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The not-so-friendly skies: Hands-on with World of Warplanes' open beta

Save is the reigning king of free-to-play, with its flagship title World of Tanks sitting pretty at 60 million registered users and holding the world record for player concurrency. One wouldn't necessarily expect MMO gamers to be drawn to a game where the only physical manifestation of the player is a massive tank, but World of Tanks has surged into popularity and left more than a few industry assumptions crumpled under its treads.

Fueled by this success, now seeks to expand its legacy by releasing two new games based on the World of Tanks formula. One is the mysterious World of Warships, which has yet to make any sort of official appearance, and the other is World of Warplanes, which is winding down its extended beta phase and soaring ever-closer to its September 26th release date. Together, the three games will theoretically form a perfect union of land, sea, and air combat steeped in historical accuracy and intense action.

We hopped into the World of Warplanes beta to see how the aerial portion of's vision is shaping up, and to find out once and for all if we were truly ace material.

Iterative design

World of Warplanes has seen a lot of changes since beta began. The first builds pushed live suffered from their fair share of bugs, broken gamepad support, and a tough learning curve that left new players vulnerable to more experienced pilots. issued regular updates to the game over the beta period, patching problems as they arose and implementing a brand new set of tutorial missions designed to give rookies a softer introduction to the game's mechanics.

World of Warplanes
The result is a game that is much more user friendly and more fun to play. Instead of a player spending her first few minutes trying to figure out how she got shot down, she will instead learn how to safely control her plane and how to disengage and re-engage enemies to ensure a tactical advantage. The tutorial system doesn't necessarily prepare players for the punishing skill gap sometimes found in live World of Warplanes matches, but it certainly makes the first few fights a little less painful.

It seems as though took notice of some of the most common complaints about World of Tanks and worked to prevent those same complaints from coming up in World of Warplanes. The interface is less convoluted. Tech trees are easier to understand and follow. Planes come in different tiers, like tanks in WoT, but their roles are more clearly defined. And controversial features like "pay-to-win" ammunition are nowhere to be found.

Diving and rolling

One important thing to note about World of Warplanes is that it is not a simulation. While (in typical fashion) has gone to great lengths to ensure historical accuracy in its designs, flight in the game has an arcade feel that allows the player to focus more on helping the team than on learning the intricacies of real-life flight. Planes in World of Warplanes are tuned to fit into the game world and its mechanics, not to perform exactly like the actual combat machines on which they are based.

World of Warplanes
Flight in World of Warplanes is a joy, depending on which control scheme you use. Opinions will vary from player to player, but the default mouse control leaves a lot to be desired. It is difficult to pull off purposeful dogfighting maneuvers when using a mouse due to its lack of precision, and targeting other planes quickly becomes tiresome. Because the plane automatically follows the mouse cursor, players must constantly over-lead the target to the extent that it is often forced entirely off-screen.

Dogfighting with a gamepad is much better. With a fixed camera and the reticle centered, it's easier to accurately lead targets and perform daring acrobatics. Rolls, loops, dives, canyon runs, and mid-air high-fives become much more rewarding when they can be executed on purpose.

World of Warplanes
Perhaps the biggest difference between gameplay in World of Tanks and World of Warplanes is the way in which players can take different roles on the battlefield. Objectives in World of Tanks are simple enough: Capture a base or kill the other tanks. In World of Warplanes, ground targets add an interesting layer of strategy that forces players to think beyond kill counts or capture points. Bombing runs are also excellent ways for less-talented pilots to positively contribute to a team's victory; those who aren't skilled at dogfights can elect to fly bombers and leave the crazy acrobatics to the aces.

Flying in World of Warplanes lands squarely in the "easy to learn, tough to master" category. New players will quickly find themselves getting comfortable with the controls, but learning the advanced techniques required for dogfighting success (especially against faster and more maneuverable enemies) will take hours of practice. It will also take time for a player to find her niche; some pilots work best at high tiers in fast planes, some at mid-tiers with heavy planes, etc.

Wings and prayers

Because World of Warplanes is built from the World of Tanks model, a few negative artifacts from the first game's core design remain. It's not uncommon for a player to end up in a match with planes four or five tiers higher than her own (this may be resolved by a wider release), and low-tier planes in World of Warplanes seem to be much easier targets than low-tier tanks in World of Tanks. The trademark grind also manages to sneak into WoWP -- there are dozens of cool planes to pilot, but each new aircraft and the unlocks surrounding it require quite a bit of in-game flight time.

World of Warplanes
That being said, combat in World of Warplanes rarely feels like a depressing chore. Perhaps it has something to do with soaring gracefully above the clouds or the downright beautiful visuals ( has really outdone itself with WoWP's environments), but WoWP never seems to fall into the drudgery so often required by its land-based predecessor. Players will enjoy most of the time they spend cruising through World of Warplanes' blazing skies and frozen plateaus, even when those cruises end in fiery crashes.

Overall, World of Warplanes marks a major step forward for The game liberally borrows the good stuff from World of Tanks without inheriting too many of WoT's faults while packing in a number of helpful improvements and enhancements along the way. World of Warplanes is a solid flight game that will offer plenty of high-flying fun to plane enthusiasts, combat lovers, and fans of crashing hilariously into rock formations. And since the game is free-to-play, any curious gamer can check it out with very little in the way of risk.

World of Warplanes is World of Tanks with planes. For the most part, that's a good thing.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

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