War Thunder: The best PS4 launch game you're probably ignoring

Pre-ordered a PS4? (Read our PS4 review if you haven't.) Or maybe you’re going to take your chances with retail stock, and try to grab one after Christmas. Either way, if you have any experience of console launches whatsoever, you already know that if you land a machine in the next couple of months, you’re pretty quickly going to run into a conundrum. And that conundrum is the inevitable new-console rollercoaster drop of fun.

You know how it goes. Pre-release anticipation slowly tick-tocks you up the track to launch day, leading to full-blown, midnight launch excitement as you hit the top, which then irretrievably descends into awkward deflation once you’ve played your favoured launch titles and settle in for the long wait until the second generation of games turns up.

The opening of this new generation will be no different. Of course, both Xbox One and PS4 have decent launch line-ups (obviously I’m talking “decent for a launch line-up”, as we always must in these instances), but in the latter case, if you don’t like sports games or FPS, and have an irrational dislike of the Ubisoft logo, then you might be straight out of luck.

We could have a Hell of a sleeper hit on our hands.

But I might have a solution. A solution springing from a most unexpected place. If, like me, you’re a hardcore but predominantly console gamer, you might be treating the current claims of a free-to-play revolution on next-gen with a degree of caution. I certainly was before Gamescom this year. But then I played War Thunder, a PS4 launch game I’d paid very little attention to before. And suddenly I was convinced that we could have a Hell of a sleeper hit on our hands here.

War Thunder has all the tenets of a forgettable also-ran. It has a generic name. It’s from a relatively low-profile Russian developer with few known console hits. It’s a free-to-play war game whose monicker doesn’t start with “World of”. But don’t worry about any of that. War Thunder, you see, is being developed by Gaijin Entertainment, the people who brought us the excellent surprise-hit plane shooter IL2-Sturmovik in 2009. That game excelled by way of its deep but accessible air combat and brilliantly evocative atmosphere. War Thunder inherits all of those attributes with gleeful aplomb.

It's meaty, tactile, and immensely playable.

For starters, there’s the excellent control scheme. Don’t be put off by the flight sim’s reputation as an arcane system of dials, levers, flaps and infernal micromanagement. War Thunder delivers meaty, tactile, immensely playable air-combat while demanding the use of only one thumb and a trigger finger.

Its PC version--playable since its open beta launch nearly a year ago--was designed to be playable entirely with a mouse and two throttle keys. That motion-guided control scheme translates beautifully to the PS4’s left analogue or track-pad.

With a separate ‘steering sight’ in addition to your plane’s aiming reticule, you simply paint a flight direction across the screen and wait for your plane’s flight path to correct in order to line up. It’s a pitch-perfect mechanism, deliberate enough to allow proper time for tactical appraisal of the battle zone, but immediate enough to impart immense arcade satisfaction. And with battles consisting of vast clouds of skyborne metal comprising dozens upon dozens of planes at a time, there’s no chance you’ll end up monotonously lining up distant targets, as is often a pitfall of the genre. There’s always something going on in the immediate vicinity, and it’s always fun.

It could bring unprecedented levels of epic.

But that’s literally only half the reason War Thunder is great. You see the battle doesn’t end in the air. As the game’s devs cheekily pointed out during my demo, where some war vehicle-based MMOs might give you separate games for separate machines, War Thunder’s tank combat takes place on the same maps as its air fights. And those maps are vast, currently maxing out at 200km x 200km, but possibly getting even bigger in the future.

So now--or rather when the ground warfare update rolls out--you’ll be able to partake in vast, multi-staged battles, between staggeringly large armies fighting for air and land supremacy combined. With the promise that objectives for both sections of the fight will be linked--planes might take down the opposing side’s fighters so that their bombers can soften up a town, ready for the tanks to roll in below--we could be looking at some fairly unprecedented levels of epic in the coming months.

And it doesn’t stop there. Warships are also on the horizon, and should evolve the game’s scope far beyond what it already promises. Aircraft carriers, floating anti-air support, air-to-sea bombing raids… the potential is immense. Think Battlefield, without the infantry combat, but playing out on maps the size of some countries. And with the PS4 and PC versions enjoying cross-play, you’ll have the entire, 3,000,000-strong PC community to play with from day one. That’s exciting-as-all-hell right there.

Do me a favour and play War Thunder when you get your PS4. I’m not expecting it to be your first priority when you fire up your shiny new next-gen beast, but you should definitely give it a go. Given the excellent-sounding long-term evolution War Thunder has coming, once the delights of Killzone and Assassin’s start to wear thin, it should tide you over handsomely until the second wave of AAA fun hits. And maybe even a good deal longer than that.

And hey, it’s free. What have you got to lose?

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David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.