it’s only a few matches between different unlocks, but unfortunately, this begins to drop off as you get further and further down the tree. Eventually you do start earning significantly more money – for a period of time – but then it drops off pretty quickly again as repair costs begin to sky rocket.
And while you can even pull some shenanigans like the above: intercepting enemy missiles with your own, the problems with the overall sandbox start to rear their head pretty quickly.
It probably goes without saying that if you ask any War Thunder player what their problems are with the game, it usually comes down to three things:
- The time it takes to research vehicles in later tiers
- The repair costs for repairing and rearming vehicles
- There is still no proper “World War” consistent/concurrent fighting experience
Don’t get me wrong, one can definitely pick out things like Russian bias, but even the Russians are subject to the terrible cost to repair their vehicles and the massive amount of time it takes to get there. And as far as some kind of experience that allows us to properly use combined arms? That’s still just not really present.
And yeah, there’s definitely the issue of how the different battle ratings completely warp the game. Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it’s absolutely not, but in large part the issue remains that as you go up in battle rating, you see an ever-increasing amount of lethality from most vehicles, coupled with ever-rising repair costs, players are punished, severely, at higher battle ratings when they don’t perform. The above might look cool – and it certainly was for me – but two of those players got annihilated from the flank with no chance to respond and absolutely are going to feel it when it comes to the costs of repairs.
You could say that this might actually be okay – or alright – but largely War Thunder is a game which is best experienced when the player has a particular vehicle they’re enjoying, and that can be pretty painful when they start having to lose money because of repair costs unless they play excellently, and even then, you can lose like this poor guy with little to no recourse or agency:
Which that itself is a bit of a problem. Players should be able to hop in to whatever battle rating they’re currently feeling and have some sort of good time, but in large part higher tier battles are very cut and dry without a lot of back and forth action. Unfortunate, given that the tug of war an excellent way to heighten the experience.
But I haven’t really even mentioned the years it’s taken me to fill out the American tree. Now, no, I don’t play War Thunder that frequently – it’s one of those games which I play for a time, then give it a rest and come back to it later when a new vehicle interests me. Since reaching battle rating 9.3, I’m more or less out of reasons to advance: the Abrams is cool, but it’s not something I’m going to actively work towards.
And don’t even get me started on doing multiple countries.
It’s where the freemium nature of the game really starts to rear its ugly head: going for premium, you can cut the time needed to grind things out down to a third or less, and still make a pretty decent profit even at higher and higher battle ratings where you have to pay more and more for your repairs.
I haven’t mentioned FPE and repair kits yet, but it’s worth noting that you can’t repair with any stock vehicle and you have to unlock its fire extinguisher. Yeah, it’s total, utter bullshit.
The stuff like repair costs and just the overall grind are, quite frankly, really ostensible: they’re just readily apparent for anyone to see. Yeah, sure, you might start out bright-eyed and cheery at the start of the tree, but everyone’s going to quickly realize how much of an effort it is to get anywhere important. For example, the American tree doesn’t really get good until 5.7 with the M18 GMC, the Hellcat, and prior to that, one of the best vehicles you have available to you is the M22 Locust. Hell, the M22 is competitive at battle ratings like 8.0 properly used.
But playing like that is something which is going to probably piss off your team mates massively. Don’t worry about them too much, slow tanks breed slow players
That’s not really the subtle issues that permeate War Thunder, though. The big ones are largely in the stagnate game modes and the overall price of the experience. As far as game modes go, they really haven’t changed in years, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Air Arcade honestly doesn’t seem like it needs much added to it, but where the overall design for game modes clearly has peaked is with Realistic Ground Battles.
For War Thunder there’s different layers of simulation: Arcade, Realistic, and Sim. I don’t really deal with Sim, but that’s because of a personal opinion I’ll get to shortly. Arcade Ground Battles have a pretty different set of rules from Realistic just in regards to player spawning. In Arcade Ground Battles, players get three respawns, full stop. When they call in an air strike, the aircraft are randomly chosen. In Realistic Ground Battles, players get to put aircraft in their lineup and use them.
Now, depending on the battle rating, this becomes more and more problematic (Looking at you, G. 91), but overall we actually see a set of combined arms that can evolve on the battlefield as players gain access to their aircraft or other vehicles for performing various activities in a match – and this is just, absolutely not present at all in other game modes.
And don’t get me wrong, there’s still problems with it, but those problems are things that can be solved: a lot of vehicles didn’t necessarily fulfill the role of being mainline combat weapons, a lot of them ended up being orientated towards support or combined arms, yet given that there’s no infantry, and really only capturing positions for objectives, a lot of vehicles become relegated to simply being killing machines. Don’t get me wrong, stuff like the BMP series is pretty dope, but you don’t really have much use for them outside of the fact that they carry anti-tank missiles and a well placed autocannon burst can knock out a real tank’s main gun.
Oh, yeah, then there’s helicopter controls. Don’t get me wrong, but in real life there’s a wide number of reasons why you have a pilot and co-pilot who performs the role of a gunner, in War Thunder you basically get a choice between free look which controls the turret and actually having control over the vehicle. Ick.
Either way: without some better respawn system, most of the game modes quite frankly falter. It’s more entertaining and engaging to use aircraft in Ground Realistic Battles than it is to actually use them in Air Realistic Battles, simply for the presence of a respawn system in the opinion of the author.
The Hidden Cost of Freemium
I think it goes without saying that most free-to-play games have a much steeper cost in terms of the overall amount they extract from a player’s wallet. War Thunder is no exception, but I’m going to sidestep the issue of premium time and premium currency, and instead, look at the price point (in US Dollars) in comparison to a few different products. Starting us off, we’re going to look at the Apache pack and compare it a DCS module:
Now strictly speaking, the Apache pack does cost less than the Hind P, and in addition, it has things like premium time and premium currency, but those two things are arbitrary numbers, and let’s not kid ourselves, the develoeprs could choose to give more for these price points at any given time.
What we’re actually interested in, however, is the simulation fidelity of the vehicles in question, as well as the knowledge that War Thunder users common control schemes across its vehicles. There is no opportunity to fully exploit the individual mechanics or functionality to a vehicle unless it’s implemented in a sweeping fashion. Couple this with the fact that the Hind, or, any DCS module, allows for co-op, competitive, or even just single-player gaming, with a robust, yet far more easy to use mission editor that doesn’t require you install the entire game all over again.
With a War Thunder premium vehicle, you don’t really have much room for a co-op experience. Trust me, the devs at Gaijin have never really worked out a good experience for that, neither do you have much opportunity to use the vehicle outside of a player-versus-player environment, which simply put, can be exhausting to engage in.
Listen, I get people want to make money, but most of these vehicles are not really worth the amount that Gaijin charges for them, and don’t even get me started on the player market where some of these vehicles can go for several hundred dollars. At the very least, these different vehicles simply don’t offer the market value even to me, someone who often gets them – and quite frankly advocates that you spend any premium currency actually do end up getting on premium vehicles which you can use effectively – unless you’re a longterm player, you’re simply not going to get much value out of these packs.
I just really don’t think you get the longevity that you do with a DCS module – granted, a DCS module takes a hell of a lot patience to learn. I put 70 hours into the Tomcat before I got decent with it – and in order to get decent again, I’ll likely have to throw in another 15-20 to get practiced and reacquainted with it. A premium vehicle? Well, there’s been aircraft I’ve gotten a hell of a lot of mileage out of, but simply put, I know the amount of in-game time simply doesn’t compare.
Do I recommend War Thunder? This is a pretty complicated question, actually. It is, in my opinion, one of the staples of PC gaming, but it also really sucks most of the time. I don’t actually think most people should invest their time in it: it’s not that it’s actually that bad, again it sort of set a standard, but the behavior of its developers in regards to screwing over players is just… Largely unacceptable.
War Thunder is passable, maybe even good, but it’s a game without real competition. Gunner HEAT PC is likely a better runner-up, but if you don’t mind global HP values, you might think I could recommend World of Tanks, but actually, I recommend Gundam Battle Operation 2 for the PS4 over this nonsense. At least they let you hop out and fully repair your mobile suit, besides simply lacking a wide number of the issues presented by the gameplay of War Thunder, World of Tanks, and so forth – it’s just you’re dealing with mechs, so that may or may not be for everyone.
Either way, dodging War Thunder is a bit like dodging a bullet. It’s a good – or at least okay – game ran by a very greedy, frustrating to deal with company, but still not something you really want to get hit by.
Also, if you’re a pre-existing War Thunder Player, and you end up wondering why I didn’t actually mention battle rating compression, this article isn’t really written with the intention of you being a major part of the audience. You’re already one of the damned and you know it.