Games Reviews

Review: IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad

The World War II flight sim IL-2 Sturmovik has been around since 2001. Designed by then Russian developer Maddox Games (and published today by Russian computer game company 1C), the software was universally hailed for its gorgeous graphics and intense realism. A series of add-ons and expansions made the game a franchise, with the IL-2 Great Battle Series commencing on 22nd November 2014 offering IL-2 Sturmovik Battle of Stalingrad. I thought it a bit pricey and paid little attention, but then it went on sale, so I decided to pick the game up.

I was initially going to pick up Battle of Moscow because it included one of my favorite aircraft, the Polikarpov I-16, but then  I saw the Bruce Willis flick Air Strike and said, uh, no.

Well, whoa! Let me say that again, whoa! Things have changed big time and oddly enough it seems to be because of a flying beagle and his quest to down Manfred von Richthofen. While neither officially or technically the case, from a purely practical sense IL-2 Sturmovik is now part of 777 Studies Rise of Flight (ROF) franchise.

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If ya can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – over Stalingrad

When ROF was released it shook up the sim world due to its use of a new advanced game engine called Digital Nature. The Russians took note and eventually decided drop support for their latest IL-2 iteration, White Cliffs of Dover, proposing a partnership with 777 Studios. This happened in December 2012, whereby the merger between 1C and 777 became 1C Game Studios. This is why the 1C logo appears on the ROF Website and why IL-2 BOS has a distinctly ROF presentation. Nevertheless, its clear that 1C found their own CLOD game engine inferior to Digital Nature and this drove the linking of the two firms. Specifically 1C noted:

The Digital Nature engine is an advanced game engine that has been developed over several years and powers ROF with great results. Besides being relatively bug free and well-functioning, it has advanced physics, realistic flight-modeling, progressive damage modeling, complex ballistics, detailed environmental modeling, detailed terrain modeling and superb graphics rendering. Above all else it is more modular and flexible than the CLOD engine. It can even support different types of player vehicles from main battle tanks to giant robots. Using the Digital Nature engine will provide users with a well-functioning product at launch that can be brought to market fairly quickly. It can still be further enhanced in the future as needed.

Enter IL-2 Sturmovik Battle of Stalingrad (BOS)! The software costs $49.99 US and comes with eight flyable aircraft. For the Luftwaffe these include the BF-109 F4, the BF-109 G2, the JU-87 D3 and the HE-111 H6. The VVS (Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily) counters the Germans with the LaGG-3 Series 29, the Yak-1 Series 69, the IL-2 AM38 Model 1942 and the Pe-2 Series 87. For a higher cost there is a premium edition which throws in the German FW-190 A3 and the Soviet La-5 Series 8. Like ROF, other planes that fought in this battle can be added, but they each have to be purchased individually at a cost of $19.99 for most fighters. There are also a couple of playable tanks (yes, tanks) thrown in the game for good measure, for free, but more on that latter.

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The game can be played against the AI or against other players in multiplayer mode. The entire map over which BOS runs is the actual period map of the Stalingrad front from 1942, 358 km by 230 km yuge, digitized into game format.  Players can fly individual missions, either drawn from a menu specific to BOS (and including such niceties such as how to take off or land in a crosswind) or quick missions whereby the player selects one of several designated areas on the map and then jumps right in the fight already in the air. There is also a campaign mode for the entire destruction of the 6th Army debacle and when linked to the Internet, the ability to choose a specific historical German or Soviet squadron and run through the campaign as a career. Also available are separate mini-campaigns for purchase at $9.99 each. As an example, one of these is titled Fortress on the Volga and places the player into the cockpit of the BF-109 G2 as part of the German I./JG 52 during September 24th – October 10th, 1942. This is a scripted campaign and includes 15 missions, taking about six hours to play, or a lot more if you keep getting killed like me. Pushing further, if you spring for sister games Battle of Moscow and Battle of Kuban, you can combine all three (plus 1C’s upcoming armored sim, Tank Crew) into a single game and campaign

Hardware requirements are heavy, and they aren’t kidding. I normally run games I review on my wife’s Win10 workstation, but for this one I needed “Behemoth,” my gaming PC I use to move the international space station on contract with NASA. The minimum game specs are 64-bit (64 bit is mandatory) Windows 7 (SP1) / Windows 8 / Windows 10, Intel Core i5/i7 2.8 GHz, 4 GB RAM, GeForce GTX 660/Radeon HD 7770 with 2GB VRAM or better, DirectX Version 11, broadband Internet connection, 16 GB available hard drive space, DirectX-compatible, DirectX-compatible flight stick recommended. Do better if you can. My rig has an AMD Quad 3.4 GHZ (Turbo Mode over 4 GHZ) CPU, 32 megs RAM and uses an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 TI with four gigs video RAM, so all was good at Casa Gray.

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Although the game has hot keys can be played using a mouse, my advice is don’t. For this game you are going to need a really good joy stick if not a HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick). The latter is really a dual controller, one being a separate stick, the other a separate throttle and honestly, the foot peddle controller setup would not be overkill. Nevertheless, I did not use my Thrustmaster HOTAS but instead a Saitek Cyborg 3D Gold and all was well. The game does use force feedback, and trust me, you can feel it every time you pump a shell down range or when you take a slug in the wings. Finally, this game is VR (Virtual Reality) capable, and while I don’t have the necessary hardware (yet), I have played a game or two in a VR environment. If you go this route, just be mentally prepared because it is very immersive to the point of tipping over or running into objects. Also beware of eye fatigue and cybersickness.

Graphics and Gameplay

If the original IL-2 had gorgeous graphics, then BOS graphics are just downright . . . “creepy?” Seriously, the images with this article do not do it justice. Instead play the game on an HD or UHD gaming monitor like I have, and you will continuously crash your plane because of being mesmerized, open mouthed by the visuals in front of you. Ok, they’re not perfect, but you will likely blink to convince yourself the ground clutter isn’t real, and we’re talking CGI the Air Strike movie noted above real. Clouds, weather effects and devastated urban areas are especially well done. Plane interiors also deserve a special nod given players who don’t actually want to be the pilot can opt to be another member of the crew, such as door gunner on a bomber. Add in some of the best sound effects ever (cue rounds tearing thru your fuselage with a noticeable “tin” sound) and you’ll understand why you really are flying a plane vice playing a game.

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Actually, the mini guy in me found the new graphics really hit you in the face as soon as you start the game and make it through the startup process, which is a bit long. The first screen has your typical menu bar on the right, but mostly you are looking at one of the game’s aircraft sitting in a hanger, panning around it 360. In other words, just like ROF (gee, imagine that). Yes, the game actually gives you the option of fitting out the aircraft you’ll be flying with various types of equipment such as unguided rockets. But it also gives you the option of various aircraft color schemes – with paint chips yet – based on actual squadrons, official seasonal paint patterns and even individual pilots. The Soviets in particular seemed to like snazzy paint jobs, such as with Lt Alexi Reshekov of the 273rd IAP, 1942, with his sloganized Yak-1 sporting a white spinner prop. The Yak-1 was also the ride of Stepan Anastasovich Mikoyan who flew the plane back then and at the age of 91 was brought into the BOS project to make sure the digital models behaved correctly.

And realism is really what gameplay is all about in BOS, and an immediate tip of the hat to the Digital Nature game engine. The game seems incredibly accurate from an historical perspective and this makes it quite a challenge to play. The planes here are not Viper star fighters launched by a certain Battlestar we all know and love, so their controls are not as nimble or immediately responsive. Likewise flight characteristics are totally dependent upon each individual plane, so while one plane might be a little heavy on the stick, but quick to accelerate, another may be the exact opposite. Likewise, those extra buttons on a joystick now actually mean something, and when you click on one there’s a good chance you’ll see a button flipped or a knob pulled out indicating a change in fuel mixture or something else. Unobtrusive icons on the right side of the screen will tell you the status of your craft and you’ll be happy to know that the AI is stuck with the same flight headaches you are because (quote), “AI pilots must perform the same control movements to fly their aircraft, equalizing the chances between man and machine.” I think I actually might have seen this in action, as in one fight a German BF-109 went spiraling out of control and crashed. I wonder if Hauptmann Hans AI, who I swear was never hit by anybody, stalled his plane and couldn’t recover?

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There are also messages from the game on the left via friendly pilots providing information or advice such as how to recover from a stall. Admittedly, I’m usually too bug eyed in panic mode to notice, but its there if you remember it. And stalling brings up another point, which is the complexity of game play. There are three levels to include Normal, Advanced (or something like that) and Custom. This last option allows you to turn on and off certain attributes of the game such as damage or ammunition (I am constantly amazed as to how many rounds these crates didn’t carry for their machine guns) so you can make the game a little more arcadish if you so desire. I normally play on Normal, but to start out I would kill the Stall option and use one of the quick missions to put you in the air at start. Taking off in one of these crates is doable, but landing the machine is going to take practice, lots of practice.

And to close out this part of my weekly epistle, let’s talk tanks. Evidently the plan is to make the IL-2 franchise not only about air warfare, but about ground warfare as well, reference their upcoming Tank Crew game. The subtitle is Clash at Prokhorovka, but evidently the software can be merged with the three areal titles for an even bigger simulation and ultra-complete campaign. As a precursor BOS includes  tanks to be individually played as part of a multiplayer environment, and some of the pickup scenarios give this option as well, allowing the solo player to run either a Russian T-34 76C or a German Pzkw III Ausf L across the steppes of the Motherland and kill stuff. additionally a new World War I title, Flying Circus, is in the works also, but given ROF is now part of the company’s software suite this seems a bit odd to me. Regardless, 1C spoke on the flexibility of the Digital Nature engine, so I guess this option means they believe it.

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Final Thoughts

BOS (and its siblings) is a bit pricey IMHO given the business model used, and is likely to be one the toughest, if not the toughest game you’ll ever master. Remember you, the player, has to learn multiple ways to fly and fight because the techniques will be different for each aircraft. This is challenging because even Normal mode is hyper complex because its hyper detailed, but it works like a charm and is as close to the real thing as you’ll ever get. But be forewarned that there is going to be a very big investment in time to learn this thing, so the ROI (Return on Investment) will be what you make it, and it won’t be the same for everybody.

For me? Well all I can say is that I just sprung a few more shekels for the Italian MC.202 Series VIII fighter as I have always wanted to fly one of these planes. And if they offer the Italian CR-42 Falco biplane and the Bell P-39 Aircobra (or Dear Little Cobra, Kobrastochka, as the VVS called it), I’ll likely fork over a few more. That should tell you something.

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