Friday, April 13, 2012

Birds of Steel review

Birds of Steel is a dynamic World War II flight simulator.

Formats: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3
Developer: Gaijin Enterainment
Publisher: Konami
Released: Out now

The true flight simulator, in all its button-pushing, knob-twiddling, slightly obsessive glory, has traditionally been the province of PC gamers. Now, with a roar of engines and a rattle of cannon fire, here comes Birds of Steel to give console players an idea of what they’ve been missing. Russian developers Gaijin Entertainment have clearly taken on board the criticism of their previous effort, the flawed but beautiful Battle of Britain simulator Birds of Prey: for this unofficial sequel they’ve transposed the dogfighting action to the Second Word War Pacific, bulked out the experience with ranks of unlockable planes and adjusted difficulty levels, and added mission generators and dynamic campaigns that will keep dedicated armchair pilots twitching well into the summer.
The historical campaigns in Birds of Steel let players fly a variety of missions as the American or Japanese, in battles from Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. The narrative is strictly minimal -- a few martial strains of Beethoven’s 7th, a cut-scene or two of planes in flight and some sombre narration from Stephen Fry over stock war footage -- but it’s really only there to frame the high-tension mechanics of the flying, from ground attack missions to dogfights and dive-bombing runs. Objectives include intercepting bombers on a moonlit night as searchlights criss-cross in the skies around you, swooping low over the suburbs of Valletta in an Italian warplane or mounting a torpedo strike on the Japanese super-battleship Yamato. There’s a decent selection of novelty tasks as well, whether you’re landing a biplane on a breakwater or pancaking a wounded fighter on a narrow city street. And if the set missions get too dull, the mission editor lets you build your own, or fly in a dynamically evolving campaign where your strikes on airfields and enemy forces have knock-on consequences for the evolution of the war.
Customizable difficulty lets Birds of Steel cater for all levels of flying experience. Arcade mode turns the game into a kind of skybound FPS, much in the vein of other console stalwarts like Crimson Skies, HAWX and the Ace Combat series. Planes never stall or run out of ammo, while a burst of gunfire sends dimwitted enemies tumbling from the skies in droves. Realistic settings up the ante somewhat with a twitchier flight model, meaning that you’ll need to learn how to pull manoeuvres without spinning or stalling, but it’s on Simulator difficulty that the real action happens. The plane creaks and groans with the wind and weather, and fighting the stick as targets shudder into your sights feels an authentically fraught business. Taking down opponents becomes vastly tougher, as you close in, pick your moment, adjust prop speed and trim and aim desperately for the engines.
Graphics-wise, Birds of Steel looks as though it’s based on assets from the ageing (but still excellent) IL-2 Sturmovik series, with a bit of flash and dazzle grafted on. As such, the visuals vary between serviceable and gorgeous -- there’s some jaggedness in-game that isn’t visible in the heavily anti-aliased publicity shots, and ground textures can look dubious up close. When the whole thing is rushing past the cockpit at 300mph, however, you’re unlikely to notice it much. Clever touches here and there add to the completeness of the experience: dip too low while nursing a wounded bomber in to land over a forest and you’ll hear the thump and scrape of treetops on the plane’s belly, while sending cannon rounds into an opponent’s hydraulic system risks blacking out your own canopy with splatters of oil.
Controls map surprisingly well to a pad, at least on the easiest difficulty, but the more complex aircraft management on the tougher grades will benefit from a joystick and some judicious use of the powerful remapping tool that lurks in the options. PS3 owners will find that their console is compatible with a healthy range of sticks, while options on 360 appear limited to the gigantic, fully adjustable and scary-looking Cyborg FLY 9 from MadCatz (which I used with enormous pleasure) or a new model from Hori available through Amazon. Niche peripherals these may be, but they dramatically improve an already decent experience.
With a game of such size and scope, a few flaws are probably inevitable. Unlocking the game’s hundred flyable planes becomes an exercise in tiresome grind, as the points needed to buy them are few and far between in the campaign but plentiful in multiplayer. Gaijin is clearly trying to build a serious online community (and the multiplayer modes, from versus to co-op, are seamlessly integrated) but it makes things a slog for offline-only players. Saving progress in the dynamic campaigns is prohibited, so you need to be sure of a significant chunk of time before firing them up. Most irritatingly, the campaign is clearly conceived with the arcade settings in mind and doesn’t scale -- so fans of Simulation mode will find it flatly impossible to achieve most mission goals on settings even approaching realistic. Still, what Birds of Steel does right, it does far better than any similar game on consoles. If Second World War flying is your thing, you’ll find a dizzying amount of content here for the money.

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