When bringing the next-gen title IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey to the DS, developer DiP Interactive didn’t skimp on the content. This little cartridge is packed to its tiny brim. After a detailed training session, players can fly planes in three different World War II battles (the Ardennes Offensive, the Battle of Britain, and Stalingrad); for each battle, they decide to fight as Axis or Allies, and then choose from seven missions. For those with poor multiplication skills, that means there are 42 missions total.
These aren’t lazy paint-by-numbers missions, either. This game is a blend of bombing runs, dogfights, recon, escorts, and strikes on ground targets, each of which lasts but a few minutes. Even the vehicles have a lot of variety, with accurate representations of various countries’ fleets. You can take to the cockpit of everything from a German Bf-110C to a British Hurricane Mk. I to the Russian plane the game is named after. The developers of the original version of the game, 1C Company, are Russian, so the Soviet forces play a bigger role in here than American gamers are probably used to.
The sheer depth of the experience is enough reason not to dismiss Birds of Prey out of hand. Unfortunately, though, a whole host of problems makes this game far less fun and engaging than it ought to be. As such, it’s definitely not an essential buy, except for gamers who, for some reason, really want to play flight games on their handhelds.
The biggest issue is that the “feel” just isn’t there. You never get the sense that you’re flying at top speed far above the Earth in a rickety machine from half a century ago. Even when you exchange gunfire with enemies, you feel detached from the experience rather than immersed in it. The sound doesn’t help much either; there’s no music during gameplay to capture the sense of danger and isolation, and the engine roars seem a tad dull. Maybe we’re asking too much of a few inches of screen and two tiny speakers, and maybe some sort of rumble function would make all the difference, but the bottom-line is that the game doesn’t draw players in on a visceral level.
Another problem is that, in trying to walk the line between simulation and arcade, the game loses most of both genres’ best attributes. Because your ship turns so slowly, and because it takes so long to get enemies in your sights, there isn’t the non-stop action of, say, Star Fox. At the same time, because the game handles takeoff and landing for you, and even levels the plane back out after turns, there isn’t the realism of a true sim. To anyone who’s played flight-combat sims on PC, the controls here are almost absurdly simple: Using the buttons and D-pad, you can accelerate, decelerate, turn, ascend, descend, and shoot. These functions work just fine, but that’s it.
Also, Birds of Prey never really gives players the sense that they’re progressing. All of the missions are unlocked from the very beginning, and it’s possible to adjust the difficulty settings (which include unlimited ammo, unlimited fuel, gun and engine overheating, and targeting) at any time. Sure, you can pick a difficulty at the outset and play all the missions in order, but the psychological effect of uncovering more and more of the game is gone. It’s been a rule since the earliest days of video games that you can’t play level 2 until you’ve beat level 1, and there’s really no argument to be made that this is a bad rule.
Regarding graphics, the next-gen versions of the game are renowned for their historical accuracy. The developers used aerial photographs of the locations and, through intense research, adjusted them to look the way they did during the Second World War. Due to some combination of the DS’s limitations and the game’s budget, this version loses a lot of that realism. The ground has almost no detail, and the sky is even worse; the clouds look like white pieces of paper suspended in mid-air. To be fair, though, some of the planes look pretty neat, and the game runs smoothly.
The final issues lie in the game’s on-screen instructions. Before each mission, your boss appears on the upper screen and gives you directions to mark on your map (the lower screen). This is completely pointless, given that landmarks and enemies appear on the map whether you mark them or not, and it comes off as a lame excuse to incorporate touch-screen controls into an otherwise traditionally controlled game.
Also, the instructions themselves (both before and during the missions) can be frustratingly unclear, something that starts during training; the practice bombing run took us multiple tries, and at one point, the instructor urged us to hurry up and rise to the proper altitude even though we were well past that altitude. Fortunately, while poor guidance often makes missions harder, it’s rarely so bad that it’ll stop you from completing a mission in a reasonable amount of time.
Fans of flight games who don’t own next-gen consoles or gaming PCs might do well to give Birds of Prey’s DS port a spin, preferably by renting it. Again, the amount and variety of content make it a decent and sincere effort to please the dogfighting enthusiasts among us. However, this is a title with far more than its share of flaws, so the vast majority of gamers can safely stay away.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.9 Graphics
The visuals run well, but there’s not much detail to anything. 3.8 Control
They’re too simple to truly simulate flight, but for what they are they work well. 2.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The engine roars are a little weak, and there’s no music during gameplay. 2.6
There are lots of missions and difficulty options, but they’re all unlocked right away, so there’s no sense of progress.
3.1 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.