We took the World of Tanks Xbox 360 edition for a test drive during PAX Prime 2013 to see if it can live up to the legacy of its original PC counterpart.
The last part of 2013 promises to be very busy for the now 2,000 strong employees of Wargaming.net. World of Warplanes officially launches in less than two weeks, World of Tanks just held its second $100k tournament at PAX Prime 2013, and World of Tanks Blitz rolls toward tablet release.
But as daring an endeavor as any of the above, the World of Tanks Xbox 360 version approaches open beta as Wargaming.net adds between 20,000 and 30,000 console players per week to the beta.
As I sat down to play WoT360 at PAX Prime 2013, I quickly realized that this wasn't my Russian professor's World of Tanks. Senior Producer Gareth Luke explained that developer Day One had been brought into the Wargaming fold explicitly for their console expertise. Coupled with the feeling that Wargaming "hasn't touched" the North American audience (this despite 20k-30k concurrency on the PC-NA servers), the stage was set for WoT360 to radically depart from the World of Tanks that first captured our attention in a tiny booth at GDC two and a half years ago.
The first clue to WoT360's radical departure from WoT conventions was summed up in one word from Gareth: localized. As in, localized for the Western audience.
At best, localized means less repetitive gameplay and more interesting and/or rapid progression. At worst, localized means a hollow and less satisfying experience, with fewer tactical options and more naked money grabs. With only one early match under my belt and the fact that I'm not a console shooter player (at all - mouse and keyboard for me please - not enough fine motor control in the analog thumbs I guess), I'm reserving judgment. It may well work for the console audience, but I wouldn't hang up your PC tank helmet just yet if you enjoy the WoT of yore.
Here's a few reasons why. First, the user interface (or HUD if you prefer). It's mammoth. Mammoth to the point that I thought maybe I could use the Kinect to choose my tanks on the garage screen (I can't) and possibly pull a Max Headroom and hop in as well. WG had American tanks of early WWII vintage (tiers 1-4 or so) available to choose, and I had no real fondness for any of them (these are the flyover states of WoTland for me), so I spun up an M2 medium.
Matches popped quickly on the PAX floor, and in game and on the 30 second countdown I tried to familiarize myself with the controls: left analog to move, right analog to rotate / elevate the turret to aim, right trigger or X to fire, left trigger to go scoped and right analog click to zoom.
The controls seemed pretty intuitive, but here we come to my second gripe: scoped mode. Unlike most shooters, alternate fire mode is indispensable in WoT because all tanks have many separate hitboxes. In the PC version, there are dozens, and life or death often boils down to who hits whose weak spots first.
Scope mode should be a hold-down on the left trigger instead of a toggle, in my opinion, and should have some level of default zoom. Tighter zoom is on the right analog click, and I personally hate critical controls on the analog click - clicking a stick remains unnatural to me.
But I'm nitpicking. The controls are livable, but I hope they're customizable. What isn't so livable is the gameplay. The random map pulled a flattened version of Sand River, with little hard cover and no destructible villages, mountain shortcuts, or sneaky riverbeds that I could see. According to Gareth, WoT360 is designed to be more "action-oriented," and mission accomplished on this front.
Unfortunately, making an already action-oriented game more actiony, you lose the versatility and dimensionality of some of the game's role oriented tanks. Slower mop-up mediums, snipers, and spotter/artillery combos are likely far less survivable given the smaller maps, lack of cover, and faster pace. Fast brawlers will thrive, of course, and I fear that in trying to make a Western friendly game. the balance will remain tipped toward Russian tanks and their raw firepower coupled with slanted, shell-bouncing armor in public matches.
My M2, on a half-assed scouting run up the gut of the map, got a pair of shots in on a Wolverine before getting caught in a crossfire. It took exactly two hits, finished by an M3 Lee to my everlasting shame.
Without minimizing my tactics and skills (which were admittedly weak) I suspect some map balance issues too. It seemed as though the other team began with an elevated position and plenty of soft cover, making them hard to spot before they shot.
Complicating the issue, I spawned in a perfect field of fire for the enemy team, funneled into their positions by a gentle slope on one side and a ravine on the other. Perhaps I could have climbed my way around the edge of the map instead, but I doubt it; my team was steamrolled and the match was over in less than five minutes.
My usual gripe with console third-person shooters is camera distance. It's usually way too close. Peripheral vision is very important in these games, and being too tight into the camera makes the tank feel overly sluggish and makes accurate aiming from the hip more fine. While initially I felt a little eye-stuffed by WoT360's camera distance, I found out afterwards that the camera can be adjusted. So this is one gripe I'm happy to rescind.
After the match, I asked if WoT360 would be a part of the unified premium account structure and if WoTPC players would see their tech tree unlocks in WoT360. The answer seems to be no on both accounts - Microsoft is handling payments through their payment system, making WG account integration minimal. That said, Gareth noted that tank progression is still very much under production at the moment.
I also asked if Clan Wars would make it to te 360. Gareth explained that this was a pretty hardcore feature and I agreed - CW is pretty expensive too. But it wasn't something that he could comment on at the moment.
As we wrapped up, I asked about Wargaming's plans for the Xbox One. The key to free-to-play success (and WoT360 will be free-to-play) is critical mass, Gareth noted, and the playerbase for the foreseeable future will be much higher on the aging console. Unfortunately, the graphics of the game seemed to take a hit as well - playing at HD resolution, the environments, tanks, and menus looked nowhere near as crisp as the PC.
All in all, if you've somehow found this article on our humble PC MMO site, can't meet the generous minspec of the PC version, and happen to be a console die hard, you should be able get a pretty good taste of World of Tanks very soon. Sign up on the official site, or stay tuned to Ten Ton Hammer where we'll be giving away a few keys through social media.