This is the best console port of World of Tanks we could have hoped for. The Xbox 360 Edition incorporates all the essential elements of the PC version and streamlines everything else – the result is a tactically rich free-to-play experience that doesn't force players to pay-to-win.
The controls are simple. The left stick moves your treads: forward and back to move them in unison, left and right to move them in opposite directions, to turn, or rotate on the spot. The right stick moves the reticle and your turret, the left trigger switches to a first-person aiming view, clicking the right stick zooms, and the right trigger fires. There's no re-spawning. Die, and you can view the action from the perspective of any of your surviving team mates, or you can head straight back to your garage to enter another battle in one of your other tanks.
You can recruit tankers from your friends list and form a platoon, but all other match selection criteria are out of your hands. The game arbitrarily chooses and balances the teams, and randomly selects the map, and the type of mission: Standard Battle, Encounter Battle, or Assault.
At launch, the Xbox 360 Edition doesn't include tank tech trees for France, China, or even Russia – only America, Great Britain, and Germany. Yet this selection includes many World War II design classics: the lumbering Churchills, the versatile Panzer IVs, the monstrous Tigers, the ridiculous-looking M3 Lees, and many more. Crucially, all their myriad quirks are faithfully recreated: turret rotation speeds, gun elevation, armour weak points... each tank has a distinct personality.
Take Britain's Tier IV medium tank, the Matilda. Designed to be an infantry support tank, it can't move much faster than infantry can march. Ride a Matilda into battle, and you can look forward to your team-mates zipping away from your base and shrinking into dots on the horizon – it's entirely possible for a match to be over by the time you reach the front lines. But once you meet the enemy, the trolling begins. The Matilda's armour is monstrously thick, and its hard-hitting gun and fast-turning turret can rip through squadrons of light tanks in quick succession.
Discovering which tanks fit your play style is a big part of the games appeal. Fine-tuning your load-out of equipment mods and consumables adds further meta complexity to the deceptively straightforward game mechanics.
The Tier I missions see small teams of light and medium tanks contest control of small, straightforward maps; in these early stages, World of Tanks feels like a spiritual successor to Combat on the Atari 2600. Yet the moment you unlock Tier II, tank destroyers and artillery pieces come into play – and you plunge into a Mariana Trench of depth. There are so many things that you can do wrong, and as a beginner, it's easy to do all of them. Light tanks are supposed to slink around behind cover and spot for your team's heavy hitters, yet it's tempting to rush straight into the breach and die in the first minute.
The danger is doubled by the match-making system, for while it pairs off balanced teams in mere seconds, it can assign you to a match with tanks as much as four tiers higher than you. If you're but a Tier IV light tank in a destructible urban maze crowded with Panthers and Pershings, then the onus is on you to not get shot.
Yet even against these odds, a well-co-ordinated platoon can run rings around isolated mega-tanks, circle strafing faster than their turrets can turn, trolling and chipping away at their hit points until they burst into flaming wrecks.
The in-game audio is sparse, but effective. Sound effects report the whiz and blast of shelling, and a generic American voice earnestly tells you about battle damage and whether your shots are connecting. It may not sound like much, yet with 30-player matches, you're all but guaranteed some entertaining banter from your team mates with headsets. Get assigned to the European server, and your ears will be bombarded with heated ranting in strange foreign tongues – it makes the action feel like a WWII movie come to life.
The force mix varies a great deal from match to match. For instance, five red squares at the top of the screen means that there will be five enemy artillery pieces bearing down on you every time you get spotted. In such battles it's wise to stay on the move. A diamond with two lines through it indicates a heavy tank; see, say, eight of those on each team, and you're guaranteed the kind of super slug-fest where a skilled artillery operator can mint a small fortune in silver.
All these factors combine to create an engaging sense of emergent mayhem. Most matches are won decisively in the first five minutes, but when each force is whittled down to a handful of battered units the electricity in the air rises by the second. With endless feints and flanking, and snipers hiding behind every shrubbery, the tide can turn at any time – it ain't over 'till it's over.
The 'Premium' side of the World of Tanks economy is handled fairly well. By paying cash you can buy more garage slots, unlock a handful of exclusive tanks, and pay for 'Premium' mode which accelerates the rate at which you can research flashier hardware. In a clever psychological move, each in-game purchase is one step removed from its real-world cost: you buy in-game gold with dollars, and you buy goodies with the gold.
A bundle of 25,000 gold costs $124.95, and a year of premium costs 25,000 gold. This compares favourably to the subscription costs of premium MMOs. Other deals come off as a little cheeky. For instance, as of this writing you can buy a Tier VIII tank destroyer for 10,900 gold, or $54.91, assuming you go with the 25,000 deal. Fifty-four real dollars, for an imaginary tank. Though to be fair, you would have to grind for hundreds of hours to unlock it in free-to-play mode.
The 50% bonus to mission rewards afforded by Premium only becomes indispensable on tiers VII to X, where, reportedly, it's easy to lose money on every mission thanks to repair and ammo costs. The highest tiers are also home to some of the more interesting fighting machines in the game: highly mobile self-propelled guns that can rapidly advance up the map for counter-battery attacks, and hypothetical German tanks that only ever made it off Albert Speer's drawing board in alternate reality sci-fi novels.
Wargaming.net reps have stated that they don't care if 80% of players never spend a cent on World of Tanks. If you spend a few dozen hours in the game, you probably won't feel any need to. If you spend a few thousand hours, that's another story. It all boils down how you wish to spend your money and your time. The temptation is always there, but it's not overwhelming.
Ultimately, it's the combination of accessible gameplay with riveting depth that makes World of Tanks so engrossing. It seems a little strange that the Xbox 360 has received a killer app so late in its life cycle; if you've yet to upgrade to the Xbox One, then this is another good reason to keep your trusty 360 around.