Every year, forums, blogs, and gaming media light up with speculation about what the "Big Three" will unveil at that year's E3 and who will "win" the show, but that isn't what E3 is all about. The annual expo is a rare opportunity for the little guy to get the ear of the masses, with the entire gaming media under one roof. Last year, High Voltage Games showed us an unsigned, self-funded project called The Conduit in the downstairs hallway of the convention center, and a year later, Nintendo was proudly touting it as one of the Wii's premier third-party titles, thanks in part to all the positive buzz it had earned. This year's show was far louder and flashier, but in the quiet meeting rooms, away from the show floors, there were still a few sleeper hits lurking. 1C Company's IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey wasn't even mentioned on the show floor, but it proved to be one of the convention's biggest surprises.
Somehow, a little-known Russian developer has managed to dish out an engine that embarrasses the likes of Namco's Ace Combat series.
Birds of Prey is the first attempt to bring the acclaimed World War II flight simulator series from PC to console. It's a challenge, because the series is known as one of the most detailed, authentic combat flight sims on the market, and hardly the kind of game the average console gamer could pick up and play. The series has been so unapologetically realistic that it can be more simulation than game at times, with an incredibly steep learning curve that forces you to absorb so much that by the time you're done with the game, you can pretty much fly a plane. When IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey was announced, 1C admitted that a few concessions would be made to make things easier on console gamers, but the plan still was to deliver the most realistic flying experience ever available on a console.
Well, it seems that in the end, the developers want to please everyone, not just hardcore sim-heads, and if the demo we saw was any indication, they might actually do it. The game has been split into a simulation campaign and an arcade campaign; two completely different experiences, and each with enough content to merit a stand-alone release. A 505 Games representative explained a few details of the sim mode, including finite ammo, realistic physics, and a cockpit-only camera, but the demo was focused strictly on the arcade game, and it's easy to see why. 1C has proven they understand this genre far better than I would have expected any hardcore sim-nerds to.
The 505 rep chose to play primarily in third-person mode to show off the incredibly detailed plane model, but he was also sure to show a glimpse of the equally detailed cockpit view. Built from the ground up on an entirely new engine, IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey is positively stunning. Planes take damage with bullet holes that leak smoke trails, and individually modeled bombs can be seen dropping from the bays on the bottom of the plane.
Even more impressive are the game's environments. Gone are the days of flat textures with a few key skyscrapers or landmarks. A slow descent shows the land's gradual transition from a plane to a detailed landscape of subtle rolling hills, with every single tree and house individually modeled. The transition is seamless, and there is no visible pop-in. It is absolutely the most visually impressive landscape ever in a flight sim. Somehow, a little-known Russian developer has managed to dish out an engine that embarrasses the likes of Namco's Ace Combat series.
It seems 1C understands design as well. Where missions in the PC game series typically began with takeoff and sometimes entailed a long flight into enemy territory, the arcade mode of Birds of Prey has missions that typically start in the air and thrust you right into the action. Not only that, but there are some really interesting scenarios based on real historic battles. The developers clearly have a real love of history and a rich knowledge of fighter pilot lore, because even with the less-realistic controls and lack of limitations, they draw from the history books to build their levels. Of particular interest was a stage with a low, thick cloud cover that the German pilots used to pick off enemy planes. The game was a clever effort to avoid the trap and lure enemy pilots above the clouds where they'd be vulnerable. The emphasis on actual history will likely keep the game from building any kind of real narrative in the game's campaign, but the meat of the battles are very intriguing.
I'll admit, when I went to meet with 505 Games, I was expecting to see a product for a narrow niche of sim-heads, with some tacked-on arcade elements that would miss the finer points of what makes an action game work. Instead, I saw a genuinely compelling arcade aerial combat game that gives the big guys a real run for their money. The loving attention to detail that made the series so appealing on the PC is still here, but it also feels like a game that anyone can play. We weren't able to sample the other modes, including the four online multiplayer modes and the traditional simulation campaign, but what was demonstrated is more than enough to get me genuinely excited for the fall release.