You’ve seen the YouTube ads, you’ve seen the ads on your phone. But what the hell is World of Tanks? Adam Goodall went on an adventure to find out.
For the last twelve months, my friend Tim has been bugging me to join him on an adventure. To travel with him around the world, from the towering mountains of Karelia to the sunny Solomon Islands. He’s been sending me invites over Messenger and whenever we hang out, he tells me how exciting these places are and how much fun he’s had in the past.
Inevitably, I’ve given in. It’s late on a Tuesday when we arrive at the abbey in rural Italy, our first stop on this grand tour. The old red-topped abbey sits on a small hill, drenched in late afternoon sun. A small village, weathered brick houses and lines of swaying Lombardy poplars, spills out the back of the abbey and down the hill. We drive down a battered gravel road that runs through the village centre, swallowed up by the shadows of the houses and the hillside.
That’s when a tank starts firing at me. I spot it, hidden behind a poplar. I get one shot in before it blows me up. Tim takes my killer down, but he’s blown up seconds later by an artillery vehicle that’s set up miles away. Two minutes after arriving at the abbey, we’re unceremoniously punted back to the Garage.
“So, um,” Tim says, “so what happened there is we both died.”
“It was a pretty embarrassing death,” I add.
“Yeah, I guess,” he responds, “I guess it was. Anyway, I’m going to go in the Fiat this time so if you want to choose another tank and we’ll have another hoon?”
Wargaming’s World of Tanks is the first entry in the publisher’s near decade-old free-to-play strategy series. In Tanks, you battle alongside fourteen friendly tanks for supremacy over another team of large metal lads, either by destroying all the opposing forces or by capturing their flag on the other side of the map. It was Tim’s introduction to the series: he’s been playing Wargaming’s war games since firing up Tanks for the first time in April 2012.
Wargaming’s since expanded this formula to the air (World of Warplanes) and the sea (World of Warships), but Tanks still enjoys a healthy life. In March this year, Wargaming rolled out the 1.0 version of Tanks, a complete overhaul of the eight year old game’s audio and visuals. “It’s a lot prettier than it used to be,” Tim notes as we drive along a small peninsula. I’m taken aback by the lighting, how shadows and light bleed into each other and catch the browns and greens of the Italian countryside. You can feel the temperature dropping with the sunset.
It’s the first time Tim’s played in a while. He’s got several reasons for dropping off. He got tired of the way Tanks encourages you to play: “It frustrates me, getting killed by tanks that I can’t see because they’re all hiding in bushes,” he says as we load into Himmelsdorf, a dense German town flanked by a wide-open train station on one side and a castle on a hill on the other. “You just get punished for playing aggressively.”
Then Wargaming introduced premium ‘gold’ ammunition that you could purchase with real money, spoiling the game in the top tiers that Tim was playing in at the time. But also, Tim confesses, World of Warships was what sealed the deal. “A warship’s like a tank, but bigger,” he says. “And it has more guns. Bigger guns.”
“But low tier’s quite fun,” Tim tells me. “In low tier, you just bump into each other and go pew pew at each other.” Seeing as I’m just starting out and it takes a while to get to tiers 9 and 10, that low-stakes pew pew is what we’re playing when I get my first and only kill. We’ve dropped into Himmelsdorf; “one of the classics,” Tim says of the map. Our spawn point is surrounded by old-fashioned four- and five-storey apartments, but as we creep into the heart of the town those apartments turn into piles of rubble and bombed-out shells.
I spot a Fiat 3000, the tier 1 tank from the new Italian line, at the other end of the road. I’m driving a Strv fm/21, a Swedish tank that looks like it’s been built out of scrap. I line up my Strv behind a couple of trucks and start firing.
We trade shots, but I have the edge: their shots keep hitting the trucks, and I take them down and make to leave. I’ve got barely any health left, which means my victory’s shortlived: seconds later, an enemy tank rounds the corner and hits me point blank with a shell. “Sad reacc only,” Tim yells, already dead.
World of Tanks is a lot more arcade than I expected. Your tanks are bouncier and relatively nimble, clambering up rubble piles and bouncing off each other pretty easily. There is a dense tank upgrade system, one made more complicated by Wargaming’s bizarre monetisation strategies (you have to use three different currencies to unlock a new tank, purchase that tank and, if you don’t want to sell one of the tanks you have, store it in your garage). But the physics are forgiving and the aiming requires a low level of situational awareness – just drag your crosshair over the enemy and click. “It compensates for you,” Tim explains when I point this out. “It’s not like War Thunder.”
Tim tells me that War Thunder is a source of tension in the Tanks community. Like Tanks, War Thunder is a free-to-play multiplayer war game, albeit one that brings planes and tanks together on one battlefield. When War Thunder went into open beta in 2012, a chunk of the Tanks community started pointing to it as doing what Tanks wouldn’t. “They thought [Tanks] should be a simulator,” Tim explains, but a more forgiving one than War Thunder, which was so modular that your game could be ruined by individual shards of shrapnel ricocheting through your tank and into your crew members. Tanks’ gentler physics and simpler mechanics were a sore point for players seeking out a more ‘historically-accurate’ experience.
That tension seems to have died down since War Thunder’s full release in 2016, though snarky comments about War Thunder’s balance and tank design can still be found in every second or third thread on r/WorldofTanks. As an online multiplayer game, Tanks is still vulnerable to aggressive and abusive players who feed off a sense of superiority over other players. We run into one of those players toward the end of our session.
We drop into Mines, a map centered around the ruins of an old European castle, and start following a hefty Type 91 heavy tank we call ‘dad’. Almost immediately, an artillery tank on our team gets blown to pieces. It’s their own fault, really – they’ve gotten way too close to the frontlines for an artillery tank. The tank’s pilot, DrTankenstein_2015, hops in the chat. It’s clear that he disagrees.
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): god **** you ****
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): why the **** arent you **** helpnig at hill?????
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): how **** stupid are you
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): Help the hill you stupid morons
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): you **** idiots
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): 2 tanks from our team went hill, the most important part of this map, anyone who doesnt know hill on Mines is important needs to *** kil
DrTankenstein_2015 (BT-7 art.): useless cucks
We’re wiped out shortly after, no thanks to DrTankenstein’s increasingly unhinged and homophobic rant. We’re booted back to the Garage, where we report the good doctor and wait for our final match-up.
I’m a clumsy tank pilot and I don’t really gel with World of Tanks’ weirdly slow, difficult team play. It feels good to drive these historic gun-trucks – they’re sluggish, but that sluggishness feels like a fun challenge, the starting point of a climb up the skill ladder.
But these matches, even the victories, lack impact. They’re quiet and unceremonious and devoid of the moment-to-moment tension that draws me to other permadeath multiplayer games. Even if you win a match in the fifteen minutes you’re allocated, spending the next five minutes waiting in the lobby, knowing that you might be knocked straight back to it, takes the wind out of your sails and makes it hard to get enthusiastic about the grind. Because it is a grind: to get enough stars to research a new gun, then get enough money to buy that gun, so that you can open up the path to a new tank for which you also need to raise stars and money.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tim says when I tell him this. “The grind is, you know…” He trails off, looking for the right word. After a second or two, he picks it back up.
“The grind is not fun.”
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