IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Sep 11, 2009

The flight simulator genre has been on life support for a long time, but more games like IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey could reverse that trend. The game has been a staple for plane junkies on the PC for years, with substantial developer and community support even today. At long last, console gamers can finally get their hands on one of the best World War II titles of the decade.

The Pros
  • Incredible graphics
  • Detailed damage models
  • Can be as arcadey or as simmy as you want
  • Solid online dogfighting
The Cons
  • Need a flight stick to play at sim levels
  • No co-op missions

The flight simulator genre has been on life support for a long time, but more games like IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey could reverse that trend. The game has been a staple for plane junkies on the PC for years, with substantial developer and community support even today. At long last, console gamers can finally get their hands on one of the best World War II titles of the decade.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

Wings of Fury

IL-2 Sturmovik’s campaign covers most of the European air war on both sides of the theater. The usual British and American planes and battles are represented, but because the game was made in Russia, you also get a good amount of Eastern Front action, which is a nice change of pace. The campaign takes you through several major battles of the war, including Britain, Stalingrad, Berlin, and the ever-popular Bulge, with each location painstakingly recreated. Forget the smeared, indistinct ground clutter of flight games like Ace Combat 6 and H.A.W.X. The terrain in IL-2 Sturmovik is detailed and believable, easily the best we’ve seen in a flight game.

The medium-length campaign is supplemented by a couple dozen solo missions that recreate common situations in the life of a WWII airman. If that’s still not enough, a training mode allows custom missions to be set up, with control over number of enemies, time of day, and even weather. Everything from routine patrols to full assaults on fortified Nazi positions is possible in a given mission, and the game allows you to choose the number of lives available, whether to use limited fuel and ammo, and even lets you stick around after your objectives are complete to score extra kills or land your plane.

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The Lion Has Wings

One of Sturmovik’s greatest strengths is that the gameplay can be as forgiving or difficult as you please. Arcade mode simplifies things enough for just about anyone, and is easy to play using the standard controller. If you want to bump it up to Realistic or Simulation, you're probably going to need a flight stick, but it’s certainly worth it for dedicated fighter plane fans. The flight model is extremely detailed, and to be a successful pilot on Simulation takes serious skill and practice. Perhaps best of all, the game makes no judgments based on your preferred level of realism. You’ll unlock planes and bonus goodies regardless of how you choose to play, so newbies and aces alike will find their niche.

Objectives are nicely varied, from strafing runs and huge dogfights to flying a vulnerable bomber to and from key targets. The incredibly convincing visuals make every sortie satisfying and intense. You can play from a stunning cockpit view or stick to third-person and watch your plane get chewed up by enemy gunfire thanks to the stunning damage system. Holes in your control surfaces and fuel tanks will affect your plane's performance and handling, and this applies equally to friendly and enemy planes. Pumping lead into the body of that German bomber probably won’t get you very far, but a well-placed shot at its engine will send it spiraling to the ground in short order. If you’re really lucky and/or skilled, you can even kill a pilot in his seat. It’s also a good incentive to not get into head-to-head shooting matches, as the same can happen to you.

Everything about Sturmovik's presentation is great. The planes are beautiful, the fireballs are satisfying and the weather is convincing. No matter how skilled you are, watching a flight of three dozen enemy planes close in for an engagement remains an intimidating sight. Even after hours of play, you’ll still see things you haven’t seen before. One of the most impressive things I saw was during an attack run on a formation of bombers. Gunfire aimed at the lead plane cut its wing off, and the debris from the wing tumbled backwards and smashed into the two planes behind, downing them without a shot fired.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

Captains of the Clouds

No self-respecting dogfighter would be without a multiplayer mode, and IL-2 Sturmovik delivers on that end, as well. Along with standard deathmatch and team options, there's an interesting king of the hill variant that has you capturing airfields by doing touch-and-go landings on them. That’s not easy when you're being strafed by the enemy team, but it’s a very cool way to break up the looping and split-essing. The only thing missing is a co-op mode, but you’re sadly stuck playing the missions solo.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey takes what many would call a dead genre and brings it to next-gen life in an unparalleled way. It takes its chosen subject and nails every aspect of it with exceptional attention to detail and a clear love for the warbirds of yesteryear. This is, quite simply, the best flight combat game we've ever played on a console. If you have any yearning for the wild blue yonder, you must play it.