IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey Hands-On

One of the PC's premier flight sims soars to consoles. How's it play?


IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

The original IL-2 Sturmovik was a critical success in the flight simulator genre when it was released in 2001. Lauded for its hardcore realism, attention to detail, and amazing graphics, IL-2 raised the bar for combat flight sims--appropriate for a game based on a fighter bomber that Stalin said was as valuable to the Red Army as the air it breathes and the bread it eats.

The German Luftwaffe is again in trouble as new developer Gaijin Entertainment plans to release IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey on the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, with handheld versions on the PSP and Nintendo DS. At publisher 1C's annual press event, we got our hands on the 360 version of IL-2 and are pleased to report that Gaijin is holding true to the game's roots.

The Luftwaffe is about to feel the hurt in five different campaigns .
The Luftwaffe is about to feel the hurt in five different campaigns .

Expanding from the lesser-known Easter Front, fought between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II, IL-2 now sets its sights on five different theaters of war: The Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, Berlin, Sicily, and Korsun. You'll be able to tackle 50 missions in several different aircraft that 1C claims are historically accurate.

We jumped into the cockpit of a nimble British flyer as wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers slowly zeroed in on Dover. The attention to detail was striking. Every tree and building on the ground was modeled in 3D, so buzzing the tower proves to be a harrowing experience. We soared directly over Dover Castle, then over the deep blue of the English Channel. As we circled back toward the fight, the white cliffs of Dover rose majestically from the sea. But enough sightseeing. It's time to blow up some planes.

IL-2 will come with both a simulation mode and an arcade mode for the console crowd not accustomed to a level of realism that, for new players, can be frustrating. The German bombers didn't have a significant fighter escort, but they were well protected with their own onboard guns. Instead of approaching a heavily armed bomber from behind, we blazed in from above and below. Following behind a German tailgunner isn't advisable, but it's a great way to show off the awesome damage system in IL-2. Rather than a health meter, you'll see your plane take damage the old-fashioned way--with bullet holes.

On the 360, IL-2 handles much like the arcade WWII flying game Blazing Angels. The right stick adjusts your speed and rudder, while the left stick turns, climbs, and dives. You can cycle through targets with the A button and use a targeting camera with the left trigger. A small targeting reticle appears in front of enemies to help you shoot directly along their flight path. The squad commands are identical to Blazing Angels'. Using the D pad, you can order either an individual pilot or the entire wing to attack, regroup, or defend your position. We flew as part of two four-plane wings, and if you're shot down you can simply jump into the next plane, effectively giving you eight chances to silence the German engines.

The simulation mode limits you to a cockpit view only. You'll no longer have the assistance of any targeting reticles or bright red triangles that indicate the enemy position. Planes are much more likely to stall or spin if not handled properly, and you'll take more realistic damage as well. Naturally, you're forced to rely on your instrument panel, your squad, and your steely pilot instincts, something fans of the old IL-2 will appreciate. If you have a flight stick peripheral, prepare to plug it in.

Look for a number of different planes, including flying fortresses, in IL-2.
Look for a number of different planes, including flying fortresses, in IL-2.

We can't wait to release our bomber payloads over Berlin, but we'll have to wait at least a little while longer. IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey won't be released until 2009.

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