A labour of love is a phrase I save only for the titles that truly deserve it. Birds of Steel is one such game. For me to say this, a game has to go beyond what could have been acceptable. For example Gaijin could have easily got away with 30-40 planes. The fact that there are over 100 and that they travelled far and wide to find, in some cases, the last of their kind just to record the engine sounds; that is a labour of love.
Birds of Steel is to aviation nuts what Forza and Gran Turismo are to petrol heads.
Birds of Steel is a combat flight simulator based around real battles from the 1940’s, predominantly focusing on the Pacific War from 1941-42. Its focus is on authenticity so if you’re expecting fast paced dog fights seen in the likes of Ace Combat or HAWX then this might not be the flight game for you.
I have no problem admitting this but flight games have a habit of passing me by as I don’t think they will appeal to me. Birds of Steel has made me change my mind on this statement, so much so that I now want to go back and check out Gaijins previous flight game IL-2: Sturmovik: Birds of Prey.
There are two major factors that I really like about Birds of Steel. The first is its accessibility and the second is how the historical campaign is presented.
In terms of accessibility I think it is easiest to compare it to the Forza series. Just like in Forza you are able to decide how challenging you want to make the game. From simplified settings which feel much more on the arcade side to full simulator which will have you managing fuel and ammo as well as getting an appreciation for what a hard job pilots of this time period had just keeping these planes in the air, let alone fighting in them.
If you are new to flight sims – much like myself – then you will still have to put some time into this even when playing with simplistic settings. Thankfully Birds of Steel has a “Pre-War” section which acts as the tutorial. I found this section incredibly helpful and even played through it a few times until I felt I had taken everything I could from it. Areas it covers are: Take off and basic flight controls, Aerial combat and landing, Carrier takeoff and torpedoing, Dive-bombing and carrier landing. The most challenging part is landing. On simplified settings the game clearly marks out the flight path you need to follow using orange rings for you to fly through. It explains when you need to reduce your throttle and also when to drop your landing gear. It took me four attempts to get this right on simplistic but each time I failed I knew exactly what I had done wrong. It was really satisfying when I finally landed it. Landing while playing in full sim mode is a whole different story. No route markers, no assists and no margin for error. It’s brutal. Hats off to those who did this on a day to day basis during World War II.
The campaign in this game is referred to as a “Historical Campaign” and this is an entirely accurate description. Upon loading up this mode you are presented with archive footage of the attack on Pearl Harbour. This is narrated over by the one and only Stephen Fry. It’s brilliant for a person like me as I do love history and the campaign acts as one big history lesson. It’s likely to be the most interactive History lesson you ever have. You are able to play the campaign from either the perspective of the USA or Japan. The inclusion of the Japanese campaign is much appreciated as it explains the motivation behind their attack. Every story has two sides and I think it’s great that this was included. There are 20 missions across both sides of the campaign and 11 archive videos to sit back and enjoy. How many games can you walk away from and say you actually learnt something today? And not only learnt something but had a damn good time doing it as well. Next time someone tries to tell you gaming can’t be educational then shove Birds of Steel in their face.
As well as the historical campaigns there are also single missions to play. These have a range of objectives such as escort, aerial combat against fighters and bombers, reconnaissance, and other scenarios taking place throughout the Pacific and Europe. It also unlocks access to new aircraft. There are 27 objectives to meet across each of these areas which cover, the siege of Malta to the battle of the Ruhr and many others.
There is even a dynamic campaign, in this you take part in famous battles but the twist here is that you get to rewrite history. If you fail then it all plays out like it was supposed to but it feels really good when you feel that you were the spark that changed the battle. I really enjoyed playing this mode.
On top of all this there is also a mission editor. This is where this game turns from a ten hour experience into having near infinite replayability. In this mode you can select a wide variety of starting conditions and objectives. Essentially if you can dream up a mission then chances are you can make it happen using the mission editor. A great use I found for this as a beginner of these types of games is that I could use it as a training ground. By choosing the most basic settings I am able to jump in and just practice with any plane that I want to.
It is also worth mentioning that many individual missions, the dynamic campaign and missions created with the mission editor can be completed in co-op with other players online. In the lobby, players can join games, up to a maximum of four players per game. These players will fly as members of a 4-plane squadron playing the same mission.
Tournament mode is a special mode for players to fight against one another. Tournaments appear regularly and last for several days. To be admitted to a tournament, a player must usually meet several requirements: for example, they must have reached the required level, have purchased the required airplane, etc. Each player has their own record book showing the results of their last tournament.
Tournament mode is a good idea in practice, however, with a niche title such as this forcing players to meet certain requirements before they can enter the tournament just diminishes the amount of people who can actually access the tournament, even though I have qualified to get into one I still haven’t managed to find a game session.
Events mode is a special co-op mode that is similar to Tournament mode. The difference here is that you do not compete against other players, instead you work with them. New events will appear from time to time. Again this is an interesting idea however it also suffers from the same problem as Tournament mode. You need to meet certain requirements before you can access them and by the time you do meet the requirements then the event may have expired, a new one having taken its place. It would have been much nicer in the limited time based missions to just allow anyone to just jump in regardless of their level or whether they have unlocked the required plane. Just let people use it for that event or tournament.
I can see a lot of plane enthusiasts spending a lot of time in the Hangar. Here you can look at all the planes in the game whether you have unlocked them to fly or not. There is information on each plane including stats and even a brief history on each one. A lot of love has clearly gone into this game and what I really appreciate is that I feel I am learning as I’m playing it.
The game boasts 103 different planes from the USA, Germany, USSR, Britain and Japan. All of them are realised brilliantly and are clearly where most of the attention was placed and rightly so.
Even the versus mode tries its best to be accessible to all players as you are able to setup or join games that suit your skill whether you opt for playing simplistic or full sim.
Versus is my least favourite part of this game. It has a number of modes but they all start to feel very similar very quickly. There are three main modes to choose from: Battlefront Domination, Airfield Domination and Air Domination. Battlefront and Air focus on capturing and holding air zone whereas Airfield concentrates on capturing and holding ground zones. Winning in the sky, means winning on the ground, so essentially it’s very similar to the other modes. One interesting feature I like about Battlefront Domination is the ability to destroy the enemy’s carrier. This is their spawn point and when that is gone they can no longer respawn and the battle is as good as over. It’s an interesting choice and feels very realistic. I would have liked to see some more variety in this mode, however, I can see it getting stale pretty fast.
In conclusion I feel that this is the best flight-sim experience you will be able to play on consoles. The sheer amount of love and attention is apparent in every aspect of this game. My only gripes are that the multiplayer is a little lacking in variety and I would really like to just jump into tournaments and not be told I’m not eligible. The radio chatter can get noticeably repetitive but that really is just me nit picking. Everything else about this Birds of Steel is brilliant and I have discovered that I can get into this kind of genre. Gaijin have created the ultimate tribute to fighter planes during World War II and the best interactive history lesson I have ever had.
MLG Rating: 8/10 Platform: PS3 /Xbox 360 Release Date: 16/03/2012
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a phtsical copy of Birds of Steel by the promoter for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of two week on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.