IL-2 Sturmovik is destined to be a classic. This is one of those simulations that reminds you why you love the genre. It has all the fidelity, immersion, playability, polish, and graphical splendor that enriched classics like Red Baron, Aces over the Pacific, Falcon 3.0, and European Air War. This is why we fly.
Volumetric clouds are one of the impressive visual effects in IL-2.
IL-2 is arguably the most beautiful flight sim to date. The volumetric clouds, the atmospheric lighting, and the weather effects are the stuff of tech demos. What a delight to see them in a fully realized game. Instead of using generic urban texture tiles, towns are modeled using hand-placed 3D objects (although they'll only appear at short range to keep the frame rate manageable). To create forests, IL-2 uses a clever trick with layered bitmaps that give the illusion of depth and multiple trees--it's a bold new effect that pays off much better than mere forest textures with fake shadows along one edge. Water has a rippled translucent look, and surf even laps at the shore. The aircraft models are superbly detailed, from chipped paint to moving control surfaces, down to every flap and leading edge slat. Your pilot's head even turns to look at his target. This is the sort of sim in which you can enjoy just watching the landing gear extend and retract.
When the shooting starts, the graphics really take off. IL-2 has a realistic tracer effect with occasional illuminated rounds for machine guns. Larger-caliber cannons and rockets leave sharp smoke trails, while dogfights at higher altitudes leave lazy twisting coils of contrails. Good-looking explosions and fire are a dime a dozen in games these days, and IL-2 is no exception. With variable zoom levels available, you can effectively stick your head up to the sights and fire at your target as if you were shooting footage with a gun camera. You can record your missions to watch them after the fact or to assemble them as cinematic replays from different perspectives. With graphics as sharp as IL-2's, this latter feature is a deceptively addictive time sink.
IL-2 sounds as good as it looks. It features distinctive engine sounds, hearty gunfire, thudding flak, and the Doppler zoom of a plane roaring past your canopy. The cockpit chatter is convincing and heartfelt, partly because it's all spoken in German or Russian. You may not like having to look up at the top of your screen to read the subtitles, but you'll eventually learn to distinguish mission-specific information from flavor messages. You can even tune to the enemy frequency to hear your victims' mayday calls. IL-2 also features some wonderfully subtle touches, like the sound of bullets whistling by or ricocheting off your fuselage. The metallic creaking and thrumming of these planes in motion is even more impressive. You can hear an impending stall as your plane's frame goes from creaking to rattling. This important aural cue is far more intuitive than any gauge or readout, and it works wonders for conveying the feel of flight in World War II-era aircraft.
Flight sim fans are notoriously fussy about realism, but IL-2 should give them little cause to complain. It also scales down for beginners and more casual players. A realism panel will let you toggle individual settings for the flight model, external views, situational awareness cheats, weapon lethality, ammo loadouts, and so forth. This isn't an arcade game by any stretch of the imagination, but if you just want to zoom around and blow things up with impunity, IL-2 will be more than happy to accommodate you. If you who want to faithfully re-create the nuances of World War II air combat, IL-2 will accommodate you. In fact, IL-2 seems downright eager in this regard.
The flight models are superlative, giving each plane a distinctive personality. From Russia's lumbering IL-2 bombers to Germany's nimble Bf-109s, each plane has its own style and character. None of the planes' responses feel canned or scripted. IL-2 is one of those rare games where you can almost feel the physics under your fingertips. This is especially important when you're modeling aircraft from a time before computers kept pilots from stalling or spinning their planes. It was up to the pilot to push the envelope of his plane's performance, sensing how close he was to the wrong side of the laws of physics. This sense for keeping a vehicle on the edge of control is one of the hardest things to model in a computer game. IL-2 is probably the best attempt at doing this since Papyrus' Grand Prix Legends.
Use the cockpit view only for full realism.
The damage model is another unapologetically realistic aspect of IL-2. You can sustain a variety of different types of damage, none of which feels canned. You might even be surprised at touches like cowlings that have been ripped back from your nose obstructing your view through the canopy. The damage model for your own weapons is also unflinchingly realistic. Strafe a column of tanks with your machine guns, and they'll just carry on as if you were flinging spitballs--armored vehicles need to be attacked with cannons, rockets, or bombs. IL-2 doesn't just use a model of cumulative damage chipping away at a vehicle's hit points. Armor penetration and hit location figure prominently. Unload your machine guns into the rear of a bomber and you're liable to just chew up his tail while he goes about his business of dropping bombs on your airfield. It can be difficult to bring down a plane with smaller-caliber fire when you're shooting it from behind. To get the most out of your ammo, you'll want to aim at engines on wings or risk high-deflection nose shots in an attempt to hit a fighter's engine. When you finally shoot something down, it feels like real accomplishment. Of course, if this level of realism is frustrating, you can turn it off with the flip of a toggle.
The realism tweaks also extend to issues of what it's like to be strapped into a restrictive cockpit with no way to see behind you. You can choose to switch off external, padlock, and full-screen views, as well as the text labels that designate every aircraft by distance and nationality. Without these visual aids, IL-2 is at its immersive best. You're constantly unsure of what's behind you. If you chase a plane into a cloud, you won't know what the situation will be when you come out on the other side. Following a twisting, turning, weaving opponent is a gratifying challenge of the highest order. But if this isn't your bag, there's a great full frontal view with bright gauge overlays that makes IL-2 almost as accessible as Microsoft's Crimson Skies. One disappointing lack of realism in IL-2 is the developers' choice not to include swastikas on the German planes. While the sentiment is understandable, this sort of reluctance to model history only calls attention to itself and ends up being counterproductive.