Intrepid gaming explorer Adam Goodall is dragged back into the world of battle vehicles with World of Warplanes.
“You see, we’re carving up!” Tim and I are flying over rural Ukraine, near an Old Fortress on the Eastern Front. It’s autumn – the trees are all a deep orange – and we’re caught in a thirty-person dogfight for the land below. We fight against a backdrop of canyons and cliff-sides, chasing enemy planes up the cliffs and over the forests. A 14th-century castle, the titular Fortress, perches at the top of one of those cliffs, surveying the battlefield, watching as I blow up some dude named Nils.
Nils is – was – flying a German AR 65, a Tier 1 plane that the World of Warplanes wiki says is “not too good”. “It gets better though as you go forward from here,” the wiki continues apologetically. “Don’t worry.” I’m flying a Japanese Type 91, which is zippy and comparatively nimble, able to pull off barrel rolls and other manoeuvres in a pinch. Tim’s in the cockpit of a more utilitarian Goldfinch biplane. He’s trying to get a better British fighter, he tells me, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.
We’re halfway done and racking up kills when Tim tells me we’re placed first and second on our team. Seconds later, I fly straight into another plane, by accident. But not only do I survive the collision, I take them out. They explode and there’s barely a scratch on me. I’m still coming second on the team. This is my second World of Warplanes match and I’m charged-up, invincible. After we win, I tell Tim how nice it is to feel competent, even skilled, after three hours of being absolutely dogshit at World of Tanks.
“I know,” Tim responds. “It’s a nice feeling, eh? Winning.”
World of Warplanes is the second game in Wargaming’s World of strategy series. Warplanes was released in 2013 after a lengthy beta; Tim got into the game during that beta period. “It was great,” Tim recalls. “I went up the German tech tree, because I thought the German planes were cool, and I got to the Messerschmidt 109 Zwilling, which is just two Messerschmidts sellotaped together to make a larger plane.”
Tim ultimately bailed out during the game’s transition from closed to open beta. As part of the changeover, every player’s progress was reset. All the hours Tim spent advancing through the tech tree, upgrading his planes with Wargaming’s mix of in-game currencies, were lost. Everything he’d unlocked was worthless in this new frontier. Faced with the possibility of sinking more hours into planes only to lose them again when the game released, Tim moved on. “It’s fairly normal,” Tim says, “but I obviously wasn’t as invested in it as I thought I was.”
A lot of people must share Tim’s attitude toward World of Warplanes, because it struggled to find an audience. In 2014, just under a year after the game’s launch, Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi told Rock Paper Shotgun that Warplanes hadn’t been an “automatic success”. Two years later, in an interview for VentureBeat, Kislyi revised that down. “World of Warplanes,” he said, “we can’t call that a success.”
Since then, Warplanes has had an overhaul. In October last year, Wargaming rolled out the 2.0 update which, among other things, replaced the game’s core dogfighting mode with an objective-based capture-the-point mode, added a new line of bomber planes and introduced player respawns. Pilots would no longer be booted from a game the moment they died. Instead, they’d keep entering the match as ‘reinforcements’ until a point near the end when a ‘squall’ would roll in and signal to everyone that their next death would be their last.
That update was divisive for the Warplanes community. A significant chunk of players felt that revisions to plane statistics and changes to plane customisation were inflexible and preventing them from having a good time. For players like Tim, though, Warplanes was never about complexity. “It’s the relaxation,” Tim says. “It’s a lot more relaxed [than World of Tanks]. You’re in the sky and it’s very pretty. It’s easy to play and the beta was even simpler, gameplay-wise – it had aim indicators, it would tell you where to put your mouse to hit people.”
While those recent updates have tried to reassert the importance of teamwork, it’s still stretching it a bit to call Warplanes a ‘strategy’ game. With its respawns and constant, mouse-led movement (you can ‘boost’ for a few seconds at a time but you’re mostly moving at a steady speed), it’s forgiving and plays more like dogfighting games from previous eras, like Microsoft’s Crimson Skies series or the Star Wars X-Wing games. Your planes have weight to them – they noticeably slow down as they turn and it takes time for your targeting reticule to balance out – but they aren’t awkward or slow.
In World of Tanks, I struggled to get kills with my clumsy, bouncy tanks. They were fun, sure, but they were sluggish. It couldn’t feel good about how I was learning when I was being mowed down and bounced back to the garage two minutes into each match. In Warplanes, though, I’m taking down planes almost immediately and regularly ranking in the top three of my team. When I die, I don’t get sent back to the garage like a naughty child, punished for flying too close to some AA guns or for letting Tim crash into me over Melanesia. I’m back in seconds.
Puffed up with hubris, Tim and I join a Tier 3 match, Tim piloting a Tier 3 I-15bis DM and me piloting a Tier 2 Ki-10. I’m deeply outmatched. I fly into a V1 rocket base and get torn apart by AA guns; I struggle to gain altitude and catch the AI pilots we need to shoot down; I face off against heavier planes and lose, again and again. I’m languishing at the bottom of the team table, struggling to find a combat zone where I’m not cut down immediately. “This is kinda my fault,” Tim apologises, “dragging you into this.”
He’s not wrong – after a year of messages asking me when I’m going to play World of Warships, it is Tim’s fault that I’m here now, a Tier 2 in a match full of Tier 3s, hobbled by the game’s currency grind and pressured to spend real life money if I want to get further faster. That’s not going to happen, not yet, so Tim agrees to drop back into Tier 2 matches. “I feel it especially in Warships,” Tim says, “a lot of lower tier ships and games are a lot more fun.”
I feel it too. The subtext of the grind isn’t lost on me – World of Warplanes is designed for people with capital to sink into the game, to the point that their capital basically lets them play with a different rulebook to everyone else.
It’s not that dissimilar to so many real wars, the monied aggressor and the suffering defender. But where Tanks was a glory-free slog, dominated by those players with the time and cash to tool their tanks up and learn the ins and outs of the game, Warplanes is more accessible and more dramatic. I end each match on a high. I kill a shitload of people.
For our last match before Tim has to go, we return to the Old Fortress to chase around a bunch of pilots with regular-ass names like Tyler and Michael. The game goes down to the wire, but we snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, 400 to 378. Tim ranks first in our team. I rank second.
“That was pretty good!” Tim says. “That was quite fun! A lot better than Tanks.”
“Yeah,” I concede. “I loved that.”
“Then you’re gonna love Ships,” Tim says, almost like a dare. “Ships is much better.”