Hear the title, see a few screenshots, and you could be forgiven for assuming that World of Tanks is a simulation game inaccessible to anyone who doesn't know the difference between a T20 and a T29. That's not the case at all though; World of Tanks is a shooter first and foremost, with uncomplicated controls and a relatively sedate pace that make it easy to get into. Furthermore, it's a free-to-play game that, while loaded with plenty of ways for you to spend money, can be enjoyed for countless hours without ever doing so. World of Tanks wouldn't be difficult to recommend even if reaching for your wallet was a prerequisite, so recommending that you give it a try for free is a no-brainer.
World of Tanks even controls like a shooter; you use the WASD keys for movement and the mouse to aim and shoot. There are some other controls used for things like enabling cruise control, locking your turret so that it doesn't follow your mouse as you look around, and switching between different shell types, but familiarizing yourself with these can wait until you're comfortable with the basics. You don't need to memorize any advanced controls or techniques before climbing into a tank and entering a battle for the first time because, unlike many online shooters, World of Tanks is a game that you can ease yourself into without repeatedly dying at the hands of experienced players. That's largely because when you enter a battle you're matched with players who are driving tanks comparable to your own. Go to war in the lightweight tier 1 tank that you start your career with, and you're unlikely to fight alongside or against even tanks from the slightly more powerful tier 2, much less the heavyweight beasts from tiers 7 through 10. Conversely, when you're driving one of the big boys after investing many hours (or perhaps many dollars) to unlock them, you don't get to steamroll the new kids.
One of the great things about World of Tanks is that even if you find a favorite tank and stick with it, you're never quite sure how your next battle is going to play out. Not only are maps randomly selected from a sizable and varied collection, but you might find that your tank is the most powerful on the field in one game and then among the weakest in the next. What you never find, though, is that one team obviously outclasses the other--at least not where the quality of their vehicles is concerned. Before any battle gets under way you get to see a list of all 30 players that details the vehicles they're using and makes it easy to tell, at a glance, whether one team has more tank destroyers or self-propelled guns (more commonly referred to as artillery or "arty") than the other. You and your teammates can plan your strategy accordingly, though in practice the chat window used to communicate with each other rarely gets a lot of use. On the other hand, the minimap--which you can click on to immediately highlight areas for your comrades--is a quick and effective way to coordinate and to draw attention to enemy locations. Not that you even need to do that a lot of the time; every vehicle in World of Tanks is equipped with a radio that automatically relays positions of sighted enemies to comrades who are in communication range. As a result, providing useful intel for your teammates requires almost zero effort on your part, which is great news for anyone using artillery.
You're free to try to fill any role on the battlefield regardless of your vehicle choice, but artillery are so lightly armored that job one when you're driving one is to stay far away from the enemy. Job two is to use your long-range gun to destroy enemies before they even have a chance to spot you. As the commander of an artillery unit, you can target enemies using a bird's-eye view of the battlefield on which you can see any enemies that your teammates have sighted. You can zip your targeting reticle around the screen as fast as your mouse will let you, but it generally takes your gun a while to catch up. Furthermore, even once you have an enemy in your gun's sights you'll notice that the target area has lots of room for error. Because the target area shrinks over time, the challenge comes from knowing when to shoot; click that left mouse button too early, and there's a good chance you'll miss, but wait too long, and the enemy you're homing in on might move or disappear from your map because he's no longer in visual range of your teammate who scouted him. Playing as artillery is a lot of fun when you're grouped with players who will both scout for and defend you, but that's not always the case, and as with all vehicles in World of Tanks, the map that you end up playing on has an impact on how effective you can be. Get stuck playing on one of the city maps, and buildings often obscure your shots, for example.
When you're not in the mood to play as artillery you can choose to drive either a regular tank or a tank destroyer. The choice might seem obvious given the names, but while tank destroyers undoubtedly hit hard enough to live up to their name, they also don't have nearly as much armor as tanks. If an enemy gets behind you or manages to attack you from the side, you're going to take a lot of damage, so when driving a tank destroyer, you need to think about staying unseen, which might mean equipping a camo net and/or remaining still for extended periods of time. The biggest disadvantage that the vast majority of tank destroyers have versus tanks is that their guns are fixed rather than mounted on turrets, so the only way to target an enemy off to one side of you is to turn your entire vehicle around. That can be a painfully slow process, and it can also make you visible to enemies who otherwise might not have had any idea that you were nearby. Driving a tank destroyer is perhaps the most challenging way to play World of Tanks, but it can also be the most satisfying. In a tank destroyer you're powerful enough to defend your base long after most of your teammates have been killed, and fast enough to then make a dash for the enemies' base if you'd rather win by capturing it than by completely eradicating the opposition.
Regular light, medium, and heavy tanks come in dozens more flavors than artillery and tank destroyers do, and your role on the battlefield is at least partly determined by the capabilities of your vehicle. Fast, lightweight tanks make great scouts, while powerful tanks that take multiple minutes to get across a map are better suited to defense--at least early in a match. Your role often changes as a game plays out. There are no respawns in World of Tanks, so there's not much point trying to play as a scout if all of your team's artillery has already been destroyed, for example. There's only one game mode, but no two battles ever play out the same way, and since you're forced to choose your vehicle before you know which map you're going to be fighting on, you frequently have to contend with geography that works against you. Some maps incorporate or are set entirely in towns and cities, which offer plenty of hiding places for tanks and tank destroyers but make life difficult for artillery. Other maps feature elevated positions that teams often fight for control of early in a battle, but no game is ever over until a base has been captured or a team has been completely destroyed because it's entirely possible for just one player to turn the tide of a battle or, at the very least, to stick it out for the remainder of the 15-minute time limit so that it ends in a draw.
For a game that's so easy to get into, World of Tanks boasts a great deal of depth, both on and off the battlefield. When in combat, there are different vehicles' weaknesses to consider, as well as techniques that are only possible because of the realistic manner in which the game deals with projectiles. Angle your vehicle correctly or reverse away from an enemy that's firing at you head-on, and you increase the chances of his shot being harmlessly deflected, for example. Back in the garage that you visit between battles, depth comes courtesy of a robust research and upgrades system that lets you improve your existing tanks as well as unlock those in higher tiers. Even your vehicles' respective crews gain experience as you play and can improve their rides' repair, firefighting, and camouflage capabilities as a result. It takes a long time to unlock new crew skills, vehicles, and part upgrades, and speeding up those processes is one of the many things that you can spend small amounts of money on if you wish.
Other premium offerings include a number of otherwise unavailable vehicles that sell for between $5 and $50 each, alternative ammo types, and consumable items that you can take into battle. Where elsewhere in World of Tanks you're paying merely to speed up your progress, here you can buy content that folks playing for free have no way of accessing. Few if any of the premium vehicles offer a noticeable advantage (especially since they can't be upgraded), but premium ammo types are slightly better than the free stuff (why else would anyone buy it?), and premium consumable items are superior to those that can be bought using in-game credits. "Wallet warriors" cruising around in premium vehicles are occasionally criticized by players who are enjoying the game free of charge, but the truth is that premium items afford the folks buying them only a small advantage (automatic fire extinguishers over manual fire extinguishers, 105-octane gasoline over 100-octane gasoline) and, when all is said and done, are a necessary evil because without them it's unlikely that anyone would get to play this great game for free. Premium options less likely to get you called names in the official forums include spending gold (that's premium currency) to convert research points earned on one of your tanks for use on another, paying to speed up your crew's training, and purchasing additional vehicle slots for your garage.
By default you can own only five different vehicles, which is more than enough if you're looking to sell off your low-level tanks as you acquire better ones. It can be hard to give up favorite tanks that you've already spent time and money upgrading, though, and it's fun to return to low-tier battles in small vehicles even once you own some of the endgame behemoths because those games play out quite differently. Regardless of what size garage you want, you should plan on owning at least two or three vehicles that you want to use regularly. That's because once your tank is destroyed in a game, it's not available for use elsewhere until that game ends. It's often fun to see how a battle unfolds after you die by viewing it from the perspectives of your still-alive teammates, but if you're killed in the first minute, you might be eager to jump into another battle instead. You can, but only if you have another vehicle available for you to use in it.
World of Tanks battles may last less than 15 minutes each, but this is a game that you're likely to lose hours, days, and weeks of your life to once you start playing. Don't be surprised if you're tempted to spend a little money on it at some point as well; you can absolutely have a great time playing for free indefinitely, but dropping a dollar here and there to train crew members or to transfer research points between tanks is money well spent. Also good value is the recently released retail copy of the game which, for $20, gets you $30 worth of in-game credits, gold, and a T2 tank. You should obviously check out the game for free before going out and buying that, but once you've decided that you want to play more of the game, the retail box is a good way to add to your in-game garage and bank balance early on. The important thing is that whether you're playing for free or spending a small fortune on premium projectiles, World of Tanks is a blast.