Summary: Il-2: Forgotten Battles is the sequel, of sorts, to the highly-acclaimed Il-2: Sturmovik. Greatly expanding upon the original game, it includes new aircraft, new maps, a more robust flight model and a dynamic campaign! How does it work out? Jakub sets aside his national pride to fly around in German and Russian aircraft!
Though I had not reviewed Il-2 Sturmovik, I made it a point to play that game before reviewing Combat Flight Simulator 3. A brief familiarization with the game turned into a long-term love affair, despite the flaws that were clearly present and highlighted in nearly every review Il-2 had received. The excellent flight, weapons and damage models made for the best flight sim on the market, helping overcome an extremely weak series of static campaigns.
Il-2: Forgotten Battles was originally scheduled as an expansion pack but as features and costs mounted, it was re-labeled as a sequel. This is where the difficulty of reviewing IL-2: FB comes in; for the traditional definition of a sequel, it simply doesn’t offer enough. A better approach to marketing Forgotten Battles would be to call it a stand-alone expansion, in the vein of Homeworld: Cataclysm. Perhaps an exercise in fancy wordplay, yet it would not be as misleading to fans as calling the game a true sequel.
Two main points hamper FB’s status as a true sequel. The first is simple: little is new. There are a few more maps, a few more aircraft, a new engine management system, and a dynamic campaign. The second reason is implicit in the first – since this so-called sequel contains everything that Sturmovik had, there is no reason to buy the first. This is a semi-minor point with both good and bad consequences for Forgotten Battles. The bad is that anyone picking up Sturmovik and Forgotten Battles is going to feel conned, as he would not if he bought Baldur’s Gate I and II, or FreeSpace 1 and 2. The good, of course, is that someone who buys just Forgotten Battles gets pretty much the whole package and doesn’t need to invest in the earlier title.
Naturally this leaves just one question remaining – is there enough in Forgotten Battles to make Sturmovik owners pony up full-game price for a title they already own half of? It’s a tricky question that we’ll explore for the rest of the review, while introducing Il-2 virgins to the wonderful world of Great Patriotic War air combat.
SIDEBAR: The Russian name for World War II is the Great Patriotic War. In many ways, the Russians won World War II almost by themselves, having stopped the German’s 1941 advance before Allied supplies made much of an effect in Russia. After the battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the tide had turned permanently against Nazi Germany and over the next 2 years Red Army forces drove German forces clear across the massive expanses of white, and red Russia, the Baltic states and the Ukraine before the western front was opened. Russians sustained more casualties than anyone else in the war, and also inflicted more casualties on Wehrmacht forces than the rest of the Allies combined.
Forgotten Battles has many important new features that try to set it clearly apart from its predecessor. Graphically it remains a top-notch title, undeniably the most beautiful sim on the market especially when pixel-shader effects are turned on. Naturally this option has devastating consequences on framerate, dropping it to the 30fps range from a comfortable 70-80. The new maps are splendid, featuring spectacular mountain ranges and rivers. Early-morning fog will obscure river banks, thunder- and snowstorms will blind pilots at low levels and clouds against a blue sky are not just photo-realistic, they are life-like. Any positive comments this reviewer may have had about CFS3’s graphics must now be tempered against this new benchmark.
There are new engine management options to appease the hardcore sim crowd, though these add little to gameplay. Indeed, after one gets used to them they’re more of an irritant than a layer of depth. The designers fortunately had enough sense to continue down Sturmovik’s path and include options to disable unwanted realism. Still, for those looking to recreate the ultimate flying experience, along with the tedium of setting fuel mixtures, prop pitch, turbocharger stage, radiator status and controlling multiple engines independently – it’s all at available at your fingertips.
For the rest of the world, 1C: Maddox Games has thrown in exciting new aircraft, including multiple-engine bombers and a dynamic campaign to keep things lively. Players may choose to pilot the absolutely beautiful twin-engine Heinkel He-111 or the extremely outdated, slow, vulnerable and generally useless TB-3. The Heinkel, while not the most capable bomber in the Luftwaffe, was at least modern. The inclusion of the TB-3 is absolutely mind-boggling as it is the absolutely most useless flyable aircraft in the game. To make matters worse, someone actually spent time developing a dynamic campaign for it, rather than a more worthy aircraft like the Pe-8, a more worthy Soviet four-engine bomber.
Other dynamic campaigns are available for the Heinkel He-111, Junkers Ju-87, various fighters and of course the Il-2. These campaigns can start in various periods and locations of the war, which affect difficulty to a certain degree. For example, a Bf-109 campaign in 1941 is quite easy, while one as a TB-3 pilot at any stage of the war is suicide.
The campaign engine is quite impressive, and offers a pleasant variety of missions. The battle lines are fixed along historic routes, though the player’s performance is alleged to affect the rate of movement. Missions are historically plausible and at least nominally follow the tactics of eastern front combat – low-level bombing, close escort rather than fighter sweeps, and a heavy focus on tactical instead of strategic targets. Players will find themselves flying transfer missions from one airfield to another, as the front moves. So why aren’t I shouting its praises to high heaven?
SIDEBAR: The Heinkel He-111 is personally my favorite twin-engine plane of the Second World War. It’s not that it was the most effective at its role – far from it – but it has an undeniable beauty and grace with its clear cockpit and sexy curves. My favorite single-engine aircraft is the F4U Corsair, while the most attractive four-engine plane would be the B-29 Superfortress.
Why-ee-ayeee-ayee Superman’s dead
For all its technical advancement and quality execution, the dynamic campaign lacks soul. Precisely the problem that CFS3 was trying to solve hasn’t even been touched on by Il-2: Forgotten Battles. There is no feel, no sense of involvement or advancement. Missions may as well be completely unconnected to each other. While it would take nothing less than a real artificial intelligence to truly connect the campaign of random missions and let the player interact with his squadron mates, this should not have stopped the developers from attempting to throw in some atmosphere. As it stands, the campaigns are nothing but random missions that happen to occur in the same time period and area. Supposedly the player’s actions have consequences in the game world, but these are transparent and difficult to spot. Shot down entire flights of Bf-110Cs in several missions? In that case they’re supposed to become rarer, but this is difficult to notice.
The campaign is technically sound, but not perfect. There are no missions where the player’s flight or bombing squadron manages to get the jump on an enemy ground target. It may be boring to encounter no or little opposition during a mission, but at least it would throw in some variety. At the moment, the player’s squadron always finds itself with Wing Commander-like odds, 4 against 16, 8 against 20! So much for realism.
The Il-2 AI, a sore spot with the first game, may have improved somewhat but is still lacking. Computer aircraft are immune to spins, resistant to stalls and seem to have boundless energy. They always know where the player is – no matter the clouds, bad weather or night. Enemy gunners on the rear of light bombers and heavy fighters like the Bf-110 or Il-2 are deadly accurate, completely unfazed by the evasive maneuvers of the aircraft they are in. It’s one thing to be a marksman gunner from a stable platform like a Pe-8, it’s another to do so while engaging in a barrel-roll followed by a hard rolling break and dive. The occasional lucky shot that disables an engine or kills the pilot is understandable, but an uninterrupted laser-like stream of hot lead is another matter. Gunners miss and often, but in a very artificial fashion – always leading the player wrong, never quite correcting.
The AI seems to have picked up on tactics in between versions. It has proven capable of rudimentary judgment of altitude/energy advantages, though it still doesn’t seem to understand the capabilities of its aircraft and that of its opponent. An AI pilot will just as gladly dive away from the player whether or not it has the better diving aircraft. Its understanding of firepower disadvantages is nonexistent; a Hurricane Mk I with .303cal ‘paint stripper’ machine guns will fearlessly play chicken against the heavily-armed Il-2 rather than use its speed and maneuverability to gain position. AI choice of targets remains poor, pilots will come up behind bomber formations and target the lead aircraft (thus subjecting themselves to defensive fire from all other bombers.) In fact, AI planes tend to settle all-too-readily for coming up behind bombers which tends to be a poor idea even in the best of circumstances.
SIDEBAR: The proper way to attack heavy bombers is to strike fast at their weak spots. This is typically manifested by a shallow, high-speed dive while firing at the cockpit or engines – this tactic was used by Luftwaffe pilots to shoot down B-17s and B-24s. Such attacks minimized exposure to enemy gunfire to at most two turrets (forward and top), struck at vulnerabilities, and were very quick, keeping turret gunners from locking on.
Il-2’s strength has historically been multiplayer. Despite a community that will bicker over the smallest details for ages, Il-2 Sturmovik has staked out a top spot in the online sim community. The AI and campaign problems are not issues in this venue and there is the added thrill of having to compete against real pilots.
The most common multiplayer servers host dedicated Axis vs. Allied multiplayer matches, where each side has an objective to achieve – one that is usually completely ignored in favor of head-on combat. Organizing a flight to escort bombers to strike an objective in Il-2: FB is about as effective as giving orders in Counterstrike – it’ll just land you a load of flames. With the huge maps involved, it’s key to join servers that already have a large population of pilots or else it may be a long time coming before you find your opponent.
Forgotten Battles has solid netcode, making lag a non-issue for broadband players – although we encountered more disconnects than we cared for. One of the key problems with multiplayer is the Ubi interface. While we originally reported that it does not include detailed server setting information, in fact it does. However, it remains unpopular with Il-2 pilots due to its somewhat clumsy operation, fixed 800x600 window size and Gestapo-like questionnaire.
The game lobby offers all necessary information, however. Simply hovering the mouse cursor above the joystick icon next to a server will provide those details in short order. This brings us to a major problem with the Il-2 community itself - it's quite fragmented. Everyone has their own favorite settings and while players are flexible, there is only limited overlap between fans of certain styles.
In the interest of realism, many will turn all the options on. They’ll disable padlock, turn on head shake, disable external views, force the cockpit view, etc. Realism is great, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the game. In the game the player can't move his head and look around to follow his target – but a real pilot could. He can’t sit up in his seat to try to get a look over the engine cowl at a plane that dived out of sight – but a real pilot could. So what settings server operators use to balance simulator limitations are always subject to debate and there is no standard around which the community can rally.
Hyperlobby hosts thousands of Il-2 players, and these happen to be the established, hardcore crowd. It's rather unfortunate that the Ubi.com crowd is quite small, as this discourages new players from investigating multiplayer further; they may give up on the game before hearing of Hyperlobby.
SIDEBAR: There is considerable debate if 1C: Maddox Games’ Russian nationalistic feelings haven’t gotten the better of them and they made the Russian planes a little too powerful. Personally, given my poor experiences flying the famous Focke Wulf 190s and Messerschmitt 109s, I’m inclined to agree. Even the later German models seem rather slow and ungainly compared to even mid-level Soviet aircraft like the LaGGs and early Yak-9s, though historically they were (individually) superior.
Whether you’re talking about the damage model, which simulates loss of rudder, ailerons, pilot injury, engine damage, or the flight model which can take a P-39 Aircobra from 0 to fatal spin in .2 seconds, FB has the best modeling on the market, period. It takes a while to get used to torque and gyro effects, or the touchiness of the planes, but it’s worth it.
The dynamic campaign fleshes out the singleplayer aspect and for all our griping, it’s much better than the static campaign of Sturmovik. Now if only it didn’t take 20 minutes to fly to the target even on 8x time compression…
The AI cheats, blatantly – in the flight model, in targeting, in spotting the player in clouds. It flies in a very robotic and mechanical fashion; even an untrained newbie could spot the difference between a replay of an AI pilot and a human pilot.
Small, divided and sometimes argumentative, the FB community is also hampered by the unpopularity of the default matchmaking service.
SIDEBAR: Colin Powell’s autobiography is interesting though clearly self-serving, and he makes no bones about it. Still, it’s hard to knock the guy and he never quite eliminates the possibility of running for President. His dismissals of the rumors only pertained to the present, not the future.
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