Flying over a tropical atoll with enemy fighters closing in, I brought up my bombing reticule and adjusted my flight path. Back in the hanger, I’d made my choice: an German-made Messerschmitt bf 110 heavy fighter, and out here in the war zone, I’d made another: If I was going down, I was going to take this little potshot-hurling battleship with me.
It was bombs away with two taps on the keyboard, and then onto the dance of death. That’s the ‘endgame’ of Wargaming.net’s upcoming “World of Warplanes,” which this reviewer got early access to. And from what I’ve played, this game is going to up the ante of what gamers can expect from aerial combat.
The format — from selecting your aircraft, forming teams or earning new aircraft — is very familiar as it’s basically ported straight from Wargaming’s previous hit, “World of Tanks.” The difference is, as you might expect, it takes place in the air. World of Warplane’s dogfights — what I like to call the dance of death — make the game much more kinetic than WoT. Whereas in the latter much of your time might have been spent secretly plotting a strategic strike in some building or foliage, in “World of Warplanes” you’re busy performing somersaults, barrel rolls and treetop-scraping, last-second pull-outs. The action in this game forces you to try feats that only the most accomplished pilots could ever pull off, and it’s accomplished with impressively accessible controls for a game that uses just a mouse and spatter of buttons (controller and joystick support is also available, but I found I didn’t need it).
These simplified controls really allow the combat maneuvers to take center stage. Battling in the skies are warplanes from four nationalities — USSR, USA, Japan and the UK. Each country’s hardware is again meticulously rendered with exquisite historical detail. Best of all, they handle quite differently as well. Small 1930s biplanes putter along as the bombers of the ’40s and ’50s roar by. But just because you’re small doesn’t mean you don’t have a contribution to make. I found the smaller and more insignificant I was, the more likely the other team would likely pass me by to go after bigger targets. Coupled with the superb maneuverability of my Japanese-made Nakajima a4n, I could keep targets in my sights for much longer and basically play watchdog for key defense zones — a feat of balance by the game’s designers that was quite unexpected.
Just as in its tank-based cousin, “World of Warplanes” has teams of anywhere from five to 10 players work toward two possible goals: destroy the other team or take key targets. Bombers may be well armored and strong, but they lack the agility needed to last long in a dogfight. That’s where teamplay comes in — even more naturally than WoT. Whereas your tank might struggle alone on some steep slope, in WoWP all the sky is open terrain, and following your allies is both easy and natural to do. Attack aircraft can stick close to the ground, utilizing their superior handling to navigate the mountainous regions. Bombers can climb to higher altitude and try to hide in the clouds — though they have to come down in order to bomb their targets.
More common than getting shot down, at least among the beta players I was with, a pilot will misjudge how well they can handle coming out of a freefall, or how tightly they can skim over a treetop — and come crashing to reality. Also common was lesser planes trying to ram me while I was flying a superb P-51A Mustang. Luckily for desperate pilots, crash animations are delightful to watch as your plane smashes into the side of a mountain range, or you’re shot down from 2,000 feet. And just like WoT, players can quit a game in progress and jump right back into the action with a different plane.
I try not to judge a game’s sturdiness or graphical fidelity too much in early builds, but already WoWP looks fantastic, and it’s incredibly stable for a game in beta — a breath of fresh air for any PC title. Levels feature a large amount ground detail, and a wide variety of air effects — huge swaths of smoke emanate from bombed-out ships and damaged planes; thick cloud formations cover the sky. Perhaps most importantly, plane accumulate visible bullet holes and other damage as enemies unleash torrents of machine-gun fire on you — a visual badge of courage if you can make it through the match.
The lasting effect of these sublime controls, visual fidelity and plane balance is probably the strongest aerial combat system seen in quite some time. These aren’t sleek super fighter jets, hurling through the sky and handling like you’ve got a dead hippo on your wing like so many other modern flight games (here’s looking at you, “H.A.W.X. 2”). They’re responsive, powerful and, most importantly, they deliver the control you’d expect them to. Not since the days of “Star Fox 64” have I had so much fun blasting my buddies out of the sky in such a simple format, and never has it felt so easy to fly like a pro.
Interested pilots can report to worldofwarplanes.com to request beta access.