World Of Warplanes preview: high flying, free-to-play dogfights from the creator of World Of Tanks

World Of Tanks was a freak success. Not even developer Wargaming could predict it setting, and then smashing, its own Guinness World Record for the most players online simultaneously earlier this year. When the game was first released, Wargaming’s server engineers spent long nights frantically slotting new blades into burning server farms as the world caught on to the moreish appeal of online, free-to-play, tactical team-based tank warfare.

It’s been two years since that mad rush to get World Of Tanks working. So where better to go for the sequel than the spiralling dogfights of the golden age of air combat? World Of Warplanes sees you collect a hangar full of history’s greatest warbirds: from the juddering biplanes of the ’30s to the early jets of the Korean War. Each can be fitted with meticulously researched weapons, fuselage designs and livery patterns, then flown into combat against wings of 15 enemy fighters.

Fast, 15-minute deathmatches drive World Of Warplanes’ economy of upgrades. The rules are simple: two teams spawn mid-flight in opposite corners of a 15x15km map and must obliterate one another, chalking up kills and gathering extra XP. The roster of planes has been carefully chosen to encourage dramatic close-quarter tussles. Heat-seeking missiles would make combat distant and easy, while modern supersonic jets would require maps of titanic scale. World Of Warplanes’ fighters, then, must blow each other away with old-fashioned torrents of bullets.

Outmanoeuvring an opponent is more important than outright firepower. Planes are bracketed into three classes that lend themselves to different strategies on the battlefield. Lithe dogfighters get close quickly and use superior turning speed to stay out of enemy sights. Heavy fighters can use their superior jets to outrun smaller aircraft and favour long-distance strafing runs – they’re airborne snipers capable of hunting light and heavy aircraft from afar.

Ground attack planes, meanwhile, offer a more sedate role for those who prefer to avoid the sudden death of Warplanes’ tight skirmishes. Their job is to roam the map looking for enemy ground troops, boats, AA cannons and tanks to bomb. Blasting these increases the speed at which a team’s influence fills a victory bar the top of the screen, enabling teams to win without hunting down every single enemy aircraft. That’s no bad thing, since it’s easy to fly low and hide among the hills of the huge maps.

Every aircraft within these classes is designed with historical strengths and weaknesses in mind. Indeed, Wargaming has a research team dedicated to finding obscure prototype plane designs. They provide source material and blueprints for artists, and give designers an idea of each model’s manoeuvring ability, top speed, turning circle and armour effectiveness.

Wargaming hopes that the class system and varied aircraft will provide the layers of complexity after initial simplicity that have kept World Of Tanks players signed up for so long. Warplanes needs to be as accessible if it is to achieve similar levels of popularity.

A responsive control scheme is vital, too, presenting a challenge for its networking design that exceeds that of Tanks, as lead designer Ivan Kulbich explains: “It doesn’t matter if you use a mouse, keyboard or joystick, it sends the same data to the server, and the server calculates all the physics.”

However good the control scheme, players will need practice to get a feel for how each craft flies. Kulbich says they decided it would be too much to expect players to jump in and instantly barrel roll their way to victory. “We want a player to start from a tutorial,” Kulbich explains. “It’s skippable of course, but we will offer experience, and we want to introduce new PvE modes, co-op game modes where you can fight with your friends, or just random strangers, against AI bots.”

World Of Warplanes seems especially ambitious considering Wargaming’s pedigree as a developer of intricate strategy titles such as De Bellis Antiquitatis and Massive Assault. World Of Tanks marked a successful transition from hex grids and dice rolls to realtime combat on open battlefields, but air combat requires a much greater level of finesse.

Early beta builds suggest it’s risen to the challenge. Twitchy controls can’t undermine the dizzying thrill of disintegrating a rival’s tail while rolling upside-down high above the glittering Pacific. World Of Warplanes only has four competitive maps, but they’re huge and beautiful, and will become better once cloud cover is added, giving wounded jets and heavy fighters in long range charges a place to hide.

Warplanes is built on the same design philosophies and upgrade systems as Tanks, but feels markedly different. It’s not meant to slay Wargaming’s breakout title, but work with it. Tanks, Warplanes and the upcoming World Of Warships share the same experience and gold system. XP earned shattering mobile artillery in Tanks buys upgrades in Warplanes and Warships, and vice versa. And gold bought with real money buys experience boosters or premium vehicles in all three games.

Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi likened the trilogy to a sumptuous meal, offering a battle for every mood. “We see a guy come home from work, feeling tired and not very agile, play some Warships with a glass of beer. But Sunday morning you jump up full of energy and do Warplanes, which is fast and 3D, right? And Tanks are the usual classical medium, you can play them in your lunch break at work.”

Wargaming is a standard bearer in the rising success of free-to-play games. Warplanes aims to build on the success of Tanks by being an alternative that doesn’t undermine the game that propelled the studio to the big time.

“People keep asking ‘Aren’t you afraid of cannibalisation?’” said Kislyi. “No. Absolutely not. We have three solid games. So if you spend your time in Tanks, fine we’ll love you, if you stopped playing Tanks for a while and played Warplanes instead, we’ll love you too. And Warships? We’ll love you.”

Will players love them back? Wargaming will find out when World Of Warplanes leaves closed beta later this year.

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