I hadn't heard much about War Thunder prior to meeting the team at E3 2014, so I didn't really know what to expect when I sat down, but what they had to show was surprisingly impressive, from the cross-platform play to the air-to-ground-to-sea combat simulations of the game itself.
War Thunder is something akin to World of Tanks in a few ways. It's free to play. It offers massive battle simulations. It puts you in the driver's seat of a giant armored tank, and lets you blow up - or die trying - your enemy's tanks. It's not just tanks, though. You can pilot historically accurate fighter planes, as well as navigating the seas in warships from history, and you can do it all in the same game. That was really the most compelling offering. Does your team want to dominate the skies, or are you content with ground-based warfare? Some kind of mix is going to be crucial, since an unopposed enemy air force can lay waste to your tank columns without much fear of reprisal. War Thunder reportedly offers over 500 different vehicles, and mixes them all together to make an engaging multiplayer experience.
Another particularly interesting - if a little far removed from anything I'll ever try to do - is that War Thunder offers varying levels of realism in the simulation, depending on what you want out of the game. You can play Arcade Battles, where the controls are super simplistic, Historical Battles, with more advanced controls schemes, or Simulator Battles, where you're controlling virtually every aspect of the machine you're in control of. You'll need a full simulator equipment setup to even try this mode, at least according to the Gaijin rep and Wikipedia.
The most exciting - and dizzying - part of the demo, however, was the bit of the game I got to play with the Oculus Rift. This was my first Oculus experience, and I haven't played a flight sim since the 90s, so it was a harrowing journey taking off, stalling out, stabilizing, spinning, almost crashing into the ocean, and finally kamikazeeing into a nearby warship. They had the sim equipment setup, so I had control of the throttle and joystick, and loosed a rain of gunfire on every target I saw, at least to the extent that I could control where I was shooting, which was admittedly minimal.
I even got to speak to the team behind War Thunder about the process for establishing the level of realism they purport to represent in game. It turns out Gaijin employs historical consultants to feed them specs and data that they can use to model the simulation after. Of course, as you might expect, many of the specifics of building machines of war are highly classified by various governments, so there's a lot of extrapolation going on, and trial and error simulations with different settings to really try to capture the feel of flying that WWII fighter plane.
Not only does War Thunder put planes, tanks, and ships into the same match, but Gaijin has even developed cross-platform play for Mac, Linux, and PS4. That's right, they've got a working Linux client, and it plays well with PS4. They actually had me in a game on Ubuntu alongside a PS4 player and a Mac player, which seems to be no small feat, given how little crossplay we hear about.
While War Thunder is a really glorious concept - tanks vs planes vs ships sounds amazing to me - the reality is that the point of the game seems to be simulation, and that's simply too hardcore for most players - myself included - to really latch onto. I enjoyed the short time I had with it, however, and if you have any interest in this sort of war machine simulation, it's definitely worth checking out, especially since it's free. Although if you get your hands on the Oculus Rift with it, be warned that you'll want to practice flying a bit before you put on the headset, lest you end up dizzy for a full 15 minutes after you take off the Oculus.