Ever since witnessing an unfortunate accident involving a home-built Fieseler Storch and a cement works chimney, I've made it a rule never to go aloft in incomplete flying machines. When it comes to incomplete flying machine simulations however, I'm a little less Beardmore Inflexible. 777 Studios and 1C Game Studios claim IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad is now 70% finished. In an effort to find out what '70% finished' means, I've spent the last few days yoyoing Yaks, pranging Peshki, and sending He 111s to He ll.
Happily, it doesn't mean half-empty hangars and half-baked flight models. Purchase the £40 ($55) Standard Edition* of this Digital Nature-powered Sturmovik sequel, and you get immediate access to eight flyables that are as feisty and full of fight/physics as they are fetching and flaw-free.
While the base aircraft set doesn't come with a bona fide Crap Plane - something antiquated and, ideally, bi-planed for those of us that enjoy sightseeing at snail speeds, and surprising sneerers - in most other respects it feels generous and well-rounded. Since the arrival of the twin-engined Pe-2 and He 111 the early focus on dogfighting and divebombing has blurred nicely. Both of the latecomers feature generic but evocative interactive bombsights for level bombing, a good selection of gunner perches, and - of course - the possibility of fraught single-engine aviation.
Hopefully there'll be time before release to compliment the selection of cockpit-equipped warbirds with a sprinkle of AI-only machines. Currently you always seem to be up against the ten types in the second image. There are no run-ins with overloaded Ju 52s or Condors, no brushes with Bf 110s, Eagle Owls or Romanian exotica.
If the price of more target types was a few fudged flight models and simplified damage models, I suspect most punters wouldn't mind much. Where it matters most - in the flyables - FMs are charismatic and - going by the relatively light flak in various forum threads - essentially faithful. When this project was announced some wondered if 777's depiction of the air war over Stalingrad would smell faintly of dope and castor oil. Thankfully, in the aerodynamics department there's no sign of anachronistic odours.
IL2BOS steeds feel weightier, pokier, and more robust than their ROF relations but like them they must be actively flown rather than just pointed in appropriate directions now and again. Like ROF's Camels and Albatrosses, machines such as the Bf 109G and LaGG-3 feel alive and edgy... steel sky salmon buoyed and buffeted by the swirling element in which they swim.
Brutal and granular, damage simulation in the original IL2 was a revelation. While IL2BOS handles stress-related damage and collisions with scenery and other aircraft with more finesse, I can't say I've detected significant progress in the way it treats shrapnel and shell strikes. Wings shear off, fuel tanks flare, and oil spatters windscreens in an eyecatching fashion but - and this might be doing a disservice to the sim's under-the-hood ballistic calculations - it doesn't feel as if 777 are really pushing the envelope in this area. Inject lead into that slippery crucifix dancing in your gunsight and generally the crucifix starts streaming smoke. I don't think I've ever seen a target flip onto its back, say, shed a propeller, or inadvertently lower an undercarriage leg.
Self-harm is simulated to a standard that should satisfy all but the most realism-ravenous CLOD and DCS World émigrés. Choose to fly without automated engine management, and then fail to monitor gauges conscientiously or adjust fuel mixtures and radiator apertures adroitly, and you can cook or chill your power plant in numerous erk-irking ways.
Presumably, at some point in the future we'll be able to consult a manual or participate in tutorial missions to learn about stuff like radiator etiquette and bombsight usage. Right now most of the instructional burden is being shouldered by capable community educators like Requiem.
Whether integrated tutorials appear before the titular battle arrives is anybody's guess. Early accessers are still scanning the sky for the Tante Ju carrying the campaign engine and the historical sortie folder. At present for solo action there's a Quick Mission Builder, and a couple of standalone Sturmovik missions, and that's about it. The QMB allows leisurely familiarisation flights over the vast (358 x 230km) permanently snow-shrouded map. It means diverse dogfights can be swiftly arranged, and isolated groups of tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, and trains endlessly molested with bomb, rocket, and shell. Time of day, weather, and altitudes are all configurable. Though not as flexible or potent as a full DCS-style mission builder, it's a useful gizmo for practise and experimentation.
When that Tante Ju does finally touch down it will be interesting to see whether it's greeted with hat hurling or cat calling. Working within the limits of a fairly tight development schedule, 777 have chosen to go with a campaign system that snapshots the Battle of Stalingrad at five crucial moments rather than attempts to recreate it day-by-day. It appears there will be no dynamism or unpredictability to the way the front moves. We won't be able to join specific squadrons for the duration, flying sorties seamlessly until death, capture or victory clip our wings.
It might sound a bit restrictive, a tad static and impersonal. but recent glimpses of the campaign interface do at least suggest there will be considerable replayability. The question marks on that map up there represent possible missions available during one phase of the campaign (to progress from phase to phase four sorties successes will be required). Fancy unlocking 'Operation Uranus' by mixing a bit of Stuka stooging with a few Bf 109 jaunts? It looks like that will be possible. Prefer to stick with Schnellbombers for the entire 20-sortie campaign? Available evidence suggests that will be an equally viable approach.
Fingers-crossed 777's campaign coders and artists understand the power of randomisation and atmosphere. It will be splendid if selecting the same sortie at the same location at the same stage of the campaign twice in a row doesn't mean encountering the same mix of friendly and hostile aircraft operating at the same altitudes. In its current state the chilly Stalingrad map is damn attractive (especially at dawn and dusk) but rather empty. To pass as the backdrop for one of WW2's fiercest scraps, it needs more ground activity... more chaos. Gutted dachas, abandoned vehicles, churned roads, dug-in AT guns, trenches, tracer, scurrying infantry... the fleeing truck and train drivers recently added are a step in the right direction, let's hope there are similar touches on the way.
No disrespect to the doyens of DotA or League of Legends but the aerial predators already carving out reputations in IL2BOS's robust if conventional multiplayer arenas, possess a far more interesting skill set in my eyes. To shine in MP whether at the 'Normal' (automatic engine management plus various identification and navigation crutches) or 'Expert' (No artificial aids whatsoever) level you'll need roughly the same mix of tactical savvy, technical knowledge, composure, quick reactions, keen eyes, and reliable wingmen, real WW2 aces relied upon. Sunday soarer with a stiff neck and a tendency to daydream? Probably best to stick to turret gunnery and bomb aiming duties (larger aircraft can be multi-crewed) for the time-being.
Recommending a sim before its campaign component is in place feels a tad reckless, but returning to early access IL2BOS after a few months away, there's more than enough progress and quality on show to warrant Volga enthusiasm. With beautifully modelled aerodynes, a beguiling (if, currently, fairly bare) battlespace, fit-for-purpose MP, and a decent QMB already present, and a Full Mission Builder on the way, even if the campaign is weak it's hard to imagine anyone with any interest in virtual air combat or WW2 history coming to regret the £40 they spend on IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad.**
*The £70 Deluxe Edition contains two additional aircraft - the Fw 190 and La-5 - which can be purchased by Standard Edition owners as DLC.
**That said, a cheaper 'Utility' edition containing a handful of flyables would have been a helpful option for those on a tight budget.