IL-2: Forgotten Battles Preview
Maddox Games is following up its great WWII sim by adding lots of new planes and a dynamic single-player campaign.
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The great flight sims of recent years have had a decidedly esoteric bent. GameSpot's 1999 Flight Sim of the Year, MiG Alley, modeled the fascinating but underappreciated Korean War, with its mix of propeller aircraft and early jets, and featured a tremendous dynamic campaign. It was truly a unique flying experience in a number of ways. Similarly, GameSpot's 2001 Flight Sim of the Year, IL-2 Sturmovik from Russian developer Maddox Games, tackled the little-known air war over the eastern front of World War II. Even if you didn't know a Polikarpov from a Lavochkin when you went in, serious flight sim fans came away with respect for the challenges faced by the pilots of the aircraft that ultimately stopped Hitler in his tracks. Likewise, fans of German aircraft who thought they knew everything about the Me-109 found out that the Russian aircraft weren't the pushovers they might have thought. With flight and aircraft models that put previous prop sims to shame, IL-2 made flying a Messerschmidt a revelation once again.
While MiG Alley has unfortunately fallen off the flight sim radar as far as longevity goes, IL-2 is still going strong, thanks to a fanatic user community and a dedicated developer that just keeps making the game better and better. Forgotten Battles--a title that almost sounds like a reproach--was originally going to be an expansion pack, but it's now set to be released as a full-featured sequel next month. So if you missed IL-2 the first time around, here's your chance to make up for it. In a way, experienced gamers may almost envy you for it: There's no feeling quite like the one of first realizing you're playing a classic.
The main attraction of Forgotten Battles is all the new planes to fly, and there are plenty. There are bombers galore, including several Stuka models (including the "tank buster" G-version), the He-111, and the Russian TB-3 monstrosity. The Finnish B-239 makes an appearance, and aviation fans will immediately recognize this as the diminutive F2A Brewster Buffalo, which was hopelessly outclassed in the Pacific air war but which served the Finns quite well over Karelia. (You can fly as a Finnish or even a Hungarian pilot now). Aircraft that are more familiar to combat sim fans and that are now flyable in Forgotten Battles include the Me-262 jet fighter, various Hurricane models (Finnish and Russian), and new versions of the Me-109 and FW-190 (the latter being the high-altitude "Dora" model).
If you miss the old US aircraft, you can hop into a P-47 Thunderbolt or a P-40 Warhawk in Russian colors, as these aircraft were delivered to the USSR as part of the US Lend-Lease Act and were flown by Soviet pilots. The range of missions is truly staggering, with the ability to do almost anything, including dropping torpedoes from your He-111. Ground attack, night bombing, antishipping strikes--it's all here. Some of the aircraft models have been redone for the sequel and look absolutely gorgeous, which is saying something, since IL-2 already had some of the best WWII aircraft models ever. Clouds and weather continue to look stellar as well.
Forgotten Battles will ship with 20 new single-player missions, 10 multiplayer missions, and five new maps (along with all the original maps from IL-2). The multiplayer portion of the game will support 32 players in both competitive and cooperative modes. There is a ton of new content here for players of all types, and online play should especially benefit from all the new possibilities for head-to-head play (of all styles, including boom-and-zoom or close-in dogfighting) arising from the additional aircraft models. A full-featured editor as well as a quick mission builder should ensure that the game never gets old.
Perhaps partly because of IL-2's static solo campaigns and questionable AI, the game's fan base is heavily slanted toward online play. Of course, any sim this good is going to command an online following, but one of the goals of Forgotten Battles is to make the single-player game more robust, and to that end Forgotten Battles will sport a dynamic campaign, with missions generated on the fly. You won't be able to win the war just because your Stuka completes all its missions, though, so expect to feel like a small cog in a huge war. That's probably as it should be, since it keeps the game's historical fidelity pegged at a high level.
It's possible that this focus on the obscure is part of what makes IL-2 seem so real. Western European air war flight sims have become set in their conventions, with little new that can be added except for better ground textures and flight models. IL-2 Sturmovik uses the unfamiliarity of its subject matter to its advantage. Make no mistake--IL-2 succeeds because it has all the elements of a superlative flight sim, including well-modeled terrain, weather, aircraft graphics, and flight and damage models. But the intangible that goes along with these qualities is that of believability, and the shift to a lesser-known place and time makes it easier to believe, in a sense, that you're there, that it's Kursk, that your armored spearhead is down below, and that you need to keep the Bolshies off the Tigers, or that you're saving Mother Russia by bouncing the Stukas over Stalingrad. It's all a part of the immersion and suspension of disbelief that a really good simulation can provide.
Gamers who have already experienced the original IL-2 know what to expect from Forgotten Battles. Will the sequel live up to the standards of its predecessor? It's too soon to say. The ideas are all there, and the execution seems good at this point. Maybe just before the game is published, someone will accidentally delete a line of code and make all the aircraft fly backward. We can't promise that won't happen. But based on what is here, sim fans look to be in for a very special experience. Given the dearth of quality flight sims during the past two years, they deserve it. The game is scheduled for a March release.
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