Welcome to the world of hardcore, console-based flight simulations. Population: close enough to bugger all. Yes, you could just about count all of them on one hand. See, we're a fickle bunch, console gamers, as a whole, we (and yes, this is a sweeping generalization) tend to like things fast and furious, flashy and fantastic. Too much fiddling with knobs, tweaking your throttle and flapping your ailerons, that sort of thing seems like more effort than its worth. Which is why it is games like Ace Combat and H.A.W.X which flourish (a relative term in what is still a niche market of sorts) on consoles. Still, as small as it is, there is an audience for these serious simulators, and it is Russian developer Gaijin Entertainment who carries a torch for that very specific crowd. Following the impressive IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, Gaijin has returned to the genre once more with Birds of Steel, a severely authentic sim that will satisfy even the most hardened flight combat enthusiast.
Authenticity at almost any cost, that seems to be the angle here. It's rare to see a game aimed so directly at the hardcore end of the spectrum - even Turn 10's Forza series has hints of accessibility here and there to keep the punters happy - but Gaijin Entertainment makes very few concessions to appease the masses. To compound that, it's when you try to dumb down the intended experience that Birds of Steel is at its worst. The option is there to play with the training wheels on, but its evident that this game was meant to be difficult - tone down the realism and the sense of immersion is heavily subdued.
On the other side of the scale, playing Birds of Steel in full simulation mode is tantamount to aerial suicide for anyone new to the genre. Even those who have spent a fair bit of time behind the stick of a WW2 fighter plane may struggle just to stay airborne long enough to complete a basic recon mission at first. I'll admit it, I spent the best part of an hour ploughing unceremoniously into the rear (okay, the stern) of an aircraft carrier just trying to wrap up the quite thorough tutorial section. Once in the heat of battle, it only gets more complicated and more intense. There's no "fire and forget" silliness here - it's up to you to get your old bird airborne, locate and close in on your target, eliminate, and then bring your plane's bullet-ridden carcass back down to terra firma, and it all needs to be done properly and carefully. Hit the brakes just a fraction too early on landing and your lovingly recreated classic fighter is snapped in half as you rock forwards into the tarmac. Bank too hard, or dive too fast, and the resulting G-forces will have you blacking out and/or your plane plummeting in a terminal spin.
It's not easy, but it isn't meant to be. Thankfully the Xbox 360 controller makes handling your aircraft far less cumbersome than you might imagine. Naturally the ideal control method for a flight sim is a flight yoke of some sort, but the twin analogue sticks, analogue triggers and the rest of the buttons work well together - there will be moments of confusion, trying to remember which button combination release the air brakes when you have mere seconds left to dive bomb an enemy destroyer, but it's an intuitive setup that successfully overcomes the limitations of the controller.
The control system is only as good as the handling and physics engine it is linked to, and in this respect Birds of Prey fares well. Whether in the middle of a bombing run on a coastal AA emplacement, or simply trying to wrestle your plane down for a safe landing, flight feels authentic and suitably challenging. There are times when it feels too finicky, too sensitive - my recurring nightmare of smashing into that damn aircraft carrier is testament to that - but mastering your aircraft should and does take effort and practice, which pays off eventually. Get used to the planes available during the early period of the campaign, and soon a host of other, even more challenging aircraft are added to your hangar, totalling around a hundred winged beasts to tame throughout the game.
The campaign mode is at the center of the single-player component here, focusing on Pacific air battles, and starting with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which was the catalyst for the US's involvement in the war. Rough but authentic archive footage sets the scene, giving insight and historical context throughout the campaigns, a good history lesson for those who weren't listening in school. The missions are varied and offer diverse challenges, but sometimes feel somewhat disjointed and inconsistent, with structure and pacing also a minor problem throughout.
Up to four players can take on campaign missions co-operatively too, an instant improvement over the already entertaining AI-only battles. Being able to discuss strategies across the airwaves while approaching a fleet of enemy battleships is a delight for aerial combat connoisseurs. It's much the same for the standalone multiplayer battles, ranging from small, confined tactical skirmishes to vast 16-player dogfights where just keeping your plane facing the right way up can become a problem once the bullets start flying. The campaign and single-player missions may have the sense of story and context, but it's the intensity of the multiplayer gameplay, as well as the robust mission editor which will win hearts and keep gamers interested long after the core game is over.
Gaijin Entertainment presumably focused so heavily on creating an authentic flight engine because they know that that is what the specific audience values most. The problem is that, for those who might be considering getting into this most unforgiving of genres, Birds of Steel is neither pretty enough or accessible enough to attract many new fans. Sure, we can't judge a game on looks alone, but when you look at the stunning terrain and visual polish of a game like H.A.W.X. 2 it's clear that Gaijin has a lot of catching up to do. The aircrafts themselves look fine, the cockpits are especially fetching, but the environments and ground structures are bland and seem unfinished. As for the fun quota, this is a game which spends far too much time and effort on being the real deal to ever be a barrel of laughs. But that's really the whole idea, isn't it. Tough as nails, but rewarding for those with the substance to master it and to explore the many facets of the various modes, Birds of Steel is a hardcore flight sim with very few rivals on the Xbox 360. As such, if you've been looking for a proper aerial challenge and have the patience, this should be right along your flight trajectory.
- Brutally authentic flight and combat systems
- Stunning array of WW2-era aircraft to collect and master
- Engrossing mission-based co-op and multiplayer dogfights
- Unpolished presentation
- Disappointing graphics, particularly terrain and built-up areas
- Hardly a fun playground to entice newcomers to the genre