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The CombatAce review: IL-2 Battle of Stalingrad

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post-66801-0-68721100-1416931785.jpg 'There is no land behind the Volga!' *     
                                                     

2014_11_21__20_46_44.jpg

  * Red Army 'no retreat' slogan during the Battle of Stalingrad

 

Well, it's here! IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad ('BoS') is the latest in a long line of WW2 air combat sims to bear the illustrious IL-2 name. The last major iteration, Cliffs of Dover, forsook the Eastern Front for the Battle of Britain. But with BoS, it's back to the (here, frozen) steppes of Mother Russia and the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets dubbed the bitter conflict in the east.
 
As you'd expect from the title, BoS is based around the momentous and decisive battles around Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943. The Wehrmacht's 6th Army, fresh from its triumph in the Second Battle of Kharkov, had swept south in the major German offensive of 1942, to the banks of the River Volga and the city which bore the name of the wily and feared Soviet leader. After slowly grinding down the epic Soviet defense of the city, the German forces there were cut off by two successive pincer attacks which overwhelmed the less well-equipped Romanian, Italian and Hungarian allies holding the flanks. Manstein's attempt to break through to 6th Army fell short while Hitler forbade withdrawal, lulled by Goering's assurances that the Luftwaffe could repeat its success in supplying by air the earlier (but much smaller) Demyansk pocket. Despite herculean Luftwaffe efforts, galvanized by the highly-capable Erhard Milch, the supplies delivered were never enough and when the major airfields inside and outside the Stalingrad kessel at Gumrak, Pitomnik, Morosovskaya and Tatsinskaya were over-run, the writing was on the wall for the battered and ultimately starved 6th Army, which surrendered in February 1943. This famous Soviet victory stands with the few battles that can claim to have dictated both the outcome of WW2 and the fate of Europe for many years afterwards.
 
So, set against this epic background, how does BoS shape up? Let's find out! The review will be in several parts, a real CombatAce team effort, with 'Founders' CowboyTodd41 and Jedi Master providing an Early Access participant's insights on different aspects of the new sim. To wrap up the review in style, Hellshade will provide a video finale showing BoS in action!

 
Availability and installation
BoS is available by download from both the Publishers and Steam and on DVD. Each format comes in two versions - 'Standard' and 'Premium' - which differ in the number of flyable aircraft provided (eight versus ten, respectively).
 
There is no manual with the sim. Apparently, one is being worked on but for now, it's a case of diving in and working your way through things for yourself. Much of the interface and controls will be reasonably familiar, if you've played the sim's progenitor, which is actually Rise of Flight (RoF). There are some enthusiast-produced aircraft guides available already and of course you can find material covering instrument layouts, performance and handling online, if not also in books - for example, Eric Brown's most excellent 'Wings of the Luftwaffe'. On the battle itself I would highly recommend William Craig's 'Enemy at the Gates' (the film only covered the sniper duel, a tiny part of the book) which won't tell you which Kampfgruppe, Tank Brigade or Jagdgeschwader went where and when but it's a gritty, memorable and powerful picture of the battle as seen by those who experienced it.
 
My review copy of BoS is the Premium edition and was downloaded from from the Publisher's website. The download and installation process was entirely painless, the slow part being downloading the 'game client' via the 'Launcher' app that is your point of entry into the sim. Though different in some details, this Launcher will be familiar to players of RoF. BoS's Launcher is illustrated below (the desktop background pic is from IL-2 '46). As you can see, amongst other things, the Launcher lets you configure some graphics options at this front end, though few, compared to RoF's Launcher. As in the older sim, the Launcher will update BoS over the 'net, but automatically, rather than manually as before.


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Once you start the sim itself, you are invited to log on. As with RoF, some features require an internet connection. You can fly Quick Missions offline but not the stock Single Player campaign. This I believe is because online servers generate campaign missions, track your progress and use this to apply BoS's 'extensive in-game achievement system' (as the developers describe it) which we will come to, later. I don't especially like this connection dependency but - though there was a glitch one weekend when a server issue prevented player achievements being recognized - having a decent broadband connection, this requirement doesn't much affect or concern me. The developers have said that the bandwidth required for this is low.
 
The sim's main menu screen is the 3d aircraft view familiar to RoF fliers, displaying the last aircraft you flew (or the IL-2 Sturmovik by default) as rendered in-game, now in a hangar setting as seen here. For me, the interface is a bit choppy, with a bit of mouse lag, which I gather is a known issue for some though a minor one. We'll go through the options it presents, later on.

 

post-66801-0-91223300-1416938283.jpg
 

The planes
The aircraft featured in BoS are listed here. Those asterisked are flyable in the Premium version, only.
 

                        German                                                 Soviet
                        Bf 109F-4                                               LaGG-3
                        Bf 109G-2                                              Yak-1
                        FW 190A-3*                                            La-5 *
                        Ju 87D-3                                                 IL-2   
                        He 111H-6                                               Pe-2
 
So we have a decent mix of fighters, bombers and attack aircraft, out-of-the-box. The FW 190 was apparently not in action at Stalingrad but is presumably included for its popularity and to provide an alternative German single-seat fighter to the two visually very similar Bf 109 variants. The developers have said that the Ju-52 transport may be added later, possibly AI-only. While this slow tri-motor transport would be a popular mount with only the bravest (or most foolhardy) players, it really is an essential aircraft for Stalingrad and a good choice for an AI plane. The Luftwaffe used every available type that could carry cargo or personnel in their desperate 'air bridge' operation including bombers and FW 200 Condors, but the 'Tante Ju' was the mainstay and the sooner it's added, the better. A Ju 88 and a Bf 110 would also be very welcome, on the German side. In my book, the more major types a sim can feature from the get-go, the better, even if only the AI gets to fly some of them (or you have to pay to activate the cockpits). But apart from that Ju 52 - and the fact that a Bf 110 would have been a better choice, historically, than an FW 190 - BoS already comes with a respectable planeset, for the time period featured in the sim.
 
Here are some of the stars of the show, inside and out. They are gorgeous, with accurate outlines and detail, readable stencil markings, panel lines & rivets visible in relief ('bump mapping'?) and animated aircrew, RoF-style.

 

Heinkel He 111H:

post-66801-0-66556500-1416870371.jpg

 

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                   (note the subtitled radio comms from the 'tower' at Morosovskaya airfield, in the cockpit pic)

 

Messerschmitt Bf 109F (top) & Bf 109G:

post-66801-0-81113200-1416870450.jpg

 

post-66801-0-93332200-1416870431.jpg

 

post-66801-0-23250000-1416917125.jpg

 

Focke-Wulf FW 190A:

post-66801-0-65360800-1416871019.jpg

 

post-66801-0-75339500-1416917172.jpg

 

Lavochkin La-5 (in a snowstorm):

post-66801-0-93344200-1416870591.jpg

 

post-66801-0-53442700-1416870592.jpg

 

Petlyakov Pe-2:

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...and finally, the star with the top billing - the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik:

post-66801-0-58531900-1416872044.jpg

 

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As well as flying these birds, you can man other crew positions, including bombardier and air gunner. Here I am in the dorsal position of the elegant Heinkel 111, manning my MG 15 and ready to ward off the Ivans. You can see the neat panel and rivet detail, especially running out along the main spar of the starboard wing. The aircraft has the correct 70/71/65 colour scheme with factory finish pattern on top and the appropriate theatre markings, comprising yellow rear fuselage band and lower wingtips.

 

post-66801-0-01543900-1416944131.jpg

 

Having closed my canopy to keep out the slipstream and looking down into the fuselage, I can see two of my comrades below, one standing by a waist gun, the other ready to go prone in the sterbebett (death bed) ventral position, should the need arise. The cocking handle on the MG 15 reciprocates when you fire the weapon but I haven't yet fired off enough rounds to see if the reloading of the saddle drum magazine is animated, which if so might look a little odd as I am invisible, in the 'cockpit' view.

 

post-66801-0-35506500-1416944130.jpg

 

Luftwaffe aircraft had a semi-gloss finish and this is nicely captured, along with the correct factory-applied camouflage colours and patterns. As you'd expect, the aircraft have dynamic self-shadowing, inside and out. Perhaps the cockpits are not quite as sharp as Cliffs of Dover's...and they're not 'clickable', for those who like fiddling with such things rather than hitting a key. But they look good enough to me and combined with 'head bobbing' (which you can turn off), those moving shadows and minor canopy scratches catching the sunlight, the effect of being up in the heavens in a real aircraft is superb.

 

Externally, the lack of individual or unit markings creates a certain blandness, my only real criticism here. And I understand why there aren't swastikas on German tails, but the vestigial ones provided perhaps look worse than none - better no marking than an inaccurate one. I recall the old Revell 1/72 FW 190A, in its 1960s incarnation, had a normal cross for a tail decal with a note in the instructions acknowledging the inaccuracy and stating that portraying the correct markings (and I quote) '...would not be in keeping with the spirit of democracy.'

 

FW190.JPG

 

But I digress...instead, I should add that all screenshots were taken at medium graphics settings (the 'Balanced' pre-set). My PC is slightly below the recommended specs for BoS but flies RoF, a recommended benchmark for the new sim, fine at medium settings and is ok with BoS.
 
Engine sounds are distinctive and realistic, much better than the original IL-2. Your guns could be louder though. Some have reported your airframe being hit is barely audible but that hasn't been my experience. Radio transmissions can be a tad repetitive but sound like...well, radio transmissions (they are in the original language, with subtitles available).

 

In short, the BoS aircraft are exceptional; they look and sound great. The contrast is a bit high between the 70 (Schwarzgrun) and 71 (Dunkelgrun) upper surfaces on the Ju 87 for my taste and I think the 109s should have little fillets either side of their lower radiator flaps but those are very minor quibbles.
 
Coming in part 2 - the environment, the options and Quick Missions!

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Hey Lima, will they release more aircraft as DLC? Like the 109G6 (My fav 109 in the G series) and the awesome 110G2 With additional 30mm gun package?

 

Falcon

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Hi Falcon

no announcements yet but they have said an AI Ju52 is possible (and somebody found a skin for a possible ground object Ju52 in a recent patch, so maybe that is close) and some modders are working on some more (eastern front, snowbound) maps. If BoS is successful I would be very surprised if we don't get DLC planes and the official forums has several polls started by players trying to test the demand for new planes and thus persuade the developers to release them. I would love a G-6 and a 110F or G too.

 

You'll know that the G-2 available now isn't much different to the G-6 apart from those cowl bulges and 13.1mm instead of 7.92mm MGs. A 'kanonenboot' with 20mm MG151/20s in underwing 'gondolas' is one of the G-2 options in BoS, useful for taking down those Sturmovik Zementbomber, though I haven't got to try these out yet...

 

2014_11_20__23_18_30.jpg

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Hi Falcon

no announcements yet but they have said an AI Ju52 is possible (and somebody found a skin for a possible ground object Ju52 in a recent patch, so maybe that is close) and some modders are working on some more (eastern front, snowbound) maps. If BoS is successful I would be very surprised if we don't get DLC planes and the official forums has several polls started by players trying to test the demand for new planes and thus persuade the developers to release them. I would love a G-6 and a 110F or G too.

 

You'll know that the G-2 available now isn't much different to the G-6 apart from those cowl bulges and 13.1mm instead of 7.92mm MGs. A 'kanonenboot' with 20mm MG151/20s in underwing 'gondolas' is one of the G-2 options in BoS, useful for taking down those Sturmovik Zementbomber, though I haven't got to try these out yet...

 

attachicon.gif2014_11_20__23_18_30.jpg

 

Yeah I know, but I like the G-6 for some reason. Saw a real one in DC in the Air & Space museum, I stared at her for a good few minutes. She was beautiful.

 

Falcon

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Update, Friday 27 November -

 

per the latest developer blog, the AI Ju-52 is now being worked on (no ETA yet); and the first user-made campaign, from Veteran66, has now appeared. BoS furum member Blooddawn reports it's an exciting 8-mission mini-campaign with lots of ground activity.

 

Part 2 of this review will follow very soon.

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      In fact it worked – I got the ‘mission completed’ text so that was it. And I didn’t get shot at, or even see a single enemy aircraft. They were there, though, but I only realised that later, when I noticed an enemy aircraft icon on a screenshot which I had taken with the mini-map view briefly turned on!!! To be honest, I'd sort of forgotten the briefing, having been so taken up with the actual flying side of the challenge. And I had become rather fixated on overflying that big marker, as if I were genuinely on a recce flight. Anyway, the top of that mountain was about as bare as a mountain-top can be. Giving up on earlier ideas about putting in a flypast at the castle I’d seen on a lower peak nearby, I decided that honour had been satisfied; it was time to go home. A nice hot brandy in the Mess would help me recover from the rigours of flying amongst the mountains in my little powered glider. Down we went. The early aviators were in the habit of turning off their motors during a descent but I just cut the throttle to idle and experimented a bit with diving angle and airspeed. The unfamiliar flight model I found quite convincing; I have no idea at all how a real Nieuport 4 handled but this one felt just about perfect, for such an aircraft.
       

       
      It wasn't long before I was turning onto my final approach...although to the wrong airfield I believe, a deceptively-similar one on a similar mountainside plateau. I must have had my mind firmly set on that brandy!
       

       
      For a sortie on which I'd missed my opportunity to have my first air fight, I'd actually found the experience surprisingly absorbing. I think I'll try at least one more campaign mission in the Nieuport 4, before moving on to something more warlike. There's just something about the mission which seemed to capture so well the experience of stooging around in an aircraft that is little more than a docile but ungainly powered glider..albeit one with a sting.
       
      ...to be continued!
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