IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles Review
By Roxanne Distefano |
Released in 2001, IL-2 Sturmovik was a remarkable game, thanks to its unusual focus on WWII's eastern front, its great attention to detail, its gorgeous graphics, and its interesting selection of planes. The game's developer, 1C: Maddox Games, began working on an expansion pack, but along the way the expansion grew to become a full-fledged, full-priced sequel. But Forgotten Battles really is just like an expansion, since it's built around the same basic game engine, covers the same topic, and shares a massive number of features with the original IL-2. While Forgotten Battles isn't the true sequel you might have hoped for, and it suffers from its share of problems, there's a still lot to like about it.
Forgotten Battles includes all the planes and maps from the original IL-2, though it jettisons that game's missions and campaigns. Getting to fly all those fascinating planes again is definitely a point in Forgotten Battles' favor. Losing the original campaigns is actually a good thing, too, since IL-2's clunky campaign system was one of the game's few significant weaknesses.
For new challenges, Forgotten Battles offers 20 new single-player missions and 10 multiplayer missions. You'll rise to meet varied challenges, like defending a vital bridge, escorting IL-2 ground-attack planes over the Gulf of Finland, attacking ships with torpedo bombers, and more. This time around, you'll get to fly not only as the Soviets and Germans, but also as the Finns and Hungarians. As a bonus of sorts, you'll even get to fly as the Americans in one mission, in which you attack a Hungarian airfield. Solid enemy AI means you should get a challenge no matter which mission you choose. While the missions are varied, they do suffer from some problems, like extremely long load times and occasional stuttering during a mission when the game tries to load or process even more data.
In addition to these missions, you'll find a full mission editor and a quick mission builder that lets you set up varied air-to-air and air-to-ground engagements. With the quick mission builder, you can choose the types of planes that you and the AI will fly, the skill level of the AI pilots, the starting altitude, the weather, and more. Unfortunately, you'll get to engage in these quick battles over just three maps--the same old ones from the original IL-2, in fact.
Along with the new individual missions, Forgotten Battles has a revamped campaign system that dynamically generates missions. You can choose to fly for the Soviets, Germans, Finns, or Hungarians, and you can choose the year and general region where your campaign starts and what basic type of plane you'll be flying.
Unfortunately, the campaign system suffers some of the same problems found in the original IL-2, as well as some of the problems found in the new single missions. First, you'll have to sit through some ridiculously long load times. Then you'll often find yourself reaching for the time compression and autopilot keys to travel the 100km or more from your airbase to your target without dying of boredom. Your mission objectives and status aren't always as clear as they should be, and the AI wingmen can behave oddly, dropping bombs kilometers away from their intended targets. While the combat engagements themselves are thrilling, you get precious little sense of actually taking part in the epic conflict that played out in the East. All you get are some bland, terse, and poorly written mission briefings with simple messages about losing a couple of planes on the last mission or having Lieutenant So-And-So join the squadron. Missions within a single pilot's career can also play out too similarly, though overall you'll get a lot of variety if you try all the different career tracks available.
You can also head online to play and in a variety of cooperative and competitive modes. Online play is one of Forgotten Battles' greatest strengths, especially since it features some exciting new maps, including a dramatic mountainous map that provides all sorts of tactical interest. But Forgotten Battles' multiplayer does have its share of problems--specifically, you have to use Ubi Soft's clumsy matchmaking software and deal with occasional lag and disconnects, not to mention the minor bugs that appear throughout the game.
No matter what sort of missions you choose to play, you'll encounter a huge assortment of fascinating planes, most of them flyable. You'll find numerous variants of workhorses like the Soviet IL-2 and German Bf 109 fighter. You'll pilot the famed Stuka dive-bomber, American-made planes like the P-47 Thunderbolt supplied to the Soviets through the Lend-Lease program, and the British-made Hurricane in Finnish service. You'll roar through the skies in the famed German Me 262 jet, preying on lumbering bombers and startling enemy fighters. Overall, the variety of planes you'll fly or fight against is really impressive: the game has everything from early-war biplanes to sea planes to the enormous German Zwilling used to tow huge transport gliders.
Air combat on the eastern front mainly focused on tactical support of ground units, but bombers certainly played a part in the conflict too. One of the most interesting new features in Forgotten Battles is the ability to control multistation bombers, specifically the German He 111 and the Soviet TB-3. You'll be able to pilot them, as well as operate the bombsights (no easy task) and control all the different gun turrets, with the AI manning the stations not currently occupied by a human player. Sitting aboard one of these ponderous beasts provides a whole new kind of drama as enemy fighters race toward you. You'll be praying for your fighter escorts to arrive and that you and the other gunners can get in some hits with the puny turret machine guns before your bomber is shredded by enemy fire. It's too bad the game didn't include more flyable bombers, or at least more interesting and powerful ones. The included Soviet TB-3, for example, seems more like a curiosity than a really useful aircraft. In real life, relatively few were produced, and they were outdated by the time the Germans invaded and mainly used in a transport role at that stage.
As in the original IL-2, the flight models feel convincing, so you'll get a fun challenge not just from the enemy, but also from trying to master the nuances of all the different planes. For added interest and realism, you'll now find a number of optional advanced engine management features. You'll get to change the supercharger stage, alter the mixture richness, switch between multiple cowl/radiator-flap positions, and more. The skimpy manual doesn't describe all these features as well as it should, and they generally don't add too much to the core of the game--the combat--but they'll likely be welcomed by hard-core aviation fans.
You certainly won't need to be a hard-core fan to appreciate how great Forgotten Battles looks. If there was any glamour among the unremitting ugliness of the eastern front, it was likely in the skies. Many ground troops eagerly followed the exploits of their side's aces and would pause to enjoy the visual spectacle of dogfights overhead. Forgotten Battles' beautiful graphics do a splendid job capturing that aerial drama. Brilliantly colored tracers streak across the sky, and debris flies off planes when they're hit, leaving gaping holes with charred framework exposed. A damaged plane will soar through sky with fire and dense smoke pouring from a gutted engine, only to corkscrew into the earth with a spectacular explosion. When a plane really gets torn apart, you'll sometimes see one wing lazily twirl down into the sea while the rest of the ruined aircraft plummets ahead of it like a rock.
Even outside of combat, the visuals provide plenty to admire. It's true that Forgotten Battles relies on the same basic graphics engine as the original IL-2, but the engine was already excellent, and it was upgraded for the sequel. A lot of the terrain looks marvelous--expect to see rivers meandering through lush farmland and factory smokestacks rising from large cities. The sun reflects off rippling water, contrails snake across the sky when planes fly at high altitudes, and the clouds--particularly around nightfall--are almost photo-realistic at times. The planes are almost universally gorgeous, with highly detailed models and textures both outside and in. In fact, the internal views are pretty amazing, with detailed, animated controls and panels. It's just a shame that the menus are still as plain and uninviting as ever. Also, the game locked up our test system when we tried to run it in OpenGL, which meant we had to rely on Direct3D. Unfortunately, the game lets you select the highest terrain detail levels only under OpenGL.
Forgotten Battles' audio is almost as captivating as its visuals, though it also suffers from a few faults: The menu theme music sounds more like a tinny circus tune than a patriotic theme, and some of the voice-overs are unclear or exaggerated. Thankfully, Forgotten Battles' sound is great where it counts. The guns sound weighty and fierce, and the engines sound varied and convincing. It's a special treat when you first hop into an Me 262, for example--the sound of the powerful jet engines makes for a striking contrast to all the prop planes and lets you know you're in for an exhilarating flight. Lots of little details help further immerse you in the experience. You'll hear the wind rushing around your head when you sit in the open tail-gunner position of an IL-2, and you'll hear the low thud of a ship's heavy AA guns off in the distance as you fly over the sea.
If you were to think of IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles strictly as a full-priced, full-fledged, full-blown sequel, you might actually be a bit disappointed. The new game has some old problems from the original, and some of the new features aren't quite up to snuff. If you consider Forgotten Battles simply to be a new game in its own right, things look much better--the game features exciting combat, a wealth of fascinating aircraft, careful attention to detail, varied missions and maps, outstanding visuals, and more. Forgotten Battles doesn't make the sort of huge impact that the original game did, but, despite its faults, it's generally a very worthy successor.