E3 2014: War Thunder, Oculus Rift’s New Best Friend

I’ve been on the virtual reality train since before the metaphorical transcontinental railroad came to be. Hell, I (very much regrettably) picked up a Virtual Boy at launch because it was, and I quote my clearly dysfunctional young self, “the coolest thing ever.” The truth is that it was — as should now be evident by Nintendo’s near immediate discontinuation of the product — utter garbage. That didn’t derail my enthusiasm in the technology, though. Virtual reality was, and still is, a wellspring of potential. And recently, its place in gaming’s future has been spearheaded by an abundance of outrageous investments, basement-community approval and, most importantly perhaps, incredible gaming experiences.

Enter War Thunder, the realistic aircraft and (as of may) tank simulator from Gaijin Entertainment. My first appointment, and introduction to much of the game, was a hands-on demonstration of my general ineptitude and also an online tank battle. The developers were kind enough to ignore my disqualifications, thankfully.

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Commanding the tank was reminiscent of my time with Armored Warfare, albeit slightly less arcade-like. The map, which was brimming with detail, stretched as far as I could see, and enemy vehicles peppered the surrounding hilltops. While I didn’t have time to properly scope the field and dig into the meat of War Thunder’s mechanics, I did manage to fire enough shots to get a feel for the controls — which are, by all accounts, as smooth as controls for a realistic tank sim can be.

There was also plenty of room for strategy, with assorted bullet types making up the hotbar. “Powers,” as I like to call them, range from anti-aircraft shells for those good ol’ mode appropriate skirmishes to your more basic, still-just-as-exiting quick fire exchanges. The landscape, too, can be used to your advantage. Various earth formations, as well as trees, stones and terrain elevations make evading, sneaking, and finally destroying an enemy a tactical treat. It’s shockingly addictive.

War Thunder blends platforms as seamlessly as it blends land and air combat, and while playing on PC is perfectly serviceable, cross-platform play makes it all the better. For those of you unfamiliar with the fancy tech-talk, that means you can play on one device against (or alongside) folks using another. There aren’t any real restrictions, and your account is the same across all platforms. It’s pretty incredible to see in action, and Gaijin had one of each platform build running on the round table during our meet. There’s a lot to love about War Thunder, even on the surface with its quick-thinking strategy and gorgeous scenery. In a nutshell, it’s both a hardcore and lighthearted free-to-play experience that doesn’t penalize the stingy, and I couldn’t recommend it enough. Well, at least I thought I couldn’t.

That, of course, was before I entered my second appointment: the mysterious room of magical wonder. Unlike the first meeting, which had multiple fellas in Gaijin shirts directing my misadventures in tank-land, the second room only contained a single gentleman in a neatly ironed polo. I was told to have a seat before a presentation of complex controls; a professional grade throttle and flightstick.

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At that point, I was already well versed with the Oculus Rift, though not quite sold on the experience it offered. War Thunder changed everything, however. From a first-person view, I slowly made my way into the open skies as the lightly cologned man instructed me on all the different triggers. Once I gained enough air, he told me to spin which, sequentially, had my world turn as if I were in fact soaring through the sky. My surroundings, the beautiful vistas, forests and rivers below, swum around me as I rotated my head in awe. Finally, the Rift has a game worth bragging about.

The earth below was one of the many maps available for all forms of combat; tanks, planes or both. I was told that every sliver of the game world was available with the Oculus, and that action happens in real-time as you slice the air above the ongoing ground skirmishes. I didn’t get a chance to blow down any enemy targets – I was too busy being awestruck by the view.

It wasn’t long before I crashed — the inevitable outcome of a game involving planes, flight controls and my hands. It’s hard to explain the overwhelming emotions felt during my session in the sky, even as flames arose from my engine. It’s the most convincing unreality I’ve ever been in. Confusing, I know. War Thunder, an already immensely enjoyable game, and most certainly one I’ll be hopping into again, is also the first title to sell me on the Oculus Rift. Sure, plenty have nudged me in its direction, but none forced me to question the validity of my households entertainment without the headset.

My airborne Oculus trip was, without any semblance of doubt, my most enjoyable gaming experience in months. That’s true even when you take into account my subsequent headache. War Thunder is available now on PC, Mac and PlayStation 4 — get it while it’s hot. Or cold. Or no particular temperature at all, because it’s a game. An amazing, must-play game that you probably shouldn’t cook or freeze.