Saturday, August 1, 2009

Goodbye, HAWX. Hello, Sturmovik.

Regular readers are well aware of my pathological need to play aviation games. While I set boundaries (the intolerable Over G fighters, for instance), I’ve been known to stoop pretty low to get my fix – I actually found myself inventing reasons to praise HAWX, recently.

Friends, I repent my sins. I have seen the light, and its name is IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey.

If you can’t pronounce it, don’t worry. We can simply refer to it as the Best Flight Sim Ever (On A Console) (BFSE(OAC)). Coming relatively out of the blue from Russian publisher 1C, Sturmovik is a flight sim set during WWII. The demo popped up on Wendesday. Itching from the impure product of HAWX, I decided to give it a spin.

If the ultimate goal of a good console-based flight sim is to create an experience that is both complex and accessible, authentic and fun, then I can’t imagine anything succeeding beyond Sturmovik.

A WWII sim is much like a WWII game – you fight a campaign from various perspectives, fighting through Stalingrad, Sicily and coastal Britain. If a WWII game must come on one side of the History Channel/Saving Private Ryan divide, Sturmovik falls on the former. Well-written voiceover reflections follow the two demo missions, giving the game an air of stodgy reminiscence. This, oddly, is refreshing; if I had another everyman sergeant telling me to take out a machine gunner, goddamnit, I would die from boredom. No, wait; that would be clich├ęd.

Enough about the scenery – let’s talk about the gameplay. Sturmovik’s controls will be familiar to HAWX and Ace Combat 6 veterans, with a few exceptions. Left thumstick controls the aircraft’s pitching and banking, while the right thumbstick, instead of rotating the camera, controls speed and yaw.

From the first bank, Sturmovik feels right. There’s an appropriate heft and resistance to your Spitfire. And – huge shocker for HAWX jocks – airflow exists in this game. Go inverted, and you’ll lose altitude. Knife-edge, same thing. Try climbing without sufficient thrust, and your ass will stall. You can’t pull any of that clowny flippy-floppy shit, here. You roll in on a formation of bombers, and you’d better plan that shit out. Sturmovik is slow, intelligent and deliberate.

But that doesn’t mean it’s boring, stuffy or for aviation curmudgeons only. Exactly the opposite – dogfights in Sturmovik are more kinetic and intense than anything the genre has seen recently; possibly ever. Bullet casings fly off the screen; engines erupt into fireballs; wings snap off and spin through the air; flack clouds are ink-black and dread-inspiring. Even the sounds are amazing – just listen to the wind whistling into your cockpit, or the datta-datta-datta of your cannons.

Damage in Sturmovik is significant, especially in the upper echelons of realism. A shot-up rudder means you can’t yaw, while swiss-cheesed wings makes your aircraft shudder and shake. Of course, you evaluate this visually. Memorably, I once banked in front of the sun to see it shining through the dozens of holes in my wings, one the size of a basketball.

The graphics bear mentioning. Despite the satellite-data boasting of HAWX, it still looked like Google fucking Earth at low altitudes. Sturmovik manages to articulate detail to a previously-unprecedented level. The streets of Dover look a bit fuzzy, but rural areas look spectacular down to the individual furrows in plowed fields.

I mean, really, how many superlatives can I spit before I stop being convincing. Sturmovik will be the best flight sim ever published for a console. It has the depth of gameplay to please fans disenfranchised by HAWX’s remedial mechanics, and the charisma to rope in new fans.

As a gesture of penance, I plan on trading in my copy of HAWX when I buy IL-2 Sturmovik on September 15. See you up there, kids.