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Found 13 results

  1. Flying a typical Single Player campaign mission in the new Eastern Front air combat simulator! At the risk of being promptly if figuratively burned at the nearest stake, I have to confess that the original IL-2 never really kindled my lukewarm interest in the air war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. However, the latest sim to carry that name has managed to do so, to the extent that I have been flying mainly Soviet planes from the outset in IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad (BoS). Not only that, but I have just recently kicked off a parallel Soviet campaign - the excellent and highly recommended 'Blinding Sun', flying the sleek MiG-3 - in IL-2 '46. For someone who's been mostly interested in the Luftwaffe and the RAF up to now, there's something faintly exotic about the red-starred, pointy-winged Soviet fighters. For those of us tempted by the lure of the orient - or just interested in WW2 warbirds, whatever their origin - BoS offers in addition to its other aircraft the choice of three superbly-modelled VVS (Soviet Air Force) fighters: the underpowered LaGG-3, the generally superior Yak-1 and - if you have the premium version - the La-5, basically a later derivative of the LaGG with a more powerful, radial engine. For my initial forays into the BoS skies, I stuck with the LaGG, mostly as I think she's the most visually attractive of the trio. With just one cannon and one MG, though, she's rather lightly armed, even by Soviet standards. And I have found her ground handling to be particularly tricky, even if, once in the air, the LaGG seems to perform well enough. For my first serious effort at playing through the BoS SP campaign, I decided to switch to the Yak-1, which has two MGs rather than one and a better performance than the LaGG . The Yak-1 is visually much the same aircraft as the later Yak-7, -9 and -3, the main identification point, shared with early Yak-7s, being that the Yak-1 lacked the cut-down rear fuselage and 'blister' canopy introduced from the Yak-1b version. Despite the similar wing and tailplane planforms, the Yak is not hard to distinguish from the sleeker LaGG, at close range anyway. This mission is one I flew early on during the second 'Chapter' of the BoS SP campaign. This segment is set in the timeframe of Operation Uranus, the first of two big Soviet pincer attacks and the one which closed the ring around 6th Army in Stalingrad. In the BoS SP campaign, you have one player profile who can fly any available plane from any available airfield on either side, rather than one or more pilots flying with historical squadrons. Like (I expect) most traditionally-minded combat flight simmers, I dislike this approach. The nearest I can come to a more conventional pilot career is to fly the campaign while sticking to the same side, flying the same plane and operating from the same airfield, with the option to 'transfer' to a different field and plane if I choose. So that's what I'm doing here. I had flown the campaign's first Chapter (covering the period just before the first Soviet counterattack) in the Yak-1 from Verkhne Pogomnoye, just north of Stalingrad on the eastern side of the River Volga. The second Chapter re-set the airfield choices, offering either Peskovatka on the German side and Illarionovskiy on the Soviet. To continue to fly the Yak, I choose the latter airfield. In effect, with the opening of the offensive, my unit had been moved from east of the Volga well to the west, near to the area of the northern bridgeheads from which one of the great pincers had already cut deeply into the enemy's big salient. Below is the tactical map for this timeframe. You can see that the pincers have already nearly completed the famous link-up near the town of Kalach on the great bend in the Don, having broken through the flanks held by Italian, Hungarian and Rumanian units whose weak anti-tank weapons were no match for the T-34s or KV-1s. Victory is in the air, history is in the making, and now it's time for me to play my part in driving the Fascist invaders from the Motherland! Za Rodinu! Za Stalina! Before all that, there are some BoS preliminaries I must go through. Having chosen my base and my plane, I must now also chose a type of mission. Virtual HQ should really be telling me what I'm to do but like CFS3, BoS prefers to let the player choose his task. I must also choose whether I want an air start ('Short' mission duration) and the difficulty level (I fly in 'Normal' mainly as 'Expert' blocks external views and disables some other stuff I like at least to be able to use when I feel the need). I may also pick a colour scheme and my weapon loadout. Here, I can select 'skin' (aircraft colour scheme) and equipment options which I have so far unlocked, while completing the first Chapter of the campaign. There's been some understandable angst about the BoS 'unlocks' feature. While I don't much care for it myself, you don't need the unlocks and to they extent they're desirable, well, they come to you as you progress. At this point, I had unlocked some rockets and some skins for my Yak and from the latter, I chose a striking red-nosed paint job. I have been flying mostly 'Intercept' missions up to now but this time, I decided to fly an escort job (variants on the ground attack/close support theme being the other options). We were accordingly tasked to accompany some 'attack planes' - which for the German side means Stukas, for the Soviets, Sturmoviks - down to an unspecified target in open country, in the northern sector of the bulge. Here's the briefing map for this mission. Unfortunately this map - which you can also refer to during the mission, as well as a 'mini-map' - no longer shows the front lines. And there's no indication of what the target is. Likewise it's only when you start the mission that you see who you're escorting and what size your own flight is (though the latter seems invariably to be either three or four aircraft, with you as flight leader). As usual in BoS, for the purposes of unlocks and progressing your player profile, you are given a personal, numerical mission objective: in this case, that no more than two Sturmoviks should be lost. Out of how many, I don't know until the mission begins. Helpfully, as you can see, the map does show the bearings, distances and indicative timings for each leg of the flight plan. If I had chosen an air start, I need only have flown the legs to and from the target ('Action Point' in BoS terminology). The very close correspondence between this map and what you see in the 3d world makes decent visual navigation possible in BoS. B-17-2 the Mighty Eighth was the only other combat flight sim I recall playing which had such a good potential for visual navigation. Even though I tend to keep the aircraft map icons switched on, I still find it a joy to pick up landmarks, especially when I can rattle off the names of places I remember from reading accounts of the real battlefield, as I see them brought to life in BoS. This is one of the aspects of the sim that I most appreciate. Truly, BoS is a 'Time Machine' that brings me back to this momentous point in history, much as its fans say of Battle of Britain 2 - Wings of Victory. Some look at BoS and see mainly unlocks and the lack of a conventional pilot career. I look at BoS and see mainly great aircraft, desolate but lovely environments, visceral air combat…and a powerful sense of time and place, of history bought to life. But enough of such reflections. There's a job to be done. It's time to pick up those Sturmoviks, which have flown up from their base to the south. Here we are on the airfield, four Yak-1s, the others in well-worn winter camouflage, in stark contrast to my gaudy machine. I have chosen a full mission duration, not an air start. With 'Normal' difficulty selected, instead of needing to start up and taxi out (which comes with 'Expert' difficulty level), I'm lined up on the runway at the head of my flight, engine running and good to go. Meanwhile, the Sturmoviks have arrived - just three of them, on this trip - and are now swinging in from the west. I opened my canopy and checked my controls while I waited for the right moment to take off and go after them. In the pic below, you can see our four fighters, throwing up glistening clouds of snow, just above the nose of the Sturmovik in the foreground. One of the reasons I chose the Yak over the LaGG is that I've found the latter's ground handling very tricky. Take-off runs regularly end with my machine pirouetting wildly as my efforts to use differential braking fail to keep me straight. The Yak is also tricky but is much more manageable, more reminiscent of planes in IL-2 '46. BoS nicely replicates formation takeoffs with shorter gaps than its predecessor's 'conga line' takeoffs, so getting run down by a following aircraft is a risk if you mess up your run. This time I crabbed left and right and back again despite applying throttle slowly. I was overtaken by the Yak on my right but made it off the ground; which is always a good start. I timed it fairly well too, as the Sutrmoviks were crossing ahead of us as we lifted off. At least that's what I'll tell the CO, if and when I get back, if he says anything about cutting it fine. I swung around in a wide turn to the right, throttling back slightly so that the others could catch up as I looked around to pick up the Sturmoviks again. Below me you can see our airfield. It's been said the BoS airfields are a bit bland but if you look at aerial photos taken in the area during the timeframe of the BoS campaign - November 1942 to February 1943 - they look exactly right - basically, frozen. In their white camouflage, the Sturmoviks were quite had to spot against the snowscape. You can just about see a couple of them below, just left of my auxiliary ring and bead gunsight. It was mainly their movement that revealed them to me. My comrades were evidently intending to go in at very low level. This can make escorting them something of a challenge. Sometimes in BoS there is a fairly unbroken low overcast, giving you little option on an escort flight but to stay below it, to keep sight of your charges. Today, however, while there was a certain amount of low cloud, it was quite broken. So I climbed up to about 2000m and at about 75% throttle, took up position above and behind the Sturmoviks, flying a zig-zag pattern. This is the tactic I usually adopt on an escort mission in a WW2 sim. The weaving enables me to keep my speed up, ready to react quickly, and also means I'm less vulnerable to attack myself, compared to just flying straight and slow, in line with my bombers. On the climb, I could see signs of the fighting on the ground, in the form of smoke billowing up from a town to our right, not too far off. Our route consisted of a leg to the south-west, then a right turn to the east and the target. A prominent frozen river, the mighty Don itself, was a useful reference point - the last mile or two of our first leg ran pretty well along the frozen river as it snaked on its way across the barren steppes. When the Strumoviks reached the L-shaped riverbank woods which marked our first waypoint, I saw them turn right and I turned with them, my flight sliding neatly across, somewhere just behind me. So far we, looked to be the only aircraft in the vicinity. But appearances can be deceptive! ...to be continued!
  2. The verdict! 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. Pros 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 planeset 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 Cons 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!
  3. The environment, the options and Quick Missions 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. 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. 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. 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: 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. 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. 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. 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. 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). 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Fortunately, I didn't need it. 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. Most of my flight fared no better, I have to say, like this fellow, who hit the silk. 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!!! 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. 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. 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!
  4. 'There is no land behind the Volga!' * * 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. 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. 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: (note the subtitled radio comms from the 'tower' at Morosovskaya airfield, in the cockpit pic) Messerschmitt Bf 109F (top) & Bf 109G: Focke-Wulf FW 190A: Lavochkin La-5 (in a snowstorm): Petlyakov Pe-2: ...and finally, the star with the top billing - the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik: 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. 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. 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.' 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!
  5. Checking out the Bf109 in the new Eastern Front air combat sim! I was flattered to be invited by Skyviper to be on the team for the CombatAce review of 1c/777's IL-2 - Battle of Stalingrad (hereinafter referred to as BoS). Having only recently installed the sim (I wasn't a participant in the 'Early Access' programme) it'll be a little while until we get the review done & dusted. In the meantime I thought folks might be interested in my first impressions of one of the BoS aircraft, the iconic Messerschmitt Bf109, which comes here in the form of the F-4 and G-2 models, distinguished mainly be the latter's more powerful DB605 motor and visually, by its heavier-framed cockpit. So far, my impression of the BoS aircraft is that they're as good as, or better than, any aircraft I've seen in a combat flight sim. Cliffs of Dover's cockpits might be a little sharper-looking (perhaps just thanks to sharper or darker shadows) but outside and in, these birds look just terrific. As an old-time Luftwaffe modeller, while I find the vestigial swastikas slightly irksome and don't welcome the lack of unit markings, pending availability of the facility for user-made skins, I can't help but admire the accuracy of the finish. For example, the 109F I'm flying here has a very accurate rendition of the standard 74/75/76 fighter finish (Dunkelgrau, Mittelgrau and Hellgrau, respectively). It's applied in an accurate upper surface Messerschmitt factory pattern, appropriate for these later 109s and features readable stencil markings. Even the fuselage side mottling is straight out of the textbooks, with spots of Schwarzgrun (70), Dunkelgrau (74) and 'RLM' Grau (02). The slightly glossy standard Luftwaffe finish is also nicely captured and in the right light, you can see every rivet and panel line caught in relief. The overall effect is a joy to behold. Anyway, I recently took my first proper flight in a 109 - a favourite familiar to me from many another sim, including European Air War, CFS3 and the original IL-2 series - and it was an experience and a half! I just did the one circuit, set up via the 'Quick Mission' option (which will be familiar to Rise of Flight users, given the close family relationship with BoS). I don't do 'complex engine management' but even so, it was a pretty awesome experience, the sort of flight I'd have expected in a plane built for FSX. The airfield I think is Morosovskaya (spelt slightly different in the sim) which I recognised from William Craig's superb 'Enemy at the Gates' - if you read just one book on the battle, make it this one (the film was just a single episode from the book). This airfield I recall was, with Tatsinskaya, one of the two most important bases for the Luftwaffe's desperate 'air bridge' into the Stalingrad 'kessel'...until the T-34s arrived there and put a sudden stop to flying operations, in dramatic and violent fashion. From the cockpit of my chosen Bf109F-4, even the engine start (computer-assisted, just using the 'E' key) was most impressive. OK, there was no black-overalled mechanic standing on the wing turning the hand crank but there were cockpit indicator lights coming on and animated switches flicking. Then came the sound of the 109's flywheel spooling up and finally, the throaty roar of that big Mercedes DB601 as it spluttered then thundered into life. Great stuff, like watching and listening to a real warbird start-up video! Flaps set and flying control movement checked, taxying out to the runway was the first challenge, using mainly the brakes combined with short bursts of throttle to keep her rolling. I managed to get her lined up fairly well. The take-off was a bit hairy with plenty of swing, first left when I opened her up a bit then right when I steadily applied full power. I kept her fairly straight but once off the ground, was suddenly afflicted by a serious wobble. Did I pull her off at too low an airspeed, and maybe the leading edge slats had opened differentially? It was quite scary for a couple of seconds but I stayed in the air and, gaining height, turned onto the crosswind leg of the left-hand circuit I was planning to fly. Throttling back and gingerly checking out control responses while relishing the realistic sound of my engine - a far cry from the drone of the original IL-2 109s - I turned left again and settled onto a downwind leg, applying a bit of elevator trim (which I believe actually adjusts tailplane incidence, in the 109) when I'd settled on what seemed like a respectable cruising speed. Possibly I was a little high for the 1,000 feet I'd planned for the circuit - I had turned off inflight map and instruments. Once well down the leg, I looked out over my left shoulder for a glimpse of my airfield, remembering that when it was at roughly 7 o'clock, I would want to turn left again, onto the base leg. OK, so where was the runway? Oh-oh....my base was lost in a sea of whiteness. I remembered that there had been a medium-sized wood or town somewhere just north of the airfield. I could see what might have been that area, in the form of a dark patch on the ground. Taking this as my mark, when I judged it about right, I turned left and rolled out onto a heading just short of north and flew my base leg. At some point, fiddling about with the 'pilot gestures' controls, I had inadvertently fired a flare, which I assume is why the flare gun has now appeared in its slot below the starboard windscreen. Nice touch! When I was nearly level with the wood, I turned left again, onto my approach to the still-invisible airfield. As I began to roll out of my turn, peering desperately ahead to the left of the dark area I was using as my reference point, I was mightily relieved to see the runway, between wisps of low cloud. Whew! I held my left turn, then reversed it, to line myself up with the runway. Throttling back, I started dropping my flaps and then lowered my gear. The 109 is no slouch and things seemed to be happening awfully quickly! It's been a long time since I had my handful of flying lessons in slower Cessnas but in pitiful ignorance of the correct numbers for a 109, I did my best to use the throttle to control my rate of descent and the elevator to manage my airspeed. I often land in the external view because with no peripheral vision and the other limitations of 'flying' at a monitor, it's easier to judge when to flare. Not this time! Having flown the circuit from the cockpit, apart from slipping outside from some screenshots, I decided I would go the whole hog. Flying from the cockpit view with all the self-assurance of a rabbit in the headlights, I flared too soon and landed heavily, bouncing rather badly. I somehow managed to keep the wings level and did my best to make the next bump survivable. They say it's a good landing if you can walk away from it and a great one, if you can re-use the aircraft. By that standard, I'd made a good landing. And most of the plane looked to be re-usable. So far so rather brilliant. But this is a combat flight sim and therein lies the real test for BoS. Anyway it's off to a good start in my books, though I will want to spend more time doing circuits and bumps before I take on the Ivans in a campaign. In the meantime, of course I could not resist a bit of blowing stuff up (or attempting to) but that's a story for another day! Watch this space for the CombatAce review!

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