IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
Developer: 1C Company
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1, 2-16 online
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Console pilots have had a rather varied and mostly disappointing time of it over the last few years, the PC has always been the home of the flight sim and despite decent efforts from the likes of Ace Combat, Blazing Angels, Battlestations Midway and the most recent, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. none of them really tick enough boxes for a virtual Biggles, or really in some cases even really feel like flying. Now one of the PC‘s finest combat flight sims has been converted to the home consoles, so whilst its pedigree is beyond doubt, how will it fair?

Well, despite being well-known to the PC fraternity, its ambiguous title means I can’t see it selling as well as many of the mediocre racing games and shooters that make up the staple diet of the Xbox 360 and PS3 gamer. However, IL-2 Sturmovik is without doubt a highly polished product that gives console fly-boys a chance to see WW2 from a higher position – many battle locations like Stalingrad and Bastogne will be familiar as gamers have already visited them at ground level, in games like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms.

The controls are set up with the left stick doing the most work as it controls dive, climb and roll. The right stick controls the rudder and the throttle, which can cause some unwanted throttle inputs. Right trigger fires your main weapon (cannon or machinegun), LB fires rockets if your plane is equipped with them and RB drops bombs. A press of ‘A’ selects a target and cycles through available targets – this would have worked better if it selected the target nearest the aiming reticule but it doesn’t, so selecting the desired target can be a pain in the arse. Once a target is selected holding the left trigger activates the target camera which zooms the view in slightly and locks it to the selected target. You can also order other pilots to attack a target, shield you or stay in formation or, in some missions, even switch to their planes via the tactical map.

The action starts out over the Kent coast with the Battle of Britain and other campaigns include the Battle of Stalingrad, the Invasion of Sicily, the Korsun Pocket, the Battle of the Bulge and the finally the Battle for Berlin. There are 50 single player missions, campaign missions and a training mode that allows you to fly in any of the theatres with any unlocked aircraft. Arcade, realistic and simulation settings cater for pilots of all skill levels. There are three views; third person (chase cam), cockpit or virtual cockpit.

The game looks amazing; the detailed planes themselves show damage when hit and lose parts, and leave a smoky oil trail that will splatter your windscreen if you follow too close. The clouds, water and remarkable ground detail give you plenty to look at as you fly around. During some battles it feels like the sky is full of planes with only very occasional moments where the frame rate drops. Enemy armoured vehicles even move, and although you’ll probably never notice because you never really want to get that close, the detail on them is astonishing too. See the screenshot (below left) from one particularly low level pass I made to see what I mean.

The AI is superb (if irritating), the enemies will use slow speed, almost stalling to make you overfly them or loop and roll or ‘hit the deck’ (go low to the ground to avoid detection and try to make you crash while following them). The problem with this is that even on the ‘Arcade’ setting, keeping on the tail of a plane and shooting it down with your machine guns (no air-to-air fire and forget missiles here, you know) is quite tricky and should you start the game on the ‘Realistic’ setting as I did, you will probably find that it is too fiddly - the fine balancing act between smooth manoeuvres and spinning out of control like a sycamore seed is too much of a knife-edge to be fun. ‘Simulator’ adds to the difficulty by making the enemies more aggressive and accurate, removing any helpful icons to highlight enemy planes and confining you to the cockpit views. You can even choose to have limited fuel and ammo should you want to make this a real challenge. The campaign on ‘Simulator’ setting must be so bloody difficult (even just landing on ‘Simulator’ is extremely tricky) that I challenge anyone from 505 to come round my house and show me it’s actually possible. I won’t pay their room and board for the five years or so I suspect it would take to complete but I will make them the occasional cuppa.

There are 42 planes, many of which are variations of a type that you unlock as you progress through the campaign or complete single missions, including the titular Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik, Spitfire, Hurricane, Blenheim bomber, P-51 Mustang, Messerschmitt BF109, Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber, Heinkel bomber, Messerschmitt Me163 rocket interceptor and the Me 262 ‘Schwalbe’ fighter bomber, the first twin engine fighter used in combat, right at the end of the war. Your unlocked aircraft are available to view in your hangar and there’s an encyclopaedia section, giving facts about manoeuvres, tactics and the history of great air battles.

The online multiplayer mode caters for 2-16 players and offers 4 modes of play; ‘Dogfight’ is a free-for-all with a points target or whoever has most points when the time runs out, ‘Team Battle’ is basically a team dogfight, ‘Strike’ is a team game, where you have to destroy enemy ground targets and in ‘Capture Airfields’ you have to land at an enemy airfield and stay there until its captured. I’d love to tell you all these modes were great fun but most I ever managed was a two-on-two dogfight as the game seems terribly undersubscribed at the moment, which is quite surprising to me when I remember the popularity of the multiplayer modes in ‘Crimson Skies’ on the Xbox.

The game has a rousing orchestral theme, the radio chatter adds to the atmosphere and the cut scenes (that use both the game engine and dramatic real life footage) are narrated by the inimitable Joss Ackland.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is a fabulous looking game that does a fine job of capturing the drama of WW2 dogfighting. Propeller age planes and machine guns make combat a lot more personal than firing a heat-seeking missile from 5 miles away. Flying the planes on ‘Arcade’ is relatively easy (although it’s still possible to get into a spin and stall) and should you want to make life really hard for yourself, then the game allows you to up the difficulty to God-like proportions. Whilst 505 Games have tried to make it playable and "arcadey" enough for the quick-fix type of gamer, it is without doubt heavily slanted toward the simulation end of the scale. IL-2 Sturmovik is not one of those games you can "have a quick go at", and whilst patience and practice brings rewards, it won't appeal to everyone.

Best Bits

- Looks fabulous
- Realistic engine & battle sounds
- Shooting down Heinkels and Stukas!
Worst Bits

- Missions can take a long time
- ‘Realistic’ and ‘Simulator’ modes make the planes fly like bricks
- Won’t convert boy-racers into budding Douglas Baders

by: Masonic Dragicoot

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