Disclosure: Wargaming made this article possible by providing airfare and hotel stay to the writer.
We went hands on with the Xbox One version of World of Tanks and discovered a surprisingly lovely experience.
Later this year World of Tanks comes to Xbox One, bringing console gaming's most successful free-to-play game to the newest generation. That's not an overstatement, either. With something like four million unique players, 60 million hours logged, and an average play session of four hours, Tanks is unmatched in the free-to-play console space. More than a simple transition or port, Tanks on Xbox One will be a bridge: The first game to have cross-compatible play between console generations. That's enabled by changing nothing but graphics and continuing to support both versions for the foreseeable future, as well as working alongside Microsoft for continual support and fast patching. The team at Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore has been working hard, but not crunching, to get the game done on time and in players' hands. I had the privilege to go speak with the team in their home lair of Chicago, getting a look at what development on the title is like on a day-to-day basis and taking about five hours of hands-on time with the working development build of Tanks on X1. What I found was a team that loves their game, their fans, and wants people to love what they love.
The game has only a few minor tweaks between versions - though again, the mechanics are completely identical to enable cross-platform play. Of course, this is still the slightly tweaked and sped-up version of the popular PC game. As multiple developers at Wargaming told me, the foreign offices rely on the Americans' console development expertise to make the game work, letting them tweak what they need to. The X1 version does bring a few new features, though. Practice mode will enable any tank for use, new graphics and models bring depth to the world, a bigger and lovelier garage showcases the new models, and a new team training mode with zero restrictions on what players bring to the fight enables dream-team matchups between tank generations. In action, this means that despite the graphical changes between versions Wargaming has done their best to be sure that no console has advantage in a fight. "We will be supporting the 360 version into the future," said Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore general manager Mike McDonald, implying that as long as players were there then there'd be support for that version. "This is a long term investment that we have with these players and this community." I could tell it was important to the team at Chicago-Baltimore to engage their fans, as multiple team members brought up unprompted something they'd added that fans requested, or the idea that they want to add fan suggestions in every single patch. Much of that attitude in practice seemed to be focusing on social features for the console versions: Twitch support, team training to support tournaments, and having the free to play experience be very engaging before they ask a player to spend money.
That doesn't mean nothing changes between versions, though. Just like there have been minor tweaks to the 360 version of Tanks in the past year, from gameplay to graphics updates, there's more to come with the X1 version. Playing the X1 version felt like a whole different game, though. Even watching it run alongside the 360 model, even swapping between the two mid-game, it was clear that though they're the same something about updated visuals brings a whole new level of reality, of visceral feedback, to piloting a hulking metal monster. Not everything was perfect, though: The unfinished version I was playing did have the occasional stutter, and not nearly everything was ported over yet. If you've got a problem with Tanks already, or don't like its playstyle, well, this isn't going to do anything to win you over unless you're a visuals nut. Because though it's compatible, though it's nearly identical, it's better because the Xbox One version brings something new to the table. You know what I'm talking about: A whole new level of Tank Porn.
Upgrading the game to a next generation console was a matter of surprises for the team at Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore. "We knew how to develop a 360 game last time around, but we hadn't done Xbox One before. We had to re-tackle all the old problems in a whole new way," said TJ Wagner, Wargaming's head honcho on console Tanks. On the other hand, once they put it together, much of the game "just worked." After all, it wasn't like they had to re-develop the game mechanics. But when they started looking at art, well, that was going to take longer. "About five times longer," said Wagner. "We went from something like 20 to 100 hours a tank - which was sort of unexpected." That was going to take a lot of time, so they started getting to work on what they could do without the tank artists. Adding things like volumetric smoke, fully three dimensional trees and bushes, HDR lighting, a fully 3D skybox and terrain vistas, and dynamic weather and clouds were small touches that serve to make the whole game more lovely. Wagner in particular spearheaded getting some of this into the game: "We looked at pictures from the gulf war of oil wells on fire, and we thought, let's do that." The result is gorgeous, with smoke building over time from burning tank hulks the longer they sit on the field.
Upgrading graphics and environments was definitely on the list, and many maps went through several iterations. Just rolling through Abbey, perhaps the best known of Tanks maps, the newly more destructible buildings and the fully modeled trees were a gorgeous improvement. Little touches too, like flowers and butterflies flitting about, made me want more to take a tour of the map and less fight other tanks.
Sound design got a complete overhaul, I learned, sitting in the one-man sound studio of designer Brendan M. Lewett. "The alert sounds are the same... and that's it," he said. "We went out and recorded a bunch of field sounds of the precise tanks we're modelling, thanks to this guy who literally runs a website called driveatank.com." I asked him how challenging that was, how getting a rumbling multi-ton vehicle's individual noises to sample right was difficult or not. "It's a challenge," he said, "we put foleys on individual parts, we pointed shotgun mics right at specific pieces to grab the sound of a tread creaking or turret traversing." They'll also be doing all new explosion noises as well, setting off some tannerite explosives and recording the sounds every hundred meters out to about a kilometer so that players can hear far-off explosions as realistically as possible. All of those parts formed a sort of "bucket" of sounds, Lewett said, that can be used to construct sounds even for tanks that there's not a working model of anymore. Working with Wargaming's historical experts, Lewett intensifies or tweaks the sounds to be more authentic. "I just wish I could get the sound of precisely what a tank sounds like blowing up, or when it's impacted," said Lewitt, "but there's some things you can't do with priceless historical relics." Either way, he'll be taking a trip to Texas before release to fire some actual tank guns at decommissioned hulks for nearly what he wants. "All in the name of realism, of course," he said, grinning.
Finally, the game's models are receiving the biggest upgrade for the Xbox One. Andy Dorizas, Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore's senior artist, shares my passion for tank porn. He told me about the new models and took me on a tour of what they look like: 2k textures on top of 80k polygons per tank - but they're designed at 19 million polys per tank and scaled down. "I'm not tired of looking at tanks," said Dorizas, "because this time we had no real limits. We could design as much as we wanted." Much of what had to be texture in the 360 version is now individually modeled. Shovels, buckets, fuel tanks, and other things strapped to the tanks' sides aren't texture anymore, rattling around and clattering as you drive. Even individual nuts and bolts are now their own model. The fully articulated treads deform, rising and falling as you drive over small rocks and bumps. Textures have been overhauled, adding the tiniest details like where a driver's boots would've swept away the dust on a tank's surface as he got in, or where repeated use on the older tanks would've worn down the paint over time. As Dorizas put it, "We can make these tanks feel like they've really been moving through the environment you see in the game."
And that bears out in play. The tanks are more realistic looking than ever, the graphics add richness to the gameplay, and it's more pleasing than ever. Those who're interested in seeing the blooms of smoke and clash of metal can look forward to World of Tanks on Xbox One in the third quarter of this year.