Self-propelled artillery is still one of the most controversial elements in World of Tanks. Serb has noted repeatedly they have no plans to remove these assets, but recent limitations and hard caps in self-propelled gun (SPG) placement have quelled most of the complaints. No one likes to be on the receiving end of a large, high angle, high explosive shell, but the complaints always seem to come from those who rely on their tank's frontal armor to protect them without considering fire may come from other angles. The elimination of completely safe positions seems to attract the most complaints about artillery. Battles featuring a high proportion of heavy tanks, no artillery, and few scouts and mediums seem to end up completely in the hands of the side that, without artillery to keep them dispersed, form into a tight mob and simply plow through the opposition. Artillery is a balancing factor in these matches that helps to keep tanks with thick armor from simply buffaloing their way to victory without concern for tactics or maneuver.
My last article about SPGs was mainly written as counterpoint to a WG video detailing mid-tier SPG play. This article focuses on gameplay itself and features my own video.
Survival and Evasion
SPGs have never had much in the way of armor or hull durability. Recent patches attempting to curtail SPG use and bring it to an “ideal level” have gone the way of cutting additional armor, hull points, and firing characteristics from most of them. The current incarnation of SPGs requires a great deal of fire evasion as they can withstand only two to three hits from even the weakest weapons, and they will not survive even a single hit from the majority of tanks they will face in a match. Real-world SPGs were never intended for front line duty and carried only enough armor and occasionally point defense machine guns to escape small arms fire. They relied on range and speed to keep safe by striking from farther than the tanks could hit them back and relying on artillery spotters to designate targets and correction. WoT maps are nowhere near as large as actual battlefields and cannot possibly represent the actual ranges these guns fired at; however, in exchange, in-game SPGs gain an in-game accuracy their real-world counterparts of the time could only dream of.
The key points of playing an SPG are inflicting damage and avoiding return fire. The problems inherent in these are a moving SPG can’t hope to hit anything, but a static SPG will be lost to counter-battery fire in short order. The most important aspect of survival is denying the enemy long, clear sight lines to you. Setting up in or near depressions that cut sight lines, behind visual cover, or in places difficult to get to are your best options, although these areas aren’t necessarily the best protected or the closest to your starting point.
There isn’t much you can do about active scouts as they tend to whip past most defenders unless someone lands a lucky shot or the scout makes a bad turn. High stealth SPGs might be able to avoid detection if they're behind visual cover at the time with a camouflage net, but sitting still is a dangerous gambit even if your commander has a sixth sense. It takes three seconds for the game to notify you that you’ve been spotted, and if enemy guns are watching the scouting run, chances are it will take less time than this for one of them to acquire and fire. Even with a three-second hang time, you’re unlikely to get from stopped to far enough away to avoid taking splash damage. Usually your best bet is driving like a maniac, making random turns until at least five seconds after the scout is killed or gone to ensure that even scouts with Designated Target or Call for Vengeance can no longer report your position.
Under normal circumstances, smashing debris and knocking over trees can be a bad way to give away your position to opposing artillery. Done judiciously, however, it can cause them to waste shells and reload time trying to hit an elusive foe who is focusing on their front line units. This method of evasion is easier to pull off with French SPGs because of their speed and agility, but many can still pull it off to a degree.
When I reach a firing position, I often like to set up a rut. I will intentionally smash an area flat to drive around in, thus avoiding knocking things over later and giving away my exact position. It’s fairly obvious where I am when I do this, but unless an opposing scout is physically close enough and at an angle for a visual, the opposing artillery will have a hard time hitting me as I don’t drive in straight lines. I’m also sure to move to another position within the rut immediately upon firing each shot, ensuring the enemy has only a small window to strike. The enemy is well aware of the area I’m operating in, but he will have no telltale signs of where I’m moving to after the tracer is gone.
Flattening a large area in this way would be counterproductive, both from a time standpoint because I could be hurling shells at the enemy and from a visual one because it will in turn draw even more attention. If I know I’m nearing the edge of my rut or I'm near a destroyable object, I will often switch back to first-person view and drive into the item. I immediately change direction then and drive away, leaving the enemy to possibly waste a shell on the downed tree or smashed fence, hoping for a lucky hit.