IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey Preview

30 Jul 2009  by   Paul Younger
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There’s something about flight simulators and consoles that doesn’t quite work.  Despite the genre being focused primarily at the PC market, or even the Mac market, the simulator balance is never quite right.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t good arcade flight games out there with simulator aspects, but it does mean those that are used to the anal micromanagement systems find it hard to find any depth in console “simulators”.

Enter then IL-2 Sturmovik, the latest offering from 505 Games, and a revival of one of the best flight sims ever seen on the PC.  Any flight sim fan will know the precedent this game set when it came out on PC, with painfully accurate attention to detail in every aspect of the game.  Speaking to a pilot who owned a Yak and had flown the Sturmovik during the war, I was told that the flight sim was as accurate, unpredictable and as enjoyable as flying the real thing.  And this was before I was ever a games journalist.

It’s this depth, however, which is the problem with all console sims, and the primary problem here is control systems, something I’ve banged on about time and time again.  It’s making sure the balance is right, and engaging enough for casual players, but challenging enough for more hardcore players without the frustrations of the button maps.  Most flight sim players will have their joystick of choice, and will have spent hours programing their stick to play with their game of choice.

Take away the flight stick and the copious amount of buttons and you’re left with a very basic control mechanism to fly quite a complicated aircraft.

But you see, this is the beauty of IL-2 on the console.  Because you’re flying a WWII aircraft, you’re not going to need to assign different buttons for the myriad of different functions that modern aircraft have.  And, bearing that in mind, flying the aircraft actually becomes a lot more exciting.  You are relying purely on the forces behind the flying, that is the thrust and lift of the aircraft.  And it’s the aircraft we must talk about.

I’ve flown in the back of a Hurricane and in a Tiger Moth, as well as spent a lot of time with pilots that still own and fly Mustangs and Yaks.  I’ve grown up with military aircraft, modern day jets to WWI airplanes.   This may sound a little irrelevant, but just stay with me here.

A lot of the time when you’re flying in a game, things like the cockpit or flight models just don’t feel perfect; unless the game is a specific add-on to Microsoft Flight Simulator, or unless you’re playing a dedicated flight sim game such as Falcon 4.0 or IL-2 on the PC.  This isn’t the case in IL-2.  Not only are the cockpits as realistic as you can get, but they’re not just a set of dials that are static.  In addition to this, the flight models of the aircraft are near perfect, as are the noises of the engines and the way the aircraft handles.  This might not be so true in the case of the Arcade settings, but when you fly in Realistic settings, or even Simulator settings, you really can feel the differences between the aircrafts’ handling.

I’m going to be honest too, I didn’t think, with the variety of aircraft on offer, they’d be any depth to the different aircraft, but I was wrong.  I was also somewhat annoyed when I discovered, at E3, you could fly a selection of aircraft from the Allied campaigns.  I felt this was a betrayal to the title, and if I’m honest I’m not so sure that the IL-2: Birds of Prey title is relevant.  That’s not to say, however, it’s not worthy of the title.  It’s just a little misleading, as only around one sixth of the overall campaign is done in an Ilyushin.  And because 1C developed the original Ubisoft game, you know this game is in safe hands, so they’re not going to bastardise a product that was recieved so well.

But you see, the game isn’t just about the flight models and the levels of realism, which we’ll get onto, but it’s about the environment, the scenery, the skies in which you fly.  Not only do you feel you’re involved in epic battles over some of the most intense battle zones during the war, with hoards of Axis aircraft flying at you in massive groups and familiar Nazi formations, but the scenery is something else.
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It doesn’t matter what time of day you’re flying at, the attention to detail is incredible, certainly one of the best I’ve ever seen on a flight sim game.  Better than anything I’ve seen on a PC and more realistic than even the scenery packs created for games like Microsoft Flight Simulator.  This is something which 1C, the developer, has nailed better than anything else.  And it doesn’t stop with the scenery.  The damage models on the aircraft are impressive, with bits flying of your aircraft, holes in your canopy and cockpit, shredded wings and exposed flap arms.  This really is a visual orgasm in every way.  And what makes it more orgasmic, and I’m sorry that we’ve taken this s**ty road, is that flying at three feet off the ground the scenery looks as good as it does from 3,000 feet.  And it seems that every tree and every house, or every piece of scenery, is independently created.  And, you don’t explode on impact with the scenery.  “What?” you might be saying, but let me give you an example.  I was flying low, very low, so low I was flying under the canopy of trees when I clipped my wing on the trunk of the tree.  Instead of exploding on impact, my wing split from my aircrafts body (I think I was flying the Hurricane at the time) and sent me into a spin, only inches off the ground.  I managed to keep the aircraft up for approximately five seconds before I went smashing into the ground.  I spent another 10 minutes after that trying to explain to a very uninterested office of colleagues what had just happened.  I hope for those of you reading this story hasn’t been told in vain.

I think, what I’m trying to say is that this game is incredible.  It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it does the original game on the PC proud.  The Realistic and Simulator settings, where Realistic has elements of Arcade and Elements of Simulator, offer a more challenging game play option, but fail because of the lack of peripherals for the consoles.  This isn’t a failing of the game, but I think to really make the most out of the Simulator setting especially, you do need a proper flight set up because you need to feel the aircraft and make slight movements, movements that could be the difference in a great loop or a bad stall.

There’s far too much to write about this game, and given that we’ve not even seen final code yet, albeit the preview code we have is nearly final code, there is much more to look forward to.  The demo for the game has gone live today, and you can expect to see a video preview next week which will demonstrate how visually impressive this game is, but until then download the demo and check it out for yourselves.  It’s so worth it.

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