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IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (Xbox 360) artwork

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (Xbox 360) review

"Regardless of how chaotic the on-screen action is, the game never shows any sign of struggling. From the fully working instruments that track every aspect of your journey should you select to view your flight inside the cockpit to the outrageous details ploughed into the landscapes youíll scream over to even the ridiculous numbers of targets and allies clogging up the skies, the approached little touches club together to create an immaculate and clearly laboured after setting. "

Iíll admit; I already had preconceptions about IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, a game thatís ashamedly advertised itself as the consoleís deepest flight sim ever made. For those not in the know, the IL-2 Sturmovik series has, for a decade now, been one of the most hailed flyers on the PC, boasting realistic flight physics and the need to employ the entire keyboard to engage everything from turning flaps to landing gears. This means that Birds of Prey would probably fall into dangerous grounds, trying to appease the hardcore PC fanatics who will leak tears of rage should the gravity-driven carburettor of their Spitfires not cause the plane to stall in zero-g conditions, realistically mimicking the biggest drawback to its complete lack of direct fuel injection and the console simpletons who just want things to explode.

I donít really know which group I belong in. On one hand, Iím nerdy enough to tell you the Spitfireís biggest drawback off the top of my head, but, on the other, the idea of employing half a billion keys just to lower my planeís landing gears is grey enough to send me into a dribbling coma right here at the keyboard. Iím also the unpredictable middle ground audience Gaijin Entertainment might dread the most. So, the fact that Iím about the recommend the hell out of their game probably fares pretty well for them.

The Arcade mode is probably what the majority of people will gravitate towards, and it walks the unenviable middle line between the two very conflicting camps with a sense of deserved confidence. Your WWII era plane isnít going to make instantaneous turns or break the sound barrier; theyíre clunky and cumbersome and, in all their complexity, eventually awesome. Eventually because IL-2 boasts the best kind of learning curve; one that feels like it will forever evade your grasp as you smash your Hurricane fighter into the rolling green fields of England for the umpteenth time. And then, before you realise it, youíre nose-diving into formations of bombers, banking hard on to come around for a second bombing run on naval targets and pulling off loops just because you can.

The expected hand holding does stray dangerously close to overkill, though. Dogfights demand that streams of gunfire are calculated with the speed of yourself and your target in mind, inviting you to plough lead and missiles into where the enemy craft will be when they get there, rather than where they are now. In this mode, a handy crosshair provide the equivalent of a hot pink flashing sign screaming Ďshoot here for the win!Ď. Dropping bombs is helped in a likewise fashion, and youíre even given the chance to lock on to enemy craft and mission objectives and centre the wayward camera on victims highlighted in this fashion. Iím sure the PC crowd will, to a man, be turning their nose up at the lack of realism, so Iíll use the chance to sneak in the fact that Iím secretly rather glad it plays out that way without sacrificing my respectable standing in the world of online nerdery.

The helping hand helps you appreciate the overall package a hell of a lot more. The planes are captured in almost photo-realistic detail, right down to the bullet holes snaking up their canopy and the fountains of oil spat out by dying Stuka bombers, that dribble and splat onto you camera, momentarily obscuring your view should you stray too close. It makes climbing through wispy cloud formations to lay waste to unaware formations timelessly exhilarating. Lead flies, flaming carcasses and metal fragments rain down, while the more fortunate of the German pilots eject and parachute, lazily drifting around you. Drop bombs, and a mini-window opens up, showing you exactly were they land, be it harmlessly in the English Channel or into the bow of a Nazi carrier. Post mission debriefings have extracts of the pilotís diary being read with appropriate gravity, drawing on the patchwork of emotions; youthful exuberance and patriotic pride clashing with remorse for friends lost and the increasingly tightening grip of fear.

Without the strangling rigmarole of by-the-book realistic flying, these high-octane moments become an exciting reality, and Birds of Prey throws at you a multitude of ways to really enjoy it best. The meaty single player campaign offers twenty different missions split into six different war fronts that has you doing anything from protecting Dover from an aerial assault, backed up by anti-air support from the ground and friendly squadrons in the sky, to running bombing raids over Russian towns, hoping to root out entrenched artillery. Thereís also a fantastic multiplayer setting which allows up to sixteen players to fight it out in interchangeable weather conditions and strict limiting of which of the many unlockable planes can be used in any given skirmish. There are the usual options to try and blow the snot out of each other, but also present are some clever aviation twists on capture the flag with airbases you need to land in to capture, and others you need to ward off bombers from razing to the ground.

Regardless of how chaotic the on-screen action is, the game never shows any sign of struggling. From the fully working instruments that track every aspect of your journey should you select to view your flight inside the cockpit to the outrageous details ploughed into the landscapes youíll scream over to even the ridiculous numbers of targets and allies clogging up the skies, the approached little touches club together to create an immaculate and clearly laboured after setting.

Then, once Arcade is seen off, and after the game forces you to read several encyclopaedia entries explaining how it all works, youíre given the chance to try it all again on differing settings on realism. Here, the guiding hands are lopped off at the wrist and youíre left alone with only a cleverly shaped chunk of metal several thousand feet up in the air and very little chance of survival without a handy flight stick accessory to help control all the sudden extras dumped upon your lap. Itís not so much a negative mark to point out how, suddenly, manoeuvres you once took for granted now stall your struggling Rolls-Royce V12 engine, plummeting you groundside with all the mobility of a sack of bowling balls, but is instead commendable in how well it manages to cater for the differing audiences that will naturally be drawn to the title.

The realistic setting dials things up in such a manner. The simulation mode cuts all guiding strings and gives a snooty little giggle as you repeatedly die in a blaze of fire long before an enemy even appears on your screen. In this setting, itís a simple case that without the flight stick attachment, you may as well eject early and save yourself the trouble.

The pessimistic outlook is that while console goers will probably find the arcade version of the game enjoyable, theyíll never feel the need to surge into the less forgiving settings and the PC crowd already expectant of the whole range of realistic extras have no need to leave their computers to find the experience elsewhere. The optimistic outlook is simply that the game, as a whole, is a surprising success, one making good on the unspoken promise to bridge the gap between two very different types of flight simulators.

The first thing you need to decide is which side of the line you belong on. Once you have that choice made, know that, regardless of your pick, IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey has you covered.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (September 07, 2009)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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