IGN Review of IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
You're swooping down through the clouds upon unsuspecting Axis bombers, unloading bursts of fire from your wing-mounted machine guns as you try to defend your home turf. Arcs of smoke from debilitated craft stretch across the sky as fighters buzz in a mosquito cloud and below the bombs burst, setting ablaze the countryside you're working to protect. In 1C and Gaijin Entertainment's IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, a console version of the acclaimed PC series, the intensity of World War II-era aerial battles is convincingly delivered with a nod to historical realism and atmosphere not generally seen in console-only flight games. There's no gimmick to try and lure players in. It's just solid flight mechanics, plenty of missions in nicely modeled, real-life planes, and a surprising amount of depth across the game's difficulty modes.
If you've been away from flight games for quite a while, here's how Birds of Prey fits in. This isn't like HAWX or Ace Combat 6 – it's more in line with Blazing Angels to a degree. It's set in World War II's European theatre, and therefore you won't be dealing with something like missile locks and evasion and futuristic fantasy elements. Your primary weapons are your machine guns for air-to-air battles, and since they're only effective at close range, knowledge of flight maneuvers really helps out. Thankfully Il-2 makes all this clear through in-game menus, where you'll find descriptions of combat tactics as well as general information to keep in mind when engaged in battle. You don't want to attack bombers from the rear, for instance, because then their tailgunners can more easily tag you with bullets. Instead, you want to hit them from the flanks and strafe their formation, and it's always better to approach from above so they don't see you coming.
One of Il-2's biggest strengths is the sheer variety of play it offers. If you don't know anything about flying games but have always been curious, the Arcade difficulty setting in Birds of Prey is a simple enough thing to understand. The controls are very forgiving, and with them you should be able to breeze through the main campaign with little to no issue, which in turn lets you unlock more planes, weapon loadouts, and informative articles. If you bump it up to the Realistic, things change dramatically. All of a sudden your plane is shaking when the machine guns fire, throwing off your aim. You can stall in midair if your movements are too sudden, and you must display a far greater degree of patience and determination when tangling with the game's challenges. On Simulator mode things get truly hardcore, as you're locked to the in-cockpit and gunner views and have all your radar assists and icons turned off meaning you must fly and kill largely by sight and sound. Though you do get the assistance of a pop-up overhead map, this mode is seriously challenging, so much so you'll probably want to have a flight stick handy (I used the Hori Are Combat 6 stick).
It's a safe bet to assume not all players want to recreate a more realistic flying experience and strain their eyes to spot enemies. For those people, the Arcade setting exists for all multiplayer and single-player elements, so you never have to touch the more difficult stuff if you don't want to. On the other hand, those who are more interested in a simulation experience with a heightened degree of immersion, with checking flight instruments from an in-cockpit view, using clouds as cover, setting trim to fly level and taking great care in not just the combat but the flying itself, Birds of Prey offers plenty for console owners. Cranking the difficulty doesn't just make you weaker or your enemies more powerful and aggressive, it alters the gameplay entirely.
Regardless of which mode you're interested in, things begin in a tutorial to teach you the basics of movement and combat. You then unlock the campaign, which until the Realistic and Simulator training missions are completed, is only playable on Arcade. It features some solid voice over work that provides context for various battles throughout World War II. While attempts at establishing a sense of character with individual pilots is made, it isn't pulled off with any great measure of success. A real draw here is the convincing atmosphere the game is able to conjure thanks to some great plane and damage models, a combination of the game's audio and visual elements, and the backing of a powerful orchestral score courtesy of Jeremy Soule (Guild Wars, Oblivion).
It's a thrill to fly across frozen Russian fields, over the smoking metropolitan sprawl of Berlin and the shimmering waters off the coast of Sicily, as the expansive landscapes on which the shadows of clouds slowly pass are recreated with a striking realism. While they may not be the flashiest visuals out there, the terrain has a natural look, with rolling hills and patchworks of farms and clusters of buildings that constitute towns and cities that radiate authenticity. The same goes for the detailed plane models and the way they come apart. Bullets rip holes in your wings which are permanent until you're shot down. Engines whirr and whine during midair passes amidst the metallic chatter of machine guns, and a collision tears a wing clean off your craft as the rest hurtles uselessly toward a fiery end on the ground below. Enemies leave behind long tails of smoke when hit, which in Simulator mode can prove quite useful, but otherwise just adds to the overall sense of immersion Il-2 is able to generate.
The tasks presented in the campaign aren't anything surprising. You'll have to take out fighters, protect some bombers, shoot down others, drop bombs on tanks and trucks and ships at sea, and occasionally get a secondary objective to land at an airstrip. You'll also routinely get a few wingmen that you can use to target specific enemies. While there's nothing novel there, the atmosphere of the game and the excellent controls help make each challenge a joy to take on. Even if the story presentation with its chunks of voice over and occasional clip of war footage isn't particularly memorable and the screams of wingmen and enemies can get annoyingly repetitive, the number of fighters onscreen in many cases and a sense you're playing a part in a much larger conflict is strongly and effectively conveyed, making even mundane tasks seem exciting.
There are limits to that, however, which become apparent in the single missions that unlock as you move through the campaign. For instance, it's not exactly exhilarating for the goal of an entire mission to simply be surveying a number of friendly targets. This would cater more to someone who prefers the Simulator difficulty setting and derives satisfaction from effectively controlling a virtual aircraft. For everyone else, there are other more exciting challenges to be taken on in the single missions that add plenty of variety to the overall experience, and which can be made even more difficult by tweaking options for limited ammunition and fuel. Other extras include rich historical write-ups concerning each aircraft in the game, specific battles, and a wide range of other topics that should more than sufficiently educate new players not only to the mechanics of flight combat games, but of World War II in general. If you're willing to actually read some text, this can be an educational game, and one that doesn't take its World War II setting for granted.
With a wide range of bombers and fighters at your disposal, all with a different feel and handling, Il-2 gives you the opportunity to head into one-off training missions as well. Here you can adjust a range of sliders like number of enemies, their difficulty level, weather conditions, and weapon loadouts so you can get a feel for each before testing out other missions at higher difficulty settings. When you're comfortable enough, then you can head online to compete in the game's four competitive modes with support for up to 16 players. You get a basic free for all deathmatch, a team deathmatch, and then two more unique modes. In Capture Airfields, the goal is for your team to land on runways in the midst of a skirmish. The catch is that the opponent is trying to do the same, and can blast your craft into fiery bits as you try to slow for impact and get your landing gear down in time. In Strike, both teams attempt to bomb targets in two different fields. The best idea here would be to have fighters escort the slower bombers to the target areas, while another group of fighters hang back to protect your home turf. With leaderboards that track statistics and the ability to set multiplayer modes to any of the three difficulty settings, this multiplayer suite is a bit on the no frill side of things, but still gives players the opportunity to utilize all their flight skills learned offline in much more intense competition against real opponents. Unfortunately, unless you're in a party moving through matches, the game just boots everyone else once the action concludes.
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