Battleships are cool. There is something viscerally satisfying about armor-clad leviathans battling at a methodical pace, with the background of a pacific continent silhouetted before a cool ocean. That, and it’s great fun making ships explode.
World of Warships is the new free-to-play release from Wargaming.net, who also created World of Tanks and World of Warplanes (creative branding isn’t exactly a strong point of the company). Past entries in the ‘World of’ series all have a number of things in common; expansive maps, a huge number of toys to unlock and unfortunately, a fair amount of micro-transactions. World of Warships doesn’t stray too far from the course, so veterans of the series should be very comfortable jumping in.
Most of the variety to be found in WOWS is in the warships themselves, which fall into 4 distinct varieties, each representing specific roles on the battlefield. Cruisers are the bread and butter of any navy, and they are the ships that most players will spend a large chunk of their time with. They are the multipurpose handymen of sea, able to deal with most threats thanks to their strong armament and competent armor. Destroyers are fast but flimsily armored, with a deadly array of torpedoes that can demolish even the most powerful ships if smartly used. Battleships are monsters that can take serious punishment and deliver powerful multi-gun strikes from an impressive range, but they suffer from constantly being outpaced by geriatric snails. The final ship in the roster is somewhat of a wildcard; the aircraft carrier. With little-to-no defensive power to speak of, this ship stays far back from others, launching waves of bombers, fighters and reconnaissance planes. To most this can seem very unappealing, but to a quick-witted commander it can be the difference between a grand victory and a quick dip to visit the fishes.
I was lucky enough to try almost all the ships types on offer and found myself at home with the battleship class, mostly due to a feverish love of unnecessary overt firepower. While I had devastating weaponry and a health bar that would make Ron Jeremy timid, my slow movement and reload times meant I was a big fat target for quicker ships and torpedoes. The constant threats meant I still had to choose targets carefully and place my ship near friendlies, lest I fall prey to a sly destroyer. Lone wolves are a nautical tourist attraction in the making.
Playing WOWS is very unlike most ‘shooters’ on the market (if you can call it that). The combat takes place over huge distances, wherein ships unleash massive barrages against each other, only to have most shots miss completely. It has a feeling closer to a turn based MMO than an FPS, with slow reload times, a variety of ship abilities tied to hotkeys, and vessels that are able to withstand repeated shots. Strategy and team play are very naturally encouraged with the ever-present threat of multiple enemy ships teaming up against you for a quick scuttling.
Players can use both high explosive shells, which deal out whopping punches to lightly armored ships and can set fire to vessels, or armor piecing rounds which, other than the ability to hit weak points for large chunks of a ship integrity and cause sinking effects, are fairly useless until close range is established. I very rarely chose the latter, as hitting the citadel (WOWS take on headshots) was unreliable due to the randomness of a shell’s predicable flight path. There are a number of very deep systems to dealing damage such as the flatness of a shot affecting penetrations, variable armor levels shrugging of certain calibres and more, but this can be impenetrable for newcomers.
While I found the combat highly rewarding, there was often a lot to think about and not a great deal of information presented to inform me during my early stages in the game. It most certainly is an experience that will be very popular with wargaming fanatics who have the time to learn WOWS intricacies, but to the casual gamer it might be off-putting. Thankfully, Wargaming.net provides a wealth of useful video tutorials to explain each layer of gameplay, which was of great help during my introduction. Strangely, however, these don’t seem to be in the game itself, but on the official website. I would have preferred a brief tutorial, similar to what was presented in World of Warplanes, to help ease me into the game. In summary: it’s easy to learn, but brutal to master.
Mission objectives during matches are sadly not very creative; the primary goal being to capture an area or destroy all other ships. As premium players using the diamond-encrusted, death star ships against the more frugal rubber dinghies that most new players will captain is a genuine threat to WOWS sustainability, ship levels are thankfully divided into separate servers. New players can have fun in the kiddie’s pool, cautiously splashing each other until they earn enough coins to advance without payment, while the small number of players whose disposable income is similar to a small nation can spend real money and fight with ships that burst the ear drums of God with every broadside. This is an excellent way of compensating for the fact that money does indeed buy power in WOWS. Rather than allowing a premium member to splatter all opposition, he is put up against similarly advantaged foes. Suffice to say, these later stage battles are truly a spectacle to behold as the final steps of progression give way to some monstrous designs with more guns that the human body has unsightly hairs.
The main weakness WOWS suffers from is in being able to define which skirmishes were lost due to skill or due to which player has the grander bank account. While certain tiers of ships each enjoy their own servers, it can often feel as if matches can be drastically unbalanced. As all ships can be upgraded to fit more guns and armor which doesn’t change which matches they join, the players who are on the first stage of a ship’s development can be subjected to cripplingly unfair fights against others who have invested more time. It incentives progression, but comes at the cost of symmetry in ability. As a prudent player will usually be able to negate these effects slightly, I never felt it was a tremendous issue, but a few crushing losses made me unhappy with some aspects of the balance.
To test the experience, I first started with a standard account, and found progression comes quickly. At no point did I feel that I was scrabbling to earn coins, at least during the early stages. I was scoring kills frequently and the vast majority of my catastrophically humiliating defeats were predominately down to my own less than peak performances. When I began again with a premium account, it was much of the same story. Battles were still challenging and sinking a ship felt deserved despite the monoliths you are given at the highest levels. I am happy to say that even with the most powerful battleships available, I was frequently sipping on chilled sea water on the way to the bottom of the sea. Occasionally, I felt a little guilty for a windfall victory, which was in no small part thanks to my floating fortresses but also due to the fact that even high-tier players were struggling to keep up with my upgrades. This is an issue that will likely resolve itself in time as players begin to catch up, but can also push players away from fighting with the big boys until they build up their resources.
Visually, WOWS is a treat. When numerous ships are unloading earth-rending barrages in a desperate fumble for victory, it really feels special. Ships are methodically detailed and slowly crumble under fire until they detonate with meaty explosions. Shells are accompanied with large bright tracers that leave room for evasive action. The ocean is rendered brilliantly, especially when water buckles under the fire of cannons and shifts realistically when a vessel thunders through. Audio quality is also strong; shells whistle as they pass, hits are meaty, and the brisk waves are chillingly atmospheric. It’s a bittersweet moment when you are left admiring the fire spreading through your own ship, as was often the case when I ate a few untimely torpedoes.
World of Warships will resonate with any fan of wargaming. Its methodical, engrossing and the micro-transactions rarely feel overbearing, despite some cracks in the paint. Many a free evening that desperately required me to not play WOWS were spend doing exactly the opposite. The constant sense of progression and rewarding team-based play crafts an experience that any multiplayer veteran should try. My concerns over the balance of its free-to-play approach were thankfully mostly unfounded, and frequent balance patches from Wargaming.net should iron out the creases in the formula. It’s worth your time and attention, but most importantly, I haven’t made a single nautical pun, and I was worried that I couldn’t keep this review afloat without them.
Fun without a sinking feeling
World of Warships is a thrilling game of survival on the high seas, if you can look past its balance issues.