Ace Combat 6 really didn't need a flight stick to play it, but now it looks like that there is a game that could actually make having one worth the price.
The original IL2-Sturmovik was released in 2001 on PCs and has been regarded by many players as one of the definitive WWII flight sims to have ever been released. Over the years, additional add-ons have increased its impressive arsenal to over more than 200 flyable aircraft, and it's entertained armchair WWII aces with even more missions to earn their wings both on- and offline. Although flight games haven't exactly been rare on consoles, with the arcade action of Namco Bandai's Ace Combat 6 and Ubisoft's own WWII-themed Blazing Angels, IL2-Sturmovik's reputation succeeds in bringing a more serious, sim-oriented approach to the table.
IL2-Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is named after the Soviet IL2-Sturmovik, called by some "the Flying Tank," which helped check the tide of the Third Reich's advance in the skies over the Eastern Front in WWII. Luftwaffe pilots feared it for its toughness and firepower, and the Wehrmacht dreaded its air-to-ground attack capabilities, although the console version doesn't so much as concentrate on the Eastern Front as it delivers the entire war whittled down to small battles excerpted from history. You get to fly one in the game, but would-be pilots also get to handle a few others in their fights against the Luftwaffe.
The storytelling mixes together gruff voice narration with historical vignettes and authentic war footage for an experience that may appeal more to armchair historians than to players who are eager to clip the wings off enemy planes. You won't find a CG Ben Affleck fighting for Britain or caricatured Germans waiting in the skies overhead. Its low-key approach can give this part of the presentation a cheap feel, but the information that it shares is impressive.
Rather than feature a single pilot's story, Birds of Prey includes fictional excerpts from each theater. Between each major battle theater, period film footage is played while the narrator fills in the details for the next fight, such as Stalingrad or the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi Germany's last major offensive in the West. It's great stuff for armchair historians, but everyone else might feel as if they're watching a lecture.
Making up for the lack of visual flair elsewhere, the battle damage is very impressive, leaving holes and scarred paint in its wake, with a broken wing tearing away from a corkscrewing fighter as it falls to the earth and oil splattering the cockpit as you fly through a black plume of smoke. Bullets leave trails behind them, massive clouds of smoke rise up above burning streets, and just about every plane in the game has a unique cockpit filled with authentic details.
Birds of Prey makes you go through a mandatory tutorial mode before you can take to the skies, although the lessons remain firmly grounded in the game's serious spirit. There aren't any stunt bonuses for flying beneath bridges, and there aren't giant zeppelins, fanciful weapons or upgradeable planes either. You'll fly with what you're given for a particular mission, although what the enemy will throw at you can wildly vary. A training mode is also available, allowing the player to craft his own challenges down to what kind of planes that he wants to face.
At first, unless you work to play through the other tutorial missions, the control difficulty for the game is set to Arcade, which gives the player a lot of bonus help in the way of visual cues, friendlies (highlighted indicators and arrows show where they are, and a radar shows your position in relation to everyone else) and a simplified control scheme.
An aim assist also indicates where you should lead your shots, but you'll still need to work for them, since accuracy is everything here. Bullets won't home in on targets simply being close enough. In a game that can determine whether your shots killed the pilot instead of the plane engine, even using the "zoom in" feature to help eyeball your aim isn't a guarantee, but perhaps people with HDTVs may have an advantage in this area.
In addition to this, you can set how many times you can retry a mission, allowing you to respawn immediately after dying, or whether you will need to worry about fuel and ammo. It's everything that most every other sim on the current gen consoles has offered, although the in-mission respawn is certainly generous. Players, especially new pilots who may have never played a sim quite like this, will find this to be a welcome feature that will help them break them into the game without being frightened off.
The Realistic difficulty level removes a few of the training wheels that the Arcade difficulty level provides. For one thing, stalls are now possible, which can put your plane into an uncontrolled spin unless you manage to recover, which isn't as easy as simply tilting the stick up or pushing a button. It's something you have to work at, much like the aiming now that the lead assist has also been taken away.
Even the feel of flying the plane changes with the Realistic difficulty. Simply working the tail rudder to steer the plane horizontally left and right is no longer as easy as pushing the right thumbstick in the direction that you want to go because the plane now tends to roll from the engine torque. The sharp turns, twists and dives that the Arcade mode makes so easy can now be as deadly as bullets if you're not careful. Even the damage model is more realistic, degrading the performance of your plane with enough holes in the right places.
The Simulation difficulty level kicks off the training wheels completely. Everything is taken away from the player that shouldn't be in a cockpit (aside from the omniscient map) because that's all you'll have to fly with. All of that detailed eye candy will be the only way that you'll have to gauge how high you are or how quickly you are going before you hit the ground, making this the most challenging mode to play the game with.
The two best pieces of equipment that you have to work with are now in your head. Looking out through the cockpit's crosshairs and the sides of its canopy will also be the only way to find and aim at your targets, or tell friends from foes. This mode makes owning a flight stick even more worthwhile because the gamepad really feels like a liability at this point. For a console game, it does an admirable job of bringing over some of that "PC" feel.
Eventually, you'll get a few friends on your wing, although you're stuck with the AI because there's no Xbox Live-supported co-op. Using the d-pad, you can order them to cover your back, attack targets, fall into formation or attack objectives as you see fit, and the AI does a decent job without making things too easy. It also has a habit of living through most anything that is thrown at it, so its relative lack of skill is an excuse to have you do most of the work.
There are two to five missions for each key battle in the single-player campaign, and the gameplay length is largely dependent on what kind of control scheme you use. On the default Arcade mode, most pilots should be able to wrap up the game in a weekend.
Most of the missions will require you to basically follow orders as they are transmitted to you in the field, depending on the changing battle conditions. You can even use the d-pad to answer "yes" or "no," although there was only one point in the game where this actually mattered. Many of the jobs run the typical gamut of escort, defense and offensive missions, and there are only a couple of instances where you'll be working against the clock to destroy certain enemies. For the most part, the game is forgiving enough so that you can afford to chase and shoot down other targets outside of your objective in case you feel the need for practice.
Online multiplayer is somewhat empty during the day, although the evening hours provided a few more pilots who were ready to mix it up in the four game types. Dogfight pits everyone against each other, Team Dogfight does the same thing but with teams, and Strike has both teams attacking the opponent's ground targets while defending their own. Capture the Airport is a unique type of mode where players need to fly down and land at an airport to capture it, much like a flag-based objective map. The more airports that have been captured by your side, the more "tickets," or points, that you'll be able to earn.
Along with the difficulty level (Arcade, Realism or Simulation), plane types can be determined by the host, and once everyone readies up, the fun starts. Unfortunately, there is some lag online that can result in watching planes skip, but the overall impression that I had was of smooth sailing, which may have been because of the six players who were in the game instead of the possible maximum total of 16. Finding anyone to play with online was a trial, probably given the title's niche as a more-serious flight sim without the missile spam.
There are also a few technical quirks. At one point, a mission "broke," leaving me without the next objective, and a sunken ship's machine gun fire could still be heard over the site where it went down. Restarting the game fixed it, but the title had a few other rough edges. Paging through the hangar to view unlocked planes forces the game to load each time a new one is brought up. It's quite a chore because searching for online material launches the intro movie every time, and why does the title feel the need to save while I'm searching for game types online?
IL2-Sturmovik: Birds of Prey isn't for everyone, especially not players who expect this to be the next Crimson Skies or to fill in for the next Ace Combat. Its emphasis on traditional dogfighting without frills, along with its low-key presentation, may seem a little dry alongside Jeremy Soule's stirring soundtrack, but the realistic bent of its flight mechanics and gameplay will find an audience among flight sim enthusiasts and would-be WWII pilots who want a reason to plug a flightstick into their console.
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