IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds Of Prey Preview: If You Think Planes Are Nice

Never mind, for a moment, how this game plays — though I will tell you. Check out how it looks.

IL-2 Sturmovik, the 2001 PC original, was for the hardcore. Not the Mario-loving hardcore. Not the GTA-loving hardcore. Not the people who memorise JRPG scripts. No, the hardcore of World War II combat flight-sim lovers. The people who want the planes in their Russian-developed games to handle as accurately as the cars in Gran Turismo.

I hadn't played the PC original. And I'm not a WWII flight-sim guy. But I was worried for those hardcore IL-Sturmovik fans when I was invited to try a multiplayer session of of the 1C-developed, 505 Games-published upcoming console edition of the series. The 505 rep doing the demo started out by saying the game I was about to play would be like Call of Duty in the air.

What Is It? IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is a World War II flight combat game developed by the Russian studio behind the franchise, 1C. It's published by 505 Games, the new-ish publisher doing upcoming games based on Grease and Michael Phelps. Yes, they're diverse. Birds of Prey is coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, PSP and Nintendo DS.

What We Saw I played parts of a couple of multiplayer skirmishes on a networked Xbox 360. The game includes more than 45 planes from the 1941-1945 war in Europe, but I foolishly chose one of the weakest, the original IL-2 Sturmovik — a Russian plane — that had poor guns and armour. I should have chosen a newer IL-2 if I didn't want my wings to get perforated by enemy fire.

How Far Along Is It? The game is set for a September release and a demo is scheduled for the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the first week of August, so I gather that what I played is close to completion.

What Needs Improvement? My Patience (Or The Game's Controls): Good news, hardcore IL-2 fans — I think. I have not played the original PC IL-2 Sturmovik, but I now have no reason to think that the simulation values of the original were abandoned in this game. Even the Arcade mode in the new game is less forgiving than Ubisoft's HAWX, which felt like it was an auto-pilot compared tho this. A targeting reticule in arcade mode helps show how far ahead of an enemy plane your bullets need to lead. But even with that it's hard to hit the enemies. This is no easy game to control — a sign that either it's got either really good, complex sim controls or it's got poor, stiff controls. The 505 people showing me the game would surely say it's the former, but I can't judge it during a half-hour appointment. Check the demo next month and feel for yourself. I flew into the ground twice. Into another plane once. But I did shoot another player's plane up a bit before he lost me in the clouds.

The Graphics In Motion: The gallery below presents one of the loveliest batch of screenshots I've been sent by a publisher in a while. But the simple explosions and the detailed but lifeless terrain don't make the game come much more alive when it's put in motion. The planes are the stars. And the vistas are lovely. Anything that would animate doesn't look as great.

What Should Stay The Same? The History: Authenticity is a goal rarely pursued in home console games. But IL-Sturmovik is going for it, representing real planes in minute detail and replicating historical battles across its six campaigns of, combined, 50 missions. The Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Bulge, and campaigns over Berlin, Sicily and Stalingrad are here. The missions are based on diary entries written by real fighter pilots who fought in those battles.

The Range Of Realism: Play in Arcade mode and it will take a lot of gunfire will make your plane lose control. Play in Realistic or the even the more realistic Simulation mode (gotta love how difficulty settings are named) and you will have to worry about stalling, won't have an aim-assist and will find your plane flying in realistically hampered ways determined by how bullets have poked holes in your wings, rudder or fuselage. At any level, expect your plane to move in realistic and less-player-assisted ways than you would find in more mainstream flight games. Controls in any of the game's modes put pitch and roll on the left stick; throttle and yaw on the right. 505 reps say some flight sticks will be supported.

The Graphics In Frozen Moments: The planes and the skies look lovely.

Final Thoughts The "Call of Duty in the air" reference made at the beginning of my demo was something I didn't get to follow-up on. The game is by no means as fast-action as Activision's first-person shooter series. But the feel of having an enemy ace on your tail, and the sight of bullet trails whizzing past, then — oh, no — through your wings, is plenty exciting.

I didn't get to try a base-capture option that 505 wanted to promote as a key multiplayer component. In that mode, I was told, players will land at a base, and only when their wheels are still will they begin to capture it and shave points off their team's total, Battlefield style.

What I did see and play looked good for World War II flight combat enthusiasts. If you're looking for something with a more realistic feel, follow this one. And try the demo in August.


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