IL-2 Sturmovik has been the gold standard of World War 2 flight sims on the PC for years and now it makes its debut on the Xbox 360. While I was quite unsure how a hardcore flight sim would translate to a console (control-wise) it seems 505 Games (developer) has figured out a way to do so without dumbing down the simulation experience too much while also catering to the hardcore audience that has been faithful for so many years.
Scalable gameplay comes in the form of different control settings and assists all the way from Arcade mode for newcomers, Simulation for the absolutely hardcore, and Realistic for an in-between setting difficulty. Regardless of skill, there is a difficulty and control scheme for you to enjoy.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is based on very famous and historic World War 2 air combat and military operations. You play through five separate theaters of war such as the Battle of Britain (June 1940 May 1941), Stalingrad (June 1942 Feb 1943), Sicily (July 1943 Aug 1943), Korsun (Jan 1944 Feb 1944), Battle of the Buldge (Dec 1944 Jan 1945), and Berlin (April 1945 May 1945). Any history buff will easily know how important these battles were and what they meant to the outcome of the Second World War. For those that arent as brushed up on their history, there is much background info given on each theater and battle and is pieced together with a somewhat personal history of the pilots.
Playing through the game will have you piloting battle planes, fighters, and heavy bombers for a slew of different styles in over 50 missions. As you complete some missions you can choose to either skip on to the next mission right away or even sometimes continue on the mission you are flying which may have you doing some secondary objectives or simply land your plane on the closest runway. Its an interesting way of adding side missions for this style of game and adds some more gameplay hours which is always a good thing.
Single player is broken into two different styles of gameplay; Campaign and Single Missions. Campaign will have you beginning from the earliest battles as you progress through World War 2s separate theaters (each broken down into different missions). Campaign mode is where you will relive the famous and historic air battles from all over Europe and each mission will have different styles of play as well.
Some missions will have you taking out all the enemy forces while others may have you simply doing recon or taking out ground targets. The mission variety keeps things from getting stale and repetitive; completing the whole campaign shouldnt take more than a few hours though. Single Mission mode adds the variety and will add a few more hours onto your play-through of IL-2.
Controls will change and be based the difficulty level chosen though I suggest starting on Arcade mode just to get a feel for the game before delving into the realistic and simulation settings. As you begin, you are forced to do the training missions before even playing single player and if you want to play in the harder difficulty modes you need to complete the corresponding training missions in their respective modes.
The arcade setting may be the simplest to play with, but it is no auto-pilot and will still have you working for every kill. While in arcades setting, there will actually be a deflection icon to show you where to shoot to hit your target since you have to lead your shots. Learning how much to lead while on the higher settings will take quite the time to learn though.
Arcade mode will also give you the ability to lock onto your target with the camera and fly your plane with this interesting view. While it helps greatly to always be looking at your target, it makes it no less difficult as you still need to line up your shots to take them out. Also, while relying on this camera angle, you will surely crash a few times from not paying attention to your altimeter since you are not always looking at the ground in this view.
You are also able to click in the Right Stick to look around the plane (in 3rd person view) much like how you can do in racing titles to look at different sides of your car but holding this down while moving the stick (which also controls your rudder and throttle) is very awkward and difficult to do while flying, shooting, and evading and simply not worth doing.
If you want the true simulation experience, you better have a pilots license as something simple enough as keeping the plane level is quite a challenge. The learning curve to go from arcade so simulation will take extreme dedication as you will constantly stall and spin out of control if you do not know how to control a plane properly. With simulation enabled, there is no hud, there are no assists, and simply banking and cornering without stalling will take a huge amount of skill. It doesnt even label friendlies and enemies; its as if you really are a pilot back then and had to distinguish from visuals alone.
Even more settings can be toggled such as ammo, fuel, and aircraft to completely customize how in-depth and realistic you want to get with it.
You are even given controls of your landing gear for your take-offs and landings but for some reason there is no way to do a belly landing (if your landing gear got damaged, this was the only way to land) and you will crash instantly which seems like a weird notch to take away from this flight sim game.
As you gain controls of squads you can then issue them commands with the D-PAD; Left to cover your plane, Up to attack your target, Right to go to the current objective, and Down will make everyone listen to your next order and obey it (Pressing Down twice will make your squad regroup and follow you).
IL-2 wouldnt be an authentic simulator if it didnt follow suit with the reason people enjoy these games; the planes. There are over 40 different planes and each one will reflect damage effects now complete with bullet holes and trail lines.
I will refrain from listing every plane but some of the more noteworthy ones that stood out for me were the playable Spitfires (Mk II, Mk IX, Mk XIV), Mustang, P-51, and of course the soviet world war 2 era attack fighter and bomber that the series is labeled after; the IL-2. This plane was so well known for its defenses and ability to soak damage that it was known as the flying tank and concrete plane. Even German ground troops started labeling it the Butcher, Meatgrinder, and Black Death; it was that effective as a war plane.
Because technology back in that era is nothing like it is today, you will have to do things the old fashioned way and actually get quite close to your targets before firing on them (if you want your bullets to be effective anyways). When you start hitting an enemy a small close up window will appear in the bottom corner to show the enemy plane getting hit and focus on it until it is downed or you are no longer shooting near them.
Again, because of the era of these planes, the pilots also had a harder time dealing the the G-Forces that also came along with these planes and if you bank or do loops with WEP enabled (like a Turbo or short term boost in engine power) you will see red around the screen almost like getting shot in other games which signals you are close to blacking out from these extreme forces on the pilots body. Its a cool effect that just adds more authenticity to not only the planes but the era as a whole and what it was like to fly these birds.
Multiplayer is also supported in IL-2 and supports up to 16 players in four different online modes. You obviously have your standard Dogfight mode and Team Deathmatch but the Strike and Capture the Airfield modes are something that offer some more variety, no matter how odd they may be.
Strike has two teams trying to destroy each others ground targets while defending your own and Capture the Airfield is where you need to land on specific runways and stay on the ground a set amount of time without being destroyed to capture it (think of it as Domination). These two modes require quite a lot of coordination from team mates to be successful and is actually quite strategic and plays off your teams strengths and weaknesses. Oddly though there are no options for local multiplayer sadly.
An incredible amount of detail has clearly been given to IL-2 to make it the most authentic World War 2 air battle simulator; all the way from the actual historic missions, the planes that have incredible realistic sounds and even the new damage system that will even spatter oil on your windshield as you fly and tailgate someones trail.
One thing that stood out quite sorely though was the graphics when flying very close to the ground. From the air, everything looks great from the planes and clouds and ground units, but when you get close and see them up close you see the bane of every flight game; low polygon and textures on buildings and trees. It seems so unfitting to have this beautifully looking aircraft beside a simple block house. Add in the fact that when on the ground the scale of trees and buildings are completely off and dont reflect the actual size of the plane correctly at all. It may be a small thing, but with so many landing opportunities, it was hard to ignore this oversight.
IL-2 has taken much time into making it accessible for new players to the genre with its easy to use Arcade setting but also appeases the hardcore simulation fans at the same time though Simulation mode is truly only recommended if you want one of the most challenging modes ever.
IL-2 doesnt try and wow players with a certain gimmick or crazy stunts; it is simply the best recreation of its eras airborne warfare that you will find. If you are lucky enough to own a flight stick for your 360 it will be compatible and I would actually recommend it as while its not needed, its like playing a fighter without an arcade stick; its just not the same and one is needed to play truly properly. Since flight sticks for the 360 arent the common or easy to find, I feel that many will truly be missing out on the simulation recreation that IL-2 is meant to give by using one.