Publisher 1C and developer 505 Games have teamed up to deliver the latest installment in the long-running Il-2 Sturmovik series, Birds of Prey. You'll take to the skies once again in a game that retains its flight simulator roots, but at the same time caters to newcomers. The series' reputation certainly speaks volumes, but does this bird soar to new heights?
Birds of Prey takes place during World War II across six different fronts in Europe, allowing players to take control of over 40 historical aircraft in fierce aerial campaigns. The single player mode offers up two options, a campaign mode that spans famous battles in Britain, Germany, Italy, and Russia, and the single mission mode which consists of shorter diversions based on the main campaign's maps. The solo campaign offers up a solid amount of content based on historical offensives, but the single mission mode provides a bit more variety.
No matter which mode you tackle, you're up against various aerial, ground, and sea forces, and it's your job to clear out objectives in order to advance. Objectives come in various flavors, from simply taking out opposing forces to having to spot an impostor aircraft amongst your fleet. In addition to gunning down opponents with your machine guns, you occasionally have bombs and missiles at your disposal to help clear certain objectives. Some outings won't even require you to fire a single shot, instead asking you to perform recon or simply evade enemy forces. It's enough to keep things from getting stale or repetitive.
There's also an online multiplayer mode that allows up to 16 players at once. You can go one-on-one with another opponent to test your raw skill, or form teams for more chaotic actions in one of four different modes. Dogfight and death match focus on air combat to see who gets the most kills or lasts the longest, while ground strike and capture the airstrip are more team oriented and require stronger coordination and mastery of your secondary weapons. It very engaging and runs smoothly, even when approaching the player cap. There's no local multiplayer options available, though, which is a small drawback.
The solo campaign takes around five hours to complete, and the single mission mode easily doubles that. The game's difficulty varies based on the control type you select, but it's scaled enough to give beginners a fun experience while still challenging veterans. Specific settings involving aircraft, ammo, and fuel can be toggled as well to further tweak the difficulty as you desire.
Birds of Prey gives you access to three different control settings that cater to a wide variety of play styles. The arcade setting scales back the difficulty, allowing beginners to jump in and play, while the realistic and simulation settings approach a genuine flight sim experience. It's easy enough to dive in and play with the arcade setting, but earning your wings on the simulation setting involves surmounting a steep learning curve. But even though it's called the arcade setting, it doesn't mean you can play on auto-pilot.
All of the planes also handle differently. The bulkier bombers will make you feel like you're flying an elephant, whereas the sleeker fighter planes will behave more nimbly. Regardless of which aircraft you select, they all let you lock onto a target, giving you a dedicated view of it at all times. This doesn't compromise the challenge, though, as you still need to line up your sights manually to hit the target with your guns. At times, however, it feels like you have to fight the controls too much in this mode, and it makes it easy to lose sight of your altitude if you aren't careful, which can have catastrophic consequences.
Since this is the World War II era, you need to get in close on your target before your guns become effective. Even on the arcade setting, many of your opponents will give you a run for your money, so learning to conserve your ammo for when you've got the enemy in your sights is imperative. Getting accustomed to the bombing segments takes some time, and you need to play with the different view modes available to you. On the other hand, the missiles are way too overpowered against ground units, appearing to home in on targets at points.
Another impressive feature is the plane damage modeling, which affects your vehicle's handling in real time. Simply flying into the enemy's gunfire may not down your plane altogether, but the damage you sustain to your wings or engine will make getting around much more difficult. On the flip side, the same is true of your opponents, and it's not always necessary to blast them to smithereens. Instead, a few well placed shots to their wing can be sufficient to send them packing below. This lends itself well to the fast-paced action, where many times you'll only have a split second to react.
There's a lot of attention to detail in Birds of Prey, which is apparent by taking a look at the vast landscapes over which the battles are set. However, when you manage to get up close and personal with many of the game's landmarks, things start to look a bit ugly as a result of some bad textures. But these occasions are rare. The damage effects on the planes look great, with pierced wings and dangling panels. Same with the weather effects, which mess with your visibility when you fly through fog or heavy cloud cover.
Birds of Prey's soundtrack is pretty standard fare for a World War II game, featuring classic orchestrations for each battle, and for the most part the sound effects are decent enough.
Il-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey delivers a top notch flight sim experience that manages to remain accessible thanks to its scalable controls. Aside from a few bumps in the air, it has certainly earned its wings.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.
Source: 505 Games