Over the decades (and I do mean decades) there have been a plethora of flight simulators that always guarantee a 'true life' experience. Microsoft has their Flight Simulator series, which includes a WWII sim, the IL-2 Sturmovik series, and now we have Birds of Steel from Konami and developer Gaijin Entertianment.
While the Microsoft series and the IL-2 series certainly earned its wings, could Birds of Steel follow the same path? Let's find out.
Shimmer and shine...
Birds of Steel is potentially one of the prettiest PS3 games in the flight simulation category that I've seen in some time. IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is certainly close, but something about Birds of Steel makes it a bit more visually interesting. You get some very detailed plane mechanics with Gaijin Entertainment's game. When you break, you'll see the flaps on the plane fold up. When you fire the guns on your ship, you'll see bullet shells mixed appropriately with streaking bullet smoke and fire from the gun barrels. Very details pieces and movements in regards to the ships.
But what else would you expect from this generation of graphics? They're pretty spot on.
The thing that separates Birds of Steel, visually, from the rest of the pack is how it handles shading, light positioning, reflections and its environments.
Starting with environments, one of the biggest complaints I had against IL-2 is how the cities and surroundings (that weren't mountains) seemed to be an afterthought. The game was bland expect for the skies and planes. Birds of Steel actually provides some detailed houses, trees, massive amounts of oceans (with waves -- that have depth) and various other little details that make you feel like you're flying over an actual country.
To help bring those environments to life, Gaijin Entertainment has provided not only correct sun positioning, but also appropriate lighting and shading when necessary. When you see a city caked in shadow with a sun that is brimming up a mountain side, it visually makes sense. When you're in your cockpit and you turn your plain away from the sun, you'll see correct lighting and shading shifting, which provides more realism to the game. These subtitle elements are not simple afterthoughts, but important for believability of the title.
Had Gaijin spent more time on other elements than just visuals, then they probably would have had a huge hit on their hands. Regretfully, the visuals are the high-point of the game.
Controls! Controls! Controls!
As most games go, you are forced into a tutorial before you can open up missions to play in the game. Here, you are taught how to handle the birds properly and how to keep in mind instruments that you need to do things like dive-bomb, fire a torpedo in the water and general landing. Doesn't seem too bad, right?
Expect to spend about 15-20 minutes on each tutorial, there are four, and not be able to go any further without completing them. The online portion of the game is accessible, but the historical missions and whatnot offline are not. Out of all the games I've played in this generation, this one takes the cake with the amount of minute details you have to go through before actually playing the game itself. I'm not a fan of being force fed instructions, and this one just keeps on pushing the instructions down your throat until you don't want them anymore. There was a point in the tutorial where I thought I couldn't make it beyond it. I imagined writing a review about tutorials and how that would sound.
Thankfully, I got through the tutorials and pushed through. But if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing, then you may just want to calm down before picking up this title. Take a vacation. Anything to keep your mind off of the possibility of spending your first night with Birds of Steel doing nothing but learning how to fly a plane. I know, it sounds bitchy to complain about tutorials, but come on! Open up an option where the tutorials aren't necessary and you'll make my day.
Keep in mind, I chose the easiest controls for this game. I couldn't imagine the length of time when the difficulty is upped. The easier the controls, the happier you will be.
Having said that, the controls are tough to get use to, regardless of difficulty. You have to worry about the engine, rolling left and right, the yaw, landing gear, flaps, bombing, torpedoing, firing guns, looking around the cockpit, targeting and a few more things. That's a lot to think about in the heat of battle, but also very necessary if you're trying to bring some sort of 'realism' to a game.
The biggest challenge I faced was to keep the rudder on the plane straight (using the R thumbstick), while trying to increase and decrease speeds (which is also the R thumbstick). In the heat of battle ti had a the toughest time targeting because my right thumb would slip causing the rudder to change directions on me. It's not impossible to master, but it's an added frustration that probably couldn't have been done better. Overall, the offline controls, once you get use to them, aren't that bad.
Online, that's a different story.
I think the difficulty online is set by the story, the squad leader and the match. The few online games that I played had me struggling to lift off from the airfield. When I wasn't struggling with that, I was struggling to keep the plane inflight while trying to fire upon enemy planes. I had another editor come in and try it and he ended up dying four times; three on the runway. Seeing what's offered online is enticing, but if the controls offer a hindrance to the process then it doesn't matter how great of missions you can fly or the countless amount of planes you can try out; it's too frustrating to care about. This is truly a shame because the game has all the elements of an epic offline and online journey, but the controls just seem a bit sloppy and inconsistent.
I will admit, I'm not a huge plane simulator fan, but I really do enjoy air combat when available. I don't want to fly from point A to point B just so I can land perfectly. I want to take down Zero planes over Pearl Harbor and get into the action. I enjoy the realism of flying a plane, but not so much that it gets in the way of the real reason people want this; the action.
The controls need more improving. There is a way to keep the realism and the make the combat a bit more plane friendly. Gaijin Entertainment needs to figure that out, though.
What makes this game interesting…
The missions, offline and online, are intriguing. You can battle your way through historical campaigns, which include actual historical events spread out through three time periods. You'll find many different campaigns to test your pilot skills out, including one called Wake Island (sound familiar Battlefield folks?) that offer up authentic replications of the actual raids. As you go through these missions, you'll gain War Points which allow you purchase aircrafts and open more missions. You can see how much fun that would be, right? Good stuff.
You can also play the game online (gasp) against or with other players. While most younglings will probably go with the against notion, I think flying actual missions (like the Pearl Harbor one) with actual players is a huge plus and lots more fun. The missions are broken into Dynamic campaign (flying actual missions, like previously mentioned), single mission (just one single mission, not a campaign), and mission editor (it is what it is).
If you can get beyond the controls, I think you'll find a solid offline and online experience waiting in Birds of Steel. There's a lot to like, but getting over the control hump is the most difficult part of the game.
Anyway, to the summary!