World of Tanks is a strange hybrid. Part online arena shooter, part sim, and part MMORPG, there are few games that seek to occupy the niche it has carved out. This makes the game compelling, delivering an experience that is not available anywhere else. However, the very factors that separate the game from the rest of modern gaming also serve to confuse and alienate new players. It’s easy to jump into a game, maneuver, and shoot. WASD moves your tank, the mouse moves your turret, and left-click fires. Basic stuff.

But just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, your tank mysteriously explodes. Uh-oh! How did that happen?

After the jump: why you are dead

Resist the temptation to immediately start your next match. Take a few seconds, and try and figure out what killed you. Perhaps your tank was killed by an enemy you hadn’t spotted. It may turn out that the enemy was hiding behind a bush, but it’s also possible that he was just sitting out in the open. And yet, your lazy crew failed to notice him!

This may seem puzzling: Tanks (even the tankettes that new players fight in) are fairly large compared to, say, Marines. And yet you’ve never had trouble spotting Marines in the other shooters you play! Spotting mechanics are one of the places where the “sim” aspect of World of Tanks is most pronounced: Spotting through the fog of war depends on factors such as the training level of your commander, the spotting range of your turret, the presence of specialty gear or perks, and the camouflage value of the enemy tank. It’s the sort of formula you would expect to encounter in Advanced Squad Leader.

Beneath World of Tank’s arcade-like exterior (complete with floating crosshair, kill board, mini-map, and color-coded icons above tanks) there are some complex game mechanics at work. To do damage, your gun’s armor penetration (which degrades with range) must overcome the target’s armor thickness. When lining up your shots, angles matter. (Think back to geometry: 50mm of armor head-on is easier to penetrate than 50mm of armor at 40 degrees.) World of Tanks is not a sim, but it takes a few read-throughs of the wiki to fully appreciate what is going on under the hood.

The World of Tanks developers are aware that many gamers don’t like seeing math in their action games, so they pretend that there is none. The official newcomer’s guide is terrible, covering only the things that mimic games you already play, and none of the things that make World of Tanks unique. It is difficult for players to achieve mastery (or even basic understanding) of the game’s key concepts without research outside the game. While part of this is an inevitable result of the game’s design, the designers are at fault for their inability to create a useful tutorial. (A previous version of the tutorial had to be pulled amongst widespread complaints.)

Compounding the lack of a good tutorial is a general sloppiness regarding the game’s approach to information. Important information (such as the aforementioned camouflage values) is hidden from players, and can only be estimated through testing. Improvements to the game’s armor modeling have broken the audio cues that once helped players understand if their shots were having an effect: shots that penetrated an outer layer of spaced armor without actually doing any damage still trigger the “successful hit” sounds. Crew skills descriptions offer no hard numbers, making decisions needlessly aggravating. The special matchmaking placement for higher-tier light tanks can be a source of huge confusion (and frustration) for new players. Recent improvements to the game’s tooltips are appreciated, but are marred by the fact that some tooltips contain obviously erroneous information, calling the accuracy of the entire set into doubt. The same criticism applies to many of the game’s official information videos, which often contain information that is tainted by incorrect understanding of game mechanics. (For example, the recent official tutorial video on the ELC AMX encourages the use of Binoculars and Coated Optics — a combination of gear which has not stacked since the 7.0 patch.)

While none of these problems are present in the lower-tier starting battles, new players who enjoy the game are strongly advised to spend some time mucking around on the unofficial wiki or asking questions in the Qt3 thread. Remember, kids: Knowing is half the battle!

Next: Returning to the game. (Or: “Change is hell.”)

David Lydon has been playing games since he was very young, and hopes to still be playing games when he is very old. This is his first attempt to write about games, unless annoying e-mails to his friends count. David posts on the Quarter to Three forums as Dave47.