Previews

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

Fight or flight. Wait, make that both

IL-2 Sturmovik. What an unfriendly, unwieldy, desperately unmarketable name - the equivalent of calling your new beer 'Fermented Vegetable Product 7' and then expecting thirsty punters to take a gamble on it.

It's a shame because the series itself - a rather clever bunch of combat flight sims set during Dubya-Dubya II - has taken great strides to embrace a more casual audience with this first ever console release.

But before long-time Sturmo-fans threaten to melt their joysticks in rage, 'casual' here doesn't mean 'quick-time events'. True, there's a certain amount of handholding, but only on the easier difficulties - crank hardness to maximum and you'll not be given any help at all.

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It can't have been easy translating a decidedly niche, decidedly Russian, decidedly PC title to 360, but developers Gaijin seem to have done a great job. It controls much like any other console flight game, with the left thumbstick handling pitch and rolling, and the right one handling acceleration and yaw. You can zoom in and stabilise the camera with the Left Trigger, which helps enormously with the hyper-accurate aiming system, and keep track of your current objective via a helpfully pointy yellow arrow.

These may be far-from-new elements in a typical console game, but in a Sturmovik title...well, they're big news. The point is they're concessions that gradually disappear as you ramp up the difficulty level. The simplistic handling gets axed the moment you migrate from Arcade to Realistic, with the introduction of stalling - start getting showy with your aircraft and you'll descend into a horrible tailspin.

STURMBREAKER

However, the most radical shift is to Simulator, which is more like the IL-2 Sturmovik games of old. The radar's removed, as are the helpful arrows and indicators telling you where to shoot. There's no external view and almost nothing on the HUD - it's just you, in a plane, shooting Nazis. Plane fans may be thrown by the lack of twin joysticks, but even on a pad it's probably the closest a console game has come to replicating the intricacy of a PC flight sim.

Some of the mechanics seem a little odd. On the default setting there's no penalty for death, with an immediate respawn if you crash or steer your aircraft into the sea. We're all for removing the frustration of replaying the same sections repeatedly, but it does undermine the threat of dying quite a bit. Still, like many other elements, it's an option left entirely at the player's discretion: you can turn off respawning if you wish.

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There is an upside to not fearing death. You're liable to engage in more risky manoeuvres, which look authentic and beautiful - a real surprise for anyone used to the functional-yet-bland appearance of the usual WW2 flight sim. The landscape may not bear up to close scrutiny, but the finer details of the aircraft - from the cockpits to the exteriors - are superb. Wings can be punctured by gunfire, leaving gaping bullet holes, while pilots will eject from broken planes and float, amid the chaos, toward the ground. No, we don't think you can shoot them down in mid-air, although we gave it a bloody good go.

There are problems. Slight, but noticeable, lag occurs in more frantic combat situations, while the difficulty could stand a bit of adjustment. But these are minor issues, which don't detract from Sturmovik's biggest draw: offering something for everyone, from seasoned professionals to genre newcomers. Ignore the hideously unfriendly title, this is one niche game deserving of a wider audience.

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