Released as a pre-release alpha in 2013, 1C Game Studios and 777 Studio‘s IL2: Battle of Stalingrad was a visual masterpiece that promised to be a worthy successor to the IL2 Sturmovik simulation series. Bumped up to official release status back in October of 2014, the devs have been hard at work adding new features and hinting at a greater path forward.
The Next Generation of Historical Combat
My flight simulation roots include a lot of time in IL2:1946. When 1C Game Studios / 777 Studios announced their joint project, I was excited to see new life coming to this epic simulation series. Unfortunately, Life™ and that age-old enemy “Too Many Projects” sapped at my free time and I temporarily put IL2:BoS up on the shelf. Seeing the IL-2 in action again a few videos on YouTube rekindled the desire enough to update my install and give Battle of Stalingrad a test flight or two.
Note: this article is not a thorough review of IL2:Battle of Stalingrad, but I will be looking at aspects of the simulation as I fly through some of the single-player campaign missions.
From the start, the visuals are impressive. The launcher application has a special graphical style to it that I can’t exactly explain but I certainly appreciate as the result of a deliberate attempt to look cool. My engineer-brain wants to call it “minimalistic”, but I hope my artsy counterparts reading this article can give a better description in one of the comments.
Love with the launcher graphics is a good indication.
Although pretty, a quick look under the menus reveals the minimalistic approach applies to the settings as well. Unlike the detailed options menu of the Rise of Flight launcher, IL2: BoS‘s launcher has very basic settings – a good thing, in this humble author’s opinion.
IL2:BoS launches into a log-in screen, asking you for your registered login credentials. A trend that seems to be slowly growing across the gaming industry, IL2:BoS requires you to be connected to the internet to access most of the features. The sim does have an offline mode, but in addition to not being able to play multiplayer, the single-player Campaign mode is disabled. A rationale for this decision is that aircraft modifications and features can be unlocked during Campaign play and forcing an online connection ensures an original experience and fair progress for all players.
The Quick Missions (aka Quick Mission Builder) and single-player Missions library are available offline. Similar to Rise of Flight, the Quick Mission Builder lets you select a map, one of a few different types of engagements at specific locations around the map, and then tweak the details (type of planes, targets, load out, time of day, weather, etc.) to suit your tastes. This feature is pretty understated, and has immense replay value. Endless scenarios are available here for quick and thrilling action.
Stepping Back Into History
But I came here to fly a campaign. The single-player campaign is broken into 5 chapters of the historical Battle of Stalingrad. Each part has a high-production value trailer to set up the player’s back story.
After selecting a campaign chapter, I’m treated to a cutscene/trailer that sets up the back story for the particular chapter of the campaign. The visuals, script, and voice-over narration are high-quality and dramatic without being too saucy – I really enjoyed sitting through them.
The first few missions of the campaign are hand-holding – I’m given specific instructions and only allowed to do what the instructions tell me to do. This is a little limiting for experienced players, but enforces some familiarization with the interface before just hopping in. Being a little rusty on my IL2 experience, I gladly take the baby steps on my first few missions.
Back to the Grind
IL:BoS approaches combat flight simulation similar to an RPG – you are awarded experience points based on your performance during a mission. These experience points (XP) are used to unlock weapons, equipment, paint jobs, and other aircraft modifications. There are no Call-of-Duty-like perks or crazily unrealistic modifications or bonuses, but the system requires you to do well in missions in order to unlock some key equipment, like bombs and rockets. These unlocks carry over to multiplayer play as well, so it’s strong motivation to play through the campaign before going online.
Fortunately, not having all the unlocks does not prevent you from enjoying flight or combat in all the aircraft you have purchased, and it’s incredibly easy to unlock them, just flying through the single-player campaign. As a plus for the Premium players, the devs announced that all unlockables can be immediately accessible with the push of a button.
Once in flight, the visuals are amazing. The external models of the aircraft are expertly crafted and rendered with blazing smooth frame rates on my aging PC.
The eye candy isn’t limited to exterior views, either – the view is equally gorgeous from inside the cockpit.
Even the splash screens as the missions load are gorgeous.
It cannot be overstated: the visuals of IL2:BoS are astounding. The bleak snow-covered terrain sharply contrasts the finely detailed aircraft, belching fire and smoke from their exhaust manifolds. Specular reflections light up the aircraft sides and glint off the canopy. Clouds hang in the air, billowy and wispy in the cold Soviet air. It’s a joy to just fly, a good indicator for a flight sim.
Wages of War
As starkly barren as the terrain appears, it is not uninhabited – signs of war are all around. Stalingrad burns along the shore of the Volga and tracers fly around the contested areas as German and Soviet troops battle below. Explosions from artillery shells heave up from the shattered ground and the occasional flight of planes are visible in the distance. IL2:BoS does a great job of immersing the player in an alive environment that doesn’t feel staged or forced.
In my first few flights, I fly intercept missions where I take on Ju-87 Stukas or He-111 bombers in my flight of Lagg-3’s. The AI didn’t seem incredibly responsive to my commands – ditching me the moment they thought they saw an enemy, often without radio contact. While I was trying to take it slow and steady, keeping a wary eye out for escorts, the AI would race ahead to the target aircraft and down them before I even had a chance to set up an attack – sometimes before I even saw the enemy aircraft.
My wingmen score another kill.
Although I wasn’t getting great combat time, I did build up some XP towards unlocking some modifications. A few mods popped up pretty quickly, including a white paint scheme for the Lagg-3 – not a bad idea for combat in a Russian winterland!
Like IL2:1946 before it, IL2:BoS gives players the opportunity to fly and fight both sides of the war, so I decide to take up a Bf-109F4 for some fighting.
Downing enemy Pe-2’s was just as difficult, with the AI taking most of the glory, but I chalk that up to me being overly cautious. I did rack up XP for every flight and still continue to work my way through the unlocks. I enjoyed the Bf-109’s superior speed over the enemy and did make some successful boom and zoom slashing attacks on some Russian bombers and escort aircraft. A single hit with a 30-mm shell from the Rheinmetall MK 108 cannon makes short work of the Communist aircraft, but requires a steady shot. Very satisfying experience.
The Flying Infantryman
There was no way I could play IL2:BoS and not hop into the cockpit of an Илью́шин Ил-2 Штурмови́к (Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik). In my first mission, my flight is tasked with taking out a train. I select rockets and bombs and go for the long flight (takeoff from runway) with Expert difficulty setting.
I use the briefing map for course headings and to find visual cues that lead me to the target area – clumps of trees, roads, etc. Pilotage isn’t very difficult in even this mostly desolate landscape, but you can get turned around pretty quickly.
I quickly spot exhaust from the train’s smokestack in the target area and turn to set up for a parallel attack run. The idea is to take out the engine with rockets and then bomb the cars, preventing the Fascists from obtaining access to whatever illicit goods they had stashed in them.
I’m a little late on my rocket release and end up taking out the tender behind the locomotive, which still steams on ahead, but the attack stops the rest of the train. During my roll out to drop bombs on the train cars my IL2 is showered with gun fire. The Techno Chat icons light up the right side of my screen with all the systems that have been damaged and destroyed. Not good.
Rearward visibility in the IL2 is non-existent and the AM-38 variant I’m flying doesn’t have a rear gunner, so I bank the aircraft into a sharp turn, looking over my should for my attacker to better avoid him. During the turn, my windshield begins to darken as oil from my stricken engine covers it and I instantly realize that I’m out of the fight. I dump my bombs and select a nice white patch to make a crash landing.
The cold-hearted Germans know no mercy, however, and the enemy aircraft continues to plink away at my Flying Tank, disabling my controls. I crash into the snowy field and snap a wing. The fuselage tumbles once and my pilot is killed. Curse you, Facist pig!
We Shall Rise Again
One of the joys of flying a historically accurate sim is you already know who’s going to win. My failure on the train mission may not have netted my virtual pilot any XP, but I gained real experience that I’m looking forward to taking back on the battlefield to win this fight.
In addition to the Lagg-3, Yak-1, Bf-109F4, and IL-2 that I flew in these missions, I’m looking forward to flying bombing missions in both the He-111 and the Pe-2 bombers, and some attack runs in the Ju-87. I bought the Premium version of the sim, so I may also take up the Soviet La-5 or the German Fw190 A-3 on some sweep or escort missions, but I’d rather get my air-to-air kicks with real humans against real humans in multiplayer. You can see a list of flyable aircraft at IL2:BoS’s site, as well as differences between the Standard and Premium products.
I’m really looking forward to the multiplayer aspect. I’ve never been fond of any AI in any game, and my artifical IL2:BoS wingman won’t be earning any high-fives from me. I’d love to experience this game on the wing of a friend or two, talking through maeuvers and tactics as we liberate our beloved Stalingrad. Some of my most memorable experiences in IL2:1946 were on multiplayer servers.