Release Date: Out now
Publisher/Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Multiplayer: 32-player competitive and cooperative multiplayer
Link: Official Site (opens in new tab)
The problem with War Thunder is it's a game that constantly swings from "amazing" to "outrageously frustrating,” often within the same session. It's a game I love, except for all those times I'm ready to nuke it from my hard drive.
Every few sessions, something technical goes annoyingly wrong. A lot of times, I get an authentication error and can't log into my account. A few minutes later, it works again. Sometimes, my controls mysteriously go haywire. All my settings are lost, and I have to remap everything, which is the most boring and painstaking task in flight sims. Don't even bother wasting time on the Controller Wizard. It's the least effective wizard this side of Oz.
Or there's that weird texture bug I only get in the cockpit view, when the world turns into a blurry, jagged mess, but looks perfect if I simply switch to a different camera.
War Thunder often seems like a ramshackle construction. There are too many places where it seems unfinished or buggy. It'd be unbearable, except for all those times it's actually sublime.
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At its best, War Thunder is a game of rare beauty and grace. The game is breathtaking when you're in the air, soaring over mountain valleys or Pacific atolls. Just taking a plane up through the clouds, where the world beyond your wingtips vanishes into fog while condensation whips over the canopy, gives way to the most extraordinary joy and elation when you burst into the clear blue sky. It feels like I'm really up there at the controls of a plane, playing among the peaks and valleys of a cloud formation. That's doubly true when I'm using special flight-sim gear like a TrackIR head-head tracker and a flight stick.
More important, War Thunder's air combat is simply some of the best and most intense I've ever experienced. World of Warplanes doesn't come close; its planes are too confined by the game's simple physics. It's a shooter where your avatar is a plane. In War Thunder, I always feel like I'm actually in the cockpit, and every kill is a story to tell.
Even on the arcade settings, where the planes are extremely forgiving and every battle is basically an aerial melee, War Thunder forces players to learn and use basic flight maneuvers and aerial tactics. Bringing all the pieces together is very difficult but also very satisfying. It's not a stretch to say that War Thunder is the Red Orchestra of air combat.
You can also crank up the realism, which does away with respawns and puts you into more varied tactical situations. Instead of just racing to shoot up all the other team's tanks or airbases, you might be waging a carrier battle in the Pacific, or trying to escort bombers to a target. The aircraft are a lot harder to handle and the stakes are a lot higher, but that only serves to heighten the authenticity.
If only War Thunder stayed at high-altitude. But unfortunately, it comes crashing to earth with the introduction of tank combat.
Where air combat is fast and graceful, the tanks are plodding and fussy. The gestures toward realism only serve to drag things out. Early tanks grind to a halt over the gentlest grades, and War Thunder consistently overestimates my interest in managing a tank's manual transmission. It's like coaxing a slug.
The slow pace is exacerbated by a combat system where the person who spots the target first is probably going to get the kill. So battlefields too often devolve into careful camping grounds, and by the time you maneuver to a good position, your glacial pace has eaten up a quarter of the battle time.
Then there's the progression system. This is where War Thunder badly lags behind World of Warplanes and World of Tanks. Its upgrade tree is a byzantine mess.
Rather than having everything laid-out in a simple step-by-step progression, the War Thunder tech tree is jammed full of weird side-branches and a few too many marginal upgrades. Plus, the currency and research required to progress in the second and third tier of the game lead to some real doldrums. Premium currency helps alleviate this somewhat, but unless you're willing to drop some real cash on buying aircraft, you should brace yourself for some slogging.
Still, as frustrated as I get with War Thunder's limitations, there nothing else out there that so readily puts you at the center of a dogfight. When I swoop in behind an enemy fighter, drop the crosshairs just above the cockpit, and watch the bullets slope into the fuselage until it comes apart like a broken kite, I feel transported. I'm an ace, a master of the skies.
War Thunder drives me crazy. I'm not sure how I can ever leave.