World of Tanksby Khari Taylor
July 13, 2013
(Please Note: This preview is based one reviewer's experience during two play sessions over the course of two days, limited to 9-hours each by Wargaming.net, thus the following impressions expressed in the preview should be taken as an assessment of the World of Tanks Xbox 360 Beta in its current state, and not the final product. UPDATE: A patch has since rolled out that addresses some of the issues discussed below).
There was once a time when the words "Free-to-Play", much like "MMO" and "Online RPG" were an alien language on Xbox 360, rarely ever spoken, only heard in envious whispers among the Xbox faithful as they watched and heard of these mysterious games flourishing on those other platforms (PC, Mobile and even Playstation 3). But as the Xbox 360 enters its twilight years as the No. 1 console in America and its install base worldwide approaches critical mass, Microsoft has loosened up many of its restrictions, making it easier for such games to be developed on the platform. Strategy-RPG Happy Wars began the Free-To-Play party on XBLA back in late 2012, and was recently joined by Spartacus: Legends last month. But now, Wargaming.net's wildly successful World of Tanks, which has thrived in the PC Free-to-Play space for nearly three years, is now coming to Xbox 360, and Wargaming.net intends it to be the "Mother-Father" of Xbox 360 F2P as well.
Of course, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs first, so Wargaming.net has decided to begin their campaign of Xbox 360 domination quietly via a closed beta, with access limited to scheduled sessions during certain times on certain days. At the time that we received our beta code, only two weekend sessions were available to try out the beta, so our time with the game was more limited than we would have liked. In any case, as one would expect with a "true beta" (i.e. a test version of a product still in development, rather than a glorified demo released within a month of a product's release), there's plenty of good and bad. We'll start with the good.
If you hadn't already guessed, World of Tanks is all about tank combat all of the time, and in this respect, the beta does not disappoint. The game is designed so that players can quickly hop into a game with a tank, and as all the game modes are team-based in nature, you are never alone and therefore stand a decent chance of taking out at least one enemy tank before dying, provided you understand how to use cover effectively and stay close to your buddies so you can benefit from their sightlines as well as your own (not to mention their protection). Should you die (there are no respawns in World of Tanks), you can stay and observe the rest of the match via the perspectives of your teammates, or you can leave the match immediately and join another match, with the only caveat being that your tank that was just destroyed in battle must remain on the battlefield until the match has ended, meaning that you'll have to use another tank in your garage until the other returns.
Only tanks from America and Germany were available in the beta, but with a total of 36 available tanks spread across 6 Tiers and 5 different tank variations (Light, Medium, Heavy, Tank Destroyer and Artillery), one is bound to find at least two tanks that fit his or her play-style like a glove, and with a generous infusion of funds from Wargaming.net (20,000 Gold and 1,000,000 XP to be exact), players can choose to start off with a low tier tank and get a feel for the game before they invest too heavily in a particular tech tree, spend some of that cash researching, purchasing and experimenting with different tanks, or if they know exactly what kind of tank(s) they want, they can spend the lion's share of their funds researching and purchasing their way through the tech tree to purchase their favorite tank right away, even if it's the highest tier. The game automatically balances out the playing field by putting an equal number of tanks in each tier in a match (or uses a similar algorithm) , so there is rarely a match where one team seems significantly more powerful than the other.
Tank warfare in World of Tanks is far less straight-forward than in your typical first-person or third-person on-foot shooter, as players must be more aware of their positioning, the terrain, and their chosen tank's strengths, weaknesses and behaviors. For example, players using cover should never overestimate the size or stability of the cover they are hiding behind, as even the smallest tank can be a huge target when an opponent is sniping it from across the field, and not all cover is impenetrable. Certain tanks, such as Tank Destroyers, Artillery and Heavy Tanks can "one-shot" enemies on the battlefield with a single volley, but the lethality and effectiveness of a shot will depend heavily upon where it makes contact with the enemy, as most tanks have the bulk of their armor in the front. Meanwhile, a well placed shot to the treads of a tank won't kill, but more often than not it will partially or completely immobilize the target and leave it vulnerable for a finishing blow.
Finally, players must always take turning speed and mobility into consideration when engaging the enemy, not only for the tank, but even more importantly, their turret. Few things in World of Tanks are more humiliating than the following three errors in judgment that otherwise result: 1) Perching your tank on an elevated incline hoping to take out an enemy in the valley below, only to realize that your turret is incapable of pointing down far enough to hit the target, meanwhile your underbelly is exposed for all passerby to see and fire upon; 2) Engaging in close-quarters combat with another tank only to realize that your opponent's much smaller, low-tier tank is fast enough to run circles around you and fire at a much faster rate, making short work of your high-tier heavy tank; 3) Forgetting that your turret must first catch up to your POV before it can fire upon what you are looking at, resulting in many wasted shells and an easy target for enemy, who can now tell you're firing blind. The physics model of each tank feels genuine, right down to the slight jerk of your aim when your tank comes to a stop, encouraging players to take more care in lining up their shots, leading their targets and respecting their chosen vehicle's characteristics and quirks. The learning curve can be frustrating at first, but once you're in the zone with your tank, combat quickly becomes rewarding.
Now on to the problems with the World of Tanks Beta. As mentioned before, it's a closed beta, so it's expected that the game will have some rough edges. But when it comes to the menus and interface, they're more than rough, they're barely sanded at all. In fact, when compared with other closed Xbox 360 betas in past years (Halo: Reach, for example), World of Tanks feels more like an alpha-build, because so many elements are shockingly incomplete or barely functional. Button inputs in the main menu and garage are severely laggy, with many selections requiring two to three button presses before one of them takes. In fact, it was because of this particular lag that caused me to think I could not upgrade my tank for the first few hours, as my attempts to purchase upgrades, research more powerful tanks and then buy them initially resulted in no response when I clicked on them with the appropriate button.
The beta also suffers from a severe lack of instruction as to how to navigate the different menus and what certain actions will accomplish. For example, the "Upgrade" section lists the cost of each upgrade you can make to your tank, but the accompanying image for each upgrade level is identical to every other one for every other tank, and there are no descriptions provided that explain what each upgrade consists of or how it will affect performance. Players cannot even compare the basic visual improvements to their tank's attributes while in the upgrade section, they can only view the tank's new attributes once it has already been purchased and added to the garage. The process of purchasing a new tank via the Tech Tree section is just as obtuse. It's clear enough just by looking at the tree that researching and purchasing certain tanks will allow you access to research and purchase other tanks directly connected those tanks in the tree, but beyond that, the exact steps to get from the Tier 1 tank to a tank further down the Tech Tree are ambiguous, to say the least, right down to the generic looking illustrations of each vehicle, and since you can only view a tank's 3D model in your garage after you've purchased it, you often don't know exactly what you're getting until you've already blown your funds on it.
My personal experience explains it best. After initially playing around with the first two unlocked tanks in training mode, followed by an hour or so of online play, I decided that I wanted to specialize in the Tank Destroyer class, which I felt best suited my playing style, allowing me to hang back, snipe from a distance and support my team further downfield. I researched the Tier 1 Tank Destroyer, which unlocked it for purchase, then I purchased the tank. Once I took it out into the field I realized that the tank would take some getting used to, as unlike a typical tank, most tank destroyers in World of Tanks do not have moveable turrets, but rather a shielded cockpit in which only the cannon moves. On the positive side, this meant less confusion when driving around in first-person mode, as the front of the tank was always roughly in the same direction that the camera was looking, but the range of motion was terrible, and my opponents made quick work of me as I drove about the stage like Mr. Magoo with extreme tunnel vision. When I returned to the garage, I revisited the Tech Tree and realized that I'd need to move up another three tiers before I could get a Tank Destroyer that actually had a swivel-turret, The Wolverine. So I plunked my funds down to research and purchase the next two tanks, but found I still could not access the Wolverine until I had fully upgraded them both. So by the time I unlocked the Wolverine, I had exhausted practically all my funds. However, when my brother and fellow game reviewer dropped by and logged in (he was also in the beta but the internet was down at his home), he simply researched the tanks and only upgraded one of them to reach the higher tiers, meaning that I had blown most of my money on unnecessary upgrades simply because I figured it was necessary to upgrade each Tank Destroyer to the max to unlock the next tank . The online guide seems to indicate that the way I assumed it to work is actually the way it works, but apparently there are bugs present that make certain tanks inaccessible even though you should be able to access them, and apparently those that allow you to access tanks that you shouldn't. In short, the whole Tech Tree and Upgrade system is flawed and bafflingly inconsistent.
Another bummer about the Tank Destroyer tech tree in particular is that not only did the Tier 2 and Tier 3 have immovable turrets, but they also suffered from a bug acknowledged by Wargaming.net (that has yet to be fixed) in which both the first-person views and zoomed sniper views were obstructed by the front wall of the cockpit, making any sort of aiming or sniping impossible. Imagine that, no ability to snipe in tanks that were built for sniping! So not only had I over-invested in upgrading my Tier 2 and Tier 3 tanks, they couldn't even perform the job I had bought them for, so a large amount of my funds had been completely pissed away on two tanks I couldn't use. Once I unlocked the Wolverine and took it out on the battlefield however, my unobstructed sniper view returned, along with the swivel-turret I so desperately wanted, and my experience immediately improved despite increased number of the higher-tiered opponents in the game.
Many other features and elements of World of Tanks for Xbox 360 are still not in place yet, such as Crews (who maintain your tank, repair it in the field when it becomes damaged and provide you with perks), The Store (where you can buy specific equipment such as special upgrades and consumables for your tank, like repair kits), and Accessories and Appearance (where you can personalize your tanks) -- all are listed as "Coming Soon". And while the 15 on 15 team play never really gets old, all the game modes so far are basic variations of Team Deathmatch meets Capture the Flag, where one team wins by completely eliminating all other players on the other team, or alternatively capturing the other team's flag before their own is captured. Sometimes there is one or multiple flags for both teams to capture, but in the end it pretty much boils down to the same thing over and over. But it sure is fun, especially when one lucks out and ends up in a random match on a team that likes to use teamwork and communication. At the moment, there is no way to set up your own matches, invite friends or play in a party, so the kind of team you'll get is completely random, with balancing being the only thing that the game makes an effort to manage. Thankfully, once in a match, the online experience is fairly stable and lag free, unlike in the game's menus. Just make sure to crank up your chat volume, as the sound of your tank engine alone will drown out most voices.
To wrap up, even in beta World of Tanks is still incredibly fun and addictive once you get into the right tank and the right groove, and it's unfortunate that everything seemed to come together for me and my Wolverine just as the second day of limited play came to a close, meaning that I'll have to wait until the next round of beta sessions open before I can really do some damage with my favorite tank. The aforementioned issues notwithstanding, I have a feeling that once the game is complete with all its features functioning and accessible, World of Tanks will become just as big as it already is on PC and perhaps even give games like Minecraft on XBLA a run for its money...after all, it technically costs nothing to play, so other than requiring an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play online, there's literally no barrier to entry, yet the game promises enough depth, strategy and hours upon hours of gameplay that players will likely have no issue in parting with their money via microtransactions as soon as they are made available.
I'll be seeing you on the battlefield, soldiers. By the time you see me and my Wolverine, it will already be too late.