505 Games – IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey review

World War II flight sim lands on the Xbox
Photo of 505 Games – IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

The first thing that struck us when we took to the skies was the fabulous detail inherent in this World War II based flight sim’s environment. Actually, that’s not quite true: the first thing that struck us was a Messerschmitt 109 that we flew into, ripping our left wing off and providing a neat demonstration of the game’s excellent damage modelling. But it was the resplendent landscape below which impressed us even further.

The patchwork quilt of English fields, chequered with farm tracks, hay bales and small villages, looked so realistic from our cockpit at a thousand feet that we could almost smell the freshly spread muck. The sun glinting off the paintwork of the highly detailed planes didn’t go amiss, either. In short, this is one well rendered flight sim, although perhaps unsurprisingly it does suffer from the occasional frame rate hiccup when the dogfighting action thickens.

Although we didn’t really notice this when it occurred, lost as we were in the lavish aesthetics, belting Dolby 5.1 surround (never have the booms of flak shells exploding in the air sounded quite so brutal) and compelling touches of realism (that’s Dover castle down there, says your wingman; he once went on a school trip there).

However, all isn’t plain sailing – or perhaps that should be plane flying – in the clouds above the white cliffs. While the atmosphere that developer 1C Company has woven is highly authentic, and you feel as if you’re genuinely immersed in World War II as you dogfight your way through the campaign, the difficulty settings soon cause some turbulence.

There are three flight models to select from: arcade, realistic and simulation. The arcade mode is a point-and-fly affair with a large number of safety features enabled. Flying is very forgiving, it’s impossible to stall, enemy aircraft are weak and you’re given aiming assistance in the form of a reticule which shows how much to lead a plane in order to hit it.

And yes, the arcade setting will provide a thrill for the pilot who wants to experience simple seat-of-your-pants whizzing about blasting things. Don’t get us wrong – this is all very enjoyable initially – but we soon found it too undemanding.

Ratchet the skill up to the realistic level and matters take a turn for the much trickier. Unsurprisingly, flying the aircraft feels more real; firing your guns causes recoil to judder through the plane and landing requires a light and deft touch on the stick. And now you can stall: in fact, it’s almost too easy to do so. Pulling off tight turns or anything vaguely acrobatic is a testing affair, and should you stall then go into a spin, the game invokes a rather strange mechanic whereby you have to push and hold both analogue sticks (the flight stick and rudder) in opposite directions.

This might be a realistic recovery procedure – to be honest we’ve no idea – but the way it’s implemented here is confusing. We were never sure exactly when we could begin to pull out of the spin, and nine times out of ten we plummeted unceremoniously into the ground. And that was frustrating to say the least.

Combine all this with the loss of the aiming assistance, which makes everything doubly tricky, and we found that we fell between the two stools of the arcade and realistic levels. Neither quite sat right with us, so we limped along on realistic, occasionally cheesing our way through a tough mission (the difficulty curve has some nasty spikes) by dropping back down to arcade. Which wasn’t a particularly satisfying way to proceed through the campaign.

Still, there’s no denying that IL-2 Sturmovik is a beautifully crafted simulation in many ways, and a flexing display of the Xbox’s graphical power. With close on 70 missions and a meaty multiplayer mode, there’s plenty to get involved with, too. Providing, that is, you can live with the low-tech nature of arcade mode, or are patient enough to be able to master some of the more finicky flight mechanics when playing realistic.

Company: 505 Games

Thunderingly atmospheric and visually breathtaking, IL-2 Sturmovik is a cracker in many respects. However, it has some balancing issues. Options which allowed the player to fine-tune flight aids between the arcade and realistic difficulty levels would have been most welcome, in our opinion.