The last time Microsoft took on publishing duties for the Xbox version of a constantly evolving PC hit, it ended up swimming in Minecraft millions like Scrooge McDuck. Will the same happen with World of Tanks, which has around 78 million registered players on PC? That depends on how eager you are for a slightly scruffy and incredibly niche game where one shot can kill you stone dead.
Don't take that as being too dismissive. World of Tanks is something of a rough diamond of a game, taking subject matter best suited to the hardcore simulation genre and turning it into a paradoxically fast-paced slow-moving multiplayer action game.
As the Pixar-esque title suggests, it takes place in a curious alternate dimension where the Second World War was fought solely by tanks, and never ended. When you first load it up, and after completing a basic tutorial, you're given a trio of basic light tanks - one American, one British, one German - and left to your own devices, battling across seven maps in 15-v-15 online battles.
So far, so Battlefield, but World of Tanks differentiates itself in lots of ways. Most notably, it's pretty ruthless and brutal. There are no respawns in this game, and once your tank is destroyed, that's it - game over. Balancing this out is the fact that you're allowed to return to your garage and jump straight into a different match in a different tank. Any XP or currency earned is added to your total once the battles end, whether you're still playing in them or not.
The XP system is also worthy of attention. You earn it in battle for the expected things - spotting enemy tanks, damaging and destroying enemy tanks, helping to claim the enemy base - but it comes in two flavours. Tank XP is tied to the tank you earned it in, while Free XP comes in smaller amounts but contributes to a pool that can be spent on any tank. You'll also earn Silver, which is what you'll use to actually buy stuff.
Improving your tanks means cashing in your XP to research upgrade packages, then using your Silver reserves to buy the upgrade in question. Max out the tech tree for a tank, and the last thing you'll unlock is a new tank from the next tier. There are 10 tiers in all, and while you can rattle through the first four pretty quickly, passing tiers five and over takes skill and dedication.
But World of Tanks is free to play, so there's another currency: gold. This is the one you buy with real money - but don't grab your pitchfork and torches yet. The things you can buy with gold are few in number, and carefully chosen so as not to unbalance the game. What you can do is buy ammo with slightly better penetration and some perks and boosts, or upgrade your game to Premium status for a fixed period. Xbox Live won't let free games charge recurring fees, so this is the compromise: for a period from a few days up to a whole year, you can earn 50% more XP and silver per match. The cost of doing this for the full twelve months is about Ł69.99, or the same as a new FPS plus season pass.
What gold won't do is give you an unfair advantage. Although there are some unique tanks that can only be purchased this way, they're dwarfed by the dozens of tanks that can be unlocked the old-fashioned way. Nor are they a guaranteed victory. You can't just steam in there and unlock a Tier 8 Heavy, and since the game's matchmaking is very good at creating balanced lobbies, there are no obvious short cuts where spending can usurp actual skill. Put simply, this is free-to-play done right.
Getting into a match is almost too simple. Just choose the tank you want, press A and the game automatically places you on a random map in a random game mode. There are three game modes, but the selection is heavily weighted in favour of the excitingly named Standard. This is a basic capture-and-hold mode, where each team has a base that must be protected from the enemy. Also in rotation, though almost never appearing, are Encounter (one neutral base that must be taken and held) and Assault (one base held by a defending team).
There's a 15-minute time limit on matches, but they rarely last until the end of the countdown. Sometimes a match is won by taking the enemy base, but most often it's simply because one team has been annihilated. Thanks to the no respawn policy, it's not unusual for this to happen in the first five minutes.
Control is familiar enough. The left stick moves the tank, the right stick the turret. Left trigger brings up a "sniper view" for fine aiming, with the reticule changing from yellow through to red to show you how much damage your shot will do. Movement uphill or through water is tortuously slow, and things such as angle of attack are important, but this is otherwise a fairly arcadey experience. Even the dimmest FPS fan should be able to get to grips with the control, if not the tactics, in just a few minutes. And, judging from the number of players with Gamertags like xXL33tSn1P3rXx who start every match by shooting their big gun randomly into the air and hitting all the quick comms buttons at once, they are already plenty of those.
This is very much a bare-bones version of World of Tanks, however. Of the seven maps that have crossed the console divide, most fail to make an impression. Sand River and Mountain Pass stand out for their desert and snow terrain, while Province has a rustic French charm. Others, such as Malinovka, are simply large spaces with suicidal open ground and obvious choke points around the edge, where matches fall into repetitive patterns too easily.
Teams either funnel towards each other and engage in stand offs, shuttling back and forth to avoid incoming fire, or they camp out on opposite sides of the map and take long-distance pot shots at each other, aiming at tiny specks and using the colour-changing reticule to compensate for the game's limited detail and draw distance. Such are the limitations of only having tanks of course - though the artillery class varies things slightly - but it's a shame the maps don't lend themselves to more varied strategies.
The game also does a poor job of explaining some of the deeper systems that can make a long-term difference. One of the rather witty extras you can buy is a perk called Pudding and Tea, which boosts the skills of your entire tank crew towards end of battle, provided you're in a British tank. However, as the game never tells you what difference your crew skills make, it all feels a bit abstract.
There are other aspects that don't feel quite up to scratch. The way that parking a tank inside a bush effectively makes it invisible is laughably simplistic. That sort of trick feels daft in Assassin's Creed when you're just hiding a person. Doing it with a massive war machine that sticks out of both ends beggars belief. The tech trees used to improve your tanks are disappointingly flat as well. If you had hopes of creating your perfect tank from a cornucopia of parts, forget it. Upgrades are basically linear tick boxes, with a couple of alternate branches at the end. You buy each one in order, and at the end you get a new tank to start the process over again.
"The slick rotation through your garage and the mostly generous approach to rewards mean that although matches do start to feel samey and predictable, they never stop being fun."
Most damaging are the game's skeletal online features. Not only do you have no control over maps and modes, but the party system is limited to setting up a platoon with just two other players. For a game where teamwork is absolutely vital to long-term success, it means you're almost always reliant on too many strangers when you really want to be progressing with friends.
The tanks themselves have been lavished with attention, but the world they inhabit doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Foliage is flat, objects transform into dust clouds when struck and the physics model certainly won't be troubling Frostbite any time soon. Yet even in this fairly unvarnished and simple form, there's no denying that World of Tanks exerts a curious pull. Even when the game plateaus around the end of Tier 4, it's hard to resist dropping in for another match, and another, and another. The slick rotation through your garage and the mostly generous approach to rewards mean that although matches do start to feel samey and predictable, they never stop being fun.
This is really just the foundation on which future updates will be built and, with the PC version as a glimpse of the future, it's clear that those updates will be worth the wait. World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition is limited in features right now, but is rich in potential. It's not a well-oiled machine yet, but it's still fun to take for a spin. Given that it costs absolutely nothing to climb aboard, it's hard not to recommend.