Wednesday, June 2, 2010

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (PS3)

While I'm waiting for a used copy of Alpha Protocol to show up, I've been playing IL-2. This is a WWII fighter game made by 1C (a Russian game developer), named after the most-produced military aircraft in history (the IL-2).

As an interesting turn of events, IL-2 focuses on the Eastern Front of the war--for those of you rusty on history, that'd be the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Personally, I love this decision, since it's introduced me to an aspect of aviation history with which I was unfamiliar. I had never considered the fact that the Soviet Union must have had an airforce during the war. But, they did, and having done a fair bit of reading now, it appears that the skies over the Soviet Union actually saw significant action.

Unfortunately, the game rather fails to provide any idea of the historical context for the air battles you fight. The campaign is broken down into various real battles (Stalingrad, The Bulge, etc.), but the only real context given is "diary entries" by the playable pilots. These are exceptionally boring, and focus on trying to build sympathetic characters instead of exploring the history of the air battles.

History aside, I have rather mixed feelings on this game. On the one hand, it doesn't play like X-Wings Over Europe. But, it also has some deep playability issues.

There are three difficulty modes: arcade, realistic, and simulation. The basic flight model is the same in all of them, but arcade mode includes a bunch of flight assistance. Your angle of attack is restricted such that you never stall, and your wings self-level if you let go of the aileron stick. Additionally, your rudder provides heading corrections with yaw--a real rudder does not control the heading of an airplane, but is rather used in coordination with the other control surfaces to maintain proper flight.

In realistic mode, section-by-section damage is turned on, and the flight aids are turned off. You're responsible for keeping the airplane out of a stall. And herein lies the problem.

In a real airplane, a stall is pretty much a non-event. Your angle of attack increases beyond the critical angle for the speed at which you're flying, the controls lose authority, the nose drops, the angle of attack corrects, you gain speed, and you're out of the stall. It looks like this. But, in IL-2 every stall results in a spin. A spin is far more difficult to recover from. And, while it's true that fighter planes certainly spin more easily than, say, a Cessna, having every goddamn stall result in a spin makes flying in realistic mode in IL-2 very, very difficult.

Realistic mode also turns off the bullet lead calculation, so you have to lead your targets yourself without the assistance of a computed aiming point. This isn't a big deal early in the game. But as the enemy dogfighting AI gets better in later missions, I found it impossible to down enemy planes without the computer assistance.

Simulator mode is even more impossible, since it turns off the radar. Given that there's no head tracking on the PS3, it becomes quite impossible to even find the enemy. I couldn't even make it through the simulator mode tutorial, as I kept losing sight of the enemy fighters.

The ultimate problem here treating the flight realism options as difficulty modes, where you have to take or leave everything. In arcade mode, the flight controls do not act like a real airplane--I was constantly fighting the auto-leveling. Meanwhile, in realistic mode the lack of bullet deflection calculation made dogfighting tedious. I would kill to play this game with a la carte assistance options: I'd like to play with realistic flight controls, moderate stall assistance, and bullet deflection assistance. Instead, I played the first half of the game in realistic mode, and then was forced to arcade mode for the rest of it.

Another annoyance is that there's no AI to control the turrets of a bomber. So, if you're in a slow-ass ground attack plane, like the titular IL-2, and a fighter is on your tail, you're forced to switch views and manually operate the turret. While it's nice to be able to shoot the turret, it would be even nicer if there was also at least some brain-dead AI to run it while you concentrate on bombing Panzers.

This is a game that's probably best for existing fans of WWII fighter sims. It's certainly the best I've seen yet on any of the consoles. But, if you aren't already into airplanes, then this game almost certainly is not for you. And if you're a pilot, or have played a lot of high-fidelity simulators on PC (like X-Plane), it's probably also not for you--the physics are just real enough to make you think you know what you're doing.

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