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IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

Score: 85%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: 1C Company
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Flight/ Shooter

Graphics & Sound:

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey has a reputation with PC flight enthusiasts as one of the best, most authentic WWII flight sims on the market. To put it in console terms, it's the Call of Duty of WWII fighter plane games (okay... so maybe that's a little too simple an analogy, but you get the point - it's kind of a big deal). However, a high PC pedigree only goes so far with console gamers, particularly when it comes to flight sims, an overlooked genre. This alone makes IL-2: Sturmovik: Birds of Prey an interesting entry.

Visually, IL-2 is a beast. I'll stop short at labeling it as one of the year's best looking games, but it puts up enough of a show that it at least makes the runner-up list. Planes are replicated to authenticity - right down to enemy pilots in cockpits. During play, you can actually zoom in on pilots and watch their reaction once they realize they are in your sights. Once you've got a target dead to rights, you can enjoy all sorts of beefy explosions, including wings shearing off planes and large gouts of flame and smoke. There's even a nice little bit of oil splatter when you get too close to a soon-to-be-down enemy.

Levels are just as impressive, though you probably won't appreciate it until you get into denser cities like Stalingrad. A lot of work went into making sure everything was fully realized, right down to the smallest of farmhouses. I've never been to Europe, so I can't vouch for authenticity, but cities look like reasonable facsimiles. Buildings are laid out in a logical fashion, so it isn't too hard to see them as a functioning city and not just a bunch of building models tossed out in a random formation.

Just as much attention has been paid to audio. Planes roar, sputter and choke depending on altitude and condition. All of the explosions and other effects are accompanied by satisfying sounds, particularly falling bombs and their explosive wakes. There's no better feeling than to watch a giant battleship ignite into a symphony of flame, smoke and noise. The sounds of battle are accompanied by a masterful score.


Gameplay:

IL-2: Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is split across six European theaters, including the Defense of Stalingrad and Battle of Britain. Each of the game's 20 missions is bookended by historic footage and voiceover offering both a historical context as well as something of a personal narrative from a pilot. The background information is great. It offers a really good sense of why missions matter and how they relate to the greater war effort. Some of the information will be familiar to anyone who has played Call of Duty or any of the numerous WWII games on the market, though seeing things from the perspective of the air struggle is refreshing.

Missions are broken into their respective theaters and offer different mission types based on the main role of air power in the region. For instance, missions during the Battle of Britain are focused more on defense, while the assault on Berlin features more aggressive objectives. All are entertaining, though at the same time, I really wish there was more to do. Some missions are incredibly short and offer little to do beyond shooting down a squadron of planes or bombing a specific target. It's fun, but eventually does grind to a point where you just want to stop after an hour or so of play.

Though this may point to a design flaw, it is probably more indicative of the difference between difficulty modes. Rather than go for just hardcore sim players or mainstream console players, IL-2 goes for both. Playing missions on Simulation difficulty is much more engaging than Arcade. You're completing the same mission parameters, but with so much of the nitty-gritty out of the way in Arcade, there isn't as much to keep you occupied.

IL-2 becomes a little more interesting when you jump into multiplayer. Finding a populated game is rather tricky, but if you can get into one, it's hard to not have fun.


Difficulty:

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey offers two difficulty modes, one to cater to its hardcore PC following and another aimed at console players. For flight novices, Simulation is probably one of the harder console experiences they'll face. Flying a plane in Simulation is almost like trying to fly a real plane. Nothing is handled automatically and you really have to know what you're doing. The lack of a 360 flight stick makes the task even more difficult. The control pad isn't a terrible alternative, but flight sim enthusiasts will likely look at IL-2's setup with the same distain as hardcore PC FPS players.

As much as it will vex PC players, 1C really isn't attempting to cater to this small group but rather the larger console audience. For this group, there is Arcade Mode. Most of the major flight elements are automated, giving you the opportunity to just fly around and shoot things. You also don't have to worry about ammo and fuel; both are set to unlimited. Oh, and there's a handy radar and HUD that identifies enemy planes and targets. Anyway, as stripped down as the experience seems, flying planes is still a challenge.


Game Mechanics:

Most of IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey's fun comes from flying the planes. Even on Arcade this is, without question, the most realistic flight sim available on the Xbox 360. Again, planes handle like they should, though how much really depends on your difficulty mode. In Simulation, you'll have to deal with all manner of flaps, switches and other bits to just keep the plane flying. Then there's the dogfighting, where you'll have to manage all of that stuff while keeping an eye on incoming targets, leading shots, making sure you're not hitting your own guys, dodging enemy fire,... the list goes on and will probably make most hardcore sim fans giggle with joy. You'll even have to watch the torque from propellers to make sure you don't suddenly spin out of control. Again, Simulation is only for the experienced or brave.

Arcade feels more like a "normal" shooter, but only in relation to what Simulation throws at you. Most of the trickier control elements like flaps and trim are removed, as is the aforementioned unfortunate bit of physics involving engine torque. However, planes still control like planes, so you'll need to learn how to use the two analog sticks in conjunction during dogfights and maintain a safe speed. In a sense, Arcade offers a combat experience closer to an FPS than a sim. The focus isn't on movement, but rather identifying mission goals and shooting down enemy planes. It takes time, but after the tutorials are over with, you'll know everything you need to know.

Trying to find a balance between hardcore simulation and accessible fun is always a hard thing to do. To that end, IL-2: Sturmovik: Birds of Prey does a fantastic job of offering something for both groups. Because of this, the game comes down to what you're looking for. Hardcore sim fans will probably want to stay away unless they are shut off from playing the PC version for whatever reason. Newcomers who are unblemished by PC versions and want to give air dominance a go will want to play IL-2: Sturmovik: Birds of Prey.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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