I can’t think of many “freemium” games that have truly captured my imagination. They’re usually super-casual time sinks that get really repetitive after a while, or they’re fun for a bit, but simply don’t offer much in terms of lasting gameplay. Not World of Tanks.

This absolutely brilliant tank warfare game snuck up and caught me by surprise a few weeks ago, and I’ve been playing it solidly ever since. It’s a simple enough concept, a PvP WWII tank warfare game that pits teams of 15 players against one another in a number of superbly designed, European-themed battlegrounds but it’s executed incredibly well.

The game features a roster of some 150 historically accurate tanks from three nations, Russia, Germany and the US (British and French tanks are going to be added in a future update). Players start out with three basic, lightweight tanks, one from each nation, which can be taken into combat immediately simply by entering the battlefield queue. Once you’ve been automatically put into a team by the game’s matchmaking system, the action commences, usually within a minute. Battle objectives are simple, either destroy all enemy tanks or seize the enemy’s flag (usually located on the opposite side of the map) by occupying and holding the area immediately surrounding it long enough to capture it.

Success in battle earns you credits and experience points that are used to “research” and buy new performance-enhancing parts for your tanks such as tracks, turrets, guns, radios and engines or indeed acquire newer, better vehicles. You can speed up this process somewhat (and this is how Russian developer Wargaming.net makes money) by buying in-game gold with real life money, which you can exchange for additional credits. But even without gold, levelling is a manageable, albeit slower and steadier process.

World of Tanks Review

There are basically ten tiers of tanks, which are broken down into five basic types: Light, Medium and Heavy tanks, Tank Destroyers and SPGs, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Light tanks move fast, making them good for scouting and finding where the enemy is hiding. However, their light armor and generally small caliber guns don’t make them particularly effective in a firefight. Heavy tanks are slow moving, but pack a serious punch and can take a beating. SPGs, self-propelled guns, are the artillery. Generally lightly armored, but packing huge firepower, these machines are best used way behind the front lines where they can “snipe” the enemy. Tank Destroyers are lethal killing machines, but can be outmaneuvered by more nimble tanks. Medium tanks are fairly fast, with decent firepower and good all-round maneuverability, making them ideal support vehicles in almost every situation you can think of.

All tanks are driven around using a third person view, but when shooting a first person perspective is used, apart from the SPGs, which use an overhead view since they are shelling from long range. WoT’s matchmaking system ensures that battles pit reasonably matched tanks together. The game doesn’t care what nationality of tank you’re driving, just the class. So, if you’re a beginner, you’ll find yourself fighting battles with the same super-light tanks with thin armor and very small caliber weaponry that everyone else starts with. But as you begin to put higher tier tanks into your Depot and drive them into battle, you’ll find yourself coming up against increasingly tougher, higher caliber tanks.

There is some variance in matching, so, for example, if you’re commanding a mid-tiered tank, in one battle you might be ranked as one of the stronger members of your team in a generally lower-tiered match, whereas in the next battle you might be ranked weakest in your team because you’re in a slightly higher-tiered match, where your tank isn’t so good. Ultimately, no matter how you’re ranked you’ll be in a team that’s equally matched with your enemy. The system ensures that no matter what you’re driving, you’re not always going to be in the best tank in every game. I think this variance is excellent, as it ensures that you often have to approach each battle differently, which that’s one of the real beauties of World of Tanks, you never quite know how the next battle is going to play out.

While WoT is fundamentally a PvP action shooter, it nevertheless requires an approach and thinking that is more thoughtful and measured than most, more aggressively tuned combat games. Having been a keen reader of historical tank battles and tactics as a kid, I learned that concentrated positioning, unified action and creating “centres of development” are hugely important to winning a skirmish. World of Tanks incorporates all this into its gameplay to create what feels like very realistic tank battles. You have to really think about what you’re doing and be aware of your position, and what your teammates are doing. Generally speaking, aggressive, solo-oriented play gets you turned into a smoking crater very quickly. Playing on the strengths of your vehicle, being patient, moving as a team and outflanking and outmaneuvering your opponent garners success.

World of Tanks Review

When a battle starts, you have no idea where the enemy is. You can clearly see your team as green dots on the minimap, but no enemy is visible. However, once an enemy is “seen” by a tank, it gets lit up on the minimap as a red dot, meaning it can be targeted by artillery or anyone else in range. However, if that sight is lost, the enemy drops off the minimap and cannot be manually targeted. This adds a dynamic element to the game, because you want the enemy lit up as much as possible so they can be targeted and shot at. Which means your team’s fast-moving lightweight tanks need to be going forward and scouting at all times to keep the enemy in view.

This is particularly important for the SPGs, essentially the team’s snipers, because if they don’t have things to aim at they are useless. However, you need to protect your scouts because they’re generally vulnerable to heavy weaponry, so you need your middleweight tanks to roll in and cover fire... and your heavies to draw fire. And this is just a simple, basic take on the way team play works in this game.

The more I play WoT, and at this point I’ve played some 500 battles, the more I appreciate the subtlety and detail of its combat and gameplay. On the one hand, tank combat is slow, and oftentimes you need to be very patient, so you find yourself sitting back waiting to make that one shot really count. Yet sometimes you find yourself in an incredibly tense firefight where you’re trying to outmaneuver packs of opponents or head to cover while being shelled, or trying to cover fire or draw fire. And that’s as intense and adrenaline inducing as any fast action fps. It definitely makes for exciting, and often unpredictable action.

This is further enhanced by the game’s numerous battlegrounds that are nicely designed to deliver a variety of different battle types. There are several urban cityscapes that offer very tight firefights where you’re moving tanks around narrow streets where battles can get very intense. There are also open battlefields – including a desert with rolling dunes and small villages where there’s very little in the way of cover – and you have to be absolutely on your toes to make sure you don’t get picked off by some bastard large-caliber tank sitting at the back of the battlefield.

Throw in a valley battleground with high and low ground to take, a map split by a river with strategic bridges providing choke-points, and several hybrid urban/open battlegrounds and you end up with a nice variety of maps that, thanks to their random nature, helps further ensure that you never quite know what to expect for your next battle.

OUR VERDICT

What all this delivers is a game that has a high ceiling for tactical sophistication, yet is still fun to jump right in and get blasting. Watch new-to-the-game players in action, and it’ll look unorganised and crazy, a simple but fun firefight. But at the higher tiers, you see a very different game emerge, with players covering one another, forming wolf packs, flanking and maneuvering and playing on the strengths of the vehicles they’re commanding to outwit a usually similarly cunning and canny team. If any game deserves a “thinking man’s shooter,” it’s World of Tanks.

The game’s audio and visuals are a perfect match for its action. As you’d expect, WoT’s tanks are beautifully rendered, definitely the best recreations of historic tanks I’ve ever seen in a game. But the scenery too is top-of-the-line, detailed and atmospheric, from depressingly ruined city battlegrounds to beautiful but dangerous alpine meadows. And the sound, while simple, does an excellent job in adding the right kind of atmosphere to the game. I particularly like the fact that you have the tank’s “commander” giving you a running audio commentary of what’s going on while you play. From the effectiveness of your shots through the condition of your drivers to the damage that’s being done to your tank, you’re given updates in real-time that help ensure you know exactly what’s going on. Add in peer-to-peer communication and you’ve got a totally immersive experience.

The best thing of all about the game, it’s free to play. It’s incredibly easy to download and get straight into battle, and you’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s the right game for you. For me, it’s become an obsession that’s had me playing extended sessions at weekends and late into the night, and had me thinking about its maps, strategies and potential new tactics while I’m at work that I can’t wait to try out when I get home.

If you’ve ever had dreams of being a wartime tank commander, you just absolutely have to try it out. To register and download the client, just head over to the official World of Tanks website.