15th July, 1940. In a bunker, 10 feet below the bustling pavements of Whitehall, a pudgy, cigar-chewing, bulldog of a man sits lost in thought as the Battle of Britain rages overhead. 15th July, 2009. In that same bunker, 10 feet below the bustling streets of Whitehall, a pudgy, biro-chewing, poodle of a man sits lost in thought as the Battle of Britain rages on a huge plasma screen in front of him. 505 Games couldn't have picked a more appropriate location for demonstrating its imminent (4th September) combat flight sim. The dusty catacombs of the Cabinet War Rooms ooze WW2 authenticity, and, happily, it looks like IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey does too.
As a firm fan of the original realism-rich PC series, I went along expecting to be unimpressed. I feared I'd find my dear old friend, pale, withered, unrecognisable. I really should have had more faith. Yes, detail and depth has definitely been shed in the shift to PS3 and Xbox 360, but enough has survived to ensure Birds of Prey won't be lumped in with the likes of Blazing Angels and Secret Weapons Over Normandy when the history of console flight games comes to be written.
In some areas the youngster actually manages to be more realistic than its parent. The six tracts of European territory that provide the backdrops for the single and multiplayer action are staggeringly handsome - far more convincing than anything you'll find in the PC version. Kent's higgledy-piggledy fields and hedgerows, the Ardennes' snow-softened valleys and pine forests, and Berlin's breathtaking sea of rooftops and spires... PC simmers would kill to gaze down at such vistas.
Apparently, some poor soul at Gaijin has spent the last two years locked in a room turning contemporary satellite imagery and digital elevation data into gorgeous in-game terrain. Every trace of modernity has been painstakingly removed, millions of separate trees and buildings added. The results impress even at the lowest altitudes. Considering the amount of detail, it's astonishing just how far apart the horizons are. None of the arenas are smaller than 60km by 60km. That scourge of lite flight fare, the "You are leaving the mission area! Turn back!" message, shouldn't be a problem in Birds of Prey.
Neither should Spitfire-fatigue. Though the sim does set a portion of its 50 missions during Britain's familiar Finest Hour, and includes usual suspects like the Hurricane, Mustang and Messerschmitt 109 amongst its 12 flyables, it also ventures down some of WW2's least-frequented alleys. However many sims are on your shelf, chances are you won't have tangled with Italian bombers over Sicily, watched stricken Yaks plunge towards ruined Stalingrad, or pounded Panzers in the Korsun Pocket too many times before. These touches of the unfamiliar - the unfashionable - are IL-2 through-and-through. It would have been monstrously disloyal had Birds of Prey shipped without a major Eastern Front or similarly exotic component.
Other pleasant surprises include the view selection. Virtual cockpits are not only present, they are sculpted and skinned to an improbably high standard. None of your half-hearted HAWX panels here. If you choose to max-out the various realism settings you're going to be seeing a lot of these excellent interiors too. At its most uncompromising, Birds of Prey will prevent you from using any external cameras. It will disable the handy radar display, refuse to tell you which aircraft in view are friends and which are foe (get closer to distinguish them) or step in when your plane starts stalling or spinning. Only the acest aces will survive. Just about the only pulled punches are red-outs and black-outs. Even in 'simulation' mode you can pull as many Gs as you like and your vision will remain mountain-lake-clear.
At the other end of the difficulty scale, this is a game that's as eager to help out as a paedophile at a playgroup. Want targeting aids, assistance with plane handling, extra resilient airframes, everlasting ammo and fuel? They're yours. Gaijin doesn't want to scare anyone off. Given the inherent trickiness of forties-era dogfighting, it's a sensible stance. My brief inglorious taste of multiplayer reminded me why I wouldn't dream of playing an equivalent PC sim without a proper flightstick. Gamepads might be just about adequate for the cut and thrust of contemporary jet duels - Ace Combat, HAWX and the like - but in a title where everything depends on adept aerobatics and precise crosshairs-placement, a proper joystick is going to be a massively beneficial.
Birds of Prey isn't just about dogfighting, of course. During the demo we saw a German ammo dump eating the rockets of a hedge-hopping IL-2, Stukas diving on ships in Dover harbour, and B-17s braving flak to dump high explosive on Axis factories. There was talk that the 60 hours of campaign play would also include train-busting, recon photography, and supply drops. Remember that episode of Band of Brothers where Easy Company are huddled in the frozen forest near Bastogne? You're going to get to drop supplies to them. Slightly dishearteningly, there was no sign of take-offs anywhere. Apparently, optional landings will feature in a few sorties (nurse a damaged crate back to base to trigger an unlock or an Achievement) but it looks like missions will all start in the air. Given the size of the arenas and Gaijin's evident eagerness to please, the decision seems an odd one.
I'd love to be able to give you detailed analysis of aspects like AI, flight and damage modelling, but sadly there just wasn't time to assess such things properly. Computer-controlled pilots come with different experience levels, the more seasoned ones capable of pulling off fancy manoeuvres like the Immelman and Split-S. Whether this translates into challenging, credible, and above-all varied evasion and attack behaviours, only time and thorough testing will tell. The original IL-2 was pretty uncompromising when it came to battle damage. A single cannon shell zipping through a cockpit at head level could mean curtains. There was no sign of similar harshness in Birds of Prey, but planes certainly suffer severe hit-related handling penalties. In multiplay, slow, awkward smoke-trailing stragglers are going to be irresistible targets.
Thankfully, if you do end-up a singed lame duck, there should be friends around to watch your back a lot of the time. Three of the four multiplayer modes are team-based. Team deathmatch, ground strike (hit enemy ground forces while protecting your own) and capture the airfield (conquer a map by grabbing and holding all its airbases) lack originality but will no doubt provide some solid sky thrills. If Gaijin had made larger flyables like the IL-2 and B-17 fully crewable, I'd have pre-ordered months ago.
Other stuff I scribbled down during my visit to Churchill's not-quite-bomb-proof Blitz burrow:
- "150 planes in the sky at one time!"
- "Choose your own foes with the skirmish mode."
- "Control Wingmen with simple orders."
- "Luscious Joss Ackland narration."
- and "Not on PC! A cruel twist."
For years I've done the lion's share of my combat flight simming on computer. If Birds of Prey is as strong as I suspect it might be that could change. Go watch the videos, study the screenshots, and start preying nothing goes wrong.