Armored Warfare hands-on: Obsidian brings storytelling to tank combat

Obsidian is making a game about tanks. Not epic fantasy worlds or imaginative sci-fi futures. The studio behind Fallout: New Vegas and the upcoming Pillars of Eternity are working on a tank battle MMO called Armored Warfare. Weird, right? I was a little puzzled at first, myself, but Armored Warfare does show some hints of the studio's story-heavy DNA that might surprise you if you were expecting a World of Tanks clone.

While you can safely expect competitive modes that pit up to 30 large, metal objects with guns against one another, Obsidian is really hoping to turn some turrets with objective-based PvE missions. I took a nimble Leopard 2 A-V through one of these, with three other journalists in a mix of modern era heavy hardware from around the world rounding out the platoon. Our brief demo was a fairly simple corridor shooter, taking us through a wooded valley dotted with destructible structures. Our only goal was to make it to the end of the valley while AI-controlled tanks attempted to halt our progress using, for the most part, explosions.

“We want the PvE mode to be a completely valid way of playing the game,” Obsidian designer Rich Taylor said. “It's not like, oh, well, you play this first, and then you graduate to PvP. If you want to only play PvE, our goal is to have that be a very satisfying experience with full progression available in it.”

If you're used to that other popular tank game, the first thing you'll notice about Armored Warfare is that almost everything in the environment is destructible. Whether you're in the mood to lob shells at a bunker, or roll through the ground floor of a bed and breakfast with no concern for the vacationers within, “hard cover” is clearly a relative term in this CryEngine-driven physics playground.

The tanks themselves also feel appropriately bulky, and are rendered in enough detail to pass muster for current-gen consoles, if not the best the PC can deliver. Even though my Leopard was described as one of the quickest and most maneuverable in the current build, I still had to fight semi-realistic amounts of mass and gravity with my furious WASDing in the heat of combat. Your accuracy suffers when you're on the move as well, and when you move the camera to aim, it takes a second for your turret to catch up.

The shooting feels satisfying, especially when you hit just the right part on an enemy tank to knock a chunk off of its health bar or turn it to scrap completely. The vehicles have realistic damage modeling, though the baddies in the demo could be easily dealt with by concentrated firepower to any part of their chassis. More satisfying, however, are the destructible elements. I spent a fair portion of my time largely ignoring the enemies to see how many different ways I could get a mountain villa to collapse by treating it as a shortcut.

In my 30 minute press demo, PvE combat mostly involved small groups of three to five bargain bin mooks ambushing us every few hundred yards. They didn't really coordinate or use different machines for different roles. Conversely, we didn't have to strategize, either. We just point-and-clicked them out of existence. Even though I often left myself exposed and didn't make much use of my Leopard's speed advantage, I never felt like I was truly in danger of losing.To be fair, it was a 30-minute press demo, and most likely isn't representative of the scope of PvE content that will be featured in the full game.

What we didn't get to see, but were assured would play into Armored Warfare's final loadout, were narrative and character elements. Details were sparse, but in true Obsidian fashion, the team wants to weave storytelling and persistent faces into the PvE content, with new twists and plotlines coming down the barrel with patches and updates across the game's tour of duty. You'll get to know vendors and weapons dealers, making picking up some new kit more than just visiting a menu screen while you have the wiki open on your phone.

On top of that, Obsidian is writing characters to be members of your tank's crew, adding a human context to the story-based mass property destruction. These characters will be able to relax after a long day in the killing fields at your personal player base, which will be customizable with structures almost like an RTS, and have some effect on your progression. Many of these systems are not yet finalized, but it definitely seems like the devs are looking at Armored Warfare as a co-op game first and foremost.

In terms of progression, Obsidian assures that fans of their deep, gear-laden RPGs of past and present should have plenty to work toward. I couldn't get anything specific out of them in terms of how many vehicles will be available at launch, though I was assured it will be more than a handful. Given that most people's hands probably can't hold even one military vehicle of any size, that could mean almost anything.

Armored Warfare is being billed as “free to compete,” with microtransactions probably including the usual fare of XP boosts and cosmetic upgrades. Karabaich stressed the importance of keeping everyone on a level playing field within an actual match regardless of how much real cash they've spent on the game. Of course, while it may be free for us, it certainly wasn't free to the hapless souls in that bed and breakfast we leveled, which is now suited to provide neither beds nor breakfast. Now, they only serve bittersweet memories and ashes.

Armored Warfare will go into closed beta this year, and you can keep up to date on how to get an early start on the official site .