Gaijin Entertainment’s spiritual successor to 2009’s Il-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey doesn’t particularly like you. It is not looking for your approval, and isn’t out trying to set sales records. It is trying to target a small and very specific, yet extremely loyal contingent of fans, and in that regard it is a success. It does what it sets out to do and doesn’t try to do anything more.
There are some flaws in Birds of Steel though, flaws that have nothing to do with the demanding and sometimes excruciatingly realistic gameplay that will attract and impress some.
If you aren’t already familiar with the series, Gaijin Entertainment’s World War II flight combat games are not for the casual flight fan. For simulator fans, it will be a triumphant success. And besides, if there is one historical period that gaming hasn’t really explored, it is World War II. That was sarcasm, by the way.
Gaijin’s games are very much flight simulators in almost every facet, and are closer to Microsoft’s Flight series than Namco Bandai’s Ace Combats. There are plenty of combat elements throughout, but they are grounded in reality. Those looking for an authentic experience will be all over this game. Those looking for a fun, simple title are in for a disappointment.
Your training begins
Birds of Steel is authentic. Painfully, mind-numbingly authentic. Again, for those that are looking for that level of realism, you won’t be disappointed. The physics of the game are admirably realistic, which means that you won’t be able to suddenly pull a “Top Gun” and hit the brakes to let them fly right by. If you did, you may stall and die a horrible death. On the “simplistic” setting the flying can be a challenge. On the “simulator” setting just keeping the plane flying is a minor victory.
Things like landing aren’t a simple matter of hauling ass towards the runway then suddenly lowering your speed to skid to a stop. You need to line up your plane from a huge distance out, gradually lower your speed, adjust your approach, then gently—very gently—land before slamming on the brakes. If you are even a bit off, you will damage your plane. The controls take some getting used to and a flight stick would be ideal, but there are numerous options and a lot of freedom to customize, so you should find something fitting for your style.
Your initial stop will likely be the historical campaign modes. The first section is a tutorial, which you don’t need to do, but you probably should. Following that you have the choice of flying with the Americans or the Japanese. Each side has a selection of missions, all based in the Pacific, and all set during 1941 and 1942.
Each side’s campaign has a handful of missions that begin with a fairly lengthy, but informative historical documentary of the real world event you are about to play. The missions themselves vary wildly. The early ones are pathetically simple and have you fight off a few targets, then fly for several minutes to a pre-determined location to conclude the chapter. Later missions can be wild, as the skies fill with flying allies and foes, but with a few exceptions the objectives straightforward and have you fly “there” and blow up “that.” It also creates some weird and uneven pacing as you go from white knuckle action to boredom in the same mission.
The campaign is a short affair, and can be completed in a few hours. There are also a selection of random single missions from throughout the war and from all theaters of combat, and a Dynamic Campaign mode allows you to rewrite history—although in practice it is just different mission goals that include ground and air objectives.
Unlocking the 100 planes can quickly turn into a grind session, so you will probably end up replaying missions several times if you want that Mustang or Corsair.
Fly the unfriendly skies, but don’t look down
Where the game shows the most promise for hardcore and casual fans alike is the online mode, which is massive and robust. Competitively the game can handle 16 players at a time, and several four player co-op missions add to the depth. The dogfights can quickly devolve into who can turn in a circle faster and the better plane will almost always win, but when a room is full the battle can be intense.
The downside is that there won’t be many casual fans online. So while the teams you join will typically be made up of decent pilots/gamers, finding a game at all can be a problem.
The controls are as accurate as they can be for a game like this, and every piece of the 100 planes you can fly is meticulously crafted to look authentic in the air. Everything else, however, is hit or miss. Many of the country settings are decent, but not remarkable, while more populated areas are bland and dull. There is also a serious scale issue. Destroyers are only three times bigger than planes, and they look like dull little boxes. The battle of Pearl Harbor, for example, is a bland and odd looking affair that seriously robs from the tone of the game.
There are also some graphical glitches that pop up now and then. Things like objective markers will sometimes create translucency issues for your plane, or half of the ocean can have waves while the other half is smooth. And then there is the voice acting, which is terrible. It just feels like the game lacks polish, and it will turn some people of.
Hardcore flight simulator fans should have this game on their radar. It does a solid job of creating an authentic flight sim with realistic physics and historically accurate missions and planes. The multiplayer is also deep and filled with things to do—if you can find someone to do them with. The realism is so heavy though, that most casual fans will run screaming from it, and rightly so.
But Birds of Steel is what it is, and doesn’t attempt to be anything else. A lack of polish mars what is an otherwise a solid offering for a niche market, but that shouldn’t sway the devout.
Score 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Konami)