IL2 Sturmovik Reader Review
There can’t be a person alive who hasn’t seen the old ‘Battle of Britain’ movie. Even kids who’re too young to have had their first history lesson have probably had it inflicted on them at Christmas by nostalgic Grandparents, muttering about rationing and the Blitz and how rare bananas were. We all remember the horror at the first sight of ‘Stukas!’ as their trademark howl kicks in, bombs fly and the ground below erupts in fire.
In real life, however – or as close as you can get to it without sitting in one of the things for real, the Stuka is a big fat brick. IL2 Sturmovik – Cliffs of Dover’s aircraft simulation is so precisely modelled that even the tiniest scratch in the wrong place can seriously damage the performance of your aircraft. In one mission, I dive-bomb one of the big hangars at Manston, then pull out and make a dash for the coast along with the rest of the wing. My turn is wide and shallow and I catch a nasty Bofors flak round to the belly of the plane. I hear the impact register, see the plume of steam, then the engine notification: 'radiator perforated'. I drop the propeller pitch to shallow, crank the radiator full open to put less strain on the soon-to overheat engine and head out towards the Channel. While I've got my head down closing the bomb window in the bottom of the plane, a Hurricane boom and zooms me, raking the right wing and fuselage with .303 rounds. The right wing is leaking fuel, a little at first but increasing, and soon the whole plane is tipping to the left due to the weight imbalance. The Hurricane makes a second pass but the rear gunner scares him enough that he overshoots, and that's the last I see of him.
Ten minutes later - two to three miles out from France and a safe landing - the exhausts flame, propeller revs drop through the floor as the oil gasket bursts and the windscreen blackens in seconds. Airspeed drops fast and though I try my best to keep a stable glide, the Stuka just isn’t built for it. 30 seconds later I plunge into the drink – a pilot’s worst nightmare.
And a nightmare it has been. Dogged from release by poor optimisation, sketchy vanilla content and a minimum spec that would scare even the hardiest of wallets, Cliffs of Dover has had its fair share of criticism. The game’s US release has been delayed several times, in what is presumed to be an attempt to fix any major issues before engaging the US market. Long standing developer and series mastermind Oleg Maddox left before development could be completed, and just months before release, the developers reported the implementation of an ‘epilepsy filter’ which had badly disrupted both their final optimisation and testing programme, destroying the game’s performance. Crossfire/SLI didn’t work, and at release only those with the most powerful computers could see anything more than a slideshow.
Fast forward a month or two and the story is gradually improving. Three patches (so far) have introduced reduced-size textures for lower end machines, gradual but noticeable improvement in AI and flight models, and reduced load-stutter for the majority of users. Each patch has been preceded by a beta made available to the community to aid in testing, an admirable direction by the developers that is sadly undermined by a notable lack of communication.
That’s not to say it’s all bad, however. A decent selection of flyable period aircraft, including the famous ME109, Hurricane and Spitfire in multiple variants jostle for position beside multiple-seat bombers like the Heinkel HE-111 and Bristol Blenheim. New aircraft are promised, and as of the time of writing the ME109 E-1 (machine gun) variant has just been added in the recent retail patch. Larger bombers such as the Wellington and more unusual fighters like the Defiant are included, but are currently restricted to AI control.
Assuming you make it past the hardware hurdle, flight in Cliffs of Dover is nothing short of beautiful. Well detailed, almost fully clickable cockpit interiors with the full complement of working gauges provide wonderful immersion, but the flight model itself is the star of the show. Hundreds of environmental, aerodynamic, engine and damage effects are fully modelled in the game, allowing for a degree of complexity hitherto unseen in a WW2 flight simulator. You can of course switch all this off for a much more ‘arcade’ experience, but the real meat of the simulator is found in the ‘Complex Engine Management’.
The CEM requires you to control every aspect of your aircraft manually, from flaps to fuel cocks, and although initially complex, is incredibly rewarding once mastered. CEM allows you to get the most out of your plane in a way the simple ‘arcade’ engine doesn’t – for example moving to a high propeller pitch to get a little more power out of a climb, or dropping flaps a few degrees in a sharp, slow turn for a better angle. Fuel mixture, propeller pitch, oil and water radiators and individual throttles are all modelled, and virtually all can be controlled through the clickable cockpit, or by assigning keys. Every plane is different (the twin-engine Blenheim is a particular pig to fly) and learning them all requires a considerable investment of time; so much so that you’ll still be learning new things about your Hurricane even after a solid year of flying.
Visually the game is very impressive, with some gorgeous ground textures, details and aircraft – but again the hardware beast rears its head. Lowering the detail leaves the game looking less like a modern, newly released sim and more like its decade old predecessor with only the new aircraft graphics intact. If your PC has the stones, however, you’ll be delighted to see steam trains rolling past while you’re warming your engine up, tanks and AA batteries well rendered and full of motion on those low level strafing runs, and even the slumped positions of dead enemy pilots as their fighters arc towards the ground.
In terms of content, Cliffs of Dover comes out lacking once again. Two campaigns of reasonable length, but bereft of any dynamic capacity are included alongside a selection of ‘Quick Missions’ for instant action. The British campaign is a semi-structured, story based set of missions with ‘diary’ briefings between flights, while the German is more historically accurate, taking you through several different aircraft in a variety of roles through actual historical recreations. Both campaigns suffer from minor localisation issues, and in many missions the outcome of the battle does not reflect the events of the mission at all, leaving you wondering what you did wrong. Frustrating enemy AI and no ability (yet) to fully command your wingmen also leaves a lot to be desired.
More potential can be found within the depths of the Full Mission Builder, which allows you to work with the full selection of aircraft and other vehicles to create your own scenarios. No manual currently exists, however and as a result the FMB is largely uncharted, being used by only a fearless minority. User made campaigns and community fixes are beginning to surface and I have no doubt that in time the community will furnish Cliffs of Dover with a great deal of very well researched content, as they did with IL2-1946.
Multiplayer is supported, with the potential for over 100 players across several maps, including the English Channel/France map used in the campaigns. Multiple-seat aircraft can be fully crewed by humans, though game modes for the most part consist of the traditional dogfight variations. Servers run through the Steam platform and are notoriously buggy at present, with regular disconnects and sound errors.
For now then, Cliffs of Dover remains a tarnished gem. Only those with high-end hardware are likely to get anywhere near the best performance out of it in its current state, and while patches are regular, there are still plenty of issues left to battle through. When it does work, the recreation of flying an actual World War Two aircraft is unparalleled, and flight sim enthusiasts will simply adore it – after flying with CEM, your old sims will feel like so many paper aeroplanes. But even those same enthusiasts should give it a good six months, maybe a year before picking it up, in case the long, uphill struggle for optimisation dampens their spirits. Casual flyers should steer well clear.