The reboot of the IL-2 WW2 flight simulation series sees the franchise return to its roots on the Eastern Front
TIM ROBINSON reviews the latest WW2 combat flight simulator for the PC - IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad. Does it live up to the legendary Sturmovik sim name?
Over ten years ago, a PC flight simulator arrived that raised the bar for WW2 combat sims - the now iconic Il-2 Sturmovik, which spawned official add-on packs, third-party mods, paint schemes and, in 2011, a flawed gem of a sequel - 'Il-2 Cliffs of Dover’. Now rebooted by the makers of WW1 sim 'Rise of Flight', can the latest entry in this combat flight sim series live up to the Il-2 name?
Cockpits of the ten flyable aircraft (here a LaGG-3) are on the whole excellent - despite being non-mouse clickable.
Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad (il-2 BoS) focuses on a specific narrow period (winter of 1942/43) in the critical struggle for Stalingrad, allowing the player to fly any of up to 10 aircraft during the battle – the Yak 1, Me109F/G, LaGG-3, bombers such as Pe-2 and He111 and of course the Ju-87 and Il-2. There is also a ‘premium pack’ option that adds the La-5 and FW190A-3 (the latter not historically present at Stalingrad). As well as single-seat fighters, the pilot and crew positions are modelled in in multicrew aircraft like the He111 and Pe-2, allowing players to switch into gunners roles to defend the aircraft.
The sim can be configured to two main difficulty levels - ‘Normal’ (icons, map on, automatic engine management) and ‘Expert’ (all icons and helpers off) for the campaign or customised for quick missions or online. One drawback here that the campaign (see below) is playable only at either Normal or Expert - denying players to mix and match realism settings (for example, icons off, CEM on, but external views on to capture stunning screenshots).
The game itself has been available to play for a while now under an ‘Early Access’ programme, with it gradually becoming more complete until the release last week.
Missions and campaign
The vast map of Stalingrad has been painstakingly researched - however there is no linking of squadrons and aircraft with particular bases.
Those familiar with the Rise of Flight GUI will be right at home with the interface. Quick missions allow the player to quickly set up dogfights or attack missions with varying enemies at any time of the day. Meanwhile single missions give a more crafted, immersive experience, such as dead-reckoning navigation in a snowstorm in a Sturmovik conducting armed recon, night strikes on enemy truck convoys or take-off practice. The third type is the campaign. Here the developers have broken with traditional flight sim campaigns which see the player as a named ‘persona’ in a specific squadron or unit and instead opted for a approach of dropping the player into single dynamically created missions, each linked by a certain phase of the battle. Indeed the player can not only swap aircraft (such as switching to a bomber from a fighter) between missions, but even sides if they so wish. This can be jarring, but is does allow the player to experience the battle from multiple viewpoints. While the missions may start off simple (go to X, attack Y) there is a gradual increase in difficulty and randomess in the campaign, which might see the player stumble across friendly flights being attacked during their main mission.
Unlocking 'field mods'
You can pit your (virtual) flying skills against other players online.
The other change is that, like many games these days, the player now acquires XP (Experience Points) by flying and successfully completing missions, which then unlock optional goodies such as gunpods, headrest armour and special paint schemes. Old school simmers may miss the freedom of selecting pilot, squadron and paint schemes – however the flip-side to this approach to the campaign does encourage those new to the genre to take time to learn the aircraft, before venturing online against human aces.
Multiplayer is standard here and follows the Rise of Flight formula - allowing either quick dogfights or longer, more historically-based missions. Indeed, one server has already been running ‘airbridge’ style scenarios with He111s and escorts attempting to run the gauntlet of Soviet fighters. One omission at release from previous Il-2 titles is a full-fledged mission editor for users to craft their own missions. However, the developers say that a full mission editor will be coming in the future – a welcome development as the key to Il-2s longevity was the endless creativity of sim enthusiasts in producing a never-ending stream of new missions, campaigns and paint schemes. Currently online battles are limited to 32 players - while the developers continue to bug-test and optimise the sim.
Searchlights at night can be dazzling.
Special mention must be made of the graphics in BoS. While you might image that a snow-covered landscape might make for monochrome monotony, 1C Game Studios have created a believable and beautiful map - with frozen rivers, villages and snowdrifts that make virtual pilots shiver. The atmosphere and sky is particularly convincing with stunning sunsets and sunrises, and moving clouds. Cockpits and the aircraft themselves are striking, with the right amount of semi-gloss polish to metal (or wood), and shadows playing across cockpits. Pilots and crew too are very well animated and will bale out of damaged or burning aircraft.
Lots of little details like this means the sim just oozes atmosphere – such as wheels causing tracks in the snow, lights of trucks on the ground during the dark and even ground troops manning flak guns or on airfields, as well as searchlights in night missions. In addition, seeing fires in villages and huge black palls of smoke over Stalingrad itself, rising to hundreds of feet transmit a sense of the bitter struggle below.
Flight Models & Damage Modelling
The sim is packed with amazing details. Note the pilot of this burning Pe-2 gripping the sides of the cockpit before baling out.
Rise of Flight broke new ground in modelling the flight models of WW1 aircraft and this has been carried over into Il-2:BoS. All the aircraft feel different, with a sense of weight and inertia that makes just flying them around and learning their foibles a pleasure. Indeed taxiing and take-off and landing can present a challenge in itself – this is no dumbed-down ‘air combat’ arcade game.
For the damage modelling, where it does not seem initially as deep or as detailed as Il-2 Cliffs of Dover, (aircraft seem to burst into flame remarkably easily) over time it reveals nuances. For example, wings and landing gear can be weakened by damage, but the effect is sometimes not instantaneous. Sustain wing damage and you will have to fly extra carefully back to base, lest pulling too much ‘G’ break that spar and separate wing from fuselage. Nursing damaged aircraft back to base is a highlight. While there is no clickable cockpit controls like Cliffs of Dover or FSX, there is CEM (complex engine management) which means prop pitch, radiators (oil and water), mixture and superchargers can all be manually controlled to get the best performance out of your aircraft. Care must be taken however when using CEM, as mishandling the engine can cause failure.
Me109 on take-off.
For flight simmers facing lean times these days, the reboot of Il-2 is extremely welcome. It runs smooth, the presentation is first-class and the flying and combat is highly credible. The graphics are can only be described as stunning, and make the player shiver at times looking down over the winter battlefield.
While the ’unlock to get extra aircraft mods’ campaign structure may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it may be that in time the developers (and third party mission designers) will fill in the gaps with more historical content in the future. Indeed, if Il-2 BoS enjoys the some of the success of the orginal Sturmovik, it is likely that more aircraft and potentially new theatres will be added in the future - a mouthwatering thought for any virtual ace. While its narrow aircraft selection and limited campaign cannot compare with the hundreds available for the now long-in-the-tooth and heavily modded original Il-2, Il-2 BoS looks set to soar to new heights as the first instalment of a worthy successor to its name. A must buy for any flight simulator or WW2 aviation fan.
Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad
1C Game Studios
RRP £39.99 Standard/£69.99 premium (online at Steam/DVD)
Recommended System Specs:
Operating system: Windows XP/Vista/Win7/Win8
Processor: Intel Core i5/i7 2.8Ghz
Memory: 6Gb RAM
Hard disk space: 10Gb
Video: GeForce GTX 660/Radeon HD 7770, with 2GB VRAM, or better
Sound: DirectX 9.0c-compatible
Broadband Internet Connection required