War Thunder plays like a big, brassy World War II movie that does everything but wave flags.
The larger-than-life attitude of Gaijin Entertainment's online simulation of combat by air and by land during WWII makes it a sprawling epic. Dozens and dozens of planes and tanks from each of the five principal nations that fought it out for freedom or fascism in the 1930 and 1940s collide on every map in wild, cataclysmic battles that alternate between intimidating and exhilarating. Battle can become confusing thanks to the sheer number of options and some interface grief, but the intense, fast-paced combat and wide range of difficulty settings save the day just like the Duke did at Omaha Beach.
You can feel the unmatched intensity of aerial dogfights in a fighter. The decisive power of commanding a heavy strategic bomber or the heat of battle in a ground attacker. Alternatively, you can join the spearhead of armored vehicles, fighting for dominance over the battlefield on the ground: Man a heavy tank with impressive armor and firepower, use the maneuverability of a medium or light tank to your advantage, or support your team by screening the skies with your anti aircraft vehicle – the choice is yours!
War Thunder is simple when broken down to its basic elements. Most notably, the game is available as a completely free download. You can purchase in-game currency to buy vehicles and skill upgrades, but because you can earn those bonuses by simply playing the game, spending is not forced upon you. Combat comes in two distinct flavors. You either take to the skies in a fighter or a bomber, or you grind it out on the ground in an armored vehicle. Matches are huge affairs involving up to 32 players. Tens of thousands of players are online at just about any time of the day or night on servers across the globe, too, so those 32 slots per game fill up. Match types involve familiar goals like destroying enemy ground forces from the air or conquering control points on the ground with your tanks.
Master vehicles through both upgrades and personal experience. Organize your efforts in one of the countless player squadrons and become an ace pilot or tanker – or both! The online community is also actively participating in the game’s ongoing development, offering custom content through War Thunder Live, such as skins, missions and even vehicles.
When it comes to air combat, a trio of game difficulty settings allows everyone from casual shooters to more hardcore simmers to get comfortable. You can play in the physics-lite Arcade Battles mode, move up to the more rigorous Realistic setting, or go all-out with the grueling Simulator option. Arcade is the easiest way to play, thanks to amenities like starting in mid-flight in aerial combat and offering unlimited ammo both in the air and on the ground. Realistic mode tosses in a more punishing physics model along with the need to take off and land when flying. And Simulator mode takes the game to true flight simulator territory, planting you in a cockpit (the third-person camera option isn’t available here) and forcing your soaring feat of mechanical engineering to compete with the laws of Newtonian physics.
Most players are gravitating toward the Arcade mode, which is all about pure adrenaline. Plane physics are very forgiving, so you can soar into crazy climbs and stomach-dropping dives without fearing too much about causing a stall or tearing your wings off in mid-air. You can also get goofy with shooting and blast away without much concern about accuracy, as you’ve always got fresh rounds ready to load into the chamber (although reloading does take a few seconds, which can seem like an eternity in the middle of a battle). All of this lets you focus on pure attack and defense, whether you’re scrapping with enemy fighters, strafing ground vehicles, or dropping bombs.
War Thunder’s tank combat is more generic, regardless of the difficulty setting. So are the tanks themselves. All of them zip around and turn more like dune buggies than Panzers, which levels the playing field between the Arcade, Realistic, and Simulator modes. Sure, they don’t roll around as quickly (especially when trying to head up any sort of incline) or turn on a dime quite as easily in Realistic as opposed to Arcade, but the overall feel remains loose across the board. This has the benefit of making tank battles play more like casual shooters, which of course makes them easier to immediately get into than the aerial combat. All tanks are properly modeled when it comes to armor, as well. This lends a certain amount of tactical thinking to battles, as you can’t just pound away on any exposed part of an enemy tank and expect to do damage. As a result, it’s a must to find cover and smart firing positions.
War Thunder is a sprawling WWII simulation that you can lose yourself in due to its wide scope, intense combat, tremendous number of vehicles, casual and challenging difficulty settings, and extensive upgrade paths. Also, the game is constantly growing with the addition of new planes, tanks, and maps, and the promise of naval forces and more modes of play. While the initial learning curve is daunting, this is one of those games that opens up dramatically the more that you play it, so the time commitment is worthwhile whether you're a laid-back dog fighter or a hardcore simmer.