You’ve been chasing the enemy ace for ten minutes with your engine running hot from being pushed too hard and too long. Fuel is running low and ammunition even lower but you’ve finally got the drop on your foe. His German-made fighter can out-turn and out-gun your British crate but you have altitude and surprise in your favor.
You’ve stayed above the clouds, gradually closing the gap after sighting him a while back, staying in his blind spots and inching ever closer. When you’re on top of him you strike, dropping through the clouds and banking so hard your plane threatens to stall; you wrestle it back on course and dive in at his seven o’clock, all guns blazing, your last hundred rounds rake across his wings as you tear past his rear. Glancing back, the bounder banks to begin the chase, unaffected by the pounding; then suddenly, a wobble; then a shake; his wings cut to Swiss cheese and his aerodynamics shot to hell, the German pilot begins to spin.
The plane spirals Earthwards as the pilot tries to wrestle it under control; it even looks as if he might pull out, the moment before his right wing is torn free by G-force and the plane nosedives into His Majesty’s Great British countryside. Winston Churchill pats you on the back saying “well done, son” while a British bulldog barks the national anthem and you sip a nice cup of tea. When you get a kill in IL-2 Sturmovik, you earn it.
Before IL-2, all we knew about Second World War air combat was that guns go “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA” and crashing German pilots scream “AIEEEEE!” and “GOTT IM HIMMEL!”. Now we’ve learned by heart all of the greatest dogfights during the Battle of Britain, that the power/weight ratio of WWII bombers was screwy, and that you can force a bomber to leg it by destroying just one wing’s engine. We know that a plane ends up in a spin if a single wing stalls, and that a spin is more difficult to recover from than any total stall.
We know that banking too hard is a recipe for both a partial and total stall, and know now that an object flying at 10,000 feet isn’t a stable rock, but a precariously-balanced machine in danger of dropping like a stone at any given moment. We know the best place to shoot a plane is the fuel tank, engine, wings, or pilot seat and that air combat in ‘41 must have been bloody terrifying, seat-of-your-pants stuff. Respect. IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is as much a simulation of WWII air combat as Forza 3 is of racing. A modified port of a seminal PC title, this is the only flying game on console which treats planes like planes – every part of every aircraft and every reaction in the air is modeled with the same rapt attention to detail the Forza team lavish on their Ferraris and Aston Martins.
This iteration of the series has already earned premature sneers from the PC hardcore but the console version of IL-2 Sturmovik wraps the PC’s flawless handling model within a beautiful new engine which makes flying a joy in itself. Like taking a car for a spin around the track in a sim racer, it’s fun soaring about just for the thrill of flying under Sturmovik’s real-life rules and taking in the astonishing sights.
It’s a bare-boned game though; beautiful in action but bland in menus and short on additional options – no co-op, no replays, and stark presentation throughout – but it’s a game made by the smallest of teams more accustomed to working on PC than console. In the transition it’s lost a number of planes and dropped the brilliant mission editor, but the in-air action has never been better. Sturmovik has been tested to death by thousands of PC gamers over hundreds of thousands of games and it’s not until now the series really nailed the balance between accessibility and the handling which initially made Sturmovik so acclaimed.
It’s as hardcore as you want it to be, too. Arcade difficulty makes Birds of Prey as accessible as Blazing Angels or Ace Combat, with simple controls and a plane which proves impossible to stall in even the tightest turns. It’s still a smarter, more tactical, and more exciting game than AC6 or Angels, but the physics are simplified and planes have a basic energy bar which can be depleted with a decent well-placed burst.
Step up to Realistic or the near-suicidal Simulation setting and it’s a different world. Every plane takes skill to pilot and every shot takes time to line up; once you finally have a bead on the enemy they soak up ten times the damage, with only hits on critical parts downing planes quickly. The damage model for both sides changes – enemies can pummel you with rounds and still your plane will limp on, the handling becoming rougher, turning becoming slower, your engine gushing smoke and oil.
You’ll pound your enemies with hundreds of bullets before you realize that ‘Realistic’ means realistic – bullet holes in an empty fuselage will do nothing but give the pilot air conditioning, but just a mere handful of bullets into the engine or fuel tank will instantly end his life or send him reaching for the parachute.
On consoles, using a controller, Realistic is the right setting for Sturmovik, eliminating Sim mode’s high-end plane maintenance but still making every dogfight a war which can be won or lost by more than bad aim or poor steering. You’re suddenly aware of how unnatural it is to be so high in the sky and of how fragile you are in these wafer-thin flying crates. It takes a delicate touch to out-maneuver planes which match or trump you in aerial combat – crank the analogue stick too far and you’ll end up in a flat spin; turn too gently and he’ll be on your tail in seconds. Gut reactions are vital.
If it all sounds somewhat daunting you’ll be surprised by the skills you may already have. It’s the same kind of brain work you employ taking a corner in a sim racer, entering the corner slowly so you can leave more quickly; you weigh your options and balance risk with reward. Will he take you on this corner if you slow too soon? Will you stall your plane if you bank too hard?
Birds of Prey’s biggest surprise is just how manageable it all is and how naturally you can take to it with just a few hours of fighting. Once you’ve got to grips with it, you’ll flick a switch in your brain and realize Sturmovik isn’t about downing 40 planes one after another, but four planes in sustained steel-jawed dogfights which leave wings in tatters and engines gushing smoke. Reality freed from the danger of sudden and agonizing death makes every engagement a Boys’ Own adventure you write yourself, where every hard-won kill is meaningful. During the course of a long campaign and a further 50 bonus missions which chart the entire course of the Second World War you’ll build your own catalogue of war stories. That story from the start really happened and it’s just one of dozens of tales worth telling.
IL-2 Sturmovik was already the greatest combat flight sim ever made, and Birds of Prey makes it prettier and more manageable without losing what makes Sturmovik... Sturmovik. Even with a handful of unfortunate omissions it’s the best air combat game we’ve ever got to grips with, and the best possible start to a franchise which deserves by rights to be as long-lived on console as it is on PC.
Sep 2, 2009