Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Whiskey Tango

I write to you a broken man. Before we get into the word man let me focus on broken. Because I have been unable to tear myself away from this game. I strain my brain searching a dusty vocabulary looking for words outside the narrow track of what words fighter aces use. Point in case, I hope not too many of you use the words 'boogie', 'yak', 'bingo fuel' or 'all banged up' on a regular basis. But if you do, do I have a game suggestion for you!

The game is called War Thunder. A game by the creators of Wings Of Prey of which this, basically, is a F2P MMO version of. I'm endorsing another F2P game? I have my reasons.

Yes, I'd repeat this till I'm blue in the face but I'd make a fantastic fighter pilot! In an earlier post I confessed to my deep desire to be a one, if you remember. Since conviction is half the work, the remaining requirements are filled by my basic understanding of physics, eg: stuff falls down when dropped, knowledge of aerial maneuvers: I was learned to 'do a barrel roll' from a very early age, and a keen eye which has since become an artistic eye by which I mean a painting done by me would be blurry and smudgy in the classic impressionist's way. Needless to say, my natural height advantage, which is mostly confidence or arrogance, over other people would make me the Top Gun's Tom Cruise of the Belgian Air Force.
I should attribute part of my aptitude for piloting to my father, who recognized this very potential at an early age. The thought of Falcon 3.0 still makes my knees shake from emotion and the memory of the heavy box that nearly crushed my ambition right there in the software store when I tried to lift the game's box.
Spurred on by my personal fanatical fighting of the Iraq war on my PC, the next step was being prepared. I was promised glider lessons if I kept my school grades up. I had to give up the simulator for study but managed to best my own grades the very same year. The sight of which reminded my father that two more siblings needed food and clothing and a compromise was made in the form of glider models. Which I flew flawlessly. And in this I can be modestly proud by saying I was a natural. Contrary to the norm, I didn't crash my first model. And didn't crash any further models. Except that one time when a freak wind tipped my glider upside down. It dove nose first into agricultural grade barbed wire which pretty much tore the plane in half. As I bit back the tears my father laughed off the incident, but I realized I may have been a bit too emotionally invested in flying. I dialed it back a notch but never lost the interest.

Which is the reason I'm so hooked on War Thunder. If you doubt my word on how good this game is, feel free to try it yourself. All I can still add to the argument that it really is good. War Thunder has gathered a pretty rabbit fan following, the forum is a hive of activity about everything you'd imagine and it has even spawned a couple of Youtube stars. No doubt the game has a bright future because fanatics like me keep pouring cash into the game, which is still even only in beta.

Since this is a free to play game, I should mention the business model. It's not too bad. The game has 2 sorts of currencies: Silver Lions and Golden Eagles. Silver Lions are gained by playing the game, and buy you all the normal planes, repairs, upgrades and ammo belts.
Golden Eagles allow for some luxury. Such as additional plane slots, remember: one slot is one spawn - if a plane is damaged, it has to be repaired, either by time or with lions. Eagles also buy premium planes, which yield additional lions and XP. As of writing, there doesn't seem to be a way to buy yourself an advantage over other players, since the premium planes often have a 'normal' counterpart and some of them are oddities or experimental planes history forgot for good reasons. Eagles also let you pour 'free XP', begot by simply playing the game, into faction progression.
Since this is an MMO, it pretty much adheres to the standard €15/month model. But there is no subscription model as such. Instead there's the option to pay for a time limited premium account - a prepaid system. This doubles XP and Lions income, so progression is faster than that of a free account. Again, the way I like it. Provide people with less time (but arguably: more money) a shortcut to speed up the rate of unlocks. Another nice thing about this game is that losing your premium status doesn't penalize you beyond the lack of the bonus XP and Lions multiplier. And should you fly a premium aircraft, or multiple, the lack premium is slightly offset by their higher income.

The German Canadair CL-13A Mk.5 Sabre's cockpit

One big question remains however is premium progression fast enough? And sadly this is my biggest gripe with the game thus far. It's a rather slow affair, at least compared to progression in other games.
I say this as someone who plays with both a premium account and premium planes. In fact, I couldn't see myself progressing at all without the premium stuff. You won't be convinced unless I share a few statistics. As of writing I have played the game a total of 280 hours. Which is rather a lot. Given the game is nothing more then flying planes in areas, completing an objective. Which can make it hard to justify the price if you're not into flying. It's like Call Of Duty with the slow progression of a hardcore MMO. So what have all these hours netted me? Considering the level 20 cap: both my USA and USSR faction are creeping their way towards level 13. My Germans are halfway through level 16. Britain, my second biggest faction is at a nearing 16. And bringing up the rear is Japan, at level 8.
I could spend a pretty hefty amount of eagles to convert my millions of free XP to get most of my nations to the very endgame. But I'm not yet that desperate. The good news is that having played that much has me sitting on a healthy amount of lions. So I have very few limitations other than time.

At the endgame you get to play with the big boys. Flying jets that cost a fortune to get and maintain. But as someone who got terrorized, even from such low level as 14, by jets in past matches. The big lure is to have insane power. Jets are so fast and hit so hard, that they are almost invulnerable against all but other jets.

The gameplay itself though, which is in essence air combat, remains interesting even after all this time. Maneuvering, dueling, tactics, energy management, getting hits on an enemy (bullet drop is a major thing in this game - and each calibre has its own trajectory), it's all so much more intricate than other games in which you need to hit a target with some sort of projectile. The difference with War Thunder is that it's not a shooter or arcade game. Below the hood is a flight simulator, with rules based in physics. This is game where even the weight of fuel makes a pretty big impact on plane performance.

To be clear. This game has consumed me. I have stopped reading fiction in favor of my old WW2 air combat and history books. I have watched some WW2 movies, countless documentaries... Down the street I pause just that bit longer in front of display window of store that sells model kits. How much longer till the glue and pincers for assembling model planes the way I did when I was so much younger? And that's exactly how I feel. These last few months I have been playing out my boyhood fantasies. I am once again a fighter pilot. When I first saw this game in motion on Youtube, nostalgia sprang to life. Materializing from ashes and smoke, a prop driven Phoenix, its grin mocked my graying mane. Its fires scalding me for the lack of airtime.

Seeing these old planes again brought back memories from Chuck Yeager's Air Combat. Chuck only had a few planes from both Axis and Allies on offer but War Thunder seems to want to include about every warplane from the mid 1930's up to the Korean war. All of them with their unique characteristics.
Flying these things is a challenge. Winning battles in them even more so. For the history nerd inside me, this game is settling the argument the like of 'who would win, Batman or Superman?' on a daily basis if the heroes' names were replaced by names such as Spitfire, Mustang and their contemporaries.
It does it in great fashion. At times you can spot an incoming duel literally miles away and you'll need to plan ahead for the confrontation. If you're ballsy, or stupid, you make it a joust-like head on shootout. Gun on gun. Get lucky and you may survive. But if you're smart. You'll set up the situation to your advantage. Even if your plane is inferior, there's always a fighting chance. This dynamic is what makes this game so rewarding. Spending minutes outflying, outsmarting is tense in ways I haven't felt in an online game since lightsaber duels in Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, this is no exaggeration. War Thunder demands knowledge of the individual planes, air combat tactics, patience and situational awareness in its highly fluid 3D emergency. As with many arena style games no two games are ever alike and War Thunder's regular content updates help the game even more in this regard.

Convinced? Then join this old boy (31 as of today!) and get into the mix before his premium runs out. Again. And if you want be a wingman, register an account using this link, you'll get 50 Gold Lions right off the bat and I'll get a little kickback once you reach certain milestones. It'll be terrific fun.

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