I signed up back in early beta. Back then, I was a bit of a sim snob, and disliked the keyboard and mouse setup of arcade. I preferred IL-2: 1946 (which still is better if you want to just try 400+ WW2 warbirds). Fast forward to November last year. I now have kids - and my ability to play games is measured in minutes not hours. Faced with the choice of a 5 minute game with human players, or no game at all (as long games are out of the question) I tried it again. And was pleasantly surprised.
I am going to focus this review on Air Battles, Arcade Mode as that is the one I have the most experience in, though there is tank battles and (soon) coastal forces.
Fellow Aussies seem active in War Thunder. Quite a few Youtubers come from down under.
What is it about
In teams of a dozen or so, players contest territory (occupying "hotspots" or capturing airbases) or try to destroy ground targets or similar. There is arcade, realistic and sim modes - each with increasing complexity (and game length). In arcade (which I play); I can fly with a mouse, spacebar (bombs), mouse click (shoot); right click (look around) and extra controls (WASD - elevators and rudder) with throttle bound to mouse wheel. Super easy to pick up and play. Tanks are even easier and more intuitive.
Good without being amazing. You can import custom skins if you have a favourite pilot's paint job you want to imitate. I'd rate them as satisfying rather than mind blowing, although there is something that just feels "right" as sparkling tracers pour into a 109 which suddenly belches white smoke, or your plane glinting in the sun as it rolls, contrails feathering behind at 6000m....
I've found this to be pretty fun. In arcade you can mix up planes of all nations (i.e. 109s and Zeroes flying alongside and against Spitfires, Yaks, Mustangs etc), while realistic and sim stick to historical line-ups. My focus will be primarily on arcade, as I think it is friendliest to the time-strapped dad gamer with 5-10 minute games. Realistic and sim games can exceed 45min.+
Real air combat maneuvers work - yo-yos, Immelman/Split S, scissors all seem to come intuitively, and I am working on spiral climbs and hammerheads. Energy management matters; a player with a height advantage has a speed and manoeuvre advantage; I tend to climb energetically whenever it is safe to do so.
Having a friend on voice comms is a huge advantage - such as dragging up pursuing enemies to drain their energy for your wingman to finish with an easy shot. Aircraft are balanced by "battle rating" (BR) which is an average of your best three aircraft. If you die (in arcade) you can respawn up to half a dozen times if you have suitable vehicles.
In short, gameplay is good, fun, and you can play the mode that suits your taste. Tactics and commonsense are more important in War Thunder than teenage twitch skills and fast reactions.
Italian and French forces are recently added, but vehicle choices are limited.
Tiers & Balance
Sometimes you can face higher battle rated vehicles. This is more an issue in tanks where a high tier heavy can bounce your tank to easily (think Sherman 75mm vs Tiger); BR is less an issue in aircraft, piloting is the major factor as all planes tend to fly apart with a burst of gunfire, regardless of tier.
You "unlock" aircraft by playing games and earning XP (by destroying enemies, capturing zones etc); starting with biplanes and ending with Korean-era jets. For example the British begin with the Gladiator and end with the Meteor, Hunter, Vampire and Venom; the Americans going from the P-26 Peashooter to F-86 Sabre.
Each tier has a different gameplay "meta" - early tiers tend to be swirling low-level dogfights pecking away with ineffective machineguns; higher tiers tend toward energy fighting and high altitude, fast boom-and-zoom with deadly quad cannons. I enjoy the mid-war era of Spitfire IXs, early F4Us, 109Fs, P-38Ls and the P-39 Aircobra - which has a mix of aircraft types and combat styles.
If you only want to fly jets straight away; I recommend you spend $5 and buy IL:1946 instead; it will take months of regular gaming in War Thunder to "unlock" them. However, most people will progress through a nation's "unlock" tree to enjoy all the aircraft and flying styles from all eras. Most of the players in multiplayer tend to hang around the middle tiers anyway, playing the iconic prop fighters like Mustangs and 109s.
The Tier system can be annoying; you have to own six aircraft from an era before you can progress to the next era; for example I might want to progress to a late-war Griffon Spitfire, but have to unlock a Beaufighter and Firefly first, even though I am not interested in them.
There are quite a few Youtubers dedicated to reviewing aircraft or teaching gameplay.
Planes don't have health bar; each bullet is modelled and impacts things like controls, pilot, wings, radiators, oil coolers, fuel tanks etc. It can be annoying to spray an aircraft with bullets only to have it fly away as you didn't hit anything vital; and annoying to have your pilot sniped through the head by the lucky single 7.62mm round at 800m - but it's awesome to see a wing torn off by your P-39s 37mm as well....
A few complaints - in arcade most games are won by bombers (aka spacebar warriors) who just charge the target, dump bombs - and die. Bombers are easy to fly - just head level for the target and press spacebar. The problem is, they can do this half a dozen times. It's like a cockroach plague - and they can make the game end too quickly if they destroy all the targets fast enough. If you want to win games - fly a bomber. If you actually want to learn to fly and fight - fly a fighter. It's a bit annoying that learning to be a good pilot and winning seem mutually exclusive.
Killstealers/Accidental Team Kills
I don't mind someone swooping down to secure a kill. I DO mind when I have friendly cannon shells tearing into my plane from oblivious team-mates shooting "through" or past me to a target I am tailing. This is mostly arcade; less common in more serious game modes.
Sometimes veteran players "game" the system and use, for example, under-tiered P47s to get into games against beginner planes such as CR.42s. The tier system is far from perfect as it takes into account player results across the server as well as raw stats. Apparently, American players in general have eggplant level IQ as US planes tend to be very under-tiered given their performance, and Japanese players must be geniuses as their planes seem be rated much higher than their capabilities.
I live in Australia and play on US and Asian servers. The game is very playable at high ping. About once every 10 games I have a game with packet loss; bullets disappear, or require way more lead than usual, but I can play around it. I've found the game very tolerant of bad ping/bad computer.
Air combat maneuvers work as they do in real life...
The game is free, but you can speed your unlock progress by paying for "premium" getting bonus XP, and buy "premium planes" usually captured or lend-lease aircraft (Soviets have P-39 and P-63; British have F4U and F6F, etc) but sometimes unique aircraft (not so good, as if they are unavailable except for money, they can be called "pay to win" if they are any good). So you can pay, and progress faster to late-war planes, but it's perfectly playable without paying a cent. I've bought a few premium planes including the P-38K (I love Lightnings) and some experimental planes like the XP-55 (because I love cool and weird planes; things like pusher prop designs are my "thing").
Remember, all the comments above apply primarily to War Thunder Arcade (Air) - I've played tank mode a bit but have far less experience (and have only played at lower tiers).
You can even get guides on control layouts...
Why you'd play it
It's WW2 - aircraft, tanks AND coastal forces (sometimes in the same battle)
Play it co-op, solo or multiplayer
Choose your level of complexity/realism/time commitment (arcade/realistic/sim)
Huge range of planes from biplanes to jets.
Child friendly (no blood/guts/swearing if a young one wants to watch)
Real tactics work
Works on poor computers and laptops; pretty good netcode
You don't need expensive joysticks and gear to have fun
Why you'd avoid it
Sometimes frustrating matchups with people gaming the system
Annoying team mates
Unlock system/grind to get to a favourite plane
Bomber spam ending the game too soon
Russian company (i.e. never admits mistakes, censors forums)
Recommended? Very much yes. Try this game. It's a free, flexible game that can be played how you want. It has all sorts of awesome and iconic WW2 aircraft and tanks. If you want to manage every cowling flap and manually trim things, you can. If you want to mindlessly pew-pew with guns that magically reload in mid-air, you can. Like Silent Hunter and IL:1946, it's hard to criticise, as if you don't like something; just change the setting or mode.