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33LIMA

IL-2 Battle of Stalingrad - the CombatAce review, part 2

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post-66801-0-28420700-1416931984.jpg The environment, the options and Quick Missions
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The BoS 'map' covers what you'd expect - Stalingrad itself and a large swathe of the area around it, especially to the west, where the Soviet pincers struck. You can see the area covered by the map in the Quick Mission setup screen below. Stalingrad itself is centre right, in the great bend of the River Volga. The ground left of that is the area between the bends in the Volga and the Don, where the Soviet counterattacks came in. First in late November 1942 was Operation Uranus, when attacks from north and south trapped 6th Army. Then in mid-December, Operation Little Saturn, an even bigger pincer attack further to the west, threatened to destroy the whole German Army Group in the south.

 

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There's only one seasonal variation - snowbound/frozen in, which suits the later part of the battle, from about the time of the Soviet counterstrokes. The snowbound look is well done though a bit pristine. The overall effect is extremely bland and an autumnal variation would be very welcome. The city itself I find quite well done, complete with plumes of smoke from major fires. The ruins are a bit two-dimensional but maybe that's what we should we expect from ruined buildings, with the rubble itself covered by...you guessed it, snow.

 

Here's how Stalingrad itself looks on the map, zoomed in. To the west of the city you can see the airfields of Gumrak and Pitomnik, which were the main bases for landing supplies and evacuating the wounded from the pocket, after Stalingrad was surrounded. This screenshot is from the in-flight, full-screen version of the mission map.

 

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If you compare BoS's Stalingrad 'in game' with battle maps or wartime aerial photographs, you can pick out most or all of the main landmarks in BoS, like the big factories such as the Barrikady, the heights immediately west of central Stalingrad at Mamayev Kurgan, Tsaritsa Gorge and the 'tennis racquet' railway loop around the Lazur plant, as seen below, 'in game' and for real. If anything, the real place looks more bland than the sim version at the point the recce photo was snapped, by which time the site appears to have been basically leveled and perhaps the rubble cleared.

 

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The bluffs on the western bank of the Volga, which provided some shelter in dead ground for the last pockets of Soviet defenders as the Germans closed in, are also well represented. Incidentally, the current edition of 'After the Battle' magazine, issue 166, is a 'special' on Stalingrad with lots of 'then and now' photos and a good annotated map of the city.

 

BoS's airfields are a bit sparsely endowed with ground objects (my medium settings may not help here!) but the more famous landing grounds appear to be there, with many others. The generally snowbound look - even the rivers are frozen - makes it quite difficult to pick up landmarks, though perhaps that is, again, more or less what we should expect for the barren steppes of southern Russia in the winter of 1942-43.

 

In fact, BoS already includes two additional, smaller maps, which are usable in Quick Missions. Both feature snowbound, Eastern Front terrain. First there's Novosokolniki, which Google tells me is near Leningrad/St Petersburg, and is rather more wooded than the Stalingrad area:

 

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The other map is called Lapino. I believe the map is a fictional one, representing 'somewhere in the Soviet Union', though there appear to be several places called Lapino in Russia, including just west of Moscow.

 

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Settings, options and performance
Here's main menu again, listing the top-level options available. If you start BoS offline, without connecting to the 'net, the options for Campaign and Multiplayer are not displayed. I like the design of the BoS menu system; it's modern, clear and crisp.
 

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From the Graphics sub-option, you are presented with four graphics presets - Ultra, High, Balanced and Low. You don't have the ability (as in RoF, for example) to tweak features individually. This has provoked some complaints but I don't find it an issue.

 

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To be honest, I didn't notice a big visual difference between 'Balanced' and 'Ultra', except that the ground objects appeared to be rendered in detail further out. But that's based on a brief foray, with the FPS hit quickly quelling my curiosity. Performance at 'Balanced' on my 2.33 Ghz Quad Core and 1Gb 250 GTS is acceptable, but for a bit of a slow-down flying through or very close to the big plumes of smoke usually seen at Stalingrad.

 

BoS allows reassignment of keyboard and joystick button commands via an interface similar to Rise of Flight's. However, unless I've missed it, you can't set up 'response curves' to fine tune your joystick, the way you could in the earlier sim.

 

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Quick Missions
If you select 'Quick Mission', you get a setup screen very much like RoF's, enabling you to choose your aircraft, numbers, skill levels, location, time of day, starting height, weather and enemies (or none, for a 'free flight' option).

 

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This is where you may first encounter the difficulty/realism presets: three of them, 'Normal', 'Expert' and 'Custom'. I fly in the latter mode as I don't care for the 'Complex Engine Management' that seems to be the main feature of 'Expert' mode but don't want all the elements of 'Normal'. Here's what you can tinker with, if you chose the 'Custom' difficulty option. As with RoF, 'Allow spectators' is the quaint term for permitting an external view.

 

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Here I am in the Yak-1 with some of the visual aids turned on, via the 'Custom' option; and third down, in the 109F, with the 'minimap' zoomed in. You can clear the screen of all this at the press of a single key ('H') and have the 'minimap' itself, on or off, zoomed in or out ('M' key cycles through modes). From what I've seen when using the icons - and assuming distances are in metres even though my 'HUD' instrument display is in Imperial units - even against a clear sky background, fighters aren't visible at much over 5 kilometres, which is rather close. I don't know if aircraft visibility/rendering distances are affected by graphics presets. If they are, then this is a setting that it would be good to be able to tweak, outside of the presets.

 

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The 'O' key will bring up a full screen briefing with (non-mini-) map - as seen in the screenshot below. This is actually taken from one of the included 'pre-built' missions, not a Quick Mission. My task here is to lead another 109, escorting six Stukas from Pitomnik in an attack up on the north-eastern perimeter of the pocket. You can clear the text briefing panel from the map, for a clearer view.

 

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Quick Missions is where you may also first come across the 'unlocks' which have generated much of the controversy surrounding BoS's release. For each plane, there are loadout options, plus some extra 'skins', all displayed with a 'locked' symbol. The 'skins' and equipment options for the 109G2 are shown in the pics below. Some of these 'skins' are from other fronts or theatres of war. At least the 'skins' - when you can get at them - have the unit and individual markings that the standard ones lack. I gather than BoS doesn't support IL-2-style 'decals' to give different planes in your flight different numbers, squadron codes or other distinctive markings.

 

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Neither skins nor the equipment options - like 20mm underwing gunpods for the Gustav above - can be selected, until you have 'earned' them by gaining 'experience points' (XP). You can gain XP only through flying  - and achieving pre-set minimum mission goals in - the Single Player campaign - even to unlock stuff for Quick Missions or Multiplayer! This approach may be what the developers had in mind, when they referred in the release announcement to incorporating 'the best features of other genres'. But - I think predictably - this has proved unpopular with players  - myself included. MP folk in particular fail to see why they should have to play through much of the SP campaign, to be able to access these features.

 

The concept of additional stores or weapons being in limited supply, or better pilots being given certain types of better kit (or a choice thereof) first, isn't inherently bad. And as the developers have said, the kit itself is basically historical, rather than the likes of 'power ups' (though the twin 3.7cm cannon 'unlock' for the Stuka, trials aircraft apart, is I think a bit too soon for Stalingrad). But the method of 'earning' this stuff - especially combined with the 'arcade game' terminology used - feels rather out of place in 'proper' air combat sim. It has certainly generated a good deal of criticism, some of it rather hostile. We can but hope that there will be some changes here!

 

One thing you'll want to get the hang of in Quick Missions is the radio menus. There is no real interaction with ground controllers, apart from some seemingly event-triggered set pieces. So the radio option comes into play when you're a flight leader. You can make various pilot gestures, a leftover from RoF which the developers acknowledge isn't much, if any, use. Here are examples of the wingman (radio) commands available to you. We'll cover how well they're followed later, when considering the BoS AI. I think these win the prize for the biggest, most conspicuous wingman command menus in any sim I have played. Happily, you can assign hotkeys to wingman commands. For example I have set the 'H' key, familiar from CFS2 and 3 as 'Help me!', to issue the command 'Cover me!' which (I am hoping!) will elicit a broadly similar response. There is also a set of useful commands for air gunners, for those planes which have them.

 

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In Quick Missions, as in RoF, while at the mission setup screen or while flying, you have some control over displaying or suppressing on-screen visual aids like labels, waypoint markers, sim messages, gauges and what's displayed on the in-flight 'minimap'. This gives you the ability to vary the difficulty 'presets' for a Quick (or user-made single) Mission.

 

There's an eight-a-side limit in Quick Missions, which is not too bad for the Eastern Front. Reading pilot memoirs like those of Norbert Hannig of II/JG54, it's fairly clear that fighters at least often operated in fours or even pairs. Anyway, Quick Missions is where you can get your 'quick fix' of Luftwaffe -vs- VVS action.

 

Like this effort - four Gustavs chasing three Pe-2 twin-engined light bombers. Not being into head trackers and using the padlock, I find the latter too infallible, able to track targets hidden by my airframe or clouds. Still, rather that, than no padlock at all. As in original Il-2, my wingmen needed no bidding to go for the bad guys, which is just as well as I'm still getting the hang of the flight commands. I'm seeing an odd visual effect where aircraft in or near clouds have their outlines a bit 'broken', as you can see from the trailing 109s in this shot. Apparently this is a known issue, said to be related to the way clouds are rendered.

 

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I was keen to find out if BoS's AI gunners are as dangerous as some say, if you give them an easy shot by attacking from the rear...which is precisely what my AI flightmates did, sad to say. So far, presented with such targets, the gunners have proved quite good shots, though perhaps not as much so, as the original sim. And my planes, though far from bullet-proof, aren't showing signs of 'glass engines' or anything massively odd, damage model wise. Unlike in original IL-2, where seemingly magic bullets would pierce (or spin around or underneath?) my Gustav's armourglass windshield and knock askew my Revi gunsight, with depressing predictability.

 

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After I broke up from my own firing pass, having taken some hits - notice the glycol vapour streaming from my port radiator and the holes in the starboard upper mainplane - my right undercarriage unit promptly fell out of the well.

 

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Fortunately, I didn't need it.

 

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If there's an emergency jettison key to dump the canopy on the 109 - as opposed to doing that and jumping out, or just hinging it open sideways - I couldn't find it. So I had to take my chances on the thing not jamming shut, when I hit the deck. Luckily, there was no fire. Maybe all that snow isn't such a bad thing, after all.

 

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Most of my flight fared no better, I have to say, like this fellow, who hit the silk.

 

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The AI gunners, like their immediate forebears in RoF, like to sit comfortably until the very last minute, before manning their weapons. As with the rear gunner in this Pe-2. He's sitting quietly facing sideways, despite the fact that his comrade below, in the ventral position, is already in action against the enemies coming up from behind, as you can see from the trail of spent cases. Come on, Tovaritch, buck up your ideas, before you get a cannon shell in your lap!!!

 

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At least the ventral gunner in the Pe above and ahead is also on the ball, having opened his little 'trapdoor' under the fuselage and generally standing by to repel boarders.

 

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Unless I'm missing something, there is no Quick Mission debrief to present the results, though the ability, while you're in the game, to tab around other aircraft is useful. The Pe which I attacked was smoking steadily and the other two were both holed. But I think they got three of us. I reckon that maybe I made the mistake of leaving the friendly skill level at 'Novice' when generating the mission; anyway, I trust that the BoS AI at higher settings can do better than attack from dead astern, otherwise it's going to get pretty bloody, pretty quickly.

 

There is also a set of pre-built missions available, accessed from the main menu's 'Missions' tab strangely enough. Below, you can see most of them listed. I believe these were made by some Early Access guys using BoS's 'Full Mission Builder', which isn't on general release yet.

 

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The 'Flight Records' main menu option is where you manage the 'tracks' you have recorded during missions.

 

So, now we come to the feature which will be the beating the heart of the sim, for many players.

 

…coming in part 3 - the Single Player campaign!

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    • By 33LIMA
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    • By 33LIMA
      To war in the China-Burma-India theatre with the American Volunteer Group!

       
      There can be few more famous flying units in the Second World War than the group of volunteer fighter pilots recruited in 1941 by retired US Army Captain Claire L. Chennault to help China turn the tables in the beleagured country's air war against the Japanese. Flying Curtiss P-40B Tomahawks diverted from planned deliveries to the RAF, the three squadrons of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) soon found themselves pitched alongside RAF and Dutch comrades into a desperate, losing battle against the post-Pearl Harbour Japanese flood tide, notably in Burma. The AVG and RAF initially mounted a spirited air defence of the capital Rangoon. But as enemy ground forces swept towards them, capturing airfields closer and closer to the city, their task became increasingly hopeless and in the end, abortive.
       
      Nicknamed 'Flying Tigers' from the insignia devised from them by Disney, the unit was of course famous for a different marking - the gaudy 'Sharkmouth' on the noses of their P-40s, inspired it is said by a similar marking seen on a photo of a 112 Squadron RAF Tomahawk, itself supposedly inspired in turn by the 'Haifisch' marking carried by Bf 110 heavy fighters of ZG 76.
       
      Fame came early to the Flying Tigers, not least thanks to the 1942 film starring John Wayne, no less, that many of us will remember from later screenings on TV. The characterisations appear but crude stereotypes today, but at the time, the desperate and destructive war in the Far East was at its height.
       

       
      Thanks to Chennault's experience in theatre, the Flying Tigers were early pioneers of the sort of 'hit and run', 'boom and zoom' tactics that soon became widely adopted, for combating the more nimble but less powerful Japanese fighters. The AVG fought shoulder to shoulder with British and Commonwealth comrades in Burma and after the latter's fall, to defend China's vital lifeline of supplies flown over the 'hump' from India. But those battles and others against Japanese offensives in China, were fought mainly by the AVG's USAAF successors, who inherited the nickname and the fighting reputation of the original group, which was disbanded in July 1942.
       
      The campaign
      There have been several AVG campaigns for IL-2 over the years but the one I'm flying here is SAS_Monty's, which was designed for the modified 4.12 version of the sim, which is what I'm mostly flying at the moment, since the arrival of the Combined User Patch (CUP) mod. You can find the download link, a campaign video and some more info, here. Another attraction for me is that the campaign features the defence of Burma, which I had read about in the detailed and generally excellent first volume of Grub Street's aptly-named South-East Asia air war history, 'Bloody Shambles'. Fans of Kipling will relish the opportunity to fight (altogether now) 'On the road to Mandalay/Where the flying fishes play/And the sun comes up like thunder/Out'a China, cross the bay'. It ain't half hot, mum!
       
      But enough of references to now politically-incorrect writer-poets and BBC TV comedies about the vital role of Concert Parties in the war in the Far East.
       
      If you are expecting to be pitched straight into desperate dogfights against Nates, Oscars and Sallys - to use the Allied reporting names for the Imperial Japanese Army's Ki-27 and Ki-43 fighters and Ki-21 bombers - well, steady there, (flying) tiger. Battleship Row at Pearl still lies undisturbed and the war in the Pacific, unstarted. Your first job - after watching the neat black & white opening video 'track' which accompanies a narrative intro to the AVG -  is a ferry flight in a C-47, from Rangoon up to the AVG's real-life training base further north, at Toungoo.
       

       
      This starts well enough, with time to admire the plentiful scenery at busy Mingaladon airfield, just north of capital Rangoon.
       

       
      Like the P-40s you'll be flying later, the two C-47s on this flight - we should probably call them DC-3s, in keeping with the secrecy necessarily surrounding this surrogate US intervention - may be ex-USAAF; but for now, they're the property of the Government of nationalist Chiang Kai Shek's Republic of China. And marked accordingly. The USA isn't in this war, officially...not just yet, anyway.
       

       
      I'm not a big fan of civvy flight sims but I must admit I got a certain amount of fun out of flying my Dakota, as the C-47 is generally better known in the UK. It took a lot of key tapping - no fancy HOTAS setups here - but in the end I was able to trim her nicely to climb 'hands off', although what I expect was a bit of a crosswind, or maybe a bit of aileron trim she needed, made occasional corrections necessary to keep wings level.
       

       

       
      The flight up north in a heavily-laden transport was actually like one of those civilian flying challenges in FSX. The tricky bit was...well, not my pet hate, formation flying, since you don't especialy have to fly in close company with the other aircraft on this trip, though he will tell you off on the radio if you become too independent. It's first, (slowly) climbing through the clouds - a good idea, to avoid colliding with the Pegu Yomas which rise across your fligth path.
       

       

       
      You get radio becaon fixes displayed every so often but if like me, you generally 'cheat' by leaving switched on the minimap path and your aircraft's icon, such things aren't really needed.
       
      Having got above the darkening clouds, all was well, for a while. I tried to listen in to radio stations duing the flight, as the mission brief recommends, but though I tuned into both BBC World Service and Radio Honolulu, reception seemed basically non-exstent. So much for listening to Vera Lynn's latest number, to while away the dull bit of the flight.
       
      The next fun comes when it's time to descend through the cloudbase. At first all looked well, with the tree-covered foothills falling away beneath usand paddy fields appearing ahead. There's a great new Burma map included with CUP and I'm assuming this is it.
       

       
      The cloud ceiling was quite low and when I got to that level, the weather was suddenly awful, with visibility to match and lightning flashing, in and below the clouds, as the rain lashed down all the while.
       
       

       
      Then, in the deteriorating weather, there's the challenge of finding my destination. Finally, I actually had to land there, which was going to be tricky enough in the pouring rain, not least because the layout of Toungoo airfield was unknown to me and was going to be invisible in the murk, until i was pretty well on top of it.
       

       
      in the circumstances, I decided to let the autopilot handle the last leg and I'm glad that I did, because two interesting things happened, that I might otherwise have missed. First, during a spell of slightly clearer weather, we suddenly did a supply drop, which I hadnt been expecting.
       

       
      Next, I had a great view of Toungoo itself, the town not the airfield. At first, I thought this was Fort Dufferin, famous for a 14th Army battle to evict the Japanese in 1945. But that's in a different part of Burma. It was quite a sight, nevertheless, worth seeing, if not worth going to see, as the famous diarist Dr Johnston once said of the Giant's Causeway (sorry, to anyone from the Burmese or Northern Ireland tourist boards, who might happen to be reading this).
       

       
      Happily, the AI co-pilot to whom I had turned over our aeroplane seemed to know the area well enough, for despite the murk he made a faultless, if somewhat unorthodox, partial, circuit, followed by a fine landing which I would have struggled to match, at the best of times.
       

       
      His ground handling was pretty good, too, and we were soon stopped next to the other C-47/DC-3/Dakota.
       

       
      Now, perhaps, we could get down to business! But, as in real life, Claire Chennault had other plans for his newly-arrived tiger cubs.
       
      ...to be continued!
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