IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is the latest instalment of the popular fighter series and sees you take to the skies to score World War II glory.
There are several game modes available, including the single player campaign which follows on from the tutorial levels, some of which are optional, but you'll need to complete certain aspects of the tutorial if you wish to progress into the move advanced Realistic or Simulation modes on offer. Multiplayer options are also offered and a wealth of historical information that can be unlocked as you progress.
The action picks up on various stages of the Second World War, opening with the Battle of Britain, before shifting around Europe, over to the Eastern front, before moving into the action around Berlin at the end of the war in Europe.
As storylines go, it is just about interesting enough, but weaved together with historical notes and cutscenes. Narration from Joss Ackland appears in the form of diaries at the end of each mission, of which the novelty soon wanes. It seems to fit the British aspects at the opening of the game, but once you are into the Russian aircraft, you start to wonder what he is droning on about, and are most likely to skip through these little breaks in the action.
However, the score from Jeremy Soule gives Birds of Prey the sort of atmosphere you associate with some of the best war films out there, with rousing orchestrals bringing an appealing historical authenticity to proceedings.
As a popular PC simulator, there is always a potential conflict as to how well the step will be made to consoles. Fortunately, the problem is simply bypassed by the Arcade mode, which essentially provides a fun aerial combat shooter, without the worry of really having to do any technical flying.
As a console title this is perhaps what you want. It is a pick-up-and-play aerial combat game with basic controls neatly squeezed onto a controller. On Arcade mode you can take advantage of assistance to guide you in targeting as well as flying and you can generally fling the aircraft around the skies with wanton abandon.
The combination of using the two analogue sticks for aircraft control works nicely and (in Arcade modes at least), you'll pick up enough of a feeling for the aircraft in a few levels of the tutorial.
The d-pad finds itself given over to command, allowing you to issue instructions to the other aircraft in your flight. Tapping the A button puts you on a target, which you can then issue a command to attack, or just so you can keep track of things. Targeting is assisted, with an aiming reticule showing how much you need to aim off, and also giving you a clue to your target's change of directions.
Several views are at your disposal (through the Y button) with some nod to alternative gun positions in larger aircraft, not that you'll ever really need to use them. The classic third person behind-the-aircraft view works well enough for almost all situations, with a first person heads-up display providing almost flawless accuracy for aiming on bombing runs. The cockpit view, which you use in Simulation modes, is nice, but seriously limiting for fast arcade action.
Using the left trigger gives you a target view, i.e., it show you who you are supposed to be attacking, whilst pressing and holding the right analogue stick lets you look around, to spot targets, or just to have a nosey at the other aircraft. It's a flawed system, as the left stick also controls throttle, so whilst you're looking around, you'll probably drop out of the sky.
Weaving in and out of the story are various different types of tasks to complete across the levels. Some are incredibly simple, like downing a couple of bombers, some are more tedious, like hitting enemy armour advancing through city streets. Not difficult as such, but they can be a little repetitive. Most levels mix things up a bit, but you can pretty much destroy any enemy you like, so long as you are sensitive to any time restrictions that might be in place. For example, when it says "stop the transports getting through", it really means it.
Picking sedate transports or bombers out of the sky never really presents much of a challenge: get your position right, slow down so you don't have to keep looping around and you can take down a whole pack in almost no time. Downing fighters is a little more of a challenge and in latter stages of the game you'll see yourself in huge dog fights where the biggest danger is potentially mid-air collision.
The campaign on Arcade mode is almost too easy, which perhaps makes up for the somewhat repetitive nature of things. Watching your Luftwaffe opponents break-up in mid-air looks great and the splatter of oil across the windshield of your Spitfire will raise a smile.
Secondary missions will appear once you complete the first-rung tasks, but seem to be woefully overlooked. Normally they entail leaving the combat area, simply by flying in a straight line, unfettered by enemy. You are instructed early on about landing gear, but in completing the game we only used it twice: once to land back at an airfield and once mid-mission to destroy a grounded aircraft.
From a visual point of view, the aircraft are beautifully rendered. The opening levels that see you flying over the Kentish countryside and over the cliffs of Dover look sensational, but we didn't feel the same excitement over the Eastern front, which seemed a little drab by comparison. The damage system is also good: catch a burst of enemy fire and you'll find holes in your wings and hampered flight performance.
With such a short campaign mode (in Arcade), online offers a range of multiplayer options, ranging from single dog fights up to 16 player team missions, which gives you the chance to take to the skies with friends, or more likely, complete strangers.
There is a lot of unlockable content however, providing a range of single missions to complete, as well as unlocking a huge wealth information for you to digest, so you can dive into the hanger and examine the spec of all the aircraft. It’s a shame that there are no levels that put you in the cockpit of any of the German aircraft: they are there in multiplayer, but the single player game is very much a case of Allied vs Axis, which again, seems a bit of a waste.
IL2-Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is entertaining for what it is as an arcade title, but the short-lived nature of things means for some that it will only last a weekend.
Simulation fans, we suspect, will be turned off by the limiting control options provided with a standard controller presented here, but for those looking for a greater challenge, they'll certainly find it here.
It looks good though and runs smooth enough, even when things get really busy. If you have an interest in aircraft with a penchant for a bit of history, then it is worth a shot.