Wargaming is no stranger to games involving large war machines. The Belarusian company has been successful with its MMO shooter, World of Tanks, for almost a decade now, a game that received a console version back in 2016. However, warfare can go even bigger and more deadly than tanks and artillery, and the true pinnacle of men and machines facing off in a deadly struggle is to be found on the world's oceans; specifically during the great naval battles of the early twentieth century. With World of Warships: Legends, Wargaming has brought free-to-play naval warfare to consoles. Time for us to load the torpedoes and man the big guns.
World of Warships: Legends features warships that were in service between the start of the 20th century until the early days of the Cold War in the late 1940s. While it looks mostly the same as the PC version of the game, Wargaming St. Petersburg actually remade the game from scratch for consoles. Upon release, three nations are playable: Great Britain, the United States, and the Empire of Japan. Germany, France and others will follow later. Players pick one of three ship classes with their own specific strengths and weaknesses. In a typical match, teams of up to nine players fight over capture points or win by the annihilation of the opposing team, with the action taking place on the fifteen maps that are available upon release. Each team starts at one end of the map, which usually consists of a lot of open ocean at the edges and a number of islands around the centre.
After playing the game for a number of hours, we think the gameplay in World of Warships: Legends can be characterised as a challenging mix between careful aiming of your guns and torpedoes, constantly altering your speed and direction to avoid incoming shells, and a need to cooperate with the rest of your team. Compared to the PC version, the maps are a bit smaller. This allows for a higher tempo to the engagements, but it also makes this a more arcadey experience, with less emphasis on strategic positioning and team-work.
For new players, the gameplay can be a bit overwhelming. Your ship moves around by powering the engine in four different speed modes, from ¼ to full power or reverse. With movement largely automated, players can theoretically focus on steering the ship and watching the horizon for enemies. Once the fight starts though, it's quite hard to both adjust speed, steer away from islands, shoot enemy ships, and keep a lookout for incoming torpedoes all at the same time. Your ship's guns are the main weapon to do battle irrespective of class, and they can zoom in and out depending on the distance between you and your adversary. Because enemy ships are usually a few kilometres away, you need to aim well in advance of an enemy ship's most probable direction in order to score a hit. Salvo accuracy is partially randomised, meaning they sometimes range from accurate to all over the place without much influence from the player. It can be a bit frustrating at times, but it also saves you from enemy attacks so it kind of balances out.
Hitting enemy ships for maximum damage also requires a fair amount of practice. You can shoot either heavy explosive ammunition that deals damage and sets ships on fire, or try armour-piercing rounds that deal damage upon penetration. Knowing when to use which shell type and against which ships is something you need to learn while playing, which keeps the game challenging but might also scare off players who fail to understand the mechanics after playing for some time. Additionally, there are so-called citadels on each ship model: if you aim really well, you can score a citadel hit which deals massive damage. Getting to know your guns' trajectories on each ship and how to citadel enemies is part of the learning curve and it's very satisfying to pull off.
Players start out with basic ships at Tier I, but the game's tech tree specialises the ships into different branches after Tier II up to Tier VII. The ship classes, consisting of light destroyers, medium-size cruisers and large battleships, follow a system of rock-paper-scissors, whereby each class is aimed at defeating another. Firstly, there are cruisers that combine decent armour and speed with a large number of medium-calibre guns. Some of them also carry torpedoes, but they're actually the speciality of the smaller and faster destroyer class. Destroyers are able to remain undetected for a longer period and can even deploy a smoke screen to disappear entirely. By the time you spot their torpedoes racing towards you, it might already be too late. That's true especially when you're playing as a battleship. These are the most powerful warships ever built, with huge guns that deliver devastating citadel hits, but they reload slowly and are too sluggish to avoid skilful torpedo attacks.
In our experience, the different classes feel balanced towards each other, with neither class really able to dominate the others. The smaller maps seem to favour the destroyer class, but battleships have automatic secondary guns that are far more potent compared to the PC version to balance this out. There is a couple of premium (paid) ships upon release as well, and they don't feel overpowered compared to the regular ones. They are a way to jump into the game at the higher tiers, but you'll actually need the skills you learn by playing the regular ones to become successful. We tried most of the premiums, and some actually felt a bit underwhelming, such as the tier IV Texas battleship that seemed to take heavy damage from every single hit we took.
We, therefore, think unlocking the regular ships by gaining XP is the way to go. We reached Tier III after a handful of matches, but from there you'll start to play more and more matches in order to upgrade your ship. For those who play only occasionally, Tier VI and VII ships are probably out of reach, but in our experience, enough fun can be had if you top out around Tier IV and V. With every tier the game becomes more challenging. That's mostly because ships become more specialised and have their own particular strengths and weaknesses that players need to master in order to play successfully. Precise movement and careful aiming become steadily more important. The ships' customisation is further increased by the addition of legendary commanders, who add ship bonuses such as increased gun range, stealth, or extra hit points. It takes time to find out the kind of class, ship and commander that best suits you.
So how immersive is World of Warships: Legends, and do these naval battles really come to life? In our eyes, yes they do. While the gameplay is solid by itself, it's the combination of an excellent and adaptive musical score, the need to zig-zag around incoming salvos, and the joy of watching your shells blow up an enemy ship after a tense naval duel that makes it worth a look. The ships are modelled in great detail thanks to their realistic movements, spinning radar installations, and good-looking optional camouflages. When firing a broadside salvo on a battleship, you actually get the visual and audible sensation of a bunch of massive guns blasting off. The graphics in World of Warships: Legends also look better than on the PC version in some regards: especially the fire and smoke effects look more realistic.
On the downside, the relatively steep learning curve won't be everyone's cup of tea. Not everyone wants to invest a lot of time before being able to play on a level playing field with more experienced players and to play at higher tiers. We also have the feeling that the PC version does things a little better: the bigger maps allow for more players, more strategic movement, and more room for skill rather than arcade gameplay. Nevertheless, there's enough unpaid fun to be had in World of Warships: Legends, so we don't see a reason not to try this free-to-play game on Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
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