“Slipping the surly bonds of earth” has never been more challenging or more rewarding than in IL-2 Sturmovik 1946, the new kitchen-sink compilation of all things airborne during WW2. And when we say all things, we mean all things: there are literally 229 flyable aircraft in this game, from bombers to fighter jets, and another 70 or so that you can just turn into flaming wreckage. There are alternate history campaigns, more than 100 types of ground target, and several games' worth of missions. Check your six - there's a whole lot of WW2 bearing down on you.
Like the original IL-2 Sturmovik, this is a hardcore mega-sim - we're talking 450-page manual harcore - with a strong focus on realistic aircraft flight-modeling and loads of depth. It's also quite possibly the best deal of the century: Il-2 Sturmovik 1946 layers all the previous games and expansions in the series, along with two new add-ons, into one tasty confectionary, all for a measly $30. This is a game whose length might be better measured in weeks rather than hours.
The new content,1946 and Sturmoviks Over Manchuria, offers a taste of the unusual. 1946 focuses on many of the more creative plane designs of late or post WW2 in an alternate history timeline (Germany and Russia are still fighting) that includes the infamous German Me 262 and early Russian jet designs such as the MiG-9 and 13. However, controlling these aircraft with any genuine amount of precision is tantamount to running on ice in glass slippers. You'll need to be an ace.
By contrast, Sturmoviks over Manchuria is more down to earth, dealing with the 1945 IL-10 and closing battles over Berlin, then switching you to some nifty Japanese fighter planes during their determined defense of the Pacific and their homeland. Both offer good, solid gameplay, though we think 1946 may be a bit too fanciful for the average grognard.
The developers (led by series creator Oleg Maddox) have bitten off exactly what they could chew here, as every aircraft has been lovingly modeled in precise detail and with a delicate aerodynamic touch that gives each steel bird its own life-like characteristics. The ‘smoking barrels’ setting of WW2 comes alive in each mission, with anti-aircraft guns illuminate the sky like manic blue bottle-rockets while you desperately twist and dive around your opponents, guns blazing and your heart in your hand as you wrestle to keep your steel eagle airborne instead of six feet under. We found it remarkable that despite having only slightly better-than-average graphics, our in-game memories from IL-2 were so vivid and life-like.
Weapon sounds and engine noises were very well mimicked, although we could have done without the carnival-sounding national anthems that looped over most of the main menus. And as is probably obvious, a decent flight stick is a must here. A word of warning to would-be flight aces – tweak your joystick settings to a less-sensitive control curve (you can research this at the official IL-2 Sturmovik forums) or you’ll be your air insurance carrier’s worst nightmare as you become intimately familiar with the concept of gravity, over and over again.