Ah, the flight sim. The Marmite of video games. Some love the intricacy, the attention to detail, the fine tuning of flight patterns to yield optimal efficiency and the patience needed to get it all just right. The rest of the populace give it a go, realises it’s too tricky and gives up after half an hour.
If you fall into the latter category, Birds of Steel, the follow-up to IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, won’t do anything to change your outlook. The tutorial missions alone take a huge degree of patience on all but the simplest of difficulty settings (aptly named “simplified”, before “realistic” and “simulation”). Getting into a tail-spin and plummeting to a firey death will occur frequently until you get the hang of the controls.
The controls themselves are simultaneously simple and complex: elevation and direction are mapped to the left analogue stick, while the right stick is used to increase and decrease throttle and for making minor directional adjustments. Extreme attention is required to make sure you don’t accidentally decrease your throttle while making an adjustment. All too often we found ourselves plummeting into the ocean having accidentally reduced our throttle to 0% while making a series of adjustments. And that’s only really funny the first time.
That’s just flying. Landing is a whole different kettle of patience. Your flight speed has to be exactly right, your landing gear must be deployed at the correct time and your angle of trajectory has to be spot on. You also have to brake at the right point on the runway otherwise your plane will flip nose-over-tail and crash. Which isn’t a good landing by any standard. You’ll have to go back and try again.
There are three basic kinds of combat in Birds of Steel. Dogfighting in mid-air combat using mounted guns, dive bombing using one-thousand pound bombs, and torpedoing using, er, torpedoes. Dogfighting is simple enough- you aim the crosshair, get the enemy plane in your sights, shoot, and the enemy plane explodes and crashes to earth in a satisfying ball of fire (not before the pilot parachutes out, just to make it family friendly. And no, you can’t shoot them out of the sky, we checked).
Then there’s dive bombing. Elevate your plane high above the target (an aircraft carrier for example), reduce your speed, plummet towards earth, apply the airbrake (left on D-Pad and press R3) release the bomb, and pull up just before you smash into the ship, leaving firey bomb-death in your wake. If this sounds tricky, it is. But when you pull it off, and you rear up to shoot your plane back into the sky leaving a scuttled ship behind you, it’s a true fist-pump moment.
Torpedoing is similarly satisfying. Fly your plane low to the deck, line up your shot, and bombs away before getting the hell out of there. Again, this takes patience and practise but when you do pull it off it’s an absolute joy to behold.
Those are the three basic elements that your missions will consist of. And there are a lot of them, taking place in the battle for the Pacific between the USA and Japan, between 1941 and 1942. Although the missions are numerous, they are for the most part very short; you should clear each one in around ten minutes. However, if you choose to take on the secondary objective offered in a lot of the missions (landing your plane or eliminating a fleet of enemy aircraft, for example) then you can add some time onto that.
Outside of the Historical context, there isn’t a story or characters to speak of. Missions are tied together with black and white archive footage (narrated by Stephen Fry, no less) and introduced by an all-American Top Gun style narrator. The only time you’ll actually see human beings in-game is when they’re getting out of your way on an aircraft carrier. There is some good radio chatter during missions, updating you on changes of course, or shouting in panic when they’ve been shot down. It all adds up to feeling like you’re a part of history, that your actions are having an impact on the course of WWII itself. Just don’t expect to make an emotional investment.
The music also deserves a mention. The soundtrack is simply superb. It gives a true feeling of drama and gravitas to proceedings; all uplifting orchestras and bombastic classical tunes. It’s probably the best use of music we’ve heard in a game for a long time.
As for the graphics? They’re ok, and that’s about all you can say about them. A lot of the textures appear rough and a lot of the edges are jagged. At times it looks decidedly last-gen (the menus, both in-game and out, are positively anachronistic). But to be fair, there is a hell of a lot going on- up to thirty different planes in the air during a single dogfight, mid-air explosions, bullet trails, planes smashing into each other mid-flight and gunships firing cannons up into the sky. And that’s all in a single skirmish. It is all epically exciting.
The number of different game modes also represents great value. As well as the historical campaign in the Pacific, you have the option to play a number of single missions set over not only the Pacific, but also locations such as Germany and the Middle East, in a variety of aircraft from America, Great Britain, Italy and even Australia. There are a total of over one hundred aircraft to be found in the game, showing a true passion from Gaijin (the developer) for their subject. The chance to upgrade various planes with different paint jobs (all historically accurate) is a further opportunity to get your history kicks.
Even the more obscure planes have been decked out according to their real life specs. Take the Japanese Ki-61-Ia-Hei, for example: Experts among you will know that 1380 of these beasts were manufactured, with a distinctive, almost camouflage pattern on the body of the plane. Two wing-mounted 7.7mm machine guns came as standard along with two fuselage mounted synchronous 12.7mm machine guns. And every single one of these details is present and correct in the game. The attention to detail is excellent.
Multiplayer is limited to online play and at the time of writing there weren’t many players available. But with sixteen player skirmishes available as well as co-operative missions, the scope for entertaining battles is vast. Add this along with your own radio chatter over your headset and you actually feel like a fighter pilot.
The only real downside is one that can’t be helped with this particular genre- the gameplay gets repetitive. There’s only so much you can do to make a flight sim varied. As stated before you’ll basically only be doing three things: dogfighting, bombing and torpedoing. Even with the various aircraft and contexts available, it’s all quite samey. But Birds of Steel does a great job of making it all feel exciting nonetheless.
For everything it is expected to be, Birds of Steel is probably the best flight sim currently available on consoles, but it’s a rapidly shrinking marketplace. It’s not going to set the world alight, and if you care about things like plot, pacing or accessibility, then this isn’t for you. But if you’re into your planes, and if you have the patience and time to master the intricacies of flight, then this is a gem.