Hands-On With Birds of Prey

Written by: Jonathan Maher

Recently, Russian game publisher 1C announced that they were seeking to increase their presence in North America, and expand their portfolio to include console and handhold games. One of the titles that will be leading this charge is the WWII combat flight simulator IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, coming “in 2009″ to the PS3 & Xbox 360 (with versions for the DS and PSP coming from DiP and DYNAMICSYSTEMS, respectively). IL-2 Sturmovik, known by many PC gamers for its unrelenting attention to detail is 1C’s most successful game (with two million copies sold worldwide). The challenge faced by 1C is bringing that experience to consoles, where gamers have shown to have little patience for “sim” games.

During an evening press event held at the San Francisco Russian Consulate, I had the chance to play the game and speak with Anton Yudintsev, the president of Gaijin Entertainment. Something that was immediately apparent from our conversation was a deep level of commitment that Anton (and presumably, his team) had in handling development of this title for the consoles. When I first introduced myself, he politely asked for a few moments to go get a drink of water; he was clearly exhausted from the hours of conversation he had already had that night. I took advantage of the opportunity to play the game without any help from someone who was already familiar with the title, and was impressed at the ease of flying provided by the controls.

When Anton returned from his water break, he helped me to understand why the controls we so easy. Extensive work had been done by his team to make the game playable with a console controller, with many revisions made to make sure that the controls felt “right.” Planes take realistic damage, which is accounted for (both graphically and in the physics model), but the game “bends the rules” to keep rookies like me in the air. This balance of realism and fun was apparent in other areas of the game as well. Enemy and ally planes have chevrons pointing them out (as a concession to the limited field of vision a TV provides), but your mission objectives are conveyed to you though a voice from the control tower (instead of a magical glowing dot on your screen, as is used in many games). Just like in other flight games, you can issue orders to your wingmen easily by using the d-pad, but communication with your wingmen takes place over the in-plane radios, which have a limited range.

Taking a look at the screen shots, it is easy to be impressed by the graphics. Even more impressive is the fact that even in the early preview stage, the game ran smoothly, while keeping track of the hundreds of in-games objects (enemy planes all have their own separate AI, and every bullet is individually tracked). To give you an idea of the scope of the visuals, the third picture in this preview was cropped. I have posted the original, so be sure to click on it the picture to see just how much detail is present. The game is also looking to have an impressive soundtrack with music from noted game music composer Jeremy Soule (as a side note, what do you listeners think about us doing a podcast that addresses the issue of sound and music in games?).

For anyone who read this preview and is lamenting the fact that all of the physics simulation will go to waste as the developer attempts to make the title more friendly for console players, don’t worry. Mr. Yudintsev assured me that any player who wants the extra tension and intensity provided by a more realistic experience can switch on “simulation mode”. Along those lines, I also asked about the possibility of using a flight stick.  The Xbox 360 version will work with Namco’s ACE-EDGE Flightstick, while the PS3 version will support several of Logitech’s more popular models (Sony is more open about allowing PC accessories to connect with their console).

Upon its release, Birds of Prey will support 16 player online matches, and an extensive single player campaign (50+ missions, taking place in five distinct war zones -The Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, Berlin, Sicily and Korsun). I am personally excited about the potential this game has, and am hopeful that the growing installed bases of both the next generation consoles will allow this game to find an audience when it is finished next year.

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