It can be surprisingly tough to find good World War II air combat simulators on consoles that rival the sheer level of realism found in their PC counterparts, which seems odd since hyper-realistic console racing games have been around for some time. Players can get their virtual high speed kicks behind the steering wheel of a pimped out street car that handles about as close to the real thing as one can imagine. The same can’t usually be said for console gamers who prefer being strapped into the seat of a cockpit. IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey changes all of that, for better or worse.
Hardcore fighter jockeys might actually be tempted to venture from their PCs for a change to check out how IL-2 Sturmovik fares on consoles. In terms of handling and authenticity, they won’t be disappointed. Birds of Prey’s scalable flight realism can be toned down for newcomers seeking the arcade-like flying experience found in other flying games or kicked up to insane levels for serious couch pilots seeking a steep challenge. The gameplay itself is also quite strong, though the overall package feels a little skimpy once you’ve plowed through it.
The extensive historical campaign mode where you’ll spend the most time spans the major airborne battles of WWII, from the Battle of Britain in 1940 to the Battle of Berlin that ended the war in 1945. Each major battle contains a series of individual missions and is introduced with actual grainy military stock footage take at the time. The game is narrated by a pleasant British bloke who offers his own perspective on the war, sharing personal stories and talking about his experiences as a fighter pilot in the missions you’ll fly through. If you care to listen, it certainly lends a measure of personality and humanity to the military struggle, since the fellow shares stories of home and on-base drinking exploits alongside more grim assessments of the situation. It is war, after all.
Missions are shorter and sweet early on, but they grow longer and more complex the further you delve into the campaign. Some of the more meager challenges involve conducting reconnaissance, taking down squadrons of slow-moving bombers, flying below enemy line of sight undetected, and escorting friendly units to different locations. The excitement kicks in during intense aerial dogfights and lining up effective bombing runs against ground targets. While this is essentially the meat and potatoes of Birds of Prey, both tasks are extremely satisfying and are broken up with additional intermittent challenges.
Other fun objectives that crop-up in mid-mission include flying under a bridge and through a snaking river valley only feet above the water, landing to pickup a downed wingman and taking back off in the heat of battle, and hopping into the tail gunner’s seat to fend off a swarm of fighters in hot pursuit. You can choose to pursue secondary missions after your main tasks are completed or simply skip to the next mission. This is a nice option, depending on whether or not you feel like extending the play in any given level. You can also issue orders to your wingmen to attack, follow, and defend. They’re helpful on occasion, particularly when facing entire squadrons of fighters. As you’d expect, the situation can get pretty chaotic at times.
The game’s default arcade mode realism setting is designed for the average player seeking to pull off crazy maneuvers and blow things out of the sky without having to worry about the trials and tribulations typically associated with trying to keep a giant hunk of metal in the air all-the-while. In this case, the dual thumbstick controls are extremely responsive and most planes you pilot handle easily and with much grace. They way the planes move on-screen in reaction is also very authentic and slick-looking. Ammo and fuel are automatically set to unlimited, though you can switch over to finite presets for a tougher challenge and a more realistic combat experience.
Those who are truly brave can unlock the far more substantially challenging realistic mode and then the absurdly hardcore-tough simulation mode through the tutorial section. These advanced options ramp up the physics and finicky-ness, consequently making it harder than hell to keep your bird airborne much less actually make a dent in the sizeable Nazi forces you’re meant to destroy.
Things like slowdown from gunfire, stall warnings, and jostling the controls too quickly are among many other elements that you have to take a lot more seriously. Attempting to climb too quickly or turn too sharply will send you into a tailspin that’s tough to recover from. Most players will want to stick with arcade mode, but the hardcore flight sim fans will appreciate the attention to detail and authenticity found in Birds of Prey’s advanced options.
Taking to the skies, you’ll find the many different planes you can hop into have a solid level of detail to them. Your plane winds up riddled with bullet holes and trailing smoke when you get shot up, and watching bogies fly apart in explosive blasts from well-placed streams of gunfire is awesome. Three different views (third-person, first-person bombing run, and cockpit) offer some great variations in perspective that are extremely helpful during missions. Smoke, explosion, cloud, and lighting effects are impressive during some of the bigger over-city battles. Flying down kamikaze-style at building top level (even going so far as to trench-ride the streets of Berlin like in Star Wars) reveals a lot of nice visual details. The graphics aren’t the best we’ve seen in console flight games thus far, but they more than do the trick and there are some highly impressive moments found here and there. On the audio front, the dialogue is superbly done, and your radio chatters constantly with update reports on what’s happening.
It doesn’t take long to blow through the campaign on a first pass, though going back to test your mettle on a more advanced difficulty setting and playing through additional unlockable missions is worth exploring here. A handful of online multiplayer modes let you engage in dogfights, bombing runs, team battles, and other challenges. However, it’s tough to find enough other players to go up against, and some server wonkiness muddled numerous attempts to dive into the online fun. Despite that, Birds of Prey shines brightly as a solo endeavor in large part due to the extreme level of authenticity and attention to getting the flight mechanics just right.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Though you’ll run into some occasionally mediocre moments in the skies, everything is nicely polished. 4.8 Control
Arcade mode sports extremely cool maneuverability, and the hardcore sim modes offer the level of realism über-fighter jocks will crave. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Heroic voice work enhances the overall sound and environment. 3.7 Play Value
A solid campaign goes by too quickly. There’s some replay, multiplayer, and extra missions, but it’s not as robust a package as you’d expect. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.