Flight sims, so recently pronounced dead by the gaming community due to a lack of announced games, seem to be making a bit of a comeback with several good-looking ones on the horizon. Leading the charge is an unlikely game called IL-2 Sturmovik, from Russian developer Maddox Games. The Sturmovik was the workhorse ground-attack aircraft for the Soviet Union on World War II's eastern front, and Maddox Games is bringing it to your computer by the end of the year. It's a subject that hasn't really been covered by a flight sim yet, and the freshness of the topic combined with the high technical standard that the game is demonstrating could make it one of the year's best releases.
One of the first things we noticed is how good IL-2 Sturmovik looks. It's not an exaggeration to say that this could turn out to be the best-looking World War II flight sim to date. The aircraft models are simply gorgeous, with superb detail right down to squadron markings and different summer and winter paint schemes. One of the most impressive things about the graphics is that even in its early beta state, the game ran fairly smoothly on a midrange computer without a lot of memory or a top-of-the-line graphics card. If Maddox Games can smooth it out even more, this could be a game that somehow provides unsurpassed visuals without bogging down your machine. We'll believe it when we see it, but signs are good so far.
Because the air war over the eastern front was so closely tied to the land campaign (there was no real strategic bombing campaign like there was on the western front), most missions have some ground element, whether it's direct attack or the escort (or interception) of aircraft aiding the ground war. You'll be spending a lot of time down low, and this means that the terrain needs to look good up close. So far, it does. The missions available in our beta included both winter and summer missions in various weather conditions. The terrain engine does a good job of capturing the expanse of the Russian and Ukrainian steppe as a seamless expanse, and it's very effective in projecting the idea of space. The weather effects are another of the game's strong suits and include one of the best renderings of a thunderstorm in a World War II flight sim. Probably the only game that has produced rain effects so convincingly in any era is last year's Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs. Hokum.
Even more so than the terrain, the vehicle models are simply outstanding. Whether it's a tank-busting mission, an antishipping strike, or a bombing run against a crucial bridge, the ground units involved look better than in some recent tank simulations. The ships also look sharp, and their movement through the water looks convincing as well, as do the torpedo tracks. This kind of detail--like when your mission is to blow up a bridge and the convoy of vehicles heading down the road looks realistic and isn't just a collection of boxy shapes--really enhances the game. The immersion factor in IL-2 is very high, even in this unfinished state.
One of the attractive features of IL-2 is that you get the chance to fly a number of aircraft that haven't been portrayed before as flyable aircraft in a flight simulation. In addition to the IL-2, there are fighters such as the LaGG-3 and MiG-3. There's also the welcome inclusion of the P-39 Airacobra, which was a US-built aircraft that was shipped to the Soviet Union in large numbers to aid in its war effort. A notable inclusion is a naval variant of the IL-2, which means that you'll be able to fly your own antishipping missions and even drop torpedoes. You can fly the Sturmovik as the pilot or turn on the autopilot and fly as the gunner. Ground attack fans should have enough to keep them busy in this game for a long time.
An interesting point to note is that while the IL-2 is a heavily armored plane, it's not that difficult to fly. It's certainly not a nimble fighter, but it is a stable platform, and while you won't be performing stunts even when unburdened by ordnance, it's nowhere near as fickle a craft as some of the fighters in other recent World War II sims. The developers have stated on several occasions that this is because the IL-2 was not a particularly difficult aircraft to fly. For this reason, novice pilots may be pleasantly surprised that a realistic flight sim doesn't necessarily have to be impossible to master. Of course, there are many other factors to being a skillful pilot, but the stability of the aircraft may make IL-2 a good candidate for beginning sim pilots (as long as they are interested in the subject matter) while also giving hard-core simmers a challenge. That would be quite an achievement, and the way the game is shaping up, it certainly looks possible. Of course, there are the standard options for increasing and decreasing realism by turning various parts of the physics model on and off, but in this game (at least for certain aircraft), novice pilots may not need them.
The last time we took a look at the game, we got a chance to fly a selection of single-player missions. The current build adds a mission builder as well as a single-pilot campaign that takes you through a series of linked missions. There are plenty of nonflyable AI-controlled aircraft as well, and the missions range from ground attack to escort and bomber interception--truly a wide assortment. Even the escort missions have a twist--one of them involves protecting a group of transports carrying paratroops. The resulting airdrop is quite a sight to behold and adds a great deal to the spectacle that IL-2 is shaping up to be.
IL-2 was originally slated to be available only via mail order (as was the case with many Blue Byte games in the US), but Ubi Soft's acquisition of Blue Byte means that IL-2 will now get retail store distribution. If the game turns out to be as good as it seems to be shaping up to be, the retail exposure will not be wasted. The due date has been pushed back a bit, so look for it on store shelves this coming November.