CAUTION: NO (small) STEP
There's quite a bit more to the game than just a graphics overhaul however. One could expect a console port of a PC flight sim - one of very few console ports of PC flight sims, mind you - to be a very bare bones, stripped down version of its heritage full of arcade gameplay. Then again, not all may be familiar with the idea that consoles now have joysticks available. The loss of 105 keys certainly causes a need to streamline the controls, but when was the last time you played a PC flight sim and often used the keys that weren't on the joystick or rudder assemblies? More importantly, when was the last time you were in a WWII fighter plane and had a need for more than 16 control devices? The controls aren't as dumbed down as one would assume here. If you're attempting to play with a gamepad, well, more luck to you. IL-2 Birds of Prey is a flight sim, and thus is designed for the joystick. If you have an interest in the game, you owe it to yourself to buy a joystick as well. For single console owners, the choice is made up for you already. On the PS3, you'll be getting the Thrustmaster T-Flight, and on the Xbox 360 you'll want the Saitek AV8R. If you're a game enthusiast with every console ever made sitting in a cardboard box somewhere, my advice would be to go with the Xbox 360 and AV8R. While the T-Flight is truly the better joystick in most aspects it has a distinct modern jet feel to it, while the AV8R lends an old prop-plane feel to the stick.
Since we're using the word simulator so much, it makes sense to fully qualify that Birds of Prey is indeed a simulator, not some arcade action shooter. There is, however, a new and much welcomed mode for the game. When starting a mission, you may select which difficulty mode you want it on. The difficulty modes are unlocked by completing the optional training missions. On the default Arcade mode, the newest most streamlined version of the game played. In this mode, a full suite of on-screen display data is given to you pointing directions to enemy planes, outlining friendlies, flashing target objectives in yellow, and even giving you a leading reticule to aim for while shooting in front of planes. More importantly for most novices, the likelihood of stalling or spinning is nearly eliminated, as air speed is compensated automatically.
Unlocking the next difficulty, Realistic, may well be the sweet spot for this sort of game, and I highly recommend attempting to play most of the game in this mode. You still get you screen assistance and bracketing, however the target leading reticule is no longer present; you're on your own to figure out where to fire your machine guns to hit the tiny little enemy plane twirling around. Additionally you need to be very careful in your throttle settings and how fast you move, keeping your air speed, and lift carefully, else you'll stall or go into a dreadful spin difficult to recover from if flying in low-altitude combat. In both modes, you may look around your cockpit freely and you have control of your landing gear to make a landing when desired or required, a pleasant surprise to say the least.
The third and final difficulty is Simulation. This is the good old painful self torturing mode we're familiar with from the original PC game. No screen data. No assistance. No guarantee where you're going. You're locked to cockpit view, the enemies have no indicators, and you're on your own to locate them, track them, and figure out how to shoot them. Airflow becomes even more difficult to manage without stalling, the damage model is brutal, and since you won't be needing the 'select target' button or special camera anymore, it's been conveniently remapped to allow you to set your trim or adjust your flaps. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, do yourself a favor and stick with Realistic. It's enough to make you glad you're being followed by a Messerschmidt.
For all modes another very welcome feature is the ability to set how many restarts you're allowed. The default allows for unlimited restarts. If you crash or are shot down, you may continue restarting where you left off indefinitely. You can instead configure a fixed number of restart attempts if you prefer a bit more challenge. This goes a long way to preventing extreme frustration, especially if you're taken out by a careless stall. While I'd have loved for each element to be individually selectable in the configuration, such as aim assist, air speed compensation, complex damage model, etc, the three difficulty modes along with the restart options certainly get the job done.
In addition to all these modes is a vastly improved mission structure. Where the old IL2 sort of sent you out in a directionless quest to “do stuff” and eventually you'd be allowed to move onto the next mission, Birds of Prey features a great mix of RAF, Soviet, and U.S.A.F. Missions in Britain, Russia, Germany, and Italy. Missions may be more reminiscent of arcade simulators, with the later missions heavy on the bombing missions and light on the dogfighting. After some of the more difficult dogfight missions, though, it comes as a pleasant surprise. The missions form a loose story told by the narrator reading the diaries of the apparently fictitious pilots in the game, and the chapters are prefaced by narration over real stock footage from the war. All this wrapped around Jeremy Soule's typically stunning sound scape present a very motivational layout.
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