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PAX East 2012: World of Warplanes impressions

Eliot Lefebvre
Much like its predecessor, World of Warplanes is not a game with an ambiguous title. This is a game about planes, and not the sort that flies cargo from one point on the globe to another. If flying around and getting into aerial dogfights sounds like an unappealing concept to you, well, you can pretty much just exit stage left when you hear the name.

But the lack of subtlety in the name, however noteworthy, doesn't really say much about the game itself. Is it fun to play? Does it succeed in what it sets out to do? Really, is it just World of Tanks up in the air? I can't speak to the last one, but I can say that it definitely delivers on its stated design goals. This is a game all about maximizing the rush of an aerial fight and striking a balance between crafting an in-depth flight simulation and providing accessibility to those new to the genre.

Bang bang, I shot you down.Before I had a chance to play the game, I spoke a little bit with the fine folks from, who talked to me about the game's design and the company's overall performance. As they explained, World of Tanks' runaway success has meant that there's no longer any real fear about what happens next with development, something that's always a fear when you're first launching a new title. WoT has been a consistent and excellent performer, and as a result, the latter two games in the ersatz trilogy won't be in any danger of losing funding.

And the games are meant as a trilogy, albeit in the sense of three sides of a single conflict. Much like WoT, World of Warplanes is meant to cover vehicles starting in the mid-'30s and running up until the Korean War, with the upper tier of technology branching into jets instead of more prop planes. Each game is meant to also cater to a different style of play as well; World of Warplanes is the most energetic of the three games, while World of Battleships (when finally released) will aim more toward the slow and strategic sort of play.

Most of the meeting was about World of Warplanes, obviously, which was designed more with an American sensibility in mind. As I was told, WoT made sense to develop for a Russian audience, as the Russian culture is much more fond of tanks as the "main" weapon of war. American audiences, however, have a greater proclivity for aerial superiority, which makes Warplanes a better match for a new audience. The developers are also avoiding what they see as a major mistake in design from the first game; rather than focusing on testing in Russia and prepping for release there, the game is being tested in all regions prior to release.

But all of that is preamble. What's it like to get inside the cockpit of a plane and take part in the fight?

Unfortunately, during the demo I wasn't really given the opportunity to choose a plane myself; the list that I saw was quite satisfyingly broad, although I didn't see any of the fabled jets in the list. (That may simply be because of the level that I was playing at; those might be at the apex of power to avoid unbalancing jets vs. rotors.) I don't know nearly enough about aviation history to be sure of exactly what models I was flying except that I started in an American fighter and moved on to a German fighter for the second round.

The goal for designing the controls was to make sure that players who had never touched the controls before would be able to fly and enjoy themselves, while experienced players of flight simulators could still enjoy all of the tactical options available. The default control scheme, as a result, is a compromise: Your mouse controls your yaw and pitch via a rubber-band system. Point your mouse to the upper-left, and your plane will adjust itself to compensate. A and D control your rudder, allowing you to dive, climb, roll, and spin all over the place with the greatest of ease.

Seconds after this shot, a tender kiss.All right, maybe not the greatest of ease. My first outing wasn't particularly noteworthy, and I mostly succeeded in getting a tail and then being shot down rather dramatically. (The rear end of my plane got sheared off.) My second time, however, I had a better feel for the way planes controlled, and this time I was able to actually start in on some more advanced maneuvers.

I wouldn't call the control scheme entirely intuitive, but I will say that it hits at least one end of the design goals. After two matches, I felt like I could reliably control the plane with at least some level of competence rather than like I was fumbling around with ornate schemes that more closely resemble an actual plane. That meant that I could really aim, spin, and try to shake pursuit without feeling helpless. I got shot down, but it felt like my fault instead of the fault of unclear mechanics.

The actual matches themselves take place at an admittedly lower altitude than a normal dogfight specifically to allow dramatic use of the scenery and ground attacks. Obviously, the primary focus remains on plane-to-plane combat, but there are also secondary objectives along the landscape. That gives some variety to the combat and allows you to realistically lose pursuit by weaving through obstacles. The actual mechanics of attacking, by contrast, are simple: You just open fire, try to take down a target plane, and avoid getting shot down yourself.

Overall, it was fun. It managed to get that all-important feel of a dramatic dogfight going; I wasn't able to just get shot down and respawn mid-match. The controls take a bit of learning, but the effect is pleasing all around. It hits exactly the notes it's aiming for right off the bat.

The overall goal, I was told, is to take the idea of flight simulators to the next level, to make a game that focuses on the fun of dogfights instead of spending a huge amount of time on takeoff, landing, and flying to objectives. While the game is still very clearly in testing, has certainly achieved that goal with the current build.

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of April 6-8, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2012. Whether you're dying to know more about TERA or PlanetSide 2 or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!