Let's face it; the PC combat flight sim has been in a pretty sorry state for the last decade or so. With the exception of the superlative IL-2 Sturmovik and the continued commitment of community-based games like Fighter Ace, we just aren't seeing many options for combat flight sim enthusiasts. If your tastes run towards the thrills or prop planes, there are even fewer titles to choose from. Even those gamers who took a chance with Pacific Fighters or Rise of Flight were left feeling less than satisfied. To help tide us over until the release of Battle of Britain later this year (we hope), Gaijin Entertainment has offered up Wings of Prey, a PC version of the recent console title IL-2 Birds of Prey.
Despite the unfortunate and confusing title of the game, Wings of Prey is surprisingly attractive both to arcade action junkies and to the hardcore TrackIR crowd. Naturally, in trying to please both camps, the game contains a fair number of compromises and concessions that are sure to cause aggravation at either end of the spectrum, but the flexibility and fidelity of the different flight models allows players of all skill levels to enjoy the game. The fact that the game pulls all this off while still managing to provide lots of historically appropriate content, first rate visuals and an easy path from novice to ace is even more incredible. On the downside, there are some basic functionality problems and an upper limit to the realism that's sure to aggravate hardcore players.
Wings of Prey is a bit of a survey sim, offering up a range of dozens of flyable planes and a few more you can (but won't bother to) purchase. While it's cool to share the sky with B17s, I-16s, Ju87s and Hurricanes, some gamers may be a bit bothered that the campaign is focused on only a narrow range of flyable planes. I'll forego my usual rant about the lack of any Pacific Theater action and instead just complain about the campaign's focus on the Allied side of things. Sure, it's nice to try the Spitfires and Mustangs and Sturmoviks, but eventually you'll start wondering what the War looks like from the cockpits of the 109s and 202s.
The campaign plays out in a succession of chapters that each only last a few missions. Gamers will begin during the Battle of Britain, then move on to Stalingrad, Sicily, Korsun, the Bulge and Berlin. You'll have to play the whole thing through in order, which might rankle some gamers, but it definitely helps to present a sort of continuity for the War. Unfortunately, the story elements within each chapter are pretty thin, so you won't be invested in more than the action itself as you move from one mission to the next. The small unlocks are nice, but are really only useful to newcomers who need to learn the basics of energy management and plane performance.
Outside of the main campaign, there are loads of single missions and a very quick mission creator that will finally give you a chance to climb into the cockpit of the German and Italian planes. Like the campaign missions, these have fairly narrow objectives -- CAP, ground strike, recon, etc. -- but the benefit is that the time you spend flying around waiting for something to happen is fairly minimal.
Wings of Prey does offer up the same multiplayer options that were found in the console versions but it's all played through the yuplay.com service which is giving me loads of connection problems. The console multiplayer modes are enjoyable but seem designed to cater more towards the arcade crowd. Having seen some of the issues that are being raised in the game's forums, it seems like the more vocal players are able to connect but are encountering lots of lag.
Wings of Prey comes with a few different flight models and they're each satisfying on their own. The relaxed realism and copious visual aids of the arcade mode let new players jump right in and get a feel for the awesome geometries and rhythms of air combat without having to worry about all the little details. On the other end of the spectrum, the simulation mode caters to hardcore pilots who like the challenge of worrying about prop settings, G-limits and radiator temperatures. The enemy AI seems to have a good grasp for e-management but after a few days of playing, I'm still not sure I've seen any scissors. The modeling at all levels allows for the expected performance differences between the various planes, but the absence of stall indicators makes it tough to really connect with what's going on with the plane.
As good as the modeling is, there are some issues that are going to frustrate the hardcore crowd. Being forced to start the missions in the air is a deal breaker for a large proportion of sim enthusiasts, and is particularly inappropriate during some of the missions. Call us weird, but half the fun of scrambling to intercept Ju87s over the Channel is getting off the ground and climbing as fast and efficiently as possible. Granted, this is not an activity that screams excitement to the vast majority of gamers, but it's integral to the hardcore experience. The same is true of landing after sorties, but that's purely optional as well. This is clearly a matter of taste however, as some gamers prefer to get right to the shooting bits. There are other small niggles, like having virtual cockpits in full simulation mode, but these can be ignored as you wish.
Controls are generally responsive but I was also unable to get my trim functions to work properly which left me wrestling with some serious torque rolls in some of the high horsepower single prop planes and, strangely, with the A20. I was also unable to create a custom profile within the game for my Saitek X45, but there are plenty of pre-loaded options for other, more current stick and yoke setups. You can check the game's forums to see if your setup is fully supported. (For the record, yes, I know I am behind the times in terms of hardware, but I simply haven't found anything that I like as much as the trusty X45. Stick twist is evil.)
The most impressive aspect of Wings of Prey's visual presentation is the terrain. While the planes, the lighting and damage modeling usually get most of the credit for a sim's appearance, the actual quality of the ground and water has a lot to do with the overall believability of the experience. Here, you'll find yourself flying over beautiful fields dotted with rolls of hay and small farmhouse, zipping down city streets between rows of detailed houses, and even skimming over small waves that convincingly reflect the world around you. Atmospheric effects are also very well done. I particularly like the night missions that have searchlights cutting through the sky. All the lighting elements are fantastic here, especially the subtle shading and tinting of the voluminous clouds.
On top of that, Wings of Prey also pays a lot of attention to the planes themselves. The self-shadowing planes, the oil splotches on the Perspex, the 3D cockpits, smoke trails from damaged engines, the splashes from ditching, all work to make this a truly remarkable visual achievement. Watching tracer fire walk its way onto a bomber and then seeing bits and pieces fly off as fire and smoke begins to pour out of the engines will have even the most simuphobic eager to give it a try.
Better still, it actually runs quite well at 1920x1080 with all the details cranked. Of course, I'm running on a quad core processor with 4GB of RAM and a 2GB video card, but the scaling options allow you to suit the game to your hardware.
The game's sounds can be a bit hit or miss for me. I love the music and the effects but the volume levels seem inconsistent in and out of the cockpit. The radio chatter can be pretty convincing at times, but it tends to occasionally pile up, which can be a bit repetitive.
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