A console isn’t the best system to own if you want to play a steady stream of in-depth air-combat games. For some reason, we just don’t get that many of them. There could be any number of reasons for it, but the most likely is the developers just don’t see a market for them. Still, on the rare occasion, a developer dares to release a flight sim to satisfy those few of us with a hankering for a good burn around the skies.
The latest is Birds of Steel from Russian indie developer, Gaijin Entertainment. Set during the Second World War, it allows players to take control of over 100 authentic Allied and Axis aircraft and take part in some of the most intense air-to-air and air-to-ground skirmishes of the era. There are also tons of one-shot missions, custom missions and online events you can take part in once you’re done with the main campaign.
The main campaign has three parts, the pre-war era and the Pacific War from both the US and Japanese perspectives. The pre-war era has no combat at all, but contains several tutorials which – believe me – you want to go through. These tutorials explain not only the controls, but also the limitations of the planes you’ll be flying. Without that knowledge, you’ll stall and spin out of control constantly without knowing why or how to fix it. The flight phsysics, even on the easiest difficulty setting, are fairly realistic, and even simple things like a barrel roll or Immelman turn must be executed carefully under the right conditions. And as if that’s not enough, you have to take off and land your plane. Taking off is quite easy, but landing is a bitch – especially on an aircraft carrier. Most players will gnaw their controllers practising this.
Once you’re confident that you can at least take off, fly and land without dying, you can enter the last two parts of the campaign. They’re short, but action packed and allow players to engage in several historical battles on each side of the Pacific War. The objectives are about as varied as you can get with a flight sim, requiring you to dogfight enemy planes and make dive bombing or torpedo runs. Unfortunately, you don’t get to create a pilot with a career who can earn medals and such, which does leave us feeling slightly disconnected from it all – especially given how you can take control of any friendly plane in the sky if you’re shot down or run out of torpedoes. There’s also a selection of solo custom missions you can fly and 16-player online battles to engage in.
The atmosphere is great though, especially when flying through a sky full of enemy craft with flak explosions all around and planes dropping out of the air. The planes rattle and creak realistically and the cockpits are immensely detailed. The only real problem is that I don’t see a lot of console gamers having the patience to put up with the intense realism and harsh difficulty.