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Killerfish Games's PC version of its iOS WW2 naval simulation/wargame takes the high seas by storm!
I started playing PC games on a system with a 14" screen and an early Pentium, and I'm not about to go back there, so I watched with interest but from afar, when I saw Fred 'Heinkill' Williams's affectionate and very favourable SimHQ review for the iOS-based Atlantic Fleet. Sometimes, though, dreams do come true, it seems, for a PC port has just arrived, after the developers completed the work and updated the graphics for the new platform.
Since the release of Fighting Steel and Destroyer Command in the late 1990s, it's been a bit of a famine for WW2 naval simmers, broken recently by the arrival of the rather good Victory at Sea. Well, now we also have Atlantic Fleet, so it's time to cast off, put to sea again and enjoy the feast that's followed that famine. And Atlantic Fleet is indeed a veritable multi-course meal of a feast, for anyone who remotely fancies tugging on his (or her) virtual seaboots and taking to the high seas to fight out some of the classic sea battles and campaigns of World War 2. Your mission is to preserve, or sever, the vital sea-lanes which kept Britain fighting against Nazi Germany, bringing vital supplies of food, weapons and raw marterials of all kinds to the British Isles...or not, if the Kriegsmarine has its way...
Atlantic Fleet iOS was the sequel to Pacific Fleet, and while our US cousins might regret it, I for one am very happy that Killerfish decided to get their PC feet wet with a port of the more recent, more modern game. I was brought up on a happy diet of Airfix 1/600 warships from the same theatre and the great little Eagle 1/1200 kits, released in themed sets like the Battle of Narvik, complete with accounts and maps of the relevant action. I soaked up films like Battle of the River Plate and Sink the Bismarck!, and later Ludovic Kennedy's excellent BBC TV documentaries on WW2 warships and battles - his later, excellent book Pursuit - the sinking of the Bismarck is on my desk as I type this. It was probably in the 1960s BBC documentary series The Valiant Years that I first heard Winston Churchill's famous observation that '...the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril'. Of course, while he was talking about the submarine threat to the supplies that kept Britain alive and in the fight, for much of the war the Kriegsmarine's surface units were also part of the threat that so concerned the great British war leader. And the air power of both sides played an important role. One of the joys of Atlantic Fleet is that when you step back into those dark and dangerous days, you can re-fight the Battle of the Atlantic and its most famous historical actions on, above or below the waves.
Installation and features
At time of writing, Atlantic Fleet is distributed via Steam - at a mere £6.99 Sterling. As we will see, for a game with high production values, engaging gameplay and an historical depth and coverage that would put many a full-price simulation in the shade, if not to shame, this is a very considerable bargain, to put it mildly.
I gather there are no plans to offer a different distribution channel and while I prefer the 'good old days' of standalone game installation, I have had no bother at all with any of the excellent Steam-based games I have purchased (Victory at Sea, Wargame: European Escalation and Wargame: AirLand Battle being the others) and would not consider passing up on a good game merely because of that.
I must start with Atlantic Fleet's high production values - these you will see from the moment the game loads. Here's the main menu screen. The ship seen here is the famous German battlecruiser Scharnhorst,* lost fighting against the odds at the Battle of the North Cape - which you can re-fight in Atlantic Fleet. Scharnhorst's brave showing prompted Admiral Fraser in Duke of York to say afterwards to his officers "Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today". Such is the world of steel ships and iron men that Atlantic Fleet re-creates for us. But I digress...can't help it, I feel the hand of history on my shoulder, as TCB once said.
*...and yes, before you start posting corrections, I know the ship above is actually a Hipper class heavy cruiser - Prinz Eugen, probably - not Scharnhorst, but I couldn't resist the quote above and don't have a menu pic of Scharnhorst, to hand .
The point is, it looks great, it's animated, with camera pivoting around the ship, and there's a different ship each time. See, here's another menu shot, and this time, it's one of the big German destroyers, several variations of which appear in the game:
Atlantic Fleet is single-player only, so you will not find here any way to blow up anything other than an entirely virtual foe-man. You do, however, get a sombre but really effective musical theme to accompany the menu, and you can have music in-game, too.
Taking the menu options from the top, first there is 'Training Missions'. These missions are actually rather useful, and a good way of ensuring that it is the enemy who ends up like this, and not you:
And again yes, you heard right, you can drop the camera below the waves, to get this view, complete with rather scary grinding and booming ship sinking sounds;
As for those training missions, which will hopefully reduce the frequency with which your own ships feature in such scenes, here's what you get. Again it's nicely presented, with good artwork and a clean, crisp interface. I did mention the high production values, didn't I?
Here's the intro screen for the torpedo training mission. I really like Atlantic Fleet's artwork and the general design:
Load the mission and you get a little scenario, here a Royal Navy destroyer steaming alongside a hapless German merchantman. You click your way through a series of topic boxes, to learn the lesson. You can toggle the topic box on and off, for a better view. They each do a very good job of taking you through the relevant drill.
This is where you may first get to see the Atlantic Fleet mode of gameplay, and its most prominent feature is that it is turn-based, like a wargame. The sequence is: You move-You shoot-The enemy moves-The enemy shoots. We'll see how this works in more detail, later. Continuous gameplay would be better, and certainly more simulation-like, but it is what it is, and I soon got quite comfortable with it.
Jumping ahead to the last menu option, we come to 'Options/Help', and here's what you get:
As the menu title suggests, some of the things listed on the right of the screen above are options screens, others are help. The 'home' screen, above, lets you tweak various gameplay and difficulty options, as you can see. The 'Default controls' screen lets you re-map keyboard commands, like this...
...while the 'Damage Report' is a help option and looks like this:
I find it all very well-presented and impressively thorough, very well up to the standards of PC sims and better than many I've seen, including the very best.
My main interest in a WW2 naval sim or game is the ability to re-fight historical or hypothetical battles, and it's that option we will look at next. Here, we will see how Atlantic Fleet's gameplay comes together, when the shells, torpedoes and bombs start flying.
...to be continued!
Mudspike have published a preview of CAP2 which it seems is the follow on to the early 90s sim CAP on the Commodore Amiga which was really good for the time.
Ok, let’s do a quick experiment. We’ll need a measuring rule, a bucket and (optionally) a towel. I’m going to list some things from a new PC flight sim coming out in 2015 (yes you read that right, this is like ‘Bigfoot Found In Walmart’ breaking news) so let’s set up the experiment:
Place the towel on the floor. Position the bucket beneath your lower lip.
Here’s the features of this new flight sim:
AV-8B Harrier II with 3D clickable cockpit using TrackIR and HOTAS support. Single Player emphasis, with Multiplayer Co-op available, including drop-in play. Dynamic Campaign engine. Flight and Naval Strategic fleet battles. Carrier Ops. Wingmen, Helos, Civilian traffic in shipping lanes. Realistic campaign map set in the Straits of Hormuz using 250,000 sq km satellite imagery and modern graphics. Dynamic Campaign engine. Yes, I just said it again. Ok, now let’s use the ruler and see how much drool just entered that bucket. I’m betting a good couple of inches, so feel free to use the towel now and go rehydrate.
We haven’t had the chance to get our hands on this title as yet, but Sim155 reached out to Mudspike and we set up this short Q&A to see what’s up:
Q1. What’s the balance between single and multiplayer content in CAP2? Is this primarily a Multiplayer game?
I’d say it is 50-50. For single player there’s a collection of training missions, single missions then an open ended dynamic campaign. For multiplayer there’s quick start dogfight, fleet defense/attack and fleet vs fleet. In addition any player in a campaign can invite players to join in a mission and take the place of AI controlled wingmen.
Q2. What’s a good comparative title for CAP2, it seems similar to Gaijin’s Apache Air Assault – is that a fair comparison in terms of sim fidelity and gameplay? Fun and action more than hardcore simulation?
I’d say we lean more towards a simulation than AAS. CAP2 has a strategic element in campaign mode which I don’t think you’ll find in many titles.
Q3. I’m old enough to have played Combat Air Patrol on the Amiga 500 (great game btw), what would be the main advances Ed and the team have been able to feature in CAP2 on today’s more powerful hardware?
Glad you liked it! With CAP I developed a 3D engine in 68k assembler as we didn’t have GPU’s. With a CPU running just over 7Mhz you could see the impact of just a few extra polygons. Now we’re pushing millions of polygons per frame we can draw pretty much anything we want. Terrain in CAP was limited to a few blue water polygons, CAP2 has over 250,000sq km of geo accurate terrain. Shaders allow us to render complex atmospheric lighting, water, shadows and post process effects.
Reference material is one of the biggest differences between developing CAP2 vs CAP. Back in the 90’s I wrote to the DoD asking for material on CVN-71 and actually received info & pictures a few weeks later. Today you’ve got a thousand images/movies/schematics available in seconds so things have changed massively.
Thanks to Ed and the Sim155 team for taking the time to answer our questions. We can’t wait to find out more, especially on the dynamic campaign side. For those that loved the gameplay fun of Strike Fighters and IL-2, this looks like a really nice ‘fidelity middle ground’ with a mix of tactical fleets mixed in. Awesome.
More here http://www.mudspike.com/combat-air-patrol-2-preview-interview/
No, sorry, not a review, just a link to my recent mission report, as it sort of developed into a more review-like thing. But rather than now move it here, I thought I should post a link. And it's an excuse to post some screenies and offer a few more observations.
The mission report/review thing is here.
This new release of SABOW has succeeded in getting me playing a sim that I had left in a drawer for over a year, deterred by the fact I wasn't massively a fan of either of the two playable tanks, the steeper-than-usual learning curve and the 'sim within a wargame' approach (which also reduced the appeal to me of Rowan's Battle of Britain/BoB2).
However - partly thanks to elements in the new release that make it easier to get to the tanksimming - see mission report for details! - I'm now a fan. Even to the extent that I'm beginning to see the wargame side less as something to be bypassed as far as I can, and more as a feature with a lot of potential and depth; one which I can actually enjoy as I choose, as well as the tanksimming side.
Even though everybody in SABOW seems to speak Russian - possibly an advantage, as I know nothing of Farsi or Arabic and am at least beginning to learn some of the Russian terms used on the intercom- I am really digging the animated crews and the fact that all my tank commanders have names as well as unit IDs. And now I'm getting the hang of it, I'm finding there's attention to realistic crew drills that are approaching the technical excellence of Steel Beasts, with the advantage of being able to see the guys alongside me.
Panzer Elite still has more hotkeys and an interface more optimised for a tanksim rather than a wargame. Steel Beasts better implements the team radio net and the use of callsigns on the map as well as on the air. But with the relaunch, SABOW has for me the mark of a really top-tier tanksim. And I believe we can expect further updates - there have been several already, since the relaunch, including those which added 'instant action' options and now also a firing range variant, complete with on-screen tips which play out as your M60 drives up to the firing point.
Using these tips, for the first time I tried out the drill for getting a range from the tank commander. Go to the gunsight that has the simple reticle. Hit Ctrl (this gets you into 'cursor mode') and with the mouse, put the little crosshairs which appear onto your chosen target. Click on the rangefinder icon - it's the one on the left of the third-from-the-left strip of icons, below seen from the gunner's station...
...and you will then see the icon grey out briefly, hear some clicking sounds and then see the icon light up again. This tells you that your TC has ranged the target with the stereoscopic rangefinder and keyed the result into the analog ballistic computer, setting up your sight for that range. Lay your gun and fire! And you can use a similar drill for the other, graduated sight in the M60 or T-62 and get a verbal range, estimated visually instead. All rather sophisticated, and the firing range mission with its tips is just one example of how the new release's features seem intended to improve the accessibility of the tanksim element. It certainly worked for me!
I've still a lot to learn about SABOW but I'm now hooked and would definitely recommend it as a tanksim, alone, whether or not you expect to appreciate the wargame element.
Gotta go - I'm due back on the range!
Before we get down to brass tacks here, as a lead-in I'm going to run briefly through another SP campaign mission, illustrating some of the features that I think are worth highlighting at this point and have influenced my own verdict on IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad.
This was a third effort at flying an intercept in a Yak-1, from our base north of Stalingrad to an area south of the city. Previous efforts had failed to meet my personal objectives, partly as I'd been happy to play the flight leader and see what happened when I cut the others loose on the target, resulting in them shooting it/them down (the good news) and me missing out on XP and unlocks and awards (the bad news). This time I decided to go in first and have my flight cover me.
As seems normal with a repeated mission, the general target area was the same but the other details had changed - time of day (it was now dusk), we had a different flight plan and height, there were four in my flight instead of three and the targets were different. So there is some variety here, if replaying a mission. Time was short so I appreciated the option to choose an air start, mission by mission. Here we are (one Yak out of shot) on the leg in to the target/Action Point, with the mini-map zoomed out. Turning the 'HUD' off removes labels from aircraft and the map, as well as turning off the instrument readouts.
In the brief run-in I experimented with formation changes which the AI executed slickly. I then gave them a 'cover me' command to ensure they didn't attack the enemy on sight, but stuck with me instead.
Our targets turned out this time to be two He 111s escorted by I think a single 109. I made a beam attack on the two winter-camouflaged Heinkels while to my complete satisfaction, my flight moved in to get between me and the Messerschmitt. This resulted in a dogfight after a bit of jockeying for position, with the 109 initially going wide and attempting to threaten my flight-mates from above and behind, rather than rushing straight at them.
My shooting hasn't got much better (the most recent update cuts the current lag between trigger pull and weapon firing, which will help) but it wasn't long before I had one of the bombers smoking. I took a noisy hit or two in return, but without suffering any serious damage. The visuals and effects are gorgeous, with vestigial tracer smoke trails, fantastic aircraft and lovely environmentals, like the terrain and clouds softly caught by the light of the setting sun. The finest of aviation art could do little better than this. I mean, look at the sun glinting on the props of the distant Heinkels, in the bottom pic. Beautiful.
Having damaged one bomber and needing only to shoot it down (or damage one more enemy) to complete my mission goals, I decided to cut the flight loose. By this time the Heinkels were rapidly receding, once more escorted by a 109 and two of my flight reported they were too far away to engage.
At this point some searchlights came on below and picked up the German bombers. After a few seconds held in the searchlights they turned left, probably having bombed whatever was protected by those lights, down there in the darkening snowscape.
I led the flight after the Germans and repeated the dose. This time, my flight got the 109 and I was able to put in a couple more passes at both bombers. The one I hit first started straggling.
As I was coming back for another pass at the smoking Heinkel, I saw him turn sharply. As I watched, his nose gradually went down, until he was falling from the sky, Clearly, the damage I had inflicted had become critical and he was doomed. The crew thought so too for they started bailing out. A kill!
Though now very low on ammo, I decided to have a crack at the last Heinkel, which I had clipped with a burst earlier on. With a bit of luck I might nail him with my last few rounds; if not, I would call in the rest of my flight to knock him down. He was now very low and I suddenly noticed that he had his gear and flaps down and that his landing and navigation lights were on. Looking ahead of him, I saw an airbase, to which the German was evidently on his final approach.
Evidently, the pursuit had taken us some way over into enemy territory! Now, it was my turn to be caught in searchlights, German ones this time!
I fired off my last rounds at the big German bomber, then broke up and away, pursued by some desultory flak.
Out of rounds at last, I climbed up and turned away, calling my flight back into formation. I wasn't going to risk our virtual necks in low-level operations over an enemy airfield, for the sake of finishing off one damaged bomber. The searchlights lit me up one last time as I banked around. Last I saw of the Heinkel, he had decided to execute a go-around and perhaps fly on to a less dangerous airfield. I left him to it.
Darkness was creeping in on us and I didn't want to dally. Heading back towards friendly territory, a headlight on the ground to my left drew my attention to what I could see was a train (visible just above my canopy, in the pic below). This might have made a good opportunity target for my wingmens' remaining ammo, had I felt like risking them. Which I did not.
A little further on, back over what I took to be friendly territory, a town was burning, perhaps the target of the He 111s earlier. If so, we had avenged our comrades!
Soon, we were over the town of Beketovka on the Volga just south of Stalingrad, providing an excellent reference point for my final leg home and confirming the the fidelity and attention to detail with which BoS has recreated the battlefield's historical landscape.
With the burning city itself below my left wingtip and looking down to my right, I got a shock to see some enemy aircraft wheeling about, low down over the frozen Volga. They looked to be single-engined types, possibly Stukas. Whatever they were, they did not molest us and with ammo low and in my case gone, I decided that honour had been satisfied and that we should all continue back to base, just to the north.
The scale of this sortie had been small, but it was beautifully formed. The superb visuals; the sounds, the radio comms; the tactical handling of my flight; the air combat; the activity on the ground including searchlights and trains; the credible behaviour of the AI; the barren landscape with its battered towns rolling beneath us; the chance near-encounter with another German flight going about its own business...this mission alone was proof positive for me that BoS delivers a combat flight simulation that is deeply engaging on every level. And at the end of the mission, I actually could not wait to run through the results and check out what points I earned and what I might have unlocked!
I would love to see flight results - kills and losses - added into the little sequence above which would be just enough to elevate BoS's mission handling to a much better level. But I have to say that the sim's distinctive approach to the player's role and his or her progression is something that, as a steadfast simmer, I can not only learn to live with, but to appreciate. Even if it were otherwise, to answer the question I left hanging at the end of Part 3, the depth and richness of the flying and air fighting experience delivered by BoS missions is really first class, worth coming back for more and the price of admission, on its own.
Before I move on, just to cover briefly a couple of loose ends, below are the screens which show (top) on a 'Pilot card', your game profile's vital stats and (bottom) on a 'Plane card', where you stand with the unlocks for a particular aircraft, which shows both what you have unlocked, and what's left to unlock.
And finally, while I haven't done any level bombing yet, here is the view from the Heinkel's Lofte bombsight, and what you see from the bombardier/navigator/airgunner position, looking back into the cockpit...which incidentally, famous test pilot Eric Brown disliked as contrary to appearances, pilot visibility was poor, dangerous in bad weather and producing a 'hall of mirrors' effect in strong sunlight.
And just to be clear, missions aren't always as small-scale as the one described above. Two missions later, still flying my trusty Yak, four of us escorted six Sturmoviks on an exciting and successful low-level strike on German motor transport, ignoring a formation of 109-escorted Heinkels which were level-bombing some of our guys just over the front line.
We fended off some intercepting Messerchmittts, one of which was my next kill after a difficult chase as, damaged by an early hit, he manoeuvred desperately to avoid me. That and at least one kill by a wingman was compensation for the one of our own that I knew we had lost
Out of rounds I was chased towards Stalingrad by a German fighter, who gave up when a wingman rejoined me. Together we flew north back to base up the Volga, past blazing ruins in Stalingrad and the famous grain elevator, ignoring the Stukas buzzing angrily over the river.
The BoS skies can be busy as well as dangerous. Perhaps only Russian developers could have recreated the time, the place and the combat so well.
And so to the reckoning...
Each CombatAce reviewer will have their own assessment but for me, this is a difficult one. It’s hard to avoid comparisons with other combat flight sims, especially with the original IL-2, which BoS's branding naturally invites. We do need to remember here that the original IL-2 is a product that's matured over almost exactly thirteen years of development and modding. And I think we need to take a deep breath and count to ten, before we rush to judgement on BoS's unconventional approach to some of the basics.
In the developer blog, they point out that the unlocks are content that's been made available freely (albeit after 'grinding') rather than as Down-Loadable Content payware, as in RoF. It's also apparent that 1C/777 hoped or believed the unlocks would actually appeal to some players, likely including people used to 'grinding' from playing those 'other genres'.
Like it or not, the BoS SP campaign approach - the unlocks, the pilot levels and awards and the lack of pilot and squadron identities - doesn't mean BoS can't deliver a solid, convincing air combat simulation experience. I find that BoS does exactly that, with considerable polish and flair in very many respects.
Are the unlocks et al a show stopper for die hard fans of the combat flight sim genre? Your call, but not for me, absolutely not.
The relatively recent tank sim, Steel Fury - Kharkov 1942 (SF) has no role-playing elements worthy of the name, in sad contrast to say, Panzer Elite. And SF's stock campaigns are just sets of scripted missions (with some replay variability), covering but a few weeks in May/June 1942 in a single area of operations. But once you've made a plan from the map, loaded the appropriate ammo and ordered your driver to advance, while the rounds begin to fall and the tracer starts to fly, the experience of playing the mission itself is actually very engaging. It puts you right there, leading a tank platoon into battle in a small-scale but reasonably convincing simulation of a WW2 all-arms, company-level operation. What SF does, it does more than sufficiently well, to pass muster as a top-notch tank sim, in my books and for many others. Despite limitations elsewhere.
So let it be with Ceasar. Or said of BoS, in my view. Like SF, BoS lacks some features I would like to see, including some I consider quite important. Some of the features it does have, nicely implemented though they are, I'm not crazy about. However, for me, in the round, and judging first and foremost from the experience BoS delivers, upon release, of flying Eastern Front air combat in WW2 (as opposed to simply 'flying WW2 planes') this is a great new addition to the combat flight sim genre.
We have a decent set of superbly-rendered aircraft (soon to be joined by an AI Ju 52) with a great feeling that you're actually flying or fighting from them. We have an historic battlefield rolled out before our very eyes, with adequate levels of ground activity, pleasing to the eyes and recreated in a depth and to a level of detail which more than compensates for the limited breadth of a single area of operations. We have the opportunity to fly small-scale but reasonably challenging and generally convincing sorties over this battlefield, as the battle itself unfolds, in its successive phases, where history, not the player's actions, determines the course of events. The air-to-air and air-to-ground action can be as visceral and exciting as any I've experienced. Sure, a little more suspension-of-disbelief-building in mission presentation (and less 'gamey' objectives and terminology) would be nice...but when you're up there in BoS, over that white-frozen but beautiful virtual landscape, in that nicely-rendered virtual cockpit, fighting for your virtual life while the war goes on around you, all other things seem somehow less important.
Back down to earth, here are my pros and cons.
Beautifully-rendered aircraft, especially externally
Great feeling of flying combat aircraft
Beautiful (if snowbound!) environmentals
Generally very good combat experience
Good developer support & exceptional engagement
Good aircrew animation
Good set of well-presented on-screen aids
Ability to fly, gun or bomb
'Complex Engine Management' adds depth (if you want it)
SP campaign follows the main phases of the historical battle
Crisp, clean easy-to-use interface and high 'production values'
Mostly, decent AI
Mission Editor is opening up additional SP campaign possibilities
No real pilot persona or historical squadrons in stock campaign
Unlocks could be handled in a more historical fashion (or opted out of)
No padlock in campaign Edit - padlock IS now functioning in campaign, as of the pre-Christmas 2014 update
Limited ground control/tower presence
'Gamey' terminology in some places
Wingman command windows large and centred
Near cloud effect interferes with aircraft rendering
And since life's not all black-and-white, just to expand on the above assessment...
Some room for improvement?
In campaign, no ability to view your flight's results post-mission, just player's solo achievements
Difficulty organising flight in making effective ground attacks
Formations are sometimes small, even for the Eastern Front
Aircraft could be visible further away, without icons/labels
Formation-keeping - there's a certain amount of straggling
Laden bombers seem a bit too agile
Aircraft lack individual/unit markings
Stock SP campaign mission briefings rather bland
Landscape perhaps a little too bland, even for 'snowbound'
Own pilot is invisible, in 1st person view
Greater ability to fine-tune on-screen aids, within presets, would be useful
Limited flexibility of graphics adjustment (presets)
And the score? I make no allowance here for longer-term potential or the desirability of 'supporting a new product in a niche market'. Nor am I having any regard, either way, to any (sometimes rather fraught) discussions of, or opinions expressed about, BoS, elsewhere. However, I am making some allowance for: the fact that a manual is coming; the prospect of user-made campaign mission sets, which have already begun to appear; a facility to incorporate user-made 'skins' which is I believe coming; and the fact that an AI Ju 52 is definitely being produced, filling the big planeset gap. The mission editor is reported to be tricky to use and we may never get pilot logbooks; but sets of scripted missions, able at least to give the player an identity and an historical squadron, will likely see the arrival, over time, of a decent supply of at least adequate, and possibly very good, 'conventional' if not 'dynamic' Single Player campaigns, which will boost longevity.
So, remembering that I'm rating only the Single Player element here, on this scale.....
5 - Must Buy - Delivers a consistently outstanding experience with minimal flaws that do not detract from the gameplay in any significant way.
4 - Highly Recommended - Delivers a fun and enjoyable experience well worth your time and money, despite some room for improvement.
3 - Recommended - Delivers a solid gameplay experience with a few irritations that occasionally disrupt enjoyment.
2 - Difficult to Recommend - Delivers some of the promised fun, but not without significant problems in the gameplay experience.
1- Not Recommended - Delivers a sub-par gameplay experience; doesn't fulfill its promises; offers more bugs than fun.
...this reviewer's final score is: 4 - Highly recommended
As things stand, with a few non-critical reservations, I would recommend the new sim to any air war enthusiast and in particular, to those with an interest in the Eastern Front or in the Soviet or German warbirds which fought there. BoS should also appeal strongly to those who relish the extra realism of being able, if they choose, to manage their airscrew pitch, mixture, radiators and all the other stuff the real pilots had to handle.
I have found IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad to be a detailed, well-produced, enjoyable, effective and rather beautiful evocation of the air war over and around one of the decisive battles of the Second World War. Which, I guess, is about what it set out to be.
But - unlike the Stuka below - we're not quite finished here yet!
Coming next - the view from the other reviewers' cockpits...including Multiplayer!
The Single Player campaign
The SP campaign is nicely tied into the historical battle. When you kick it off, you get a campaign selection screen; this lists only Stalingrad but the fact there is such a screen suggests other campaigns could be added later. Having selected the campaign itself, you get this screen. From it, you can see that BoS divides the battle into 'Chapters' (which though not totally sequential, historically, could have been more militarily termed 'phases'). You must make a certain amount of progress in each Chapter, before you can move on to the next. However, you can continue to fly missions in completed chapters, even after you have moved on.
Each Chapter has an introductory video. These consist of an historical summary narrated as a voiceover to a highly-stylised animated representation. I'd have preferred the more conventional historical newsreels here, but hey, you can't please everybody.
Having started the Chapter 'Prelude to Counter-Offensive', you're invited to 'Choose [a] mission' from a map which shows that the 6th Army has pushed a salient into the Soviet lines, occupying all but the eastern fringes of Stalingrad itself. This corresponds to the operational situation just before 6th Army was trapped in the city by Operation Uranus. The attention to the historical detail here I find most immersive. Even if, like me, you're not a particular student of operations on the Eastern Front, to see a well-researched map with the positions of each side's armies and divisions marked out helps draw you back in time, as you look at an authentic military representation of the battlefield at the start of a momentous campaign.
You're prompted to click on an airbase, to begin. But most bases are either inactive map markers or greyed out. In fact, at this point, you're in training, and you can only start at one airfield, flying one type of plane, and on one type of mission. Click on the only 'unlocked' airfield - Rakhinka - and all is revealed, step by step. Your aircraft is a LaGG-3, a neat but somewhat underpowered Soviet machine which realised its full potential only when given a big radial, becoming the La-5.
Below is the campaign 'Select mission template' screen, illustrating the different options and the range of available campaign missions. Let's run through the options, starting with 'Duration'. A 'Short' mission - note the clock icon - is an air start, requiring you only to fly from a starting or entry waypoint, on to the mission objective area, and then to a finish or egress waypoint. A 'Full' mission includes the same basic sequence but starts you on the airfield, requiring you to fly to the entry waypoint and from the egress waypoint, fly back to the airfield and land. You get fewer 'experience points' for flying 'Short' missions, incidentally.
The 'Difficulty' options enables you to have, or to dispense with, Complex Engine Management and in-flight markers or aids - though in 'Normal' mode, which was my choice, you can hide these visual aids, in-game. Below that, you can see the types of mission available. For your very first sortie, you are restricted to a 'Short' (air start) duration and have only to fly two legs, from entry waypoint to objective waypoint, and then from objective waypoint to egress waypoint. You only find out that this is a training mission when you start it and after the mission has loaded, see the full mission 'Briefing' map, as in this one:
Here's a shot taken in-mission, with the visual aids turned on. It's nice to see that my LaGG now has a winter scheme, with moderately-weathered temporary 'whitewash' finish.
I'll now run through all the mission result screens you get, when you complete this first, simple mission. I'm devoting all this space to these screens because they neatly illustrate just how the Single Player campaign progression/unlocks/experience points thing works, in practice. First, you get this, which is self-explanatory...
...then come these screens, showing you how many 'experience points' you have been awarded and how far you are, on your way to the next 'Level' of pilot...
Next comes this, telling you that your 'EXP' has unlocked some goodies, in this case a 23mm cannon:
Even though you haven't made 'Level 2 pilot' yet, mission completion has earned you a 'Young Pilot Certificate', which I'm sure is fictitious but sounds corny enough to have been real in the 'socialist paradise' that was the 1940's USSR.
Finally, here's the mission results summary. I believe the 'In service' factor is a modifier, in this case giving me 100% of the earned points as I'm still 'In service' - alive and un-hospitalised as the conclusion of the mission, at a guess.
What can I say? Not a pilot persona in sight; no option to join an historical squadron; no logbook. Not quite what most of us would expect from a combat flight sim, what with pilot 'levels' and unlocking stuff. CFS3 awarded not-dissimilar 'prestige points' which affected some pilot skills but at least there were no unlocks (apart from new planes arriving on their service entry dates) and you had a pilot persona, although you could not directly choose his squadron and the campaign itself was in an alternative WW2 universe where German shipping sailed the English Channel in daylight.
This isn't what I'd have preferred and I hope that we will at some point get something like a Rise of Flight-style 'beta Career' and/or a Pat Wilson-style campaign generator. At the very least, I think we can certainly expect a more conventional approach from themed sets of single missions, built using the upcoming Full Mission Builder, so far just open to a few but at some point, to be on general release.
I have to say that - unconventional though it is - I find the current BoS approach is in most respects both neatly designed and well executed. For example, the 'Select mission template' screen is liberally provided with on-screen tips, which guide you through the setup process. I'm not saying I like it, mind, but I can't help but admire the execution.
Some players may actually favor the radical BoS take on delivering a Single Player campaign experience. It did actually get some votes in a developer poll, though many more wanted it either taken away or made by-passable.
Anyway...subsequent training missions expand your repertoire, taking you on ground attack and intercept sorties and introducing full duration, ground start missions. Like beating up this convoy of Open Blitz trucks, complete with Hollywood-style German crosses on the doors. This driver made a run for it but he'll be needing a new truck, as well as a change of underwear, most likely.
...to be continued!