With World of Tanks, Wargaming got free-to-play right. They made almost everything in their game completely free, gave their players an enormous number of toys to play with only asked them to open their wallets if they wanted to customise their tanks or buy one of a small selection of special, premium vehicles that weren't any better than anything else on offer, merely different. Money didn't confer an advantage, only exclusives, simple favours or faster advancement up the same technology tree everyone else was climbing.
Wargaming also made a game that could be disgustingly good fun. Free-to-players sometimes talk about the grind, the process of repeatedly playing a game in order to unlock better elements, to push through to the fun. It's a resignation: an admission that what's happening now isn't so great, but what you're working towards will be worth it. World of Tanks wasn't about this sort of purgatory because it didn't make playing a chore at any level. It was always a heavy metal deathmatch which only rewarded you with more choices the more you played.
So everything was in place for World of Warplanes to be just as impressive. It's built around exactly the same model, offering scores of aircraft for free, from the famous to the obscure, all tiered according to how advanced and shiny they are. As well as gradually unlocking more and more aircraft through play, more equipment is also made available. Engines can be swapped out of most planes, or larger, fiercer guns mounted in their fuselages. Bombs and rockets can be slung under their wings and these warbirds soar off to battle pregnant with their new, deadlier payloads.
Of course, planes are to tanks as hawks are to hippos and the skies are a very different arena, one where angling and manoeuvrability matter more than cover and armour. World of Warplanes is a game of movement and positioning, with fighters twisting around and amongst one another as they try to connect the white, puffy trails that burst from their weapons.
It can sometimes be a balletic display of circles within circles as planes dive, spiral and corkscrew their way through the clouds - but it can also be a wholly ungraceful affair of constant banking and blasting that is a lot less exciting to be caught up in. This isn't the fault of the controls which, since the beta, have improved considerably and make both joystick and mouse viable inputs. No, the problem lies with the arcade-style flight model. While it makes flying easy, it can make combat awkward and even a little bit tedious.
As you might expect, flying straight and true is a terrible idea. It makes you extremely vulnerable and clearing your tail is particularly difficult. Latch on to an enemy and you have a good chance to seriously pepper them before they can shake you, particularly if you're in a nimble fighter and they're flying something heavier and less responsive. This means that, once battle is joined, pilots are immediately wrenching their way about the heavens, snapping off brief bursts at one another whenever a clear shot presents itself.
Speed should be an important factor here, something that both altitude and a strong engine should help you out with, but this isn't always the case. The loading screens repeatedly remind you that the more sluggish heavy fighters have a greater airspeed and can use this to throttle their way out of trouble, but in practice this doesn't work so well. Flying away from an engagement is rarely a wise idea and I've chased down many a kill this way (and been chased down, too). Instead, the better choice is almost always to work to line up a target and plug a few more holes into it before twisting into another bank. Watch out for desperate enemies, as a moribund aviator has little to lose and ramming is not uncommon. It's both a safe way to score a last kill and also put a healthy opponent out the fight.
All this would be a bit more fun if planes fell apart faster, but not all of them do, and it's a very good idea to upgrade your weaponry as soon as possible. Even a moderately well-armed plane can score a great many direct hits on an enemy before they drop to the dirt and I've been surprised at the incredible amount of punishment some of my own planes have taken. It's possible to be on the tail of a similarly-matched enemy plane and riddle them until your guns overheat, watching as their health bar is gradually, laboriously whittled down. This isn't always the case and some planes drop fairly quickly, but you're quick to appreciate that bigger guns do indeed make bigger holes.
The other weaponry you've bought is less relevant. The maps above which you'll fight are dotted with ground targets, but since victory comes from downing enemy aircraft, bombing runs are at best a distraction and at worst a waste of time. Knocking out the enemy headquarters will reduce the effectiveness of their anti-aircraft fire but, since this is only likely to affect those attacking ground targets anyway, it's irrelevant.
At first, it's tempting to hug the earth to try and make the most of the cover that terrain might offer, but the maps don't have enough canyons or valleys to make this a viable tactic. Instead, clouds offer a better chance of confusing a pursuer, but they're too rare to make much of a difference and it's usually a better idea to make another sharp turn than it is to try to dash for cover.
All this means that most games of World of Warplanes are very similar: mass brawls in the open sky where gaining the weight of numbers usually determines victory and where you're constantly turning, blasting, turning in a way that's sometimes more tiring than it is engaging, a test of endurance and patience. That's not to say it's without its little thrills and there's pleasure to be had when you know you're firmly locked onto an enemy's tail, or when a clever twist brings a struggling fighter into your sights. But there's not much room for tactics, ambushes or inspiration, nor for sudden reversals of fortune. These dogfights don't feel dramatic. They certainly can start to feel very alike.
It's a shame. The many planes that are represented are faithfully reproduced and, in some cases, are historical oddities that are fun to take to the skies. However, even though they all have their own nuances, it's almost always a better idea to pick lighter, weaker fighters and screw some bigger guns onto them, since turn circles eventually win the day.
It's also worth noting that most of the higher tiers don't seem to be at all populated yet. Although the alpha and beta stages of the game were open to a quite a few players, finding matches above the fifth of the game's 10 tiers is still very, very difficult. After a five-minute wait, my tier VIII fighter was matched with just one other, the other four planes in our brief fight being two tiers below us. The six of us duelled for less time than we queued.
World of Warplanes is not bad, but it's not nearly as exciting as World of Tanks. It's a sometimes enjoyable, occasionally tiresome arcade shooter that's forgiving to fly and a challenge to master. Compared to its smart, successful older brother, it's not nearly as sophisticated and, most importantly, it's not nearly as much fun.