It’s still hard to believe that free-to-play games are going to be a thing on the current generation of consoles. While the genre has found an incredible amount of success on the PC, it was doubtful that console players would ever experience the best and brightest free-to-play titles due to the restrictions that Sony and Microsoft placed on the PlayStation Network and Xbox LIVE during the previous console generation.
Now, however, Sony is going out of its way to convince developers of free-to-play titles to make their home on PSN. War Thunder is the latest free-to-play title to come to the PlayStation 4 as a result of this push, and while the game is still in beta, there’s already quite a bit to like here.
For the uninitiated, War Thunder is MMO combat flight game that takes place during World War II. Developer Gaijin Entertainment plans to add ground and naval engagements at some point, but for now, aerial combat is the name of the game. If you’ve played War Thunder before, you’ll feel right at home here. Veterans of the PC game should beware, however: like every other free-to-play title on PS4, there is no way to a pre-existing account, which means you’ll have to start from scratch if you plan to make the transition. Fortunately, getting a new account set up is fairly simple, so it’s easy to jump in and begin playing.
In many ways, War Thunder is almost exactly the same on PS4 as it is on PC; nearly everything is identical, right down to the menu layout. Playing the game is fairly simple. New players will immediately be taken to a tutorial that will teach you the ins and outs of air combat, and from there, you’re largely left to your own devices, though playing the rest of the available tutorials is highly recommended, especially for those who aren’t very familiar with this sort of game. The controls are fairly simple and it’s easy to understand the basics, but mastering the game will take some time.
Unfortunately, the tutorials are fairly poor: they’ll teach you everything you need to know, including how to take off, land, and perform other important maneuvers, but if you’re looking for advanced tips, like evasive techniques, you’re out of luck; you’ll have to discover things like that for yourself, though War Thunder does provide an Encyclopedia that has detailed information about nearly everything the game has to offer. Still, the game does feature a very high learning curve, especially for those unused to flight titles, and you’ll probably find yourself crashing and getting shot down quite often before you manage to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Once you’ve got some practice under your belt, you’ll want to go on some missions. After the initial tutorial, you’ll be asked to choose which country you want to fly for. Players can select between the U.S., Germany, Russia, Japan, and Great Britain, though your initial choice doesn’t matter for very long; the other countries will all be unlocked as you play. Thankfully, the game doesn’t force you to play against other players right away if you don’t feel comfortable.
There are single missions available, as well as dynamic campaigns which will allow you to play out historical battles from the war from various sides. These can be played alone or cooperatively, though it should be noted that most of them will require you to unlock various things in the game before they become playable, so you’ll be spending a lot of time in the game’s competitive multiplayer if you want to play them all.
Competitive matches are fairly simple. Once you’ve picked the country you wish to fight for, all it takes is the press of a button to get into a match. Most matches play pretty similarly, tasking you with destroying enemy ground forces, enemy planes, and the enemy airfield to win, though there are a variety of different ways to play. Arcade mode is the best place for beginners. In arcade, you aren’t bound by historical limits when selecting planes or the battlefield. It will also allow you to use the game’s simplest control scheme, and won’t have to worry about fuel or ammunition, as the latter recharges after a few seconds.
Realistic battles require historical accuracy, which means that players can only choose aircraft from the side they represent, and planes handle more realistically. Those looking for the most realistic experience will want to stick to simulator battles. These are similar to realistic battles, but players are required to use the cockpit view, only simulation controls are available, and there are no markers designating enemy positions or planes.
Whatever you choose, battles are pretty fun, if fairly demanding, and the game looks excellent in motion. Planes are lovingly rendered, as are the environments, and combat itself simply feels right. Indeed, the game is at its best when you’re lining up the perfect shot, or narrowly escaping a pursuing enemy. Where the game really shines, though, is in the amount of freedom it gives players during matches. If you feel like dog fighting, you can, but there’s nothing stopping you from pulling out a bomber and hitting the enemy’s ground defenses, or taking your fighter on a strafing run against hostile anti-aircraft turrets.
But it isn’t just the visuals and the combat: the sound design is also quite good. The weapons feel loud and powerful, and the planes themselves sound authentic. All of this is complimented by a fantastic soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule. Nearly all of the music you’ll hear is excellent, and more impressively, fits into the historical period the game occupies. Needless to say, it’s easy to find yourself lingering in the menus just to listen to a tune.
This is good, as you will spend a lot of time in the game’s menus. Winning matches will grant you in-game milestones, such as new planes, and Lions, the in-game currency, as well as research points. You can use Lions to buy new planes, upgrades, and crew members, while research points can be used to research specific upgrades for existing models, such as a new machine guns or engines. You’ll also earn experience for your crew and your pilots, allowing you to upgrade everything from a pilot’s vitality to the crew’s upgrade and repair speed. This is a free-to-play title, so you can opt to put in real money as well, though this simply makes it easier to get access to things, and doesn’t provide a huge advantage.
Of course, War Thunder isn’t perfect. The aforementioned tutorials are the biggest problem, but the game suffers from many minor issues as well. The menu is rather poorly designed, and it’s not always obvious how things work. It’s also rather annoying to navigate, and the mouse pad that’s controlled by the DualShock’s touch pad does little to improve this. There are also multiple problems with the in-game shop, and despite my many attempts, I could never get to a point where I had the option to purchase the real money currency, or see what I could use it for outside of the main menu.
The gameplay isn’t immune, either. The controls simply don’t work as well on a pad as they do with a mouse and keyboard, which is problematic considering the amount of precision the game requires, especially when you’re in a dog fight with another player and having to turn and aim on a dime. You aren’t given many options initially either, so you’ll find yourself using the same planes again and again as you grind to the next unlock, which, coupled with the game’s relative lack of distinct gameplay types, makes extended play a bit of a chore, and despite the game’s varied maps, you’ll often end up doing the same things over and over and over again.
Of course, many of these problems are likely due to the fact that the game is in beta, and isn’t really complete. Still, they do drag down an otherwise fun experience. As it stands, War Thunder is a good title that’s weighed down by a number of small problems. Some of these, such as the issues with the controls, are only found on the PS4, but some of them aren’t. World War II enthusiasts and flight sim fans will probably be able to look past them and will likely have a blast, but as it stands right now, War Thunder is hard to recommend to all but the dedicated few.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.