World of Tanks: now that's a good and vague title. Roll it around your gamer's brain for a second and see what images float up. Maybe an MMO, with gangs of player tanks raiding factories and defeating massive tank bosses for spare parts. Or it could be some horrible sim that features more than 800 different rivet types and models your crew's gradual descent into insanity if you forget to let them out for toilet breaks. I even had a vision of a Sims-style life sim that was like Dinosaurs but with tanks; the dad tank coming home from work with a tie hanging off his gun barrel, the kid tanks playfully ramming his treads.
World of Tanks is, thankfully, none of these. In fact, it's a lightweight multiplayer action game of tank warfare with a mass of persistent elements. Players pick their tank, kit it out, dive into a battle with some 30 to 60 other tanks, get blown up (or, more rarely, fail to get blown up through a mysterious process known as "winning") and then it's straight back into the tank management menu with an extra handful of credits and research points to do some more fiddling.
The matches themselves are organised in an enjoyably punchy way. They're all team-based, and within 20 seconds of clicking the Battle button you're there, packed in at the starting point with the rest of your skittish metal crew. And then you're away! Trundling off in the direction of the enemy team, ideally following the tracks of someone bigger or faster than you.
Combat itself is also punchy, by which I mean the shells that everyone fires are somewhat prayer-inducing. One shot kills are not uncommon, and if you survive a direct hit you'll often be slowed or temporarily immobilised by it. You know, as if you're not slow enough already. The result is fighting that's more ponderous than most action games, and centred around ambushes, camping, ganging up and furious reversing as you realise you're in a terrible place.
Which isn't to say it's lacking excitement. A standard engagement in World of Tanks might go like this: you and some ponderous tank destroyer are heading around a hill to flank the enemy. Far too late, you spot an enemy light tank in some bushes dead ahead of you, already taking aim. You veer away from him to give the tank destroyer line of sight and grit your teeth in preparation for the hit, which goes thundering into your side, shakes your own targeting reticule into nothing and gouges out some of your armour.
As you're lining up your shot for a second time, you're raked with fire from somewhere else; your evasive manoeuvring has dragged you in sight of some other bastard. Expecting to die at any second, you go wheeling back towards the first enemy tank and start driving straight down the barrel of his gun. It's suicide. Except the tank destroyer gets a shot off first, the guy bursts into flames and you slot yourself neatly into his cover.
To clarify, World of Tanks is about as much of a simulator as your average Call of Duty game. A knowledge of tank tactics might help you not look like a newbie in your first hour with the game (you'll already have the wisdom of sticking to low ground so only your turret is visible, say), but your status is given away by your beginner's tank anyway. The full game will "simulate" more than 150 armoured vehicles from Germany, the Soviet Union and America, but it runs in a window by default and is controlled strictly with a mouse, WASD and, occasionally, the number keys.
By contrast, your first impression of the tank garage is much more likely to make you feel you've taken a wrong turn somewhere. Yesterday I was, no word of a lie, looking over my PzKpfw III Ausf A and wondering whether to swap the 3.7cm KwK36 L/46.5 for either the 5cm KwK 38 L/42 or the 2cm KwK38 L/55. I was also eyeing up additional grousers and some APCR shells.
In reality, this is all simple stu- oh, my goodness! Are you crying? Please don't cry. It was only a stupid example and the tank development isn't like it sounds at all. Let me explain.
Really, your progress in World of Tanks is functionally identical to an ordinary MMO. Fighting battles earns you credits and Experience Points. The latter let you go clambering up the tech tree, starting from your terrible cardboard beginner's tank, unlocking new modules (guns, turrets, engines, radios - equipment, basically) and tanks as you go. You can then spend your credits on these unlocks, or on special ammo or add-ons. In the above example I was only trying to decide which of two unlocked guns to go for: the heavy 900kg cannon or its rapid-fire 90kg alternative.
As in EVE Online, one option in World of Tanks' combat is getting a tank that's fast enough that your opponent can't track you with his turret, and just running rings around him. Finally, the more you use a single tank type, the more experienced the crew get, so players are rewarded for specialising.
Which brings us to World of Tanks' classes, which aren't actually referred to as classes, but never mind that. All the tanks in the game are divided into five categories: light tank, medium tank, heavy tank, tank destroyer and SPG, or self-propelled gun, and talking about these should give you a better idea of how combat in World of Tanks plays out.
Light, medium and heavy tanks are your common-or-garden tanks, with full 360-degree rotating turrets and a gradual shift in emphasis from speed to strength. They populate the frontline of a battle. Tank destroyers have enormous guns, heavy frontal armour and an embarrassing 30 degree firing arc. As the game's snipers/campers, their purpose is to sit presiding over some flat ground and obliterate anything they see. Finally, SPGs are artillery units that blast shells at whatever the regular tanks spot.
It's a functional hierarchy on paper, and first impressions point to it being polished and well-thought-out, if not free of frustration. At its simplest, here's the problem: most of the low-tier tanks have around 300 health and do some 100 shell damage. Now, if you compare that to the 1500 health and 300 shell damage of the heavy tanks used by the highest-level players you should be able to imagine various painful scenarios involving you getting the drop on a big tank and hammering it over and over, only to get obliterated by one lucky shot. As small fry, you're forced to find your equal in the heat of a battle, which isn't always easy with insta-kill tank destroyers and SPGs around.
Still, it's nothing that couldn't be overlooked if the yet-to-be-announced pricing model is reasonable, which it should be. World of Tanks appears to have a free-to-play framework that sells extra credits for real money, so you'll be equipped to make your own mind up whether the combat is frustrating when the game is released this autumn. Besides, the beta doesn't include the persistent campaign maps that clans can battle over, which sound like a big selling point.
As for me, I think I'm done with the PzKpfw III Ausf A after all. What I really need, I think, is a VK1602 Leopard with a Maybach HL and some Suspension Leopardketten Ausf B. What do you think? No? Oh, you're useless.