Birds of Steel supports flight sticks, which can be mapped in the controls menus. While the PS3 and Xbox do not have any first party sticks worthy of the flight sim experience, there are a few third party models available. I highly recommend finding one if you wish to get the best experience from Birds of Steel.
The campaign takes place through various points in wartime history, starting at the battle of Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, and the battle of Wake Island, and you play the perspective of both the US and Japanese sides. Through the campaign, you will pilot various planes specific to the mission in front of you. These range from bombing or torpedo runs on both naval and land targets, to escorting missions to protect bombers, and also some straight up dog fights.
Some missions will have you in a squad, and if you have limited fuel and ammo set you will need to return to the aircraft carrier or air field - and successfully land - to refuel and rearm. Or you can use the select menu to switch to another plane in your squad. However, unfortunately the plane you switched out of will just return to formation and cover your approach rather than returning to rearm. I found this frustrating in most missions, as you would have to land each plane if you wanted to get geared up again for the mission - landing in Birds of Steel is as hard as it is in real life - so the AI deciding to return would have been welcomed.
Speaking of the AI, it's pretty standard as far as combat sims go. AI planes would perform various simple maneuvers to avoid your gunner's fire, or to get you off their tail, but no advanced roll tactics or intentional stalling - such as a hammerhead stall turn - to get the upper hand.
The campaign lets you save a replay of each mission, allowing you to watch your flying prowess later, but I couldn’t see an option to share these clips with others. Perhaps I just missed it, but again, this would have been a nice addition.
Birds of Steel also offers several multiplayer components, including an online profile which is constantly updating as you progress through the game. Experience earned by playing the campaign then goes towards unlocking more planes for multiplayer, in either Versus or Tournament mode. The game also supports multiple players playing simultaneously in co-op missions, which is a nice inclusion. Multiplayer is where Birds of Steel really shines, and both Konami and Gaijin really have reinforced this with seasonal events.
Seasonal events in Birds of Steel are where, on various days like Christmas and other holidays, Konami will hold special tournaments or double XP days - for example. This should really help boost the community when online starts to die down a little.
Audio is also really good; I have a pretty decent 5.1 set up, and you can hear the bullets flying past, flak from battleships exploding, and even turbulence and weather effects, making for a more realistic and intense flight. Flying through rough cloud as the wind, rain, and thunder rattle outside really puts you in the mood to get the heck out of there as your plane starts to shake. It even sounds different in each of the camera views, although it's at its best in cockpit view of course.
So what are the visuals like? Very good, actually. Like most flight sims, the detail in the planes themselves is really impressive, but Birds of Steel goes a step further. The terrain - both the land and the sea - looks great, as do the weather and cloud effects. Flying through heavy cloud causes dense moisture to build up on the cockpit windows and wings; cloud vapours begin to wash off as you gain speed in a high aerial dive. It's details like these that really immerse you in the experience. Just don’t expect much in terms of buildings and ships, though, as they're quite simple in appearance.
Overall, I think Birds of Steel really proves authentic flight combat simulators can work on consoles. Even if you're a hardcore combat sim fan, I can happily recommend it. For those looking for a more arcade combat experience, you'll need to be prepared to invest a bit more time in the title if you want to get the most out of it.
In both cases, I would still suggest that you invest in a flight stick. While it’s playable on the control pads, you just can’t beat the flexibility a flight stick provides.