IL-2 Sturmovik Preview

Who says the flight sim genre is dead? We take Maddox Games' IL-2 out for a spin.

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A few short years ago, World War II flight sims were all the rage. European Air War, Combat Flight Simulator, Screamin' Demons Over Europe, Nations: WWII Fighter Command, and Luftwaffe Commander all competed for shelf space and flight time in the hands of sim enthusiasts, but unfortunately, they all modeled the same thing: the air war over Western Europe. While Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 2 recently filled a long-standing void in Pacific theater sims, the last Sturmovik sim (by Electronic Arts) modeled the modern Su-25 jet version--and, apparently, it was released ages ago. With IL-2, sims are truly branching out into uncharted territory. And judging from IL-2's build--which we received from Blue Byte, the game's publisher outside of Russia--it is territory that's well worth visiting.

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While Maddox Games won't be a familiar name to most North American gamers, the recent merger of 1C and Maddox Games paired one of Russia's largest publishers with one of its most respected developers. Together, they are creating a comprehensive flight simulator that will depict air combat over the eastern front of World War II, with Germany and the USSR as combatants. The game will include a wide range of single-player missions, such as ground attacks, fighter sweeps, escort and interception missions, and even antishipping duties. You will be able to fly in career mode as either a Russian or German fighter pilot or as a Russian bomber pilot. IL-2 will model the entire air war over the eastern front and will also let you design your own missions with a robust mission builder.

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In keeping with its title and country of origin, IL-2 Sturmovik will provide focus on not only the IL-2 but also several other types of Russian aircraft, including the LaGG-3 and MiG-3. There are several variants of each aircraft, and each varies in its specific weapon loadouts. In addition to these three planes, you'll be able to fly the American-built P-39 Airacobra as a Russian pilot. The P-39 was provided to the USSR in large numbers under the Lend-Lease Act. As the Germans, you'll be able to fly three versions of the Messerschmidt Bf-109 (the F and two G variants). Furthermore, the developers have suggested that several other aircraft may be designed to allow for fully flyable versions to be released at a later date. These additional aircraft include the FW-190, several models of Yakovlev (the Yak-3 and Yak-9), as well as the famed Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber. All of these aircraft will be available in the release version as nonflyable AI planes and will include the Ju-52 transport aircraft (a workhorse at Stalingrad) and even the Fiesler "Storch" Fi-156 scout plane. Other AI planes will be German bombers, such as the He-111 and the Ju-88, and a variety of Russian aircraft.

Since the Sturmovik was a two-seater, IL-2 will permit you to fly either as the pilot or as the tailgunner with an AI pilot for assistance--and you may switch from pilot to gunner at will. Cooperative play will let two players fill the pilot and gunner seats. Maddox Games hopes to release subsequent add-ons to allow for even more aircraft with dual positions, such as the pilot and a turret gunner in the Ju-88 and Tu-2.

Visual Detail

The graphics in IL-2 are nothing short of outstanding. The aircraft models are beautiful, especially from up close, where you can see individual geschwader (squadron) markings. IL-2 pays a great deal of attention to detail, to the extent that the game database includes a model for Stuka, which was flown by dive-bomber ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel. Rudel was so deadly in his bomber that Stalin put a price on his head. This added intrigue--the chance to shoot down a famous ace--enhances the game's historical atmosphere. The aircraft include detailed pilot models so that you can see your enemy face-to-face.

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The terrain in the preview is limited to open steppe, but the panoramas we saw do a nice job of conveying the expanse of the Russian plains while looking remarkably good at low level. This is important because if you're flying the Sturmovik, a lot of your time will be spent at low altitude. Small villages dot the landscape, and the huts look quite good up close. The trick will be to manage the detail in all of these elements so that the graphics don't overwhelm the processor. Without the detail at maximum levels, the game ran well on our midrange system, and this was before much optimization had been done on the pre-beta version. The clouds are also impressive, and various lighting effects round out what looks to be one of the most visually attractive sims in years. This should only improve as Maddox Games adds touches that have not yet been implemented in our version, such as exhaust gases and wheel dust. Another thing that wasn't fully present in our build, but which will be featured in the final version, was weather effects, as these played a key role in air combat on the eastern front.

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The virtual cockpits in IL-2 are as good as the rest of the sim, and the dials are crisp and clearly readable. Aircraft damage is carefully modeled through damaged rudders, ailerons, and propellers, as well as other aircraft body damage. The version we had didn't have the damage properly incorporated into the flight model yet, although the final version will meticulously account for the effects of such damage on aircraft handling.

One of the most impressive things about IL-2 is the vehicle models. The in-mission models in the preview version were limited to Pz IV tanks, but the accompanying vehicle library demonstrated how accurately Maddox Games has depicted various eastern front tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces. These range from the BT-7 light tank to the monster Pz VIb "King Tiger," and they will appear in the game's missions--or they might be included in custom-designed scenarios created with the comprehensive mission builder. Each was modeled meticulously, with amazing detail right down to the camouflage schemes. Far from just being pretty pictures, though, each vehicle has its positional armor modeled to reflect historical strengths and weaknesses. Panther tanks will be formidable from the front but weak in the flanks, for example. The air war over the Russian front was an important part of the largest land battle in history, and the attention to detail in the vehicles should add greatly to the game's atmosphere. You'll even be able to find Flakpanzers, trucks, and individual soldiers on motorcycles with sidecars. All these vehicles are available for designing your own missions.

Behind the Stick

The preview build we received is still classified as a pre-beta, so several important features remain unimplemented or not completely implemented. The flight model is listed as a work in progress, so it's impossible to draw any conclusions yet; however, the Sturmovik itself has a satisfyingly sluggish feel to it, thus lending credence to its nickname of the "concrete plane." This appellation was actually bestowed on it by its own pilots due to its ruggedness and resistance to battle damage; however, flying the IL-2 is very different from piloting nimble aircraft like the MiG-3 or the Bf-109. Going after a squadron of He-111s in a MiG-3 can be a turkey shoot until the escorting fighters show up. Conversely, shepherding a squadron of slow-moving Stukas in your Messerschmidt is a completely different type of mission. Because of the relative lack of true strategic bombing on the eastern front, everything eventually comes down to ground attack, and this is where IL-2 excels.

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Our preview version came with four missions: two from the German side and two from the Russian. One of the Russian missions had a tank-busting objective and demonstrated the care with which you'll have to line up your ground-attack runs. Flying the Sturmovik is not easy, and even with its ability to withstand damage, it's quite a challenge to avoid both ground-based antiaircraft fire and marauding fighters. Once you get low enough to put the German tanks in your gun sights, it's quite a sight to see them rotate their turrets and kick up snow as they race across the steppe to escape your rockets and cannons. The IL-2 comes with a variety of loadouts, including 37mm cannons, antitank rockets, 7.62mm machine guns, and a 12.7mm gun for the rear gunner in the two-seat versions. There will even be a torpedo bomber (the IL-2T) from Soviet Naval Aviation for the antishipping missions, where you'll be able to hunt U-boats, torpedo boats, and destroyers.

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Multiplay in IL-2 will allow for up to 32 players in dogfight (deathmatch) mode or 16 players in cooperative play mode. While IL-2 will not allow cooperative play for either the single missions or the campaigns, the game will ship with between 10 and 15 scenarios designed specifically for team/cooperative play. For those who want to join virtual squadrons or who simply want to customize their planes, IL-2 will come with a wide selection of national and squadron markings, fuselage numbers, camouflage, as well as the ability to create your own versions of each of these.

IL-2 will be playable on a Pentium II-300 with 64MB RAM, although the recommended system specs are double this (Pentium III-600 and 128MB RAM). In both cases, a 3D video card is required. As previously mentioned, Blue Byte Software has exclusive marketing rights of the game outside of Russia. The game will not be available in stores; instead, it will be exclusively offered via Blue Byte's online store at www.bluebyte.net. IL-2 Sturmovik is scheduled for release in the second quarter of 2000, so by June you should be able to see for yourself how the air war over the Russian front felt. We'll have more details as they become available.

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