World War II is an exceptionally common ground for video games, and with so many fronts, there's bound to be one that hasn't been explored — like the one right above the heads of almost all of the Call of Duty series. Air superiority, in many ways, was what brought victory to the Allied forces, there's no shortage of legends that are associated with the planes. Casting you as one of many Allied pilots, Sturmovik sends the player through a sort of "best of" of the war, with several neat ideas and some insane levels of polish and detail.
The game currently offers 12 different playable Allied fighters and bombers, fighting on six major fronts of the war across a total of 50 missions. These missions tend to be a "best of" collection, so rather than try to represent real combat sorties with details might not be possible to accurately discern, the developers instead produced a mix of well-known air battles based on the kinds of fights you might actually encounter. One example scenario has you and a team of fighters trying to stop what initially appeared to be eight bombers, but rapidly is revealed as a large-scale aerial invasion of a British-controlled harbor. Missions often end up with side objectives, such as when a few enemy planes split off to hit a side target.
Ultimately, each scenario, once passed, boils down to a score. There are no detailed narratives that shift based on how you did, but you'll receive plenty of bonuses for achievements like not losing planes, saving the pilots if you do lose planes, and clearing maps very quickly. The scoring system detailed enough to be enjoyable competitively, but the game can also be played in three majorly different modes, which also serve as difficulty levels.
Arcade mode turns off the ammo and fuel limits and offers highly floaty physics. Simulation mode gives you realistic limits and forces you to fly very accurately to realistic techniques; stalling is a very real concern in this mode. Realistic mode offers a midpoint, giving you more generous supplies of ammo and fuel, and allowing you to move in a more arcade style while still making you vulnerable to stalling. Even the camera gets in on the act — Arcade and Realistic modes offer you the ability to have a third-person, cockpit or "targeting" view, where the interface is minimized and lets you get more accurate shots at the expense of not being able to pay attention to anything around you. This series has had many previous iterations on the PC and is thus holding to tradition.
The game's quality of presentation may bring the biggest wows of all. With a solid 30 frames per second, the amount of detail is almost reminiscent of a war film. Notably, the developers combined air photographs of actual war battlegrounds with modern satellite imagery of the same areas to produce extremely detailed grounds. During our E3 demo, I almost swore that I could see branches on each tree, even from the long distances enforced by the game's camera views.
The planes are even more detailed — especially when you hit them and see the bullet holes, the mechanics and structural supports behind the bullet holes, the ground on the other side of the bullet holes, and the shrapnel created by, well, the bullet holes. I was promptly shown that the damage doesn't just look pretty, but seriously impacts your ability to fly, as the bullet holes screwed up one wing just enough to send me spiraling into a crash. I quickly paused the game and chose the "Bailout" option, with my character getting out of the plane and using a parachute. (No, you can't shoot the falling pilots.)
Even this realism ended up with some limits, though; when fighting in Berlin, you would see individual cars, but not any moving traffic or civilians. The dev admitted that this was partially a ratings issue but also noted that such detailed levels would be essentially pointless in actual play. He then guided me up to the clouds, which are not only very, very pretty, but also very valuable as cover, allowing you to easily get the drop on opponents.
The developers didn't reveal much about the game's multiplayer because they still have to firm up many of the details, such as whether you'll be able to use Axis planes in competitive play. What they did offer, though, was tantalizing indeed: 16 players online and some sort of local mode. They mentioned multiple multiplayer modes and hope to offer some exceptional dogfights as a result.
They only demonstrated the 360 version but provided a few details about the other versions as well. The PS3 version should be mostly identical to the 360 version, and while the DS version was initially conceived as a very different, 2-D game, they decided to see how realistic they could go within the limitations of the console and hope to impress audiences with the result. The PSP edition will highly emphasize arcade play, with two-player ad-hoc and 40 planes to fly.
Good flight simulations can be a very rare breed indeed on a console, and IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey looks like it will pass many a gamer's expectations with flying colors, especially by offering the arcade and simulation modes. 505 Games may just have a hit on their hands with this title.
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