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War Thunder Beta Impressions

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February 5 2013

Flight simulators have a long tradition on the PC, but despite their colorful history, they've been largely sidelined by much simpler shooters that use conventional controls. Games like Warbirds and Battleground Europe have offered highly realistic flight simulations for years, but a joystick is required and the learning curve is steep. That's where War Thunder comes in.

The developer, Gaijin Entertainment, has experience making flight simulators, but they stop short of calling War Thunder a simulator, opting instead for World War II "MMO combat game." It would seem that the popularity of World of Tanks has sparked at least a couple of attempts to adapt the concept to other military vehicles.

Implementing flight in a game is always a delicate matter and a great deal depends on the controller being used. Gaijin clearly didn't want to exclude people without joysticks from War Thunder, while still offering good support for those that do have them, along with options for more realistic flight controls. To that end, the game has control options that go on almost forever. You can use mouse, keyboard, gamepad, joystick, or almost any combination thereof, with extensive sensitivity adjustments for every axis. There are preset profiles for many popular joysticks and you can save your own custom control profiles, which is important because you could easily find yourself tweaking the settings for hours.

I have a joystick and an Xbox 360 gamepad as well as a mouse and keyboard, so I was able to try the game with a wide variety of control schemes, and the differences are dramatic. Volumes could be said about the pecularities of each device in the game's four different control modes, but most of the controversy surrounds a control setup called "Mouse Aim." In a nutshell, this makes flying with the mouse very easy and gives you wonderfully steady aim. It also lets people with no flight sim background start playing without the huge learning curve and/or weeks of practise.

This has important implications on War Thunder's three multiplayer game types: Arcade Battles, Historical Battles, and Full Realism Battles. Mouse Aim can be used in the first two, but the third is joysticks only. Not everyone has a joystick and in a multiplayer match, players will usually opt for the easiest control setup available, so Mouse Aim currently dominates both Arcade and Historical Battles. Joystick and gamepad users can join these Battles, but as it stands they're actually at a disadvantage, and there are a lot of complaints about this on the official forums. In the end, the only solution I can see to this is separating mouse and joystick users entirely, which would further fragment the already fragmented player base.

Multiplayer matches consist of up to 32 players on two teams, and there are ground objectives, often protected by AA guns, as well as enemy players to target. These contests can also include bombers, so they have some depth that goes beyond just dogfighting. Historical Battles place players on teams that represent World War II factions in planes that are appropriate for each faction. Participation in matches rewards experience and game currency with which you can purchase and upgrade additional aircraft.

War Thunder also has a full compliment of single-player/co-op missions, so even though it's still in beta, there's an impressive amount of content available.

Gaijin hopes to bring aerial combat to the masses with this free-to-play game, and it's certainly an ambitious project. No word yet on when they plan to launch War Thunder, but the beta is open to everyone who wants to give it a try. Note, however, that at the moment only European and Russian servers are available.

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