Would you rather have an accessible, no hassle control scheme with your flight combat game or a gruelingly realistic one? Regardless of your answer, IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey should have you covered. With a main campaign featuring missions from World War II conflicts stretching from the Battle of Britain in 1940 to the Battle of Berlin in 1945, online modes, and a selection of real-world fighters and bombers to pilot, the game offers quite a bit of content for flight fans. The additional layers of control could keep you busy for a second and third time through, as the differences between the basic arcade and realistic controls aren't just a few cosmetic tweaks, but dramatically change the experience.
Learning how everything works takes a little bit of practice, and anyone who might be terrified by the notion of realistic flight controls or games like the highly regarded PC IL-2 air combat sim
will be glad to find an extensive tutorial system built into the game. In it you'll learn the very basics of flying around with a controller, including how the left thumbstick handles your aircraft's general direction, the right thumbstick controls your airspeed and rudder, along with the various targeting, navigation and firing functions of the buttons, triggers, and D-pad. The arcade controls aren't all that complicated, so anyone new to the genre should be able to jump in and perform loops and other fancy flying maneuvers within a short while.
Dominating on Arcade Settings - Watch or download the video here (HD available).
Once the basic flight control tutorials are over, the game starts teaching you the important bits of combat. A nice feature in the arcade mode is a target selection ability, where pressing A will highlight potential prey. If that's the bogey you want to blast from the sky, you can pull down on the LT to swing the camera around and highlight where the target is. With LT still pressed the snap-to mode stays active, keeping your plane and your target in view simultaneously to make it easy to try and whirl around for the best shot or, at the very least, identify where the target is in the sky. It's a good idea to use this when you know there's a decent cushion of air between your plane and the ground, otherwise it's not too difficult to lose track of your altitude if your opponent decides to pull off some evasive maneuvers and fly around behind you. To avoid this problem, it's best to disengage the snap-to camera whenever you're unsure of your surroundings and get your bearings before trying again.
Also made easy is identifying the exact spot to fire on flying foes, since you naturally need to lead targets zipping through the air to score a hit. A targeting icon pops up in arcade mode to let you know precisely where to shoot once you've selected your prey, and you'll find planes in IL-2 respond fairly realistically. In other words, it doesn't take all that many shots to rip off the wing of a fighter plane, set its engines on fire, and send it tumbling helplessly towards the Earth. You'll see the pilots parachute out after a kill shot has been made, and the shredded plane won't just disappear in an explosion. The wreckage will continue to sail through the air, with flames flickering and smoke billowing all the way down to the ground, at which point it'll detonate into a satisfying ball of fire. If you want, you can fly along and watch every moment of your victim's demise, from the fatal shot in the sky to the final impact.
Struggling With Realistic Controls - Watch or download the video here (HD available).
If you're a more seasoned flight combat game type of player and happen to have something like the Ace Combat 6 Hori flight control stick, then you'll find that works with this game as well, as we plugged it in and got it working with a preview build of the game. Of course if you're like most console owners and don't have one of these things, the normal controller is quite functional for the arcade mode as well.
Weaving through and peppering formations of enemy aircraft isn't the only thing you'll learn in the tutorial mode, as it'll also get you acquainted with flying slower bombers and dropping their payloads onto stationary ground targets, as well as firing dumb rockets to wipe out trucks. Then there's the always nerve searing business of landing your craft on an airstrip, which at least in arcade is fairly painless. Just drop your landing gear, make sure you're not diving in at top speed and are horizontal to ground level, and setting down without incident shouldn't be much of an issue.
The tutorials continue on through the higher levels of the game's mechanics, including the types of orders you can issue to wingmates in the sky. These seem pretty standard – attack a target and regroup and the like – but should still prove useful in the more difficult missions. Once all that's clear it's time to check out the next step up in difficulty, the realistic setting, and that's where things get more interesting. By interesting, I mean way more challenging. Realistic difficulty is not for the casual flying fan, since it kicks off all the arcade mode training wheels and makes you consider how sharply you're turning in the sky as well as removing your aiming aid after targeting an enemy. Though you can still snap-to selected foes, you'll have to be far more mindful of your approach, since swinging around too abruptly will cause a stall.
Once stalled, your plane will start to corkscrew toward the ground in nauseating fashion. All isn't lost, however, as you can fiddle with the thumbsticks to gradually straighten out your trajectory and resume a path of flight that doesn't lead to fire and death. At this point though your orientation is going to be all out of whack, so you'll need to reevaluate enemy positions and plan a new angle of attack. This appears to be a difficulty setting for the more patient gamers out there seeking more of a challenge with their play, or something you might want to check out after clearing the main campaign content with arcade controls. You can also check out a video embedded in this article that gives a little bit of a window into how much more touchy the controls are in realistic compared to the arcade mode.
Failing on Simulator Difficulty - Watch or download the video here (HD available).
Let's say you've put your time into the realistic mode, got a feel for how it works and eventually mastered what it takes to pilot all the game's different craft under these more trying conditions. Then, just maybe, you might want to head into the ultra hardcore simulation mode. Here, almost all of the crutches in the other modes have been kicked off. You can't even switch away from the in-cockpit view, you have to fly and fight by sight, meaning by looking out the windows of your plane from a first-person pilot view, and you have to be extremely careful about how you handle turns and dives. As difficult as this mode is, hopping into the tutorial mission is a powerful reminder of the kind of suspension of disbelief you experience in arcade mode. The cockpit is shaking like a giant's using it as a speedbag as the mission begins, and the majority of your view is obscured and all that's keeping you from certain death is a tiny stick in front of you and you suddenly realize how precarious a position you're actually in. It's an experience as intimidating as it is terrifying, and while many might stay away from this mode and the learning curve is cliff face steep, it seems there's still plenty of depth here for anyone willing to put in the time.
There's also multiplayer. Up to 16 players can compete in four modes including dogfight, team battle, capture airfields, and strike and the player setting up the match can select any of the three difficulty settings. Other options for match tweaking include limiting the aircraft that can be selected by year, meaning you can set it so only planes available up to 1940 are available or all the way through 1945. The setting, from Dover to the coast of Sicily to Stalingrad, can be selected along with time of day, weather patterns, and whether or not you want fuel and ammo to be limited.
While there's still plenty more to check out in Birds of Prey, it's looking like a great product so far from Gaijin Entertainment and 1C, with some detailed visuals and a sweeping score and nice effects to back up the depth of control. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game will be available for purchase this September, so expect a full review around that time.
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