It’s easier to take risks in games. Whether you’re throwing a car round a corner, leaping off a cliff without really caring where you land, or eating a mushroom that has uncertain characteristics, when there are few real consequences to worry about, games tend to bring out your reckless side – the one that makes being a hero something of an every day occurrence. In a game based around World War 2, then - a period that had plenty of real life tales of heroism and bravado - you could be forgiven for expecting World of Tanks to have a similarly magnifying effect – where everyday people can stare down entire tank battalions, and live to tell the tale. But if the matches in World of Tanks are people showing their brave side, we’d hate to see what the battles were like in real life.
World of Tanks on the Xbox 360 is one of only a handful of games that tries to take the free-to-play concept, made famous by the likes of Facebook’s Farmville and Bejeweled Blitz, and fit it into a console. Using World War 2's tank battles as its starting point, the game is an action oriented, multiplayer-only battle fest, that pits your team of plucky young troops against another in a fight to the finish. Plonking you and your team mates on one side of a level, and your enemies on the other, you win by either destroying the other team, or parking your tank inside their base without being blown up yourself. With the open beta now rolling on the Xbox 360 (although you still have to apply for a place), we recently got a chance to sit down and try out the game for ourselves – and it’s been an eye opening experience to say the least.
World of Tanks plays out a lot differently to other online games. While in most shooters, your team tends to abandon each other at the first moment, here, things take a much gentler pace, with an unspoken bond of jittery teamwork tying your team together. Each match starts in roughly the same nervous way – after plonking you onto the battlefield, your team mates will each take it in turns to slowly, cautiously shuffle forward, before rotating their turrets to look around as timidly as someone in a several tonne tank can, in the hope someone else is going to be brave enough to lead the way. You see, with only one life each per match, your decisions matter a lot more in World of Tanks – get killed, and your team will be left to fend without you for the rest of the game. With one shot at glory, if you make a mistake, or lead your team into a trap, you could take your whole team with you – and on World of Tanks, it seems there are few natural born leaders willing to take the blame if they cock up.
After a lot of nervous jostling, and a bit of bumping and crashing as you get used to the controls, eventually your team will decide who’s going to be leading (and even though this is on the Xbox 360, it’s still often done in complete silence – yet everyone seems to understand exactly what’s happening), and you’ll set off across the land, occasionally splitting into two groups when it makes sense to cover all your bases, so to speak. Then, one of two things will happen – if you’re following a particularly brave leader, you’ll keep going until you find an enemy, before engaging in a monumental firefight. If you’re taking the more strategic route, you’ll see your leader go and park behind a rock, or a building, at which point everyone, in silent unison, slowly trundles off to do the same. The ambush is set.
At this point, it’s usually a good idea to make sure you don’t accidentally move a little bit too quickly towards the building you’ve chosen as your cover point, as, being in a tank and all, rather than simply stopping, you'll just crash straight through the side of it – at which point your entire team will turn their turrets to stare at you as disapprovingly as an expressionless tank can manage. Either way, it’s best to keep the noise down if you don’t want to get notice, no matter how much fun it is smashing straight through Mr. Jones’ outhouse, taking his washing line with you. You’re in a tank, after all – so nothing really gets in your way.
Almost unusually, World of Tanks doesn’t show you where your enemies are from the off – instead, you’ll have “spot” them first, usually by keeping your tank out of their line of sight, while focusing your eyes on theirs. If you’re playing in a particularly organised team, one of you may seek out the highest ground to act as a pure spotter, but you run the risk leaving yourself rather out in the open, should an enemy sneak up behind you. With no-one to watch your back, you’re almost guaranteed to be a goner if the enemy team should find you first, as sticking together is the only real way to survive.
And surviving is a lesson hard learnt in World of Tanks. Very hard. In fact, when we first started playing, we have to admit we weren’t actually all that good at the game. And by not very good, we mean we went our first dozen games without actually killing anyone beyond a few trees and a fence that happened to step out in front of us. While the rest of our team hid and picked enemies off strategically, we could usually be found accidentally reversing down a hill, doing the closest a tank has ever come to twerking in the direction of a Tiger tank as we desperately scurried back up, trying not to expose our weak, rear armour. If we’d have draped our tank in neon lights and painted in the word “NOOB” in huge, fluorescent pink letters on the side, it wouldn’t have been more obvious. Bang – and the noob was gone.
And this happened quite a few times. We’d set off with the best of intentions, we’d stick closer than ever to our team mates (to the point of crashing into a few of them), but it’d always end the same way. We’d be moving and trying to shoot (which doesn’t work, because you’re hugely less accurate when you’re driving), we’d leave something sticking out behind a building and get killed; we’d accidentally trundle off a cliff into a lake below, flooding our tank and our engine. If there was a single player mode we could head into to sharpen our skills, things would have been a lot easier – but the most the game actually has is a tutorial, which barely even glosses over the important bits. Within no time, we'd be admiring our flaming wreckage yet again, wondering if we'd ever get the hang of this whole tank things. And then, suddenly, everything clicked.
As you play matches, you’ll be earning points simply for taking part, no matter how badly you do. Even if you get blown up within a few seconds of the game starting, you’ll still be awarded a certain amount of XP and earn some silver – although obviously the better you do, you’ll more you’ll clock up. And it’s these currencies that are essential to your progress through World of Tanks. When you first start playing, you’ll be lucky to hit anything – but after a few games, you’ll have amassed enough points to upgrade your tank. Kitting it out with a better engine, a faster turret, and, perhaps most importantly, a semi-automatic gun, that lets you fire off several shots before reloading, you’ll turn your awkward tin can into a lean, mean, fighting machine that’s more than a match for your opponents. And all by losing each and every game.
As World of Tanks is a free-to-play game, there are a few ways to encourage you to spend your money. First off, you can buy a premium account, which earns you extra cash and XP, but perhaps the quickest way to spend your dosh is to buy Gold. A premium currency, Gold can be spent on certain, exclusive upgrades – certain tanks can only be bought using Gold, and if you want to apply a decal on the side of your tank to truly customise it, you’ll have to pay for that privilege too. Of course, it’s entirely possible to play World of Tanks for hours on end without spending a penny – but there are plenty of people who’ll pour hundreds into the game to make their tank look exactly as they want to. But then, that’s the way free-to-play games seem to work.
As it stands, World of Tanks is looking set to be complete change of pace to an online shooter. With a heavy emphasis on team work, some nervous team mates, and an initially incredibly steep learning curve, it's certainly not a game for everyone - but you should at least see your first dozen games or so out. While a single player mode would be hugely appreciated for those just starting to find their feet, it seems for now, they'll have to get their feet wet online. We’ll likely take a closer look at World of Tanks when it comes out of beta, and see how the game’s grown in the mean time. Stay tuned.