Let's face it; the PC combat flight sim has been in a pretty sorry state for the last decade or so. With the exception of the superlative IL-2 Sturmovik and the continued commitment of community-based games like Fighter Ace, we just aren't seeing many options for combat flight sim enthusiasts. If your tastes run towards the thrills or prop planes, there are even fewer titles to choose from. Even those gamers who took a chance with Pacific Fighters or Rise of Flight were left feeling less than satisfied. To help tide us over until the release of Battle of Britain later this year (we hope), Gaijin Entertainment has offered up Wings of Prey, a PC version of the recent console title IL-2 Birds of Prey.
Despite the unfortunate and confusing title of the game, Wings of Prey is surprisingly attractive both to arcade action junkies and to the hardcore TrackIR crowd. Naturally, in trying to please both camps, the game contains a fair number of compromises and concessions that are sure to cause aggravation at either end of the spectrum, but the flexibility and fidelity of the different flight models allows players of all skill levels to enjoy the game. The fact that the game pulls all this off while still managing to provide lots of historically appropriate content, first rate visuals and an easy path from novice to ace is even more incredible. On the downside, there are some basic functionality problems and an upper limit to the realism that's sure to aggravate hardcore players.
Wings of Prey is a bit of a survey sim, offering up a range of dozens of flyable planes and a few more you can (but won't bother to) purchase. While it's cool to share the sky with B17s, I-16s, Ju87s and Hurricanes, some gamers may be a bit bothered that the campaign is focused on only a narrow range of flyable planes. I'll forego my usual rant about the lack of any Pacific Theater action and instead just complain about the campaign's focus on the Allied side of things. Sure, it's nice to try the Spitfires and Mustangs and Sturmoviks, but eventually you'll start wondering what the War looks like from the cockpits of the 109s and 202s.
The missions are a bit short but full of action.
The campaign plays out in a succession of chapters that each only last a few missions. Gamers will begin during the Battle of Britain, then move on to Stalingrad, Sicily, Korsun, the Bulge and Berlin. You'll have to play the whole thing through in order, which might rankle some gamers, but it definitely helps to present a sort of continuity for the War. Unfortunately, the story elements within each chapter are pretty thin, so you won't be invested in more than the action itself as you move from one mission to the next. The small unlocks are nice, but are really only useful to newcomers who need to learn the basics of energy management and plane performance.
Outside of the main campaign, there are loads of single missions and a very quick mission creator that will finally give you a chance to climb into the cockpit of the German and Italian planes. Like the campaign missions, these have fairly narrow objectives -- CAP, ground strike, recon, etc. -- but the benefit is that the time you spend flying around waiting for something to happen is fairly minimal.
Wings of Prey does offer up the same multiplayer options that were found in the console versions but it's all played through the yuplay.com service which is giving me loads of connection problems. The console multiplayer modes are enjoyable but seem designed to cater more towards the arcade crowd. Having seen some of the issues that are being raised in the game's forums, it seems like the more vocal players are able to connect but are encountering lots of lag.
The planes are nicely detailed and possess the appropriate flight characteristics.
Wings of Prey comes with a few different flight models and they're each satisfying on their own. The relaxed realism and copious visual aids of the arcade mode let new players jump right in and get a feel for the awesome geometries and rhythms of air combat without having to worry about all the little details. On the other end of the spectrum, the simulation mode caters to hardcore pilots who like the challenge of worrying about prop settings, G-limits and radiator temperatures. The enemy AI seems to have a good grasp for e-management but after a few days of playing, I'm still not sure I've seen any scissors. The modeling at all levels allows for the expected performance differences between the various planes, but the absence of stall indicators makes it tough to really connect with what's going on with the plane.