I had been looking forward to World of Warplanes.
I liked what Wargaming.net had done with their previous title, World of Tanks, and so was looking forward to seeing what they would do what it came to planes.
Unfortunately, as WoWp entered open beta and I started trying it out, my enthusiasm was cooled.
This was no doubt in large part my fault.
While I have grand memories of past games like Air Warrior, I haven’t actually done the flight sim thing with any level of dedication since some point in the mid 1990s. I think my last real go at something akin to a flight sim was trying to fly aircraft in the Battlefield 1942 mod Desert Combat, and that was mostly a series of spectacular crashes until I was asked to let somebody else fly.
We speak a lot about MMOs and their three dimensionally rendered worlds.
But it is one thing to move over three dimensional terrain and another thing altogether to move and fight and keep situational awareness in three dimensions in the sky while people are trying to shoot you down. We have flying mounts in various games, but they pretty much just move in a two dimensional plane that is higher than the ground. Yes, you can change altitudes and otherwise move in three dimensions, but it isn’t quite the same thing, mostly because you can generally just stop and look around it you get disoriented. And, of course, nobody in a Polikarpov I-15 is trying fill your hippogryph full of lead.
Even in EVE Online, in which you play in a huge volume of space, battles tend to be oriented to the equatorial plane of the star system, while range and speed tend to be the only aspect of positioning that matters in most engagements.
So it was a bit naive of me to imagine that I would return immediately to my late 80s state of Air Warrior glory. I am totally out of practice and have lost the deft touch necessary to move and shoot at a couple hundred miles per hour.
This loss of edge was not helped by my choice of controller.
That picture is almost seven years old at this point and shows but one of a long line of Kensington trackballs I have owned over the years. For somebody with junk all over his desk and a propensity towards knocking over drinks while making sweeping motions with a mouse it is a handy input device and works as well or better than a standard mouse for about 80% of things I do. Unfortunately, that 20% of situations where it isn’t as handy mostly involves games.
The trackball is crap for first person shooters. It does well enough in games like World of Tanks, where the physics of the turret are your biggest limiting factor (and it rocks for arty) but you don’t get the same second nature aiming ability when bunny hopping and circle strafing as you do with a mouse. I literally could not play Chivalry: Medieval Warfare with the trackball. The the click and move attack combos were just too awkward.
And, of course, there is a reason that combat aircraft are generally controlled with a stick and not a Missile Command trackball interface.
But I knew that part going in and expected to struggle a bit on that front.
What I was not expecting was to be completely unable to get through the World of Warplanes tutorial. That should be easy part, the introduction for new players, the bit that makes you feel like maybe you can conquer the game. But it just wasn’t happening. After a few tries I gave up and uninstalled the game. I expected the trackball to be awkward, but it made the game unplayable for me. So I was back to pursuits more compatible with my input device.
But this seems to be the season of flight sim-like online combat games.
In addition to World of Warplanes being out, a friend was going on about a space sim called Star Conflict. It is another game in the World of Tanks mold, a free to play online game with multiple currencies where you upgrade your ship and train into new ones. I am pretty bad with the trackball in Star Conflict as well, but at least I got through the tutorial. Then there is SWTOR going on about their epic (their word) new Galactic Starfighter expansion plan which, while not exactly Jump to Lightspeed, might at least hearken back to some of the better Star Wars games of old. Or such is the hope. And then there is Star Citizen somewhere on the periphery. If you give Chris Roberts some money, he might let you roam around a hangar module and maybe beta test combat some day.
Finally, there was War Thunder, which Potshot has been playing of late. He had been poking me to give it a try, but after my WoWp woes, I was a bit reluctant to invest the time to download it.
But the past weekend was a quiet one. Our deployment to Curse was wrapping up in EVE Online and my daughter had a cold so we were hanging around the house. This, combined with our recent internet upgrade gave me the option to try a few new games. After a few “bought it at the Steam Summer Sale but then never played it” runs, which were of mixed success, I decided to grab War Thunder and give it a try.
Things worked out pretty well in that regard.
I was able to get through War Thunder’s tutorial without much fuss. In part this was because it was not nearly as involved as the WoWp tutorial, which might not be a good thing. But it was also because of War Thunder’s approach to controls. The game starts you off in mouse mode, where your plane follows your cursor around the sky. In this mode the trackball is at no real disadvantage. You are quite limited in how you can fly… this is pretty much “I’m a target” mode as well for battles against other players… but you can actually do something. Or I could once I inverted the Y axis. As out of practice as I am, pushing forward on the control still means “nose down” to me.
Through the first couple of tutorials I grabbed the British starter biplanes… you get three and unlike World of Tanks, where once you are dead you are done, you get to fly each one in a match until you have lost them all… and proceeded to get slaughtered. (I did see reader/commentor UFTimmy on my first flight!)
I quickly moved from mouse mode controls to what is called “instructor mode.” This gives you more control over the plane but still limits what you can do and keeps you from spinning out of control right away. This, along with a bit of common sense, made things a better. I got my first kill. I shot up some ground targets, which are actually the deciding factor in the matches I was in. And I started coming up against the limitations of my control scheme. I wasn’t going to be an ace with a trackball.
I also discovered the test flight mode that lets you fly your plane around to get used to it. That helped a great deal.
Considering my limitations I started looking into bombers. That lead me to the Fairey Swordfish as my first upgrade, it being on the path to some bombers. Unfortunately, a torpedo bomber, complete with torpedo on the rack, seemed a bit less than useful in what seemed to be an endless series of battles over land. I had that, but not enough currency to move beyond to a real bomber, so I started looking at the other nations.
I had unlocked the US tree and, in giving that a try, found a plane that actually worked with my limited control abilities; the stubby old P-26 Peashooter.
The plane isn’t that great, but it put me in the right state of mind. In a point in the game where almost all your competitors are in biplanes, which are much more maneuverable, knowing that you cannot compete in the regard right up front (even ignoring the trackball issue) meant not bothering with turning battles. Instead I went for the old tried and true speed and altitude advantages. Zoom and boom.
I did not get a lot of kills, though I did get a lot of hits, and more than a few head on collisions. Ramming and impacts are clearly part of the game.
I played enough to start upgrading my initial trio of P-26s in the World of Tanks style of an upgrade here and a new part there, each unlocked with more experience with each individual plane.
All in all, War Thunder allowed me to get far enough into the game that I actually started looking into what joysticks people recommend for the game, which was a lot further than WoWp got me. So I am very likely to carry on playing for now.
And, in a bonus, once you have lost all of your planes in a match, you can cycle through the other players on your team and watch them play. This is, again, akin to World of Tanks. However, unlike WoT, you are not limited to a washed out “you’re dead, suffer!” level of gray. You get to watch in full color, which I found almost as entertaining as playing at times.
After the cut, some screen shots I took over the weekend, most of which were in observation mode. I tend to be too busy when flying to remember to take screen shots.