World of Warplanes Preview: Shooting the Breeze

Props to the developers?

Flying a plane using a mouse is like steering a car using your teeth. Yes, you can just about manage it, but why would you ever want to? Aren't you just inviting disaster and going to get yourself hurt? But this is what World of Warplanes wants you to do.

Swish the mouse to the left and right, it tells you. Pitch yourself up and down. Look, see, you're flying! Then, very many holes appear in your aeroplane and you're dead, because you were flying about as gracefully as a side of beef.

I'm getting ahead of myself. First, as you've probably guessed, World of Warplanes follows exactly the same model as Wargaming.net's record-breaking World of Tanks, but it substitutes that game's steel sentinels for - you got it! - a selection of period aircraft.

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Ridiculous experimental aircraft ahoy.

You start off with a pocketful of very basic pre-WWII aeroplanes and launch yourself into random battles against enemy squadrons, earning points for your successes which you can then put towards newer and sleeker aircraft, granting you access to higher tiers of play. Just like in World of Tanks, those higher tiers generally feature far deadlier war machines, and to keep the game fair you'll only be matched with tiers similar to your own.

Those same core World of Tanks nations are represented again - Germany, the US and the USSR - and even though the closed beta is so young that you'll want to tug its cheeks and make cooing noises, there's already a hangar's worth of flying death on display. We've got everything from biplanes to jet bombers, from fledgling fighters that fart along to metal monsters that smash the sound barrier like it was a plate glass window.

There's doubtless many more planes to come (the Stuka is just one of many conspicuous by its absence), but Wargaming.net have already assembled an impressive and often eclectic roster, some of which feel quite particular in their handling and behaviour. As yet, there's not much you can do to outfit your planes, with no upgrading of components or tinkering with loadouts, but you can pan the camera around them while they sit in your hangar, watching the light catch the fuselage and giving as many wistful sighs as you like.

And you won't want to fly any of them with the damn mouse, even though the tutorial suggests you should. Climbing into the cockpit of an expertly designed, precision-engineered fighter only to swish and flick my right hand back and forth doesn't make me feel like a pilot, it makes me feel like Harry Bloody Potter.

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This one's far too sluggish to escape my attentions.

None of the planes feel quite right yet - they're not responsive enough with this form of input. An agile Messerschmitt 109 can feel like its flying through yoghurt or like it took off with the mother of all hangovers, and that's with the very forgiving arcade flight model that rarely lets you stall and doesn't rob height on even the sharpest of turns.

As your plane noses its way towards wherever you've aimed the circular pointer, you find you're constantly readjusting, swishing the mouse again and again to correct your turning, or to try to hold an opponent in your sights. All this gives a slightly jerky, gloopy kind of sensation that's not as fluid as it should be. Once or twice you catch your wingmen doing the same and it can look like you're all spasming and sneezing your way through battle. At the moment, the beta has two slightly different mouse control schemes, neither of which I found very satisfying, and the best bet for now is to try something completely different.

With a joystick, everything feels so much better, smoother and far more natural, and a POV hat comes in particularly useful too. Suddenly you really are dogfighting, casting panicked glances over your shoulder as you twist and spiral your way through the clouds. Many of the fighters and lighter aircraft feel like the true acrobats of the sky, so supple and spry, and flying them becomes an elegant, effortless joy.

A joypad is also surprisingly responsive and even the keyboard isn't too bad, if a little heavy-handed. With more refined controls, you come to understand how nimble some of the planes really are and how deadly the dogfights can be. Each is a desperate scramble for height, speed and positioning in a sky criss-crossed with tracer fire.

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Fly too near the edge of the map and the autopilot will want to shepherd you back.

Those dogfights aren't easy, either. World of Tanks had a much slower pace, thanks to the very nature of its cast of squat, earthbound war-boxes. It was much more about tactics than twitch gaming, giving players time to think and to plan, to flank and to hide. World of Warplanes' sky is big and blue and wide open, its aircraft naked, fragile and, in some cases, very fast.

Though some maps have hills and canyons, most of the time your use of the environment is not going to be a deciding factor in a fight that's largely in the open air. You'll live or die based mainly on your ability to react, to control your plane and to bring yourself into a decent firing position. For all its arcade qualities, this is where the game can be starkly realistic and surprisingly unforgiving. It also highlights where the beta most needs improvement.

In its roster of planes we have three categories: Fighters, heavy fighters and attack bombers. The fighters are the quicker planes, and while they may sometimes have weaker weaponry they more than make up for this by simply being more manoeuvrable. A fighter can run rings around a slower, heavier aircraft, while taking control of a bomber, even the sleek experimental jet that is the IL-40, is even worse than that yoghurty flying experience. It's like piloting a fat block of sweaty cheese, with all the stodginess and lack of subtlety that implies. You're a sitting duck the moment you take the controls, and your rear gunner firing put-put-put in desperation is like a child tossing grass at a pouncing lion.

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Enjoy the view while you can.

This is never more evident than when you get a slower, heavier plane in your sights and realise that the poor sod has no chance at all. They can squirm and twist and wriggle all they like, but bullet after bullet is going to find their fuselage, and this is not a pleasant experience if you're on the receiving end. Death can also come incredibly quickly. I managed to shoot down one previously untouched plane with just two quick bursts from my guns, and I've lost count of the amount of times that I never knew quite what hit me, or how, or from where.

So my reservations don't come from World of Warplanes being tough, from it rewarding players who fly better and who have sharper situational awareness. This is simply a game that acknowledges the better pilot and it should be appreciated for doing so. But at present there's very little reason to want to try the heavier, more sluggish aircraft because, in the level playing field that is the open sky, the adroit fighters will win the day. Sure, it's theoretically possible for a team to achieve victory by knocking out enemy ground targets, but that's provided they can reach them unharmed and, once again, for all the rockets and bombs an attack aircraft might carry, you can do a pretty good job with just your fighter's guns, those same guns that just downed another slow, straggling bomber.

I know, I know, this is an early beta. I can't draw firm conclusions and I'm not claiming to, these are only some initial impressions. Over the coming months World of Warplanes will doubtless be tuned and balanced and woken up at 5am by a personal trainer who'll scream in its face and only let it eat trail mix. In the meantime it does look promising, it does look pretty, but it also gives the impression it's going to be swifter and deadlier than its predecessor. That may well make it more of an acquired taste, but if you can't stand the heat, keep out of the jetstream.

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