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IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
Graphics: 8.1
Gameplay: 8.7
Sound: 8.3
Control: 8.5
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 8.4

Flight games may not own the top spots on sales charts, but I have to admit, I’m really starting to like playing the most recent efforts of this generation. While it wasn’t spectacular, Heroes Over Europe was a solid and entertaining production and I was hoping for something similar from 505 Games’ IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey. I had heard good things going in and right off the bat, I knew I was looking at a more complete flight game; an action experience that tends to utilize more realistic elements – even when flying in standard Arcade mode – and feels a bit more authentic at every turn. The in-cockpit view alone separates it from the rest of the crowd, and the combination of excellent effects and ultra-smooth (albeit more challenging) control really stands out in my mind. The presentation is slicker as well and in the end, Birds of Prey delivers the flight goods in spades, even if it falls a little shy in some of the less important aspects.

The graphics are nicely implemented and much like Heroes Over Europe, it’s clear that the designers put a great deal of effort into the landscapes far beneath our wings. But I think IL-2 does it just a bit better; the patchwork quilt that is the earth from high above is breathtaking, and really gives you a fantastic sensation of height. The sense of speed isn’t quite as intense, but then again, I’m thinking this is plenty realistic (I’m no pilot, so I can only guess). The effects range from the increased wind gusts zipping off the end of the wings to broken planes trailing smoke and flame. It’s not radically different from Heroes Over Europe in this capacity but the visuals on the whole seem slightly more fine-tuned and refined. There were a few frame rate hitches here and there but nothing to get in a twist about. Overall, IL-2 looks quite good and it’s unlikely that flight aficionados will have many complaints, unless you count some blurriness on the ground just before you smash to smithereens.

The sound is a mix of decent music, well implemented (yet somewhat lacking in intensity) effects, and fitting voiceover work. The only real issue is the balance, as it’s often difficult to hear the voices on the radio when in the midst of combat, although the soundtrack and effects do blend together rather well. There were many times when I simply missed a command or request from my wingman just because it got lost amidst the flurry of machine gun fire and ensuing explosions. But beyond that, the sound package is both effective and pleasant to hear; everything from the sound of bombing runs to close run-ins with the enemy – enough to give you a definite adrenaline rush – resounds with clear and accurate effects. I usually have an issue with the chosen tracks for flight games, as evidenced by my Heroes Over Europe review, but it seems a bit more pronounced and therefore, a bit more effective in Birds of Prey. The voice acting is also good, as the voice of the main character and the narrator for cut-scenes sounds…well, logically enough, quite British.

You’ll immediately be in the air, listening to the basic tutorial instructions from your wingman and it’s here where you’ll get a firm grasp of the controls. It doesn’t take long, but you’ll soon realize that simple maneuvers like turning the plane requires both throttle and rudder, and your air speed and angle above the earth always has a significant impact on your potential success. You had to consider these in Heroes Over Europe as well but as I mentioned in the intro, even the default (Arcade) setting feels more realistic; you can’t just whip your plane around the skies without always keeping an eye on the important factors every pilot must consider. At the same time, once you get used to the more authentic controls, you won’t feel overwhelmed or outmatched; you’ll simply get better with practice and before long, your actions might qualify you as a true-blue Ace. All it takes is a calm and steady hand; if you go into combat all nervy and jumpy, you won’t fare well. And I like that.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the flying is…well, the flight itself, which is a darn good sign. It just somehow feels right up there, and at no point was I saying to the screen, “wait, why did the plane do that?” I know why the plane did it; I’m the one who made the mistake and I will immediately work to rectify it and get a firmer hand on the control. I think my only problem is that I was left wondering if everything up there should feel so gradual; I don’t mean to imply the movement was slow or cumbersome, but it’s hard to believe these planes weren’t capable of quicker turns and maneuvers. Again, as the closest I’ve come to flying is in the comfortable passenger seat of a 747, I don’t really know what “truly authentic” should translate to in a virtual reincarnation of WWII combat flight. But it did feel a little too smooth and fluid; it’s as if I couldn’t do anything to make the plane perform an extra sharp turn or dive. Just about every last mission required patience and time, though, so the gameplay works.

We’re missing the special fantasy-like technique of the Ace Kill found in Heroes Over Europe but that mechanic didn’t really work too great, anyway. And the addition of the in-cockpit view immediately makes the IL-2 experience unique, and helps to put you in the capable boots of a 1940s fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. You do have the option of pressing L2, which zooms in towards your target, but that’s about the only special non-authentic feature I could find. Well, I also had a target circle beneath me when I went on bombing runs, but I kinda needed that. I could also turn my head and look around via the R3 button, which I assume is similar to the pilot simply swinging his eyes about and scanning the skies. Beyond this, it’s all about positioning your plane correctly and aiming your crosshairs with deadly accuracy, exactly the way a flight/action title should be. The missions are plenty diverse, too – ground and air targets, escort and reconnaissance commands, etc. – and although we don’t have our selection of planes like we had in Heroes, it’s a small matter.

Incoming fire that clips your plane is actually fear-inducing, the dogfights are plenty exciting and forces you to really dodge and weave between targets, and you’ll probably find yourself tilting your head at extreme angles during crazy rolls and loops. I did wonder about the collision detection just a bit, though, as I would sometimes have my crosshairs faithfully trained over the enemy, and seemingly miss with all bullets fired. Then, a few seconds later, I pull off as tight a turn as I can manage, spot an enemy flying high above and to the right, and quickly whip off a few bursts…and somehow, it immediately goes down in flames. Maybe it was just a matter of distance; I’m not sure. But anyway, once you’ve played for a few hours, you should have just about everything down pat, and you’ll spend the rest of your time mastering what you’ve already learned. The challenge rises steadily and appropriately and you have the option of choosing two different flight styles and the number of retries allowed.

The online multiplayer is a blast, too, just because you can face down human pilots rather than AI-controlled planes. The AI is decent in the game but it’s always more random and engaging when trying to handle real opponents, and with several modes and plenty of opportunities to hone your skills within the IL-2 community, you may as well give it a shot. In the single-player campaign, you will unlock all sorts of goodies that enhance the experience and even though it’s a very linear flow, the variety of the missions you undertake always makes the gameplay feel fresh. The ability to choose to attack secondary objectives after completing the primary objective also adds to the appeal and longevity, so there’s plenty to do. Oh, and I really liked the fact that my allies actually appeared competent; I’d watch them take out enemy pilots from a distance, and when a dogfight was complete, it was usually a group effort. Good stuff there.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is a bit more polished, a bit more refined, a bit more realistic, and overall, a better-quality product than Heroes Over Europe. The control is smooth if seemingly a touch languid, the presentation – classic WWII footage and commentary is a nice touch – is sleek, the online multiplayer is fun (with very little lag experienced), and above all else, it really feels right when up in the clouds in your plane. The enemy AI still isn’t all that great, the balance between voices and effects isn’t quite right, and I still have some reservations about how a WWII plane performs, but in the end, this is a great flight title and one that shouldn’t be missed if you’re a fan of the genre. Even if you’ve been considering trying a game like this, you should know you won’t find much on store shelves that’s superior. In this particular battle with Heroes Over Europe, despite the latter’s solidity and fun factor, IL-2: Sturmovik is the winner.

9/30/2009   Ben Dutka