IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad Review

“During six days of fighting from 14 October 1942, the Luftwaffe maintained relays of aircraft attacking river crossings and troops. There was hardly a moment when German aircraft were not overhead…by that time, the 8th Air Army was down to fewer than 200 machines of all types, of which only two dozen were fighters.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

The Battle of Stalingrad is widely recognised as the rock against which the previously invincible Germany army broke the tip of its Spear. Half a million German troops were lost in the Battle; dead, wounded or captured. The Russian army lost 1.1 million men, of which 489,000 were killed. The civilian toll was nearly as high.

It is against the setting of this epic seige from October 1942 to January 1943, that IL2 Battle of Stalingrad from 1C RG Studios, takes place.

Intro

Let me say up front there is a lot to like about this game. I bought into it as a ‘founder’ member more than a year ago when early access was opened up, and haven’t regretted that at all.

To me this game is a valuable addition to an all too small niche in PC gaming, which is the flight game genre, and I am more than happy to see the launch version on my hard drive at last.

If you are waiting for a ‘but’…there isn’t one! Like any game, it has parts I love, parts I like, and parts I can’t abide, but as a whole it is definitely worthy of your time.

Setup and installation

As I said, I bought into the game in the early access phase, and my setup experience has been the same since day one thanks to the very smooth setup interface.

You download a setup program, then you get the screen above. The setup program downloads the main game files, checks they are up to date, and then you can click ‘Play’ and start.

From this setup screen you can also go to the game forums, get support and adjust your settings and it will always check to see if your game is up to date before it launches.

You log in to the 1CGS server and click enter. Which brings you here, to the main menu screen.

Couldn’t be simpler. Compared to the process for other games, it is very easy, and just as simple if you buy through Steam.

There are some who don’t like the fact you need to log into the game server to play. To accommodate these, the makers have enabled an offline version which allows the player to play single missions offline without logging in. But to play the campaign and, naturally, multiplayer, you need to log in.

Game overview

The game gives you single and multiplayer modes, in the Stalingrad theatre of WWII, flying up to five aircraft for either side of the conflict, Russia or Germany, so up to ten aircraft in total.

Buyers of the Standard Edition for 50 Euro/dollars will get 8 aircraft (LaGG-3 (series 29), Bf 109 F-4, Yak-1 (series 69), Bf 109 G-2, IL-2 AM-38 (1942 year’s model, single-seat), Ju 87 D-3, He 111 H-6, Pe-2 (series 87)). Buyers of the Premium Edition for 90 Euro/dollars will get 10 aircraft: 8 standard and 2 special aircraft (La-5 and Fw 190 A-3, which cannot be obtained in the game).
LaGG-3 (series 29)

LaGG-3 (series 29)

Bf 109 F-4

Bf 109 F-4

Yak-1 (series 69)

Yak-1 (series 69)

Bf 109 G-2

Bf 109 G-2

IL-2 AM-38

IL-2 AM-38 (1942 year's model, single-seat)

Ju 87 D-3

Ju 87 D-3

He 111 H-6

He 111 H-6

Pe-2 (series 87)

Pe-2 (series 87)

La-5 (series 8)

La-5 (series 8)

Fw 190 A-3

Fw 190 A-3

The FW190 A was in fact not present at Stalingrad, but was included by the developers as an optional purchase, after a poll on their forums showed it would be hugely popular.

All aircraft are player flyable, there are no AI only ‘bots’. All AI flown aircraft in the game have the same flight models the player is using. CPU and GPU intensive, but it means they are more likely to obey the laws of physics and the performance envelope of aircraft of that period.

Conspicuous by its absence however is the famous ‘Tante Ju’ or Ju52 transport aircraft, which formed the basis for the air bridge into the Stalingrad Kessel when German forces were surrounded. The Luftwaffe lost 488 Ju52s during the air bridge phase, and protecting these was the main role of the Luftwaffe. But you won’t see a single Ju52 or other transport aircraft in the game which is a huge omission. The makers have said they plan to introduce it in the future.

A mission builder is also planned for release in coming months.

Game state

Barely a month out of release, it is worth commenting on the fact that this game is pleasingly free of killer bugs. There are currently some AI and FM frustrations, and an annoying tendency for the game to freeze or crash after a few campaign or multiplay missions, for some players. These are things the makers need to attend to quickly but otherwise the early access process has enabled the makers to smooth out most of the ugly lumps.

Critics will inevitably say problems with the FMs, AI and campaign freezes are deal breakers and make the sim ‘unplayable’. To those people I have one thing to say – ‘Cliffs of Dover’. That sim set the record for unplayability on release, and BoS is not even close to being in that league. Many of those people have also perhaps forgotten what the original IL2 was like when it was released (stutters, poor FPS, AI that ignored the laws of physics). We gamers have short memories and high expectations!

Customisation Options

The usual wide range of customisation features of settings for controls are there, but graphic options have been simplified and there are only a few choices there, mostly determined by the game itself, which some players find frustrating.

There are literally hundreds of customisable key options, and you can find a key command guide courtesy of James, here.

There are two game modes – ‘easy’ which gives the player a wide range of on screen icons and cues, and simplified flight models, and ‘expert’ which takes these away. In ‘normal’ mode it is possible to sequentially remove various HUD prompts to get closer to the ‘expert’ experience without having to use full engine management, which is a nice touch. Or you can go the other way, and fly with full engine management, and add the HUD devices in if you like.

The HUD also provides a gun and bomb aimer help icon, which will be very useful to players new to flight games.

HUD mode shows a lot of information including air and ground target icons, waypoint markets, speed, direction and ammo counters and includes a feature called ‘technochat’ which shows damage to your aircraft and changes to control settings such as radiators etc, in real time text on the screen.

Many players deplore these HUD cues, and the feeling of ‘arcade’ gameplay they bring, but they can easily be turned off. I have to say, without target icons to guide me, I find it near impossible to spot ground targets in the snowy landscape!

And in both single and multiplayer, you can either fly the plane, or crew the gunner/bombadier positions. It gives a nice element in multiplayer as you take off in your bomber to hear someone say, ‘Hi Heinkill, I’m in the gunner seat with you!”



Game types

As you can see from the main menu screen shot there are several game types and I will speak about and rate each of these individually.

Campaign:

Why am I starting here? Because so much of the content and experience of what you can do in the sim, is dependent on what you do in the single player game.

You can fly either long (ground start) or short (air start) missions, in any aircraft you have bought, on either side of the battle, Russia or Germany. Missions are generated by the BoS server on the fly, are random in nature, not sequential or joined in any way.

There are five ‘Chapters’ which are like snapshots of the battlefront on five different days during the Battle of Stalingrad, from October 1942 into January of 1943.

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You pick your side (Germany, Russia), your aircraft, your airfield and the game generates a mission for you. You can fly as many missions as you like in each chapter, but after about five successful missions, the game opens up the next ‘chapter’ for you to fly. Whether you go ahead, or keep flying in the chapter you are in, is up to you. This gives the player an incredible amount of freedom. You could choose to go quickly through the campaign, flying a single aircraft type throughout the campaign, or you could choose to fly several missions in several aircraft types for each chapter of the campaign – including from different sides – it is entirely up to you.

I love innovation in gameplay design, so hats off to 1C RG for bringing a new approach to the campaign engine.

Briefings are sparse, more or less just telling you where to go and what to do. Click start, and you are thrown into the cockpit, engine running. This is one of the disappointing elements of the game – because the briefings capture none of the historical sweep of events that were taking place at the time, all the drama of the Battle of Stalingrad is boiled down to a simple order to ‘go here, do that’. They either need to be spiced up with some historical film or photographs, or include some random historical facts, to do justice to this epic Battle.

Each mission has the same format: fly to waypoint one, and you trigger the start of the mission, then when you get to the target area, the game spawns some randomly generated enemy aircraft over the target, you fight against or through these, then proceed to the exit waypoint, sometimes engage other randomly generated enemy aircraft along the way, land or end your mission.

Success criteria are simple, and usually achievable. Escort missions have to get their bombers to target, intercept missions have to destroy or damage two bombers. Ground attack missions have to destroy two vehicles/tanks, or 4 ground targets. The bomber missions are probably the hardest because you are ordered to ‘attack airfield X’ or ‘attack train station Y’ but when you get there it is not clear which part of the target you are required to destroy, even if you turn on the target icon HUD. So you can leave your target a blazing wreck, and still not be awarded mission success.

The random generation of missions is actually quite refreshing. If the game generates a mission you don’t like the look of (eg two train hunting missions in a row, or two night missions in a row) you can go back a screen and have it generate an alternative one for you. Mission time of day and weather are also randomised, so sometimes you will be taking off at dawn under clear skies, others at night in a snow storm.

And sometimes this random mission generator throws up some fantastic missions which really show off what the game can do. Like this night mission where we had to attack an airfield…the searchlights and flak batteries lit up as we approached, so we took out the blinding searchlights as a first priority and then attacked ground targets.

And on the way home, ran into some Stukas attacking our positions and chased them off.

And then as we approached our home airfield, the ground crew fired flares to signal it was safe to land, smudge pots were lit up, and searchlights marked the foot of the runway for the approach.

One of the most satisfying and immersive missions I have flown in a sim recently!

If you want to refly a failed mission you are out of luck, the game does not allow ‘reflies,’ but neither does it penalise you for a failed mission – it simply awards you no Experience Points (XP).

Historically small engagements

You will usually fly in a flight of 3-4 aircraft, escorting or being escorted by 3-4 others, and engage enemy flights of the same size. If you are lucky the game will randomly generate an enemy mission somewhere along your route to give you some more action, again of about a maximum of 8 aircraft. So the biggest furball I was engaged in was about 16 aircraft, and most missions in the early chapters (I didn’t proceed beyond Ch 2 yet) are very limited in scope. At first I felt this could not be historically accurate, because I had read that through September and October the Luftwaffe Luftflotte 4 was putting up about 2,000 sorties a day on some days. But resources were soon withdrawn to defend against Allied advances in Africa, and according to Beevor’s book ‘Stalingrad’ at the start of November, the VVS had only 200 serviceable aircraft on the entire front and the German fighter unit, JG3, was only able to put up a constant defence of 6 Bf109s over the Kessel between Dec and Feb. By January, the Luftwaffe had only 3-4 serviceable fighters on any one day. So these small flight sizes must be regarded as accurate for the period.

Ground targets are limited in variety – largely AAA, artillery, trains/stations, tanks/convoys. I quickly grew tired of attacking these same targets over and over and wished for some different targets like oil refineries, ammunition dumps, infrastructure, troop positions, tank parks etc (bombers do get to attack some of these, but not ground attack aircraft). And wingman AI is frustrating. Despite a wide range of wingman commands available in the game, all too often they do not seem to work, and while you may have ordered your wingmen to ‘locate and attack any ground target’ or ‘complete the mission objective’ they will just circle around or follow you like sheep.

Scratch one flak car, again.

At the end of the mission, you are awarded XP based on your mission accomplishments. Most missions are of the type ‘destroy X number of X target type and exit/land’. You get a lesser number of points for a short mission, extra points for a long mission and double points if you fly on expert vs normal mode.

As you successfully accumulate XP, your pilot receives non historical medals or badges, and you are elevated in pilot ‘level’. Supposedly as you go up in level, the type and number of opponents gets harder, but this was not my experience. Some players have complained about the non historical nature of the awards and ‘level ups’ in the game, asking for this to be changed to historical medals and promotions. But in reality there would have been limited opportunity to be awarded even one medal in the few month time period of this campaign, and certainly no more than one promotion. Players need to remember this game covers just four months of the war.

Also, as you complete missions successfully, you open up new airfields to operate from. While this might seem to be something that would offer you new options or experiences, it doesn’t. Every airfield looks the same, and offers the same range of flyable missions.

I would almost have preferred to have been forced to choose between one airfield with one fighter type, and another with one bomber type, at the start of the game. Similar to what you did in the old IL2 campaigns where you started a campaign in a P-47 and only later moved to a P-51D.

Then, as I opened up other airfields, more aircraft types could become available to me. Even better if there was some historical element to this so that only the aircraft types which flew out of each airfield in real life, were available from that airfield (this is not true in the game).

This would at least have provided a better sense of progression and achievement, and given some value to the achievement of unlocking a new airfield because a new aircraft type would have come with it. As it is, all aircraft are instantly available from all airfields, all the airfields look the same, and you will not really care at all if a new airfield has been opened up.

Field mods

Most important to understand is that each of the aircraft in the game is available with both special weapons modifications (known as ‘unlocks’ or ‘field mods’) and alternative skins as you can see in the screenshot below.

The way to ‘unlock’ these weapons and skins, in fact the only way, is to play the single player campaign, earn Experience Points (XP) for successfully completing missions, and use these to unlock the aircraft mods and skins.

Only then will they be available for use in Multiplayer, or Quick Missions.

In my experience it takes about ten successful missions of about 30 mins to 1 hour each to unlock the mods for a single aircraft. Assuming you never fail a mission, you will need to allocate 5-10 hours per aircraft.

If you are person who does not usually like playing against bots in single player mode, this is almost enough reason in itself to not buy this game.

The devs themselves have suggested as a workaround, that multiplayer fans just play the single player missions on autopilot, go make a coffee, collect the points and take the weapon mods. Unfortunately even this advice does not work because the AI FMs are a little buggy, so for example if you try to set your Ju87 to autopilot it will just spin around on the runway, unable to take off. If you do so in your FW190, you are just as likely to see your AI wingmen do the same, or ram into you as you are taking off. Take off and formation flying AI in the game still needs a lot of tweaking as I saw on a recent mission where I had the game on autopilot at 2x speed, and when my plane neared the target it abruptly dived into the ground for no reason!

This workaround in any case should simply not be necessary and the fact the game developers themselves are proposing workarounds, instead of reacting to criticism and saying they will change this system, is either silly or part of a long term plan to use the XP grinding system to earn micropayments for DLC later. A scenario where in the future the makers will change the game such that you have to grind for field mods, or can buy them as DLC, is not too far fetched. After all, they already sell field mods as DLC in their other title, Rise of Flight.

In summary the campaign is a functional, dry, non immersive but very capable mission generator with at least a nod to the historical context. It gets bonus points because not all sim titles these days even launch with a thought through campaign, and the randomness of missions and freedom to play the game in many different ways is refreshing.

It loses those bonus points for the XP grinding needed to unlock weapon mods, the small predictable engagements in each mission and lack of variety, and the lack of a truly immersive historical plotline. That the campaign chapter about the airlift phase does not include any transport aircraft, is too huge an omission to ignore.

Campaign: 3/10

Quick mission: 

This mode lets you set up 1v1 or up to 8 v 8 quick missions, in any of the aircraft you have bought. It is extremely easy to set up and fly a mission, and is basically identical to the system used in the campaign except in the campaign the number of airfields available to you in the QMB is greater.

You can vary time of day and weather in quick missions: night missions are particularly beautiful and challenging.

Frustratingly, the highest number of aircraft flyable is 8 vs 8, which I guess is due to the designers desire to balance framerates on lower spec PCs with the graphics demands of the game.

Whether in campaign or QMB, dogfights involve usually a max of 8 vs 8 combatants.

As a quick mission builder it is simple, easy to use, and does the job nicely though I have had trouble using it to set up ground attack missions – no matter whether I choose a Pe-2, Stuka or IL2 the missions generated seem to be dogfight missions, rather than ground attack. Not sure yet if that is a user error, or a limitation of the QMB.

QMB: 7/10

Multiplayer

Multiplayer is  a matter of choosing server, airfield, aircraft type and getting into battle. The official servers offer varieties of ‘team deathmatch’ while there are a few 3rd party servers already with more complex coop or ‘capture the flag’ style of matches.

The servers currently (Nov 2014) have a limit of 32 players per server, meaning dogfights are max 16 vs 16. There is no system of player experience balancing, beyond whether the player wants to play in ‘normal’ or ‘expert’ mode.

My experience on these servers is the tired old one of finding large groups of enemy players hovering over my airfield ‘vulching’ and killing players as they are taking off. I don’t mind that if an enemy ground attack plane has managed to fight its way through to drop bombs or rockets on my airfield, but when you have to try to take off under a cloud of low flying enemy fighters, it is just boring. Airfield AAA needs to be seriously ratcheted up to make these official servers worth visiting.

I do however like the element of being able to take a buddy along for the ride in a bomber, with him keeping the bad guys off your six better than the AI gunner can.

Current multiplayer mode offers nothing really new in online gaming though, but it is to be commended for how smooth the process of finding a server and getting airborne is, and the lack of lag or warping.

Multiplayer: 6/10

Graphics

My two year old ASUS G75V laptop with 3GB Geforce GTX 670M GPU runs BoS at a smooth 30-60 fps, in native 1920 x 1080 resolution, in all environments including over cities and in smoke or clouds.

I cannot help but believe this is a factor of how boring and featureless the map and landscape are, though the devs deny this. Yes, I know Stalingrad lies on the flat Steppes bounded by the Don and Volga rivers, and in winter is covered in snow, but the map is bland to the point of impossibility – the impossibility being the inability to navigate because in every direction the map looks the same. Rivers and water are not animated, they are snow/ice covered too, which is great for FPS, but again makes the map bland to fly over and hard to navigate.

In BoS every little town or village except Stalingrad looks the same, every airfield looks the same. I am particularly disappointed by the inability of the map makers to simulate the environment around Stalingrad and key airfields.

Battle of Stalingrad winter landscape
The map is very hard to navigate by dead reckoning, due to lack of features.

Stalingrad itself has a kind of carboard cut out feel about it as you fly over. There is very little movement down there, apart from the occasional artillery explosion, or single rare convoy, and buildings are very 2D. All historical accounts talk of an immense amount of Russian traffic over the Volga, boats and troops and vehicles, which was under constant threat from Luftwaffe strafing.

“The real winter weather arrived November 9…The Volga, which because of its size is one of the last rivers in Russia to freeze over, started to become unnavigable. ‘The ice floes collide, crumble and grind against each other,’ noted a sailor, ‘and the swishing sound was like shifting sounds…one steamer from the Volga flotilla, bringing guns and ammunition across, was hit and stranded on a shallow sandbank. Another boat came alongside and the cargo was transferred under heavy fire…by December the boats had been replaced by trucks, making the dangerous journey across the ice under continuous shell fire.'” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

This action is captured in a still from the new movie, Stalingrad, above.

Whether realistic or a hollywood fable, this is what I had hoped to see in this game. But there is none of this and there are no missions which require you to either attack supply traffic across the Volga, or defend it.

A puff of smoke from a shell strike. The ground war in Stalingrad city is a largely invisible affair.

On the other hand, as you cross the front line, you will occasionally see small land battles below you. Artillery exchanging fire, a group of three or four German tanks (have never seen Russian tanks) advancing on Russian lines, and a solitary line or two of tracer fire lashing out across the icy ground. If these could be scaled up five fold, it would really help with immersion.

Stalingrad landmarks such as the famous grain silo, Pavlovs House, tractor factory and the dancing children statue have been painstakingly recreated, which is very much to be commended.

Thick plumes of smoke rise from Stalingrad city for ‘atmosphere’, and occasionally the city is covered in a convincing brown haze, while smoke rises from villages dotted around the landscape. These are nice effects which do add to immersion.

From a distance, Stalingrad burning is quite impressive.

Unfortunately the smoke tends to phase in and out and in again as you approach, which does not add to the sense of reality. You will occasionally see a line of tracer fire below you, more so at night. But Stalingrad itself resembles nothing more than a ghost town, not the scene of the biggest seige of the war.

The airfields are similarly disappointing, and uniform in their objects, aircraft and layouts. If there are differences between them apart from runway layout, I can’t notice them. Again, this is disappointing especially for famous airfields such as Pitomnik and Gumrak. The makers could have at least spent some extra time and effort on these airfields to reflect the historical reality.

In December 1942 approaching Pitomnik a German officer noted, “Ahead was a huge brown stain in the snow, covered in craters.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

By January 1943 with Operation Uranus, the operation to encircle Stalingrad, in full force, Pitomnik was even more of a desolate landmark. It was the major German supply base for the Stalingrad front and subject to round the clock attack.

“At one point, on approaching Pitomnik, Soviet officers started to check their bearings, because far ahead they had sighted what appeared to be a small town on a steppe, yet none was marked on their maps. As they came closer, they saw it consisted of a huge military junkyard, with shot up panzers, trucks, wrecked and burning aircraft, motor cars, assault guns, half tracks, artillery tractors and almost every other conceivable type of military equipment.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

Here is Pitmonik in BoS. It looks more like a well kept Swiss ski resort. Not quite the same, right?

Front line airfield under seige, or Swiss ski resort? Pitomnik in BoS

This game desperately needs wrecked objects, strewn around liberally, and much more ground combat action, to be immersive and believable as a Battle of Stalingrad game.

Convoy, BoS

The number, quality and detail of ground objects and believability of the landscape and ground war could do with some further work, since the Battle of Stalingrad was essentially a ground war and the game features several ground attack and bomber types which need a believable and prolific ground war to participate in.

A really nice feature however is the addition of animated soldiers to the airfields and battle areas. These wander around your machine as you are taking off and landing, or run from artillery positions and convoys when you hit them.

What you lookin’ at Boris?
Watch out for that prop Alexei!

The aircraft themselves are beautifully detailed, easily the best looking WWII birds currently available.

A lot of love and attention has gone into every machine in BoS
And damage modelling, especially of fire and smoke, is excellent
Cockpit shadows and light are nicely executed, as is frost and damage when hit.

Cockpits are very well done, and damage effects have been criticised by some as being ‘too hollywood’, but it’s a combat game, and I want things to go boom!

Train go boom!
Tank go boom!
Plane go boom!

Graphics (aircraft and objects) 8/10

Graphics (map and landscape) 5/10 for not capturing in the feeling of being the most fought over piece of earth in 1942. Unfair? Perhaps but this was an iconic battlefield and I don’t think they tried hard enough to replicate it.

OVERALL 7/10


Conclusion

My own experience with the game has been positive, though as you can read, quite mixed.

I found the early access process to be an absolute joy to participate in. The developers were very professional, very communicative and unlike many projects, very focused in meeting their milestones. I would open up the game about once a month, it would download and update, and there would be a new aircraft to check out, a new mode to try. I could see the game taking shape before my eyes and it really did progress in leaps and bounds as you watched, not in inches, but in yards – 2 years from announcement, to launch, is a very impressive feat for a largely bug free product.

I can’t see how many hours I have flown now, but I would estimate about 20. I am a ‘level 4’ pilot now (out of how many levels I don’t know) and have completed nearly two chapters of the campaign, and numerous online missions in various aircraft at both normal and expert settings.

But telling for me, is that after experimenting with everything in the game a few times, and getting well started on the campaign, I have not started the game up for nearly two weeks now.

Usually that would be because another new game is competing for my time, but not in this case. The fact seems simply to be that the game is not immersive enough to grab me in single player, the trudge of having to win XP to earn weapons which should be default is too much of a deterrant, and the multiplayer game offers nothing new.

So what is left is a very very professionally executed piece of code without much emotional appeal.

But, I felt the same way about the original IL2 when it was released.

I found that game to be a very clinically nice piece of software, but lacking the immersion and emotion of other titles of the period. And look what that turned into.

I have the same hopes for Battle of Stalingrad.

Discuss on the forums…

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