Until recently, my all time favourite combat flight simulator was IL-2 Sturmovik. It had so much rich content and such tight flight controls during dog fights, it was always my ‘go to’ flight sim. However, with Birds of Steel about to launch on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, I might just shelve IL-2 for now.
I have been keeping my eye on the release of Birds of Steel since its first reveal at E3 last year. Being a console release, I was sceptical as to how well it would work as a flight simulator - after all, I can't reach for my top-flight joystick, and must rely instead on a joypad.
To start with, though, Birds of Steel is full to the brim with historical content. Not just the planes you fly but also authentic black and white film footage from the early years of World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. These are played at the start of each mission in the Historical Campaign, and are also viewable via the Extras menu. The music is also sourced from the wartime era, consisting of mostly Russian and US scores. The extent to which the developers wanted to bring authenticity and history to this title really shows.
As well as the amazing amount of video content, you have an extensive timeline of fixed wing aircraft that you can fly through the campaign, or select in the online and test flight modes. There are some 100 different planes you can pilot in all.
In your hanger, you can unlock and test fly both bombers and fighters from each of the WWII military powers: USA, Germany, USSR, Britain, and Japan. And if this wasn’t enough, you can view all of their technical specs and history bios too. It really is amazing how much content there is for every single plane.
The campaign starts with a few tutorials. These including preparing for flight, taking off, recovering from engine stalls, and landing, but not just landing on the airfield... you also can land on aircraft carriers - a fun challenge in itself.
Birds of Steel makes use of some amazing physics for a combat simulator, right down to vertical pitch control for speed adjustment, wind conditions, and cloud density types. All of these variables play a hand in your handling of the aircraft. Placing too much wind resistance on your wings could result in them breaking off, for example.
The game features an extensive damage system as well. When being shot at or shooting enemies you can disable the rudders, flaps, and even the propellers or engine itself. This comes together to give you a genuine sense of dread as you are literally being shot to bits.
If you find realistic flight sims a bit too overbearing, the game offers 3 levels of simulation: Simplified, Realistic and Simulator:
There is also a custom difficulty setting, allowing you to mix and match specifics from the above settings if you wish.
Settings also exist for limited or unlimited fuel and ammo; there's nothing like trying to outlast your pursuers using flight maneuvers to conserve fuel, waiting to see them drop out of the sky.
So how does it control on the gamepad, you might ask? Well, you have a ton of controls at your disposal, which can be seen one of the game's shortcomings. It’s definitely a game for flight sticks.
It works like this: Right Stick controls your engine throttle power and yaw, Left Stick to pull the pitch up or down - pulling the stick down pulls the nose up by default - Left and Right to roll the plane in the desired direction.
Birds of Steel makes use of the directional pad in combination with the face buttons to control the more simulated controls such as up to lower and raise landing gear, but from here on it can get a bit cumbersome. To control brakes, flaps, and looking around your cockpit, you have to hold one of the d-pad buttons and then a face button. This was incredibly difficult to do while in the heat of battle.
As an example: I like the cockpit view, so to scout my tail I had to hold Left on the d-pad while moving the right stick. You can view a full 180 degrees up and down, but it’s just so difficult to do when in a dog fight, so be prepared to lose direction when doing this.
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