Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pew Pew - World of Warplanes Beta Impressions

After spending a couple days with the open beta of World of Warplanes ( below are my impressions of the game so far.

While I was mildly aware of's other major title, World of Tanks, I just never really found the subject matter appealing enough to pick it up. Admitedly, warplanes are probably not the biggest draw for me either but, after hearing a few recommendations, and with the lull in the summer release schedule, I finally decided to give it a whirl. Ultimately I find the game to be pretty decent but it probably won't hold my attention long term.

The Good

Perhaps Warplanes greatest strength is its sheer accessibility. Whether it is the fluid controls, the alacrity of jumping into battle, or the stats of the vehicles available in a distilled star rating system, I rarely found myself stuck trying to wrap my head around what was going on. For starters, the game plays fine with a mouse and keyboard setup (something I was initially dubious would be possible). A joystick is probably superior but, not once did I find myself cursing a loss because of inferior controls with my mouse/keyboard setup. Flying felt very similar to controlling a vehicle in Halo with my mouse sort of instructing which direction my plane should go and then the appropriate action playing out on the screen. My plane always seemed to loop, flip, and respond convincingly. Matchmaking is handled behind the scenes and amounts to simply clicking a button. Within seconds I was consistently in a filled match with a mix of players in vehicles +/- a few tiers from me. Finally, while all of the vehicles are modeled on real-world warplanes, and statistics such as optimal altitude and turning radius are all available for scrutiny if wanted, I appreciated the simple comparison of core stats (ie 'firepower', 'manueverability', etc.) ranked on a 5-star system to get an idea of how a plane would perform in battle.

Battles themselves in Warplanes are fast paced lasting from a few to 15 minutes. Sides of 15 planes square off in battle with some planes best suited to bombing ground targets and others taking down opposing fighters. Battles rarely lull and if you are eliminated early you can immediately open the menu and jump into a new match (or you can spectate your current match if you prefer).The HUD quickly highlights targets and even provides an aiming reticule to give you a rough idea of how to lead your target. Basic strategy lies in attacking from altitude and baiting out individual targets. All the while, handy icons let you know if you are in an advantageous position over your current target.

The Bad

Warplanes biggest faults lie in its balance and tier system. 10 tiers separate planes by relative power. I am not sure how it works in the upper echelons but I found that the jump in relative strength of planes was quite significant (especially the jump from tier 2 to tier 3). Further, the matchmaking system routinely pits you with a few players who are two tiers above you. These players are not only more skilled (they have put more hours in to get to the higher tiers) but also more powerful. The result is the occasional dogfight where it feels like you are bringing a squirt gun and a garbage can lid shield to fight off rockets. Furthering these issues are, at least at lower tiers, an imbalance in the effectiveness of the different fighters. The 'heavy fighters' especially seem a bit too powerful as they only appear to lose a bit in maneuverability for gains in every other category in most matchups. All this isn't to say that skill doesn't win out, it is just mitigated in some instances. 

Also of annoyance is the progression system which relies on three currencies (experience, credits, and gold). Most progression takes place through a combination of credits and experience and I am still not fully clear what I should be spending my gold on. I suspect that this system will be streamlined significantly by launch as it will represent the source of income for the free-to-play game. Which leads me to my next concern, pay to win. While no cash shop is implemented yet, I am concerned that the plethora of unlocks will be monetized in such a way that players will feel compelled to pay or suffer through a long grind of losses before they can afford even a minor upgrade (currently the progression to the top tiers looks like months of heavy play to get to). As explained above, the tier system already feels a bit unbalanced and this might be done intentionally to entice players to pay.

The Not Too Ugly

Just a brief note on the graphics and sound. Graphically the game is quite serviceable and runs on high settings on my mid-range system consistently above 40fps. Everything looks decent but not exactly mind-blowing either. Highs include the planes themselves (which my research indicates are fairly meticulously modeled) and lows include trees (they look pretty ugly but I guess that's even more reason not to fly close to them!). The sound effects also seem serviceable but I didn't notice much difference between the engine hum for different crafts. A notable low is the repetitive co-pilot who at times spouts useful information ("our tail is hit") but does in this odd sharp cadence; if he didn't say important stuff I would have turned him off after the second battle. No real highs for the sound, the music, which dynamically tunes to the pace of battle, is generic enough to not be memorable but also not annoying either.

In the end, I think that World of Warplanes is worth a look even in its beta state. I certainly had fun ripping it up for a few hours and the price of free can't be beat. As new planes get added and balance is tweaked I expect that some of my gripes will be addressed but I still don't expect to play it long term. That said, if I was a bigger fan of planes and flight-sims in general, I could easily see this being a must-play.