Gaijin are quickly developing a reputation for releasing games out of nowhere… for flying under the radar, as it were. They developed the PC flight sim to end all flight sims with IL-2 Sturmovik, then decided to port that to the 360 and PS3 with IL-2 Sturmovik Birds of Prey. They followed THAT up with the amazing Apache Air Assault. Then things went quiet. I should have known they were planning to shock me with a new game, and here it is: Birds of Steel.
Birds of Steel is very much a sequel to Birds of Prey. It may have a new publisher and new theaters of battle, but the game is exactly the same as its ancestor in many ways. You have the historical campaigns that you can play through, this time focusing on the war in the Pacific during World War 2. You can also access the Dynamic Campaign mode, which allows you to fight a series of air battles against different targets in a “what if”Â situation, like what if Pearl Harbor wasn’t just attacked, but actually invaded? In truth, this mode merely gives you different backgrounds to fight the enemy over, as there is no storyline nor any cinematic. It’s just some variety. Locations included in these Dynamic Campaigns include Malta, Wake Island, the Ruhr and Midway Island. Also included are Single mission stages from all over the different theaters, and a mission editor which allows you to choose the weather and forces opposing you.
The audio is another example of just how closely related to Birds of Prey this game really is. The music, while new at times, also includes much of what could be heard during the first game. Thankfully it’s not in a constant loop this time around. Your copilots, when they speak, are the same as before, and just like before, they demand to know what you’re waiting for when you’re in position, or at least close to the right position, to shoot at an enemy.
The sound effects would occasionally cut out on me. Specifically, the machine guns would stop making noise even though they were clearly firing. The same was true of the background noise. The engine specifically would lose its drone from time to time.
Finally, during the Historical Campaign, there is a little bit of voice over that describes the situation. During the American portion of the game he sounds great. During the Japanese portion he sounds OK. Still better than someone putting on an insulting Japanese accent, though.
Birds of Prey was an amazing looking game. There were some design choices I didn’t like, however, and I’m sad to say they’ve returned. Specifically, when you include a targeting system that is decades ahead of what is possible in the planes of the time, don’t then try to be realistic and make those targets impossible to see when camouflaged against the ground or trees, by making the targeting system show targets as red all of the time. Here’s a hint: red blends into dark colors. They had corrected this in Apache by allowing you to chose the colors displayed on the HUD yourself, but here they seem to have regressed. Flying lower than your target so that they are silhouetted against the sky winds up as the best option for seeing enemies, which is directly opposite what the game tells you to do. This is, of course, really only a problem in Simplistic and Realistic modes, as on Simulator, there is no targeting, just you and your Mark 1 Eyeball.
The rest of the game looks terrific. Planes take battle damage, smoking planes will cover your windshield with oil if you are flying too close, and the terrain is very good. Lighting is more realistic than I would like, however. Coming out of the sun is a valid tactic, and storm fronts will make it difficult to see if you’re flying in a bright area. I admire the desire to be authentic, but it does get wearisome after a while.
The game doesn’t have the same impact that Birds of Prey did, but it does have its moments. Launching from an Aircraft Carrier at sunrise, watching the deckhands scurry away from your plane as you roar down the flight deck, is pretty sweet. While Dover’s famous White cliffs are no longer lending their imposing presence to the game, flying over Malta can also be pretty sweet.
Just like all of the Gaijin console games I’ve mentioned already, this game can be played in three styles. Simplistic is for the gamer who desires an Arcade experience. Realistic is for those of you who don’t want to be held by the hand but still enjoy things like external cockpit views. Simulator is you in a cockpit, looking around and flying as best you can.
Like Birds of Prey, the physics and controls change drastically depending on what difficulty you choose to fly. I would really recommend you have either a lot of patience or some knowledge of real flight if you choose to fly in either Realistic or Simulator mode, as the game does not hold your hand at all. Expect to crash a lot, as well as stalling and going into flat spins. Simulator in particular forces you to deploy flaps at appropriate times in order to maintain control of your plane.
The game supports a number of flight sticks, and I will recommend using one if you intend to fly in Simulator mode, as the 360 Controller is just not up to the task.
The mission editor alone provides you with a number of ways to keep playing the game. Choosing to play as the Allies or against them, in whatever theatre you’d like, be it over Malta or Wake Island, Midway or the Ruhr Valley in Germany, is a great way to increase the amount of value you will get from the game.
Add to that the multiplayer, which includes VS and Co-op missions. The Versus modes all have an element of Air Superiority to them, meaning you must fight to control a section of airspace. One version forces you to land at an airfield to take control, but doing so exposes you to attack from the sky. Another version, called Battlefront Domination, exposes your home airstrip to attack from enemy planes, but allows you to attack their base as well. You lose significant amounts of respawn tickets for every tank or anti aircraft battery that is destroyed at your airfield until the entire base is wiped out.
As well as the different gameplay modes, there are a large number of planes, both fighters and bombers, that can be unlocked and purchased in Birds of Steel. Even the Italian and Australian Air Forces are represented here. This is accomplished by playing the Dynamic Campaigns and Multiplayer. Shooting down enemy planes earns you XP and Credits. The XP goes towards your Rank, which unlocks better planes the higher you get. The credits can be put towards purchasing those planes, but be careful, as you also have to use the credits to repair battle damage sustained during rounds. Get distracted and crash? Oh well, better get your wallet out.
Battlefront Domination is where the game’s Bombers can really make a huge difference. Sadly, the bombers can be taken out very quickly by pilots who know what they are doing, and you must be careful not to just fly straight into the heart of enemy defenses or else you stand no chance. If you do happen to get all the way to the enemy base, however, you can make quick work of things.
The learning curve between the three levels of difficulty is massive. Even knowing that, based on what I remembered from Birds of Prey, I was still floored and amazed at how difficult the game could be at times. Even assuming you can get your plane to the target, enemy planes and anti aircraft guns are deadly accurate. Of course, this just makes the achievement of completing the mission all that much sweeter, but that knowledge only comes after much frustration and rage.
The single player game isn’t especially long, and the selection of maps in Multiplayer could be better. How addictive the game is will really depend on how quickly you adapt to the difficulty. If you’ve been playing Ace Combat for years and expect all your flight games to play that way. you may be in for a rude awakening. But if you have some patience the game will start to grow on you, as the multiplayer can be really enjoyable.
I found it interesting that the Japanese side of the war in the Pacific was included as a playable campaign. The game focuses on the first two years of the war between Japan and the United States, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor. To specifically take part in that attack made me cringe a little, and I wonder if in sixty years some developer won’t be programming games about flying into the World Trade Center. I realize time heals all wounds and it’s just a videogame, but I hope any surviving veterans don’t see little Billy doing bombing runs on Battleship row.
Birds of Steel really acts as a book end to Birds of Prey, so if you have the one you really should get the other. If you don’t have the one and you enjoy your WW2 flight sims, then you really have no excuse. This is the one to get, especially if you go hardcore and have a flight stick.
If you are looking for more of an arcade experience, this is probably not the game for you. Simplistic mode here is a little better than Birds of Prey was, but the game is still hampered by that nagging influence of the desire to be realistic. The game can be played on Simplistic, but it’s really meant to be played at the higher levels of difficulty.
If you are an Achievement hunter you will find that ninety percent of the cheevos, as the kids like to call them, are easily attainable if you complete the game on Simplistic and put a modest amount of time into the multiplayer. That last ten percent, however, is a real pain in the behind if you don’t like the harder flight control setups.
You can modify the control setup quite heavily here as well. Buttons can be reassigned and stick sensitivity can be heightened or lowered depending on your tastes.
Control and Gameplay: Good
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
FINAL SCORE: Good Game
Short Attention Span Summary:
Birds of Steel is a prime example of a great niche game. If it’s up your alley it’s really up your alley, but if it isn’t, it isn’t.
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