Early on into a Q&A segment of an Obsidian presentation on their new F2P tank combat game, Armored Warfare, someone asked if “tank love” would be an incoming feature. We all laughed at the playful jab at Obsidian’s RPG origins. There were a few easy extensions of the joke involving barrels and ammo from the people behind me, and then the room returned to silence in anticipation of the next question. But it was hard to cut through the context of the joke. Obsidian, renowned RPG studio, is making a F2P modern tank combat game. I waited for someone to ask, ‘Why?’
Project Director of Armored Warfare Rich Taylor anticipated the concern. “We always talked about how people are really going to think we’re weird when this gets announced, but for us it just felt natural.” Obsidian had been wanting to experiment with free-to-play and MOBA games for a while, but their pitch changed when they were approached with making a free-to-play tank game by publisher My.com, a subsidiary of the massive Russian internet company Mail.Ru. With such a strong financial backbone and international presence, it feels like a no-brainer, especially for a studio that typically takes on riskier projects.
Shelling is caring
I’m not an expert on tank semi-simulation, so I’m sure there are nuances I’ve missed, but Armored Warfare and World of Tanks bear a striking resemblance. Should that be surprising or controversial? Certainly, tank combat games don’t occupy a unique genre. They’re arena shooters with tank variables: movement speed, weapon types, armor. You’re still wandering an open environment, shooting each other, but at a much slower pace. Since you can shoot or get shot from across the map, analyzing sightlines over hundreds of yards switches up the typical arena shooter thought process. It’s decent fun, so far, just nothing terribly exciting or new. We wrote about our concerns a few months back, and while it still feels a bit too familiar to stand out, Armored Warfare’s identity is beginning to take a hazy shape in its PvE mode.
At the press event, PvE felt like the true centerpiece, even if most of its potential was communicated in disjointed, conceptual terms, the primary three being cooperative scenarios, narrative, and an expressive loot system. Problem is, only some basic scenarios are truly present. The narrative and loot system have yet to be fully realized.
While, as Taylor puts it, an “enhanced narrative experience” sounds nice, it could mean anything. So far, those narrative tidbits are limited to radio chatter, item descriptions, and ancillary flavor text—I heard someone mention Dark Souls, haphazardly—which are entirely welcome. I just remain unconvinced that injecting narrative into Armored Warfare wherever it fits will somehow make shooting tanks more fun. If anyone can do it, Obsidian can, but the missions will require a bit of maturation before narrative can make a difference.
The cooperative scenarios are too simple right now, limited to a few familiar modes. Some required me to capture a point across the map with my platoon while tanks assaulted from all sides, others tasked us with destroying specific targets, often a strong ‘boss’ vehicle. They’re a bit mundane—most involve shooting tanks over and over (surprise), which was fun for a bit, but felt repetitive quickly. I mean, it’s all mechanically pleasing. Each shot has a perceptible chunk that I can ‘feel’ without force feedback. Movement is weighty and deliberate—WASD rotates the tank body and forward/backward motion while the mouse is used for aiming—and any rash decision can upend any tactical decision in an instant. But in the end, it's a game of repetitive tank peek-a-boo, not large-scale tactics and meaningful class-specific role playing.
During one scenario, my team of four other tanks and I were tasked with traversing a map to capture and defend a point on the other side. Capturing a point is cribbed straight from the PvP mode in that you must remain within a designated area on the map and avoid exploding. The map we had to cross was huge, a few linear roads broken up by some choke points where a load of enemy tanks were hunkered down. I drove a Crab, a small, quick tank with high visibility—basically, a scout. So I told my teammates I’d drive ahead and tag enemy tanks since my class ability would highlight them at a further distance than my bigger, slower metal cohorts. I was excited to play a role, but the gameplay still devolved into spotting, finding cover, then playing whack-a-tank with the erratic AI. We’d destroy some tanks, creep forward, destroy some tanks, creep forward, and so on.
It was disappointing to see a lack of challenge built around terrain, destruction, or class abilities. For instance, suppose there’s a scenario in which a class ability or equipment lets me call out mines while I mother goose my teammates across an otherwise deadly area, or with certain paths and vantage points that are only reachable by tanks with appropriate weight and treads. Maybe a boss scenario requires a creative combination of weaponry and class abilities to take it down, similar in complexity to a World of Warcraft raid boss.
In curated scenarios, the potential exists for Obsidian to force players into experimenting with the full breadth of team makeups, weapon types, and class abilities, and I hope to see broader utilization of a given platoon’s abilities—tanks are big on weaponry, sure, but they’re also big on locomotion and terrain.
RPG or ‘RPG’?
Despite the promise of more RPG elements—class specific gameplay, narrative, and a loot system—in the PvE mode, Armored Warfare isn’t headed towards outright transformation into a tank dungeon crawler. But when I asked Taylor about the potential for spinning off the PvE into a more RPG-focused appendage of Armored Warfare, he wondered if I’d been reading their design docs. He also affirmed that raid-like scenarios with expanded narrative tissue are “absolutely something that we’re talking about internally.”
The only concrete affirmation I came away with was that Obsidian is intent on stepping out of the shadow of World of Tanks. Even if the games were mechanically similar, the fact that Armored Warfare uses modern tanks means the meta gameplay changes should differentiate the two games enough over time for the most particular of tank enthusiasts. It’s just too early to tell how significant the differences will be beyond the meta, especially regarding the PvE mode. There was plenty pie-in-the-sky talk about what it could be, but only a sliver of that potential is on display.
Either way, Armored Warfare is new territory for Obsidian so I’m not surprised it’s been a bumpy ride in some regard. But what’s there is fun, and if the F2P model is sustainable, then Armored Warfare could be the revenue stream that Obsidian has needed to fund its RPG projects for so long. And while there may never be tank love in Armored Warfare, Obsidian’s strengths are beginning to show for the better.