Inside Pulse 12

Review: IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (Microsoft Xbox 360)

il-2 coverIL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Flight Sim
Release Date: 09/08/2009

IL-2 Sturmovik long ago established itself as a giant in the field of PC Flight Sims. However there is virtually no money to be made anymore when it comes to PC Flight Sims, and there is this whole virtually untapped market for flying games called the home console. With that, an idea was spawned. 505 decided to port the game over to the 360 and PS3, then profit!

There are only a few problems with that plan. Firstly, IL-2 was on the deep end of simulators, and second, simulators don’t really do all that well on the consoles. Anyway, let’s see how they did.

Story:

Birds of Prey gives you a look at a few different theatres of World War 2. You will, through the eyes of various pilots, experience what it was like to defend Britain from the Blitz, fight off the Germans over Stalingrad, fly cover for Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily), then help relieve the 101st Airborne by blunting the last offensive gasp of the Wehrmarcht, and finally driving a stake into the heart of Nazi Germany by taking Berlin.

Unlike previous games in the genre, there is no single pilot telling the story and experiencing the entire war, although they did choose to have one single person voice the “Journal Excerpts” which are shown after each mission is successfully completed. It makes the game feel more like a documentary than a fictional story.

I think the uniqueness of this campaign mode is how little story there is. You aren’t conveniently flying over Pearl Harbor as your brother dies on board the Arizona, thus igniting a burning flame of revenge. You aren’t some superhero in the cockpit. Instead you are a variety of average Joes who are worried about their relatives, their friends and their comrades in arms. I think it’s a nice change of pace.

Graphics:

How can I put this? A rain storm over England never looked so good. There are some hitches, some places where a little more development time would have been handy, and some occasions where trying to look realistic made the game unplayable, but on the whole this is an excellent looking game.
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So let’s talk about the hitches. Firstly, don’t play this on a standard definition TV. It just was not designed to be played on one. It looks great on a HDTV, but SD is not an option. You’ll be squinting the whole time. Secondly, the colors chosen for enemy targets very often blend into the surrounding area. This means that if the plane is camouflaged, you aren’t likely to see it. I don’t object to enemies being difficult to see if that is what you are going for, but if you include in the options a targeting system, at least make it visible.

This actually plays into another problem I had. You’re not always going to be fighting enemy planes. There are more than a few missions which involve you hunting down tanks. Sadly these tanks are realistically represented, and so you’ll have a difficult time spotting them while flying overhead at 400 miles an hour, with or without that targeting system. Tiny tanks plus fast plane equals what the hell am I supposed to be shooting?

All of these little things don’t take away from how good looking this game is. While flying over a town you’ll notice it’s an actual town, not just a few random buildings. In the Battle of Britain you’ll be flying over a beautiful version of Southern England. It’s so good looking, and the developers knew it was so good looking, that they included two missions where all you have to do is fly from point A to point B just looking around.

Audio:

I wish I could praise the audio as much as I praised the graphics and story, but I can’t. The developers chose to use the same bit of looped music for much of the menus, meaning it gets really irritating impossibly fast. Just that one theme, re-used over and over. During the credits you hear a much longer, full version of the music, which was composed by Jeremy Soule and is actually quite pleasant in its non looped version. Lastly if you crash and fail a mission you will hear a little bit of piano playing a somber tune, but that’s all.

The audio isn’t all bad, fortunately. In a game where you are flying with American, British and Russian aviators against German and Italians enemies, it’s nice to hear all of those accents portrayed in a non-racist fashion. Sure some of the enemy voices sound a tiny bit….feminine, but you try getting shot to pieces and not crying out for mother. Sadly there are only a few voices per each nation, and so you’ll really start to feel as though you’ve been shooting down the same people over and over again.

The voice work for the after mission diary reports is done by a elderly British gentleman, possibly an actual participant in the Battle of Britain (I’m sorry I looked in the credits but could not find his name). And when he is speaking for the British he sounds excellent. Strangely though when he speaks for the Russians or Americans he starts speaking with their accents. It’s not awful, but it is a bit distracting. Fortunately you never hear him during actual gameplay, so have no fear of crashing into the ocean while trying to figure out why this elderly British chap is suddenly trying to sound like he comes from the Bronx.

While airborne you will hear a lot of things. For example if you are flying over a British airbase during a raid you will hear the air-raid sirens going off. If you fly over a plane which just crashed you will be able to hear the flames crackling.

The game also tries to help you determine when it’s best to shoot. If you’re behind an enemy the game will have one of your squadron mates demand to know what you’re waiting for, or something along those lines. Kind of handy when you may not be able to determine friend from foe.

Gameplay/Controls:

As I said at the start of this review, IL-2 is among the elite flying simulations on the PC market today. As such the decision to port the game to the consoles seemed like a risky move. After all the list of games that started life as a PC game and then successfully migrated over to a console is rather small. Throw in just how realistic IL-2 is and you have to ask yourself how they could possibly fit all of those controls onto a 360 controller. But the developers apparently thought of that, and so they developed a control scheme to allow all types of gamers to enjoy their product. Then they went and loosened up the physics controlling their world to allow for different levels of gameplay.

il-2aWhat results are three distinct styles of play: Arcade, Realistic and Simulation. Arcade I can best describe as riding a tricycle with training wheels on. You can fly around and do just about anything other than crash into the ground or enemy planes without repercussions. The plane will assist you when you are about to stall, and will help guide your bullets towards their target. In essence you are flying about using a modern Heads Up Display while flying on Arcade.

Realistic is where the developers start to take some of the kid gloves off. You can now stall the plane quite easily, and send the plane into a fatal spin even more easily. In fact I found the controls so twitchy in this mode that I had to go into the settings and crank the sensitivity down to 1/3 of their original. Rockets are no longer guided, nor do you get the game telling you where you should be pointing your guns in order to successfully hit a moving target, you have to do this on your own. I’ll put it this way. This mode is so realistic that if you fly too close to another plane, you can lose control and crash, just because you flew through that planes propeller wash.

Simulation is the final style of gameplay, and it is also the hardest. Where the developers allowed you in Arcade and Realistic to fly along behind the plane or from a nose view along with in the cockpit, Simulation has you flying in the cockpit. You can switch to nose view but that is all, and it defaults back to in cockpit view if you happen to open the map. No behind the aircraft option is available. The control scheme is also changed when flying in this mode. You now must take control of the planes control surfaces, like the flaps, and set the correct trim for flying. Targets are no longer marked, and forget about computer assistance. It’s all you now. The one problem I had with this mode, aside from the difficulty of spotting enemies, making sure they were enemies and the dog fighting with them, was the need to use the right analog stick as both your throttle, rudder AND your free look stick. As you can imagine being forced to keep your head on a swivel while looking for enemies can be a chore when you have to keep pressing the analog stick in and then moving it around to see.

I must admit that I was having real difficulty with all three modes for a while there. Arcade was ok but having your plane skid around the sky like a tuned up Civic can occasionally make you feel like you are driving and not flying. Realistic was twitchy as hell, and Simulation, well, that was a mode too far in my book. But then I set about conquering Realistic. I tried being as delicate as a bee landing on a flower. That didn’t work. I tried lowering the sensitivity by half, and that almost worked. I knew I was onto something. So after lowering the sensitivity once more to a third, I found a level of control that I could accept. It was still a challenge to dogfight, but nobody ever said that was easy now did they.

I feel I should also describe my feelings on Arcade mode. I mention that there are times when you feel like you are driving and not flying. I’ll explain what I mean. While flying the P-51 on Arcade, I discovered that the plane would not roll correctly, or at least not how I’ve been led to believe the plane can maneuver. So when I would try to get my weapons on target I would often find myself rolling across the sky in some uncontrollable barrel roll as the computer tried to compensate for me turning the plane. This is on Arcade mode here, so it’s not like I was stalling out the plane and going into a spin. No this was the computer thinking the plane was doing something it couldn’t. As a result of this fight between me and the computer I came to the impression that they don’t want you to fly the plane on Arcade, they want you to drive it, in as straight a line as possible, from point A to point B.

Replayability:

There are five campaigns in the basic game, which I mentioned above. Britain, Italy, France, Russia and Germany. Each of these campaign areas also have a set of mini missions included. Perhaps they were missions that were begun but then didn’t fit into the main campaigns, I don’t know. Whatever they were, they ARE a nice addition. Even though some of the missions amount to just shooting down one plane, and could probably be described as filler, they are still a nice way to add more value to the gameplay. This area is where you will find those two missions I mentioned above; where all you do is fly over all of Southern England admiring the work of the developers. In addition to those extra missions you can also fly in Training mode, which will allow you to fly over any battlefield in the game with any plane you have at your disposal. It’s also a great way to learn the quirks of the various aircraft. These extra missions are a nice way to get some additional practice for multiplayer.

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There is a multiplayer component to the game. In fact it’s quite fleshed out. You have the standard “furball” dogfight shoot down everything that moves. Then you have the team battle option, where it’s you and yours versus them and theirs. Thirdly you have the Strike mode, where you and your team mates must destroy enemy ground targets and defend your own. This particular mode could have used some pre-mission guidance, I think, as I more often than not would get lost trying to figure out what I was supposed to be bombing. Finally you have Capture Airfields mode, where you have to capture and hold as many airfields on the map for as long as possible to win the game. I’d like to tell you all about that mode, because it sounds very interesting, but I never once was able to get into a game playing it nor launch my own and have anyone join it. So either it sucks or Xbox Live players are just not interested in having to put the landing gear down.

One more point I will mention regarding Replayability. You can set ammunition and fuel restrictions on all gameplay modes, making the game even more difficult and forcing you to decide if you can afford to sink that destroyer you just happened to fly over, or if you must continue on towards your primary target. Have fun getting into a dogfight and then having your engine conk out due to a lack of gas.

Balance:

This game really does fall on the higher end of the difficulty curve when it comes to balance. The more you put into the game the more naturally it comes to you, but I don’t know if gamers are going to be willing to put that much work into trying to figure out a game where just turning can cause you to crash. They just aren’t used to it.

Originality:

Birds of Prey is certainly a game to savor for its uniqueness. Not only is it a pleasant treatment of the source material, without the typical jingoism that is often associated with WW2 games in general, but it is also one of those rare games that rewards you the longer you spend time with it. Working at this game will reward you.

Addictiveness:

If you are of the type who enjoys flying planes and shooting others down, this game certainly offers up a large dose. The question is will you maneuver yourself through the hassles to find that gem or will you just put the controller down and move onto Heroes over Europe or something else instead?

Appeal:

This game will appeal to those who like their WW2 games and to those who just enjoy a challenge in their flying games. Don’t be fooled by Arcade mode, Blazing Angels this game is not.

Miscellaneous:

Three things popped up while playing which annoyed me. Firstly, the game would often have difficulty finding the main server list to show me what games I could join in multiplayer. Even when it would find a game I would be disconnected before joining it because the game couldn’t find the server. I don’t know what the deal is there, but it really made joining online games more of a chore than they needed to be.

il-2cSecondly, when I did manage to get online, I found that one of the preferred tactics for killing people was to ram them. You see you are not punished for crashing, it doesn’t detract from your kill total, and in fact you are actually rewarded, as you will be given a kill while the person you rammed will get nothing at all. Some people made this an art form. I hope this will be looked at in a future patch, because it takes much of the fun out of the game.

Lastly, I already mentioned the problems I had with the P-51 on Arcade. Maybe I’ve just been indoctrinated into believing that the Mustang was an awesome flying machine, but it sure as heck did not feel that way while flying in this game, no matter what the difficulty level.

The Scores:
Story: Incredible
Graphics: Classic
Sound: Decent
Control/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Incredible
Balance: Poor
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: GOOD Game

Short Attention Span Summary:

The desire to target both the casual gamer and the hardcore simulator gamer probably hurt this game more than anything else. Had the developers stuck to making a game for one or the other type of player, this game would likely have scored higher.