Much as aliens, laser weapons and extraterrestrial invasions are great, don’t you sometimes hanker after that ‘firmly waxed moustache’ sensibility? You know, the one that speaks with an RP voice and is generally to be seen wearing a scarf that’s blowing in the wind thanks to the effects of some sort of fast-moving motor vehicle. It’s not something that we get to indulge in all that much in console gaming. The Call Of Duty series may have those World War II scenes down, but you’re more likely to be crouching around in a sludgy field than anything else.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds Of Prey redresses this imbalance, letting you fly authentic WWII-era planes across six different theatres of war – so you get to cruise over the main conflict zones during some of the pivotal moments of the war, including the bombing of the Reichstag. There are 20 main story missions and an additional 50 standalone ones. While at first glance it’s the six game ‘chapters’ that split up the game’s core single-player experience, there’s actually a much more important division going on underneath.
Sims and consoles don’t quite go together as well as sims and PCs, which is where this series has its roots. IL-2 Sturmovik smoothes over this issue by giving you three different difficulty levels, only two of which could be described as anywhere near sim-like. Curiously, though, the game actually pushes you towards the arcade-like casual mode saying it’s the choice for ‘most players’, even though it’s quite at odds with what the game does best.
You control your plane primarily with the left analogue stick, while the right is used to change speed and for a spot of aerial ‘strafing’. While playing on the casual difficulty mode, you don’t have to worry about any unrealistic forces you may be putting on your plane – abuse that hunk of pre-Elvis junk as much as you like. Although this mode makes the game as accessible as any arcade-y flying game on console – in fact, it makes IL-2 Sturmovik feel rather like the Blazing Angels games – it doesn’t make the experience of flying particularly interesting.
With precious few limitations put on your plane, you’re left simply chasing dots since you’re also shown where you need to shoot to hit enemy planes as they fly and not just where they are in the sky. Yes, the planes still handle somewhat like the real thing, but to play IL-2 Sturmovikon this easiest mode isn’t to experience it anywhere to its fullest. In short, it you’re not looking to put a bit of effort into learning how to actually fly the game’s planes, you’re probably better off with Blazing Angels 2: Secret Missions Of WWII, a highly competent arcade-centric aerial blaster.
Step into one of the higher difficultly levels, which you actually have to work to do – by completing an hour or so of training missions – and the first thing you’ll probably do is to stall your plane, send it into a spin, hurtling towards terra firma at terminal velocity, and with terminal results. You have to put much more thought into your flying, which has several knock-on effects other than making controlling your plane a far richer experience.
Oddly, it makes you appreciate the game world far more. By making you slow down your movements rather than just letting you skip from one enemy target to the next, the more realistic difficult modes give you that extra modicum of time to take in the sights, and it actually makes a big difference. The world of IL-2 Sturmovikis much more like the real world than your average game. The view of England from a few thousand feet is just as you’d expect – fields and fields and more fields. In the fast casual mode, this dry environment doesn’t quite make sense. It can’t compete with the speed that you can take on the action, leading to you just ignoring the sights.
Step up the difficulty and the pieces slot together. You actually start feeling like you are actually a WWII fighter ace, and Sturmovik IL-2‘s attractions become clear. The visuals are quite beautiful in an understated way, with no discernable point where textures re-draw themselves as you get closer to the ground. Even just the clouds by themselves are worth marvelling at.
Check out the simulation mode, the game’s hardest difficulty, and the sim aspects get seriously impressive. Sure, it’ll be borderline unplayable for many players since you’re given virtually no aids; you have to actually scan the sky for enemies rather than using a radar and are locked into the two cockpit views, but the sense of immersion and realism is light years away from what you get in the casual mode. Your plane slows down and judders all over the place whenever you fire and lurches of the analogue stick can send you hurtling towards the ground like a lead paperweight attached to an anchor.
Much as we can appreciate the efforts put into Sturmovik IL-2, there remains a sense that it doesn’t quite fit into the Xbox 360’s and PS3’s roster entirely comfortably – and it seems like something the makers realised too, having put the casual mode at centre stage. It feels like a title that should really be being controlled with a joystick, yet such peripherals haven’t gained such wide popularity as wheels have in the console racing scene. While there are a dozen or more console racers, there’s still barely a handful of joystick-worthy aerial flying games.
Still, IL-2 Sturmovik is up there with Ace Combat 6 as one of the best flying games you can get for consoles – but it’s only particularly worth a purchase if you’re going to take off those training wings.