A plane disappointment

When World of Tanks popped onto the scene a couple years ago, I didn’t take much note of it. Tank warfare was never my thing, so it remained only a blip on my radar. Since then World of Tanks has raked in awards, set Guinness records and set a bar for free-to-play (F2P) Massively Multiplayer action games. With their new release, World of Warplanes, Wargaming.net seeks to expand their mark into the skies, doing for air combat what they did for armored warfare. Now, this excites me. I’ve been in a love affair with flight games since my first taste of Microsoft Flight Simulator in the mid 90’s. Could this new game bring the magic that Wargaming.net found in its trundling, metal beasts to the fast-paced dogfights of mid-century air combat? I signed up and got out my flight stick.

The gist of the only game mode in World of Warplanes is straightforward: blow up anything not on your team. It doesn’t matter what it is: a fighter, a dive-bomber, a building, a boat, an unlucky cat. Everything that isn’t on your team must die from your guns, bombs or rockets. If you blow up enough stuff, or at least every one of the other team’s planes, you win. Simple. There are currently five countries, each with a full selection of planes available through their assorted tech trees, and if you are shot down or crash, your plane is no longer usable until the round ends. You can leave and enter a new match with a different plane while you wait, but until the match finishes, the war, for that particular pilot, is over.

Flying in the game is very much an arcade experience. I found it difficult to stall the planes with all but the most drastic drops in speed, and there isn’t a cockpit view or any gauges beyond some basic information flanking the crosshair. The weapons are also more of the arcade ilk. Your main guns have unlimited ammo, and there are targeting aids which do all the hard parts of aiming for you. You still need to point your plane in the right direction, but the aids remove any skill out of tracking and leading a target. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but I was disappointed that the game was closer in feel to Snoopy: Flying Ace than it was to IL-2: 1946 or even Ace Combat.

The selection of aircraft ranges from 1930’s biplanes through to postwar and fictional jets. They look accurate enough, and each one can be upgraded with weapons, ammunition or other modifications. Each upgrade shifts the stats of the plane around, making slight improvements with most having some downside that balances any performance gain. Most modifications are visible on the planes’ models and, though they don’t really make the plane objectively better, the limited customization allows for a tailored experience.

The maps are colorful and picturesque, but very limited. There are currently two maps for lower tier planes with a couple larger ones unlocked as you gain access to more advanced, faster airframes. The maps are so few that their limitations become noticeable from repetition. Clouds, for instance, are fixed in place, and the arenas feel surprisingly small after a few flights, especially ironic considering you have all the space in the sky to use.

On the technical side of things, World of Warplanes has no major issues. There is a similar, oversaturated, caricatured look to the game as is in World of Tanks, but it looks good and runs well. The net code for multiplayer matches is smooth and lag is marginal at worst. The control options are plentiful and I was able to set up my flight stick and all axes with relative ease. There are many control scheme options allowing you to use everything from just a mouse, to a keyboard and mouse to a gamepad or flight stick. I preferred my flight stick, but I tried other control schemes and didn’t find any real advantage or disadvantage to my preference over a gamepad or keyboard controls.

For all the positive facets of the World of Warplanes’s presentation and gameplay, the F2P model and in-game economy are almost enough to offset everything else. It becomes obvious very early on that the game difficulty is scaled to increase to the point that, though it’s theoretically possible to get to the end of the tech trees (Tier 10) for free, in practice, it will never happen nor does it really matter what plane you have.

The way you advance in the game is by earning Experience Points (XP) and Credits. These you can use to access higher level planes and other items. The amount of XP and Credits you earn per round is relatively stable, no matter what tier you have reached. While there may be some small coefficient based on the level the plane is on and the level of the target you destroy, after some testing I couldn’t find much more than a cursory difference between the payout for planes on different tiers. The amount you earn per round, therefore, can be assumed to be a steady, but low number–just enough to get by and have some spending credits for optional extras in the early game. A problem quickly arises, however, when you get deeper into the tech tree.

The amount to unlock the next tier up a tech tree isn’t a constant or even rising steadily. Each new level costs an amount of XP proportional to the amount needed to unlock all previous levels combined. Except for the early tiers–when the costs are low enough that you can beat them all in a few hours–you will have to play the game ad nauseam to make progress. Once I realized this, I noted the XP to advance each tier and the payout for a sample of battles at different tiers and calculated that, by tier 7, conservatively I’d need to play around 40 hours to advance each level assuming I can focus my attention on only that one tree and my performance remained consistent. That is the prospect of 40 hours in the same, solitary game mode, on the same few maps, with the same plane, against similar opponents every time.

Add on that each country’s tech tree and every branch of each tree are unlocked independently and you have a recipe for a game slated to take in the ballpark of 1000 hours to attain everything. I generally have a good attention span, but I’m not about to waste weeks of my life on a limited, repetitive task with little reward. If I wanted that, I’d go back to a job in IT. There’s another option, of course, and that’s where real world currency comes in.

If you want to speed up progress or flat out unlock tiers immediately, you can buy Gold. Gold can be converted into premium status (increasing your income from matches), XP, Credits, paint schemes, or unique planes. Gold can only be purchased with real cash. This is typical of the F2P model Warplanes is using, but it adds up quickly. You need both XP and Credits to unlock and use any one plane, and to get to that plane you have to unlock all tiers leading up to it.

For example, if you wanted to unlock the last plane in the Japanese tech tree in Tier 10 as soon as you started playing. You’d need to unlock all eight tiers below it, plus the tier it’s on. That comes out to around $137. Yes, it’s pricey, but you’re not done. You still need to buy it with Credits, too. At the current exchange rates, that’s around another $65. This one Japanese jet costs the price of three AAA games.

World of Warplanes has a lot going for it. Its central gameplay mechanics are solid, the graphics look great, and it plays smoothly with little lag. The game is good enough to warrant a gander for a few hours, maybe even a couple days. It’s simple, light-hearted fun. The leveling system and its economy, though, turn what could have been a competent, if limited, MMO into an expensive trial that can only be overcome with time or money. Even though the gameplay is satisfactory, the bad taste that the slow leveling system and the “optional”, but expensive, micro-transactions leave in their wake sours the experience.

Developer: Wargaming.net • Publisher: Wargaming.net • ESRB: N/A • Release Date: 11.13.13
World of Warplanes‘s is a decent game, but its ultimate undoing is its leveling system and its economy, turning what could have been a competent, if limited, arcade flight experience into an expensive trial that can only be overcome with time or money.
The Good Balanced gameplay; solid net code; and competent multiplayer.
The Bad Play is currently limited to a single game mode on a few, generic maps; flight physics and weapons are simplistic.
The Ugly Warplanes’ economy is stacked against you unless you pay increasingly large amounts of real-world money to reduce the grind. The real world price of in-game items is hidden behind multiple currency conversions.
World of Warplanes is a PC exclusive.