From the limited number of combative-flight games that I’ve played, no game has ever truly captured the sheer grandeur that surrounds taking the helm of a winged automaton and dogfighting for dear life.
But as you clear the canopy of clouds for the first time and enter the vast aerial expanses of War Thunder, be they snow-capped peaks or rolling fields, you get the sense that this isn’t just a game about dogfighting, but about everything else in-between.
From the roar of an overheating engine to unique bullet damage and the fight that comes with trying to keep your smouldering husk afloat in the air, War Thunder brings the nuance of realism to the console for the first time without ever sacrificing the unparalleled joy associated with knife-edge flying and pulling barrel rolls.
In this sense, War Thunder is as much for the purist as it is for the casual flyer.
And that broad spectrum of appeal (coupled with its current iteration being completely free, of course) is what brought me to the world of War Thunder in the first place, and it was with gleeful expectancy that I entered the tutorial and took flight for the first time.
At first, you may feel like you’re in control of your airborne rust-bucket and have therefore already aced the tutorial, but as this introduction to flying fails to explain, in the heat of the moment, the planes usually don’t perform as you’d want them to. And that’s a good thing, because it really heightens the need to master flying so that you give yourself the best possible chance against enemy combatants.
The true task of War Thunder however, is not to learn to fly, but rather to learn to stay in the air.
Thankfully, the alignment of the dualshock sticks is perfect for the job. Using the right stick to roll the plane and the left stick to rotate it, you have pure control over each movement that your aircraft makes. In the same way that the FIFA series lauds its 360-degree player rotation mechanic, War Thunder’s intuitive and responsive controls allow you to move deftly or deliberately, sharply or astutely, and depending on what plane your flying, move gracefully or lumber heavily.
But that still doesn’t mean you’ve learnt to fly just yet, for there are many perils other than just enemy fighters to battle against when you’re gliding through the skies of War Thunder.
Too sharp a turn, and you’ve rolled it. Too steep a dive and you’ll black out. Too sharp a climb and you’ll black out again. And if you’re pursuing another pilot and you push your plane too much, you even risk an engine failure. Such is the delicate balancing act of War Thunder piloting, for if it isn’t your plane at risk of failure, it’s you.
Through consistent flying though, you can quickly get a sense of the controls at large, and after you have developed your pilots ‘clutch’, things start becoming a little easier.
Once you get to grips with the perfect way to angle your plane into a left turn that doesn’t result in a roll or the best way to ascend without blacking-out, everything else such as shooting down enemy planes and performing strafe runs on ground targets all falls into place, for if you master the core art of flying, then you’ll be a crack pilot in no time.
And if you ever feel the need to fine tune your rapidly progressing skills, why not take yourself out of your comfort zone and experiment with a whole range of other planes across 5 different factions that encompass everything from whippet fighters to heavy-set bombers.
In every way you’d expect, War Thunder succeeds, but after several paragraphs lauding the perfect control scheme and intelligence behind its difficult yet rewarding design, it almost seems a shame to mark this game down when it comes to its menu’s.
Don’t get me wrong, War Thunder’s user-interface is relatively clean and easy to understand, but it’s the shoehorned touchpad technology of the dualshock controller that lets it down.
In order to navigate the menu’s you need to use the touchpad. There’s no optional touchpad control scheme, rather your entire navigation governed by it. It’s slow, it’s obtrusive, and it’s downright forced and has absolutely no purpose in the game. Maybe something more practical, like an in-game adjusting of your planes stabs, or maybe even reloading of your ammunition belt would’ve been a more symbiotic choice for touchpad integration, but it sure as hell doesn’t hold a rightful place in being the only way to traverse the menu’s.
And as annoying as that is, the lengthy amount of time that you’ll spend in the menus only ever makes it even more insufferable.
From the main page, you can buy new planes and customize existing ones, with both of those options behind a ‘research’ mechanic that acts as a cool-down timer for planes and parts that you’re interested in. This means that you won’t be able to immediately change your aircraft, instead being made to wait for around 5 multiplayer matches before it’s ready for purchase.
With a finite amount of planes to offer, it’s easy to see why the guys at Gaijin Entertainment chose this option, and as well as giving you the chance to opt for a different plane before you complete your research, this is an interesting take on the usual practice of simply giving you a set item at a set level.
The meticulousness of the customization system is something special, as through both choice and content it’s remarkably in-depth for it being only a beta, but if the research timer is moving too slowly for your liking, then you’re welcome to speed it up to completion and use a microtransaction payment for that new piece of gear.
And unlike Warframe before it, the prices of War Thunders in-game items aren’t heightened to the point of being completely out of reach. Planes cost reasonable amounts of money as do parts, and although you can buy things with actual money that would be otherwise out of your reach, there’s little emphasis on ‘the grind’ and everything in the game is entirely obtainable without ever spending a cent.
For with the games cogs all turning in sync, the process of fighting in a plane you don’t like, completing objectives, researching other aircraft and then finally getting your hands on your new aircraft is remarkably satisfying.
But this isn’t a game about a group of lone wolves all buzzing around the sky in a shambles and getting absolutely nothing done. This is about being part of a team, and be it through successful hits on enemy aircraft to destroying some enemy artillery or taking down a plane on the tail of a teammate, War Thunder rewards positive flying in the best possible way.
Earlier on, I mentioned of how this game is one that isn’t just about flying, rather “everything in between”, and through the core flying mechanics which themselves are awfully impressive, great customization features, terrific environments inspired by those which encompassed real-world conflict, an emphasis on destroying ground targets as well as aerial ones, the music, the sights, the sounds and the unparalleled splendour that entails turning a fellow aircraft into a careening fireball all add up to make War Thunder one of the most impressive games I’ve played on the Playstation 4 so far.
And this is all from a game that’s still in its beta stage, too. In early December, Gaijin Entertainment began its closed beta for War Thunders take on tank combat, and with the promise of naval combat on the horizon, we could be gearing up for the three-pronged military combat simulation that has been nothing but a tantalizing prospect up until now.
War Thunder looks superb, it plays fantastically and it has hooked me like no other beta ever has. This is a game that makes you feel less like a simple pilot, and more like the last-line of defence in a conflict that’s bigger than just yourself. The War Thunder brand is definitely one to watch out for in the future, but for now, it resides solely as the best air-combat sim that I’ve ever played.