Previews

World of Warplanes: First Hands-On Preview

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For the uninitiated, World of Warplanes draws heavily upon the successful formula Wargaming.net developed for World of Tanks. The core gameplay 15v15 random battles with teams of planes drawn from different nationalities (i.e. no axis vs. allies) but confined to ranges of tiered aircraft; i.e. biplanes won’t be going up against jet fighters. Reality is confined to the characteristics of the planes themselves. Though victory mechanics work a bit differently (since there’s no base you can sit on to capture), most battles are won or lost in 5 or 10 minutes.

Also unlike the gameplay experience in World of Tanks, stopping behind cover to get your bearings or snipe just isn’t an option. Clouds and sun (attacking from the blind spot caused by the sun was and remains a significant dogfighting tactic) are already in the game, but don’t expect sunbeams or water vapor to stop a hail of bullets. Head of Game Design Ivan Kulbich noted that World of Warplanes will launch with a number of player-vs.-environment missions (a first for the series) designed to teach players the mysteries of the z-axis.

World of Warplanes Controls and Interface

I went against my flight sim enthusiast instincts and opted for keyboard controls just to see how familiar the keyboard controls would be to a World of Tanks player. Not very. Gamers who grew up on Dynamix's Red Baron or the Aces... series like me might expect mouse to control the camera while WASD controls yaw and pitch, but we’d be wrong. 

Instead, World of Warplanes uses the “ball on a string” mechanic by default to control plane movement. As you move the mouse, you’ll determine where your pilot attempts to fly (indicated by a ball “tied” to the gunnery crosshairs by a string). The W and S keys control throttle, while A and D roll the plane left and right. As I played, I recognized the reason; readily accessible speed control is absolutely necessary for tightening up turns, dumping speed, and other common tactics during an intense dogfight. Looking down to pick out the number key to throttle up or down might spell disaster.

Managing speed and altitude is key to winning World of Warplanes dogfights.

While Ivan noted that though players will have a lot of flexibility in creating their own control scheme, cockpit view won’t be a part of the game. That said, players have already figured out ways to mod the target reticules and sounds for ever higher degrees of historicity and/or zaniness (note the recent Duke Nukem sound pack for World of Tanks).

Wargaming.net was kind enough to let me try out each of the major plane types: the fighter, the heavy fighter, and the ground attack plane. Similar to the approach used in World of Tanks, each warplane type has a rock / paper /scissors relationship with the other types. Heavy fighters are durable enough to close on a ground attack plane but are vulnerable to more maneuverable and faster Fighters. Ground attack planes are primarily tasked with hitting ground targets of course, but can make short work of a lone fighter from the front or behind (thanks to an AI-controlled tail gun) due to its weak armor.

World of Warplanes Ground Attack hands-on: the Russian IL-40

I tried out a ground attack plane as my first flight: a zippy Russian IL-40 with fifties-futuristic looking dual intakes in the nose cone. Within a few seconds I got my first kill. Touching the trigger poured forth four solid streams of fiery lead as my 23 mm cannons made short work of a Hellcat playing chicken. Ivan chuckled, noting that you should never attack a ground attack plane from the front. The IL-40 makes broad, sweeping turns and (like all early jets) handled like a freight train, but it’s very toothy up front, fast, and can take a lot of punishment.

Due to the IL-40’s large turning radius, I did turn off the map once. Ivan noted that if you stay more than a few seconds off map, auto-pilot will bring you back onto the map. While auto-pilot is on, you’ll be very vulnerable to warplanes trolling the map’s edge, so it’s best to keep track of where you are on the minimap and plan your runs accordingly.

Ground attackers are vicious dogfighters if you can keep the enemy in your front sights.

As I celebrated my first victory (sadly, Victor wouldn’t credit it to my account), Victor noted the difference between World of Warplanes and other combat flight simulators: the emphasis is on the action. There’s no taking off or landing, no flying to waypoints. In the match type that will be available at launch, a progress bar at the top of screen shows how close your team is to winning (or losing), either through air superiority or by destroying ground targets.

As such, it seems coordination will be much more significant in World of Warplanes than World of Tanks. Ground attack planes and heavy fighters might want to fly in formation to make the best use of tail guns against fast-moving fighters, for example. Regardless, each team will have to determine whether the team goes for air superiority or for ground attack victory.

As in World of Tanks, a fair degree of realism is preserved, but not in ways that add complexity to the game. Holding down the trigger, for example, won’t overheat and jam your guns, but you will run through your limited supply of ammo quickly and suffer a loss in accuracy.  Likewise, you won’t blackout from massive Gs on tight turns, rip off your wings recovering from steep dives, or stall your plane – your pilot is there to prevent such catastrophes, and his relative skill will determine how close to the breaking point he can push your plane. Crew can be purchased and trained just like in World of Tanks, likewise players can research and equip engines and guns which enhance the plane both in terms of playability and visual appear.

World of Warplanes Heavy Fighter hands-on: the Bf-410

I stepped down two tiers to try out a German heavy fighter, a Bf-410, which saw its best service in the Luftwaffe as a bomber-hunting night fighter. The Bf 110 was often equipped with powerful guns mounted at an oblique angle - the pilot could fly beneath an invading bomber while the tailgunner tore open its under-gunned belly.  Well armed and armored but not agile, the historical plane could equip a wicked 50 mm (2 inch) gun or several batteries of mortar-rockets – one hit from either of which could destroy any plane in WWII.

I would put none of these fun historical facts to good use (Ivan wouldn’t tell me where the 50 mm win button was). I had trouble locating the enemy’s ground attackers and was quickly swarmed by fighters – the scissors to my Bf-110’s paper. I did a poor impression of a twisting, turning dogfighter, but despite having roughly twice the hitpoints of any given fighter I was a black smear on El Halluf’s desert landscape before long.

The Bf-410 carries heavy armament, but is easily outmaneuvered by swarming fighters.

Prior to my untimely destruction, I noted the slick night fighter camo on my Bf-410. Ivan explained that the warplanes would have historical camouflage options, but that they’d be “made just a little brighter than they were in reality.” Spotting mechanics work much like they do in World of Tanks, and as such, investing in camouflage makes players slightly less visible to enemies. 

This was also a good time to talk about the differences between planes of different nationalities. While tanks in World of Tanks tend to have national characteristics – French tanks, for example, have fast firing guns but thin armor – Ivan explained that the national differences in World of Warplanes revolve around the number and types of planes deployed. The Soviet Union, for example, put much more energy into ground attack planes, while early in the post-war era the United States focused on carrier-based aircraft, namely fighter bombers. Those differences are reflected in the number and types of planes players can fly from each nation’s two trees.

World of Warplanes Fighter hands-on: the US P-12

To wrap up my hands-on time, I flew a US P-12 Hawk fighter – which sounds pretty sexy until you see that it’s a biplane. I wanted to get a feel for low tier gameplay, and the F-86A was actually a lot of fun to fly. Twice the wings means twice the wingspan and maneuverability, and the P-12 could wheel like a baseball off a bat. The twin 7.62 mm guns were nothing like the fire hose of pain I enjoyed with the previous two craft, but were adequate to the task.

As in World of Tanks, low tier combat has its own charms in World of Warplanes.

We took off over Novorossysk, Russia’s biggest port on the Black Sea and one of the few that remains operational all year long. The port facilities and airfield looked fantastic, and Victor was adamant that they’d be adding more “action” such as moving tanks on the ground prior to launch. Since only one other low tier pilot could be found on the local server Wargaming.net was running at GDC, we took on a pair of bots. After a few passes targeting the bot planes sidelong and from underneath, the flummoxed AI planes actually collided with each other. Any win is a win, after all.

World of Warplanes and Clan Wars

In closing, Victor lifted the veil on how World of Warplanes will affect Clan Wars, the browser-based metagame that has tanker clans vying for territories and premium currency income. “Say my clan attacks Moscow. A friendly clan targets their air wing, and if we win the air battle, we have two airstrikes in the tank battle or a temporary recon sweep of the map.”

Plans are less certain with World of Battleships, but equally promising. “With World of Battleships, I’m not sure. We’ll be cutting off supply routes, preventing the jump from England to France, and supporting tanks in coastal battles. We think this [World of Warplanes] is a good way to start managing the gaps.”

My time with World of Warplanes helped scratch an itch unscratched for quite a few years: the itch to play an excellent, balls-out, white knuckle combat flight game. When World of Warplanes comes out later this year, we’ll all owe Wargaming.net a debt of gratitude for bringing a worthy sub-genre back into the PC gaming limelight. Until then, anyone can apply for the global alpha (so named because Victor was anxious to avoid over-testing in the Russian market, as had apparently happened with World of Tanks).

Our thanks to Victor Kislyi, Ivan Kulbich, and the Wargaming.net team for this exclusive hands-on opportunity to play World of Warplanes at GDC 2012.

 

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