Of all the elements that could comprise an MMO, massive metal tanks destroying each other are probably not the first things that come to mind. World of Tanks combines instanced matches with a deep progression back end and then throws a veritable museum of tanks into the mix from World War I relics up to some of those used in the Korean War. The result is an MMO that is fast paced yet highly nuanced, with each tank having its own strengths and weaknesses. Its free-to-play nature means that you don't have to throw down hard cash in order to progress; you can choose to purchase premium items, such as certain tanks or ammunition, but they are not required.
The tanks in the game are split up into many tiers and categories, both in terms of roles and overall effectiveness in battle. The five categories of tanks in the game are light, medium, heavy, SPGs (AKA artillery) and destroyers. Light tanks are usually incredibly fast and agile, making them ideal scouts but terrible fighters. Medium tanks gain armor and firepower at the expense of mobility, and heavy tanks can mount massive guns but are some of the slowest tanks on the field. Tank destroyers have a main gun that is more or less fixed to the chassis but delivers powerful rounds in a straight line, while SPGs can lob shots that come down with colossal stopping power.
Upon creating an account, you have access to all three tier-one tanks, which are the root of the American, German and Russian tank trees. As you play matches with any of these tanks, you gain silver coins and silver experience depending on how well you perform in combat. While kills are obvious a big part of the game, they are not the largest contributing factor in a match. Spotting the enemy for your team (and thus showing its position on the minimap), causing damage, or capturing or stopping the enemy capture of bases all count significantly toward higher coin and experience payouts. As you gain experience with a tank, you can spend it on that tank's research tree, unlocking new parts in the five-part categories and (eventually) the next tank tier.
Once you've researched a tank part, you can spend your silver coins to purchase and mount it on your tank. Each tank has five parts that are customizable: engine, gun, radio, suspension and turret (conventional tanks only). Better engines let you reach top speed more quickly or power uphill more efficiently while gun upgrades may have higher armor penetration or more damage. Higher-powered radios let you keep in touch with teammates over longer distances, automatically relaying information on enemy positions to others. Suspension dictates your tank's upper weight limit as well as the rate at which it can turn. Turrets can have stronger armor and longer view range, and some turret upgrades may be required to mount the tank's higher-caliber weapons.
Your tank's crew also gains experience for every round, and this further improves your tank's attributes. Experienced gunners shoot more often and with better accuracy, while drivers more easily navigate poor terrain and coax more power out of the engine. Once your crew members reach 100% experience, they gain additional skills, such as making your tank harder to spot. You can elect to spend silver or gold coins (more on gold coins later) to make crew members start off at 75% or 100% experience immediately, but more often than not, you can get there through normal gameplay.
Regardless of your level of upgrades or your tank type, the gameplay boils down to strategy that stops just short of being a simulation. Your tanks have unique attributes between models and even between the sum of their add-on parts, and each handles differently. Some tanks, such as lights and some mediums, are best used by continually moving and using their inherent stability to pop off shots while on the move. Others have more horsepower than their counterparts and can power up hills, whereas tanks with less oomph need to be driven through valleys and flatlands to keep up their speed. Slower tanks want to take cover from the punishing fire of enemy artillery, delivering their shots and then retreating to relative safety.
The strategy element comes into play in many areas. Often, you can take cover behind lower objects so only your turret sticks out. You can also do the same just before the crests of a hill or a downward slope, minimizing your exposure while still letting you fire. The hit-boxes of tanks are no bigger than the tank itself, and where you hit on the tank is incredibly important. Hitting sloped armor often results in a ricochet that deals no damage, so it's imperative to carefully hitting a more flat part of a tank.
Tanks also have individual components across many categories that can be damaged or destroyed. If your engine or tracks take a hit, you will be much less mobile, and if it's the engine, your tank can catch fire, which will damage components and the hull over time until it is put out by the crew. If your radio takes a hit, your signal range is reduced, whereas if your turret takes a hit, it will rotate it more slowly. Your gun can also take shots, reducing its accuracy. If a component is destroyed outright, it becomes inoperable for a while, and in the case of your engine or tracks, that can make you a sitting duck. Your crew eventually restores a destroyed component, though only in a damaged state with the aforementioned repercussions.
Your crew doesn't get the same treatment, and if you are killed or knocked out of action, your tank's performance drastically decreases. Killed crew members magically come back to life at the end of a match, but until that happens, your tank is far less effective. For example, if your driver gets killed, your tank moves much more slowly, and if your gunner is taken out, you get massive decreases to accuracy and turret speed.
As your tank moves, rotates its turret, or moves the gun barrel, it affects your accuracy, which is represented by a circle on the screen. The more quickly you move, the more this circle expands until it reaches a maximum inaccuracy. As soon as you are still, the reticle shrinks back down to its base accuracy, and the speed at which it does so is dictated by its aiming speed. Some weapons take a very lengthy aiming speed, so it's sometimes about reaching the enemy's anticipated position and lining up shots rather than hauling through a field and waiting to fire a shot. You can fire at any time, and you can mentally judge when you want to fire by how big the enemy tank is in relation to the size of the reticle. For some shots, you'll want to wait for the best possible accuracy, but for others, you must roll the dice and start firing once the tank is taking up a little less than half the reticle.
It all builds toward a style of play that is punishing at first as you learn which tactics work, both from an overall gameplay perspective as well as for your play style. Once you figure out what you like to do in the game, World of Tanks takes on a ridiculously addictive quality, with every map and opportunity to add to your tactical options or further refine your skills. The next upgrade or the next tank unlock always seems just within reach until you get to some of the highest tiers of tanks. The game often makes you want to play "just one more match." To put it plainly, prepare to lose sleep.
When your tank is taken out, you don't have to sit around and wait for the match to end, nor are you penalized for skipping out early. Your tank is still locked to that match until its conclusion, but you are free to hop into any other tank you have and get back into the action with a new battle. For new players, it is sometimes nice to stick around and watch other players to see what they do to succeed, or sometimes what they do that leads to their loss, but for more experienced players, this lets you rattle off matches and get the coins and experience rolling in with minimal downtime.
The game offers a matchmaking system, which attempts to balance matches by keeping a decent balance of tanks, tank destroyers and SPGs among each team and trying to keep the tiers close to each other. On one hand, the matchmaking system rarely takes more than five seconds to find a full match. On the other, though, there will be times when you may be facing down tanks that are five tiers higher than yours, pretty much guaranteeing that you'll have a harder, if not outright impossible, chance of contributing much to your team other than being a one-time-use shell absorber. Matches of this large of a disparity are the exception rather than the norm, but even for ones that have smaller tier swings, one sometimes wishes that the matchmaking would take a 10 seconds — or even 15 (the horror!) — to establish teams that have a much more tight collection of two or three tiers.
The game offers the ability to spend hard cash on gold coins, the in-game currency that is used for a variety of premium gameplay elements. Special tanks can be purchased, which start off with all upgrades unlocked but offer no real upgrade path. Special ammunition, which offers high damage and armor penetration, can be purchased using gold coins for any tank's gun, but for some of them, you are looking at a dime per shot. The most common uses of gold coins are unlocking additional tank slots for your garage, expanding your barracks so that you can house their crews, or upgrading to a premium account. At about $10 a month, you gain a 50% boost to all experience and silver coin gains, making it that much easier to move up the tiers. Gold coins can also be used to take experience off tanks that have all of their upgrades unlocked and convert it to gold experience, which can be spent at any time on any tank as regular experience.
What is odd is that there really isn't anything that forces you to spend money on the game, nor are there really any "pay to win" tanks. Thus, any money you spend is based largely on whether or not you want it. Premium accounts are very nice, as are additional tank or barracks slots, but if you only keep a couple of tanks anyway, you really don't need either. That being said, you certainly get what you pay for, and a lot of the paid options make things more convenient or streamline the process.
All in all, World of Tanks is a ruthlessly addictive game. The MMO-style back end and progression system certainly gives you plenty of options to explore as you play, but more importantly, the gameplay is simply fun enough that you want to keep playing rather than feeling like you need to in order to get that next shiny upgrade. The tactical and strategic options that each tank offers makes the game take on a matter of some depth, and yet you don't have to be a tank ace to simply grab the controls and learn the ropes. It's shocking that a free game has this level of gameplay and doesn't bully you into spending money, and given that the price tag is literally nothing, you should absolutely check out the game and take a few tanks for a spin.
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