Aerial dogfights and midair bombing runs isn’t exactly a genre that is thriving right now on consoles, thanks to titles that consist of fancy terrorist-shooting, while slick and polished racing games whizz by.
But can Birds of Steel bring some jolly whiz-bang scraps back to the table, or is it headed for a realistic crash-landing in enemy territory?
It doesn’t get more vintage than this particular flight-sim, as Birds of Steel places players smackdab in the middle of World War 2, making them dogfight over arenas filled with deadly Messerschmitt, piloted by fierce German pilots, who might be steaming over the fact that they had to skip their breakfast of luftwaffles in order to take down Tommy.
When it comes to a storyline, players will find themselves with less of a reason to cause baysplosions while dramatic music emphasises democracy, and realise that they’re taking part in a History Channel documentary, as the droll announcers fill you in on details to take out Jerry and his friends.
Fortunately, Sir Stephen Fry himself is onboard, lending some classy voice-work to a title that aims to bring a little realism to its gameplay, when players explore their aerial vehicles, while also narrating a few videos for those interested in a little aviation history. It’s a nice touch, and fans of that era will certainly appreciate the effort.
But when it comes to actually getting in the plane and flying, make no mistake, this is a game that flight buffs will wear their pilot scarves for. On the easiest of settings, the plane handles naturally enough, and landing and taking off is a breeze, but flick that switch to the other difficulty settings, and you’ll find yourself with an aircraft that bucks and sways with the wind, keeping players on their toes as they attempt to safely navigate their way through.
It’s touches like this that make the game appealing to people who want to fly more seriously, while still being inviting enough to tempt gamers who want something with more of an arcade edge to it, and want to concentrate more on firing off bunker-busters than having to keep an eye on their fuel gauge.
There are two primary theatres of war to play around in, as Birds of Steel has a slight sandbox feel to it that is littered with several goals to achieve. Path one follows the American forces from 1941-42, while path 2 concentrates on the Japanese during the Pacific combat zones of World War Two.
All missions require players to take off, shoot some enemies, and then land again. Combat has your usual, polished aerial dogfights and engagements, and the only real strategy here, is to use the right ammo at the right time, kinda like a blitzkrieg version of rock-paper-scissors.
For instance, drop bombs on dirigibles, and drop missiles on submarines, but save your hot lead for enemy aces. Afterwards, players will have to wait out long stretches of flying in between missions, a tiresome chore that gets old quickly.
Although truth be told, when you face your first aircraft carrier, that is kind of exciting.
Aviation buffs will be in heaven here, as around a hundred planes make themselves known in the game. There’s some fantastic detail on them, from the camouflage and flags, and they look pretty accurate. Heck, you can even fly a spitfire with the old South African flag on it if you want to.
Multiplayer is fortunately on offer here, giving the game a bit more adrenaline for the sometimes tedious main campaign, and comes in the usual flavours of co-op and regular competitive matches, which you can play out with friends or AI partners/opponents.
Customisation is surprisingly quite deep, with numerous options available at the start for custom planes, with more unlocked as you progress throughout the game. Dueling with a friend is an enjoyable experience, and it’s interesting to see what tactics work and fail against your comrades.
And yet, all this attention to detail and authenticity, as well as an attempt to offer lighter controls, just doesn’t give Birds of Steel any real soul. It’s all fine and dandy to find yourself immersed in a gritty war, but unlike the actual event, it’s neither exciting or amazing.
It feels far too much like a dry documentary on the history of planes, and while people who buy DVDs of such things will appreciate that specific tone, for the gamer that is wanting a more action-packed experience that can double as a cure for narcolepsy, this isn’t it.
There’s enough of an effort to appeal to both casual and dedicated flight sim fans here, with controls ranging from easy fly-n-fight, through to “spin out of control because you leaned too far left”.
Combat is tight, and several viewpoints are on offer, to suit all third, first and HUD tastes, while the vast skies that you find yourselves in offer plenty of room to manoeuvre. It’s nothing revolutionary at the end of the day, but it does the job adequately enough.
Design and Presentation: 7/10
It’s hard to find any fault with the various planes on offer here. They’re fantastically detailed, and sport all kinds of subtle details, that buffs will get a kick out of. It’s just a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t benefit from this kind of love, as the environments and skies feel flat and lifeless when compared to the planes.
Music is decent and well-placed, while explosions, engines, environmental and machine gun noises sound realistic enough, if a little muted at times.
The main campaign is quite lengthy, but if you’re a fan of multiplayer dogfights, this is where the real meat of the game lies, as you’ll spend hours working on strategies, your plane and its look.
It does get tedious after a while, but again, this is a game that ultimately will appeal more to genre fans.
Birds of Steel isn’t anywhere near being a bad game. It’s just a meticulous and slow experience, one better suited for the kind of gamer who would rather spend a weekend painting a model aircraft the right colour, as opposed to the chap who would prefer to jump into one and go fly it for real.
[Reviewed on Playstation 3, played on normal difficulty]