Tanks are not traditionally thought of as stealthy, but nobody saw World of Tanks coming when it first launched two years ago. Since the release of the first beta, the combat MMO has gone on to attract a massive following. And when I say massive, I mean: 40 million registered users massive.
It's a behemoth now, and with sequels World of Warplanes and World of Battleships on their way (Warplanes is in beta now, Battleships is planned for 2013), success is looming large for Wargaming.net. Their free-to-play game has been running in Russian since late 2010, and expanded across Europe in April 2011. On October 4 the studio revealed the total number of registered users, and announced a record-breaking 500,000 concurrent gamers played together on a Russian server.
Despite the game's staggering popularity, World of Tanks isn't the most well known shooter on these shores, but that looks like it could be about to change with the latest update, 8.1. The injection of new content centres around a selection of new tanks, and all of them are British. But we'll come back to them in a bit.
The previous update, 8.0, had ushered in new physics, and refined graphics, adding a level of polish that resonated with the online community. The numbers of gamers playing shot right up. It was yet another step forward for a studio that has been rapidly expanding in every direction (nearly 1200 people work for them at the moment, we're told).
World of Tanks is a success story, pure and simple. When Wargaming.net revealed they were working on a tank-based MMO, there were questions raised, but their vision has ultimately paid off. The numbers of people playing their game are testament to that.
Over here it's not so straightforward, and despite the global success of the game, the juggernaut that is WoT has yet to really conquer the UK. However, that might not be the case for much longer.
The arrival of the British tanks is something of a homecoming. It was here that the tank was invented, and Wargaming.net were keen to point this out to the assembled crowd of journalists on hand to see the new content at a recent event. Outlets from across the world were represented, such is the broadness of WoT's appeal, and as we prepared to get hands on with the latest update, there was excited chatter around the room.
There's a variety of different vehicles included in 8.1, and light, medium and heavy tanks all feature, with tank destroyers and self-propelled guns set to be introduced in a future update. We've been treated to a full compliment of historically accurate vehicles, and as is the tradition, experimental technology and prototypes from the Second World War era are also present. For enthusiasts it's a dream come true, for everybody else, the inclusion of British tanks makes the game that bit more accessible.
The attention to detail is impressive, and vehicles can be tweaked and tailored to very specific tastes in the Garage before being deployed in battle. Each player controls one tank, and across a range of large and varied maps, fight it out against an opposing team until objectives are captured, or whole teams are destroyed. One tank, one life.
As with the other vehicles that feature in WoT, there are different tools for different jobs, and as usual, co-ordinated tactics are king on the battlefield. Light tanks are fast and nimble, able to scout out enemy positions, medium and heavy tanks trade decreasing mobility for increasing firepower. Tank destroyers form the last line of defence, their powerful guns pose a threat to any armored vehicle in their path. Self-propelled guns roam around the battlefield, fragile, but packing a mighty punch.
Each vehicle handles differently, and fulfils a different role in battle. In WoT's early game, players take control of more mobile light tanks, and here they learn the basics. Spotting an enemy reveals them to the rest of the team, making the first wave very important. Without having targets to shoot at, the big guns at the back can do nothing to affect the fight.
Medium tanks retain much of the mobility of their light counterparts, but feature increasingly powerful weapons. They offer a happy medium for players who want to get stuck in early on, but still be around towards the end of the battle. Heavy tanks and tank destroyers are the least agile units, but the trade-off in speed provides some serious firepower. The big guns often loiter at the back, waiting for the final push towards an enemy objective, or staying at home to protect the team base.
Each of these tanks can be adjusted in the Garage, and for those who put in the time, there are options aplenty. Ammunition must be restocked and damage repaired after battle, both actions using up credits earned in battle. Free-to-play progress is a grind, because maintaining your vehicle also takes up resources, but the next upgrade is never far away, and it's the perfect incentive to jump straight back into battle.
Despite the huge range of customisation options, WoT engages because it puts gameplay up front and centre. Historical accuracy is observed where possible, but gameplay always comes first. Using statistical data taken from across the community, Wargaming.net examine each individual armored vehicle and make sure that no one class has an unfair disadvantage (often to the annoyance of paying customers, who occasionally find their paid for content adjusted post-purchase). Balance is key.
The reason that balance is so important is because World of Tanks is not a hardcore simulation. Yes there's plenty to modify and improve, but victory on the battlefield is down to skill and tactics, and the developers are loathe to hand out unfair advantages.
Initially the amount of customisation available is daunting. Just browsing the many options in the Garage reveals a wealth of information. For the newcomer it's almost too much. But the complexity of the menu system belies the simplistic nature of the battles. Combat in World of Tanks is immediate and punchy. Games traditionally only last between five and ten minutes. Once your tank has been destroyed you're free to leave the match, joining a different battle with another tank from your collection.
The learning curve is steep. There's a large and competitive community surrounding the game, and first forays into the battlefield will likely prove short and painfully abrupt. But like the tanks that feature so prominently in WoT, there's a bite to be found, and only after it's located can forward progress be made.
It's obviously an attractive proposition for tank enthusiasts. The amount of detail surrounding the game is staggering, and to get the best out of the tools at your disposal, it's up to the player to put in their own research. Doing so allows users to invest considerable amounts of time and effort into their builds, and when you get a positive outcome in the game because of self-implemented design decision, it's undeniably satisfying.
Meet the Brits
Some of the new tanks aren't very new at all. Those already familiar with the game will immediately recognise the Matilda, Valentine, and Churchill models, tanks that the British leased to the Soviets during the war.
The new Tech Tree shows each of the 22 tanks, and a more detailed offering in-game shows what you need to do to unlock them. There's plenty of content to grind through if you want to access the top tier options, but if tanks are you thing, that's not much of a hardship. As mentioned earlier, British tank destroyers and SPGs aren't present and accounted for just yet, we're going to have to wait a while for those, meaning gamers who enjoy playing with those vehicles will have to wait a little longer.
Despite a couple of returning vehicles and a couple of gaps in the line-up, the new British forward line is well stocked with a diverse selection of armoured vehicles, including several yet to feature in WoT in any way, shape or form. From the top tier options like the Conqueror and FV215, to more mobile cruisers such as the Crusader, Cromwell, and Comet, there will be something to suit most tastes. My personal favourite was the Centurion, but each to their own.
It's not just the line-up that gets a lick of paint with the 8.1 update, several of the maps (including Province, El Halluf and Dragon Ridge) have benefited from an upgraded rendering system. It's just another layer of polish on an already competent game, and those who are put off by rough edges won't find much to complain about here.
You may, by now, have ascertained that I've quite enjoyed my time with World of Tanks. Whilst it might not be my usual cup of tea, the mixture of tactical combat, fierce battles and quick-fire action has left a positive impression. For tank enthusiasts not already playing the game, you really should check it out. For everyone else, there's plenty to enjoy in WoT. It might not be the most outwardly appealing game on the market, but it's fast and frantic fun, and well worth a tinkle.