Microsoft Flight Simulator launched just a little over a month ago, reminding the entire world just how awe-inspiring simulation games can be. While it includes eye-popping terrain and an excellent collection of real-world aircraft, the gameplay is absent of any real feeling of consequence. Push the nose down and fly too fast, get your angle of approach wrong on landing, or lose your bearings in a cloudy mountain valley and the screen just fades to black. The simulation starts all over again as if nothing happened.
If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, for an experience that builds the tension in an almost cinematic way, there are a couple of other games that I’d like to introduce you to. The first is a series called IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles, and it might just be the greatest World War II combat flight sim of the last decade.
An excellent point of entry into the series is the latest version, titled IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Bodenplatte, which came out in October 2019. Moving from Flight Simulator’s aerobatic red biplane to a P-51 in IL-2 was surprisingly easy, with the only caveat being that stalling the Mustang is much easier to do and far more difficult to correct. But, after just a few nights of practice, I was strafing ground targets with ease, and holding my own against medium-grade enemy pilots.
The game is also fully compatible with virtual reality, although I had much higher frame rates using a G-Sync monitor and Track IR.
Just flying around in uncontested airspace is lots of fun, but where things get interesting is in the game’s career mode. After practicing at the Mustang for a few nights, I fired up a campaign as a member of the United States’ 378th fighter squadron. The setting was along the Western border of Germany in 1944. It was December, and below me the Battle of the Bulge was raging.
In my first mission, my wing was assigned to protect a formation of A-20 medium bombers over Cologne. We met a wing of Bf 109s over the target, and the fight was on. The hardest part by far, for me at least, was staying in formation. Hanging off my wingman’s left rear, I found myself constantly working the throttle to maintain my distance. As we wheeled in on a pair of German fighters, we split up, each of us taking on a single enemy plane. Minutes later, I found myself miles from the city, running a wounded 109 to ground with sustained fire. Returning to Cologne, I watched in horror as my wingman caught fire, dark clouds of smoke standing out against a landscape covered in snow. I banked to get a clear view, but there was no parachute.
With blood ringing in my ears I pulled up and rolled left, diving to attack the nearest Luftwaffe plane I could find. The enemy pilot performed a quick left-and-right maneuver designed to make me overshoot. I scored a quick hit on his underside, but not before slamming into him at high speed. He broke up, but my canopy was blown out. With both me and my plane mortally wounded, there was nothing left to do but bail out. A loading screen informed me that I spent the rest of the war in an interment camp.
So much for my first mission, but those were the stakes in World War II. IL-2 continuously reinforces that theme of consequence, and in order to keep a career going, you can’t just complete your mission objectives and call it a day. You actually have to land the plane safely at your home base, and with the IL-2’s complex damage model, that’s often easier said than done.
Later, on my second attempt at a career, my squadron was jumped by enemy fighters after returning from a ground attack mission. With limited ammunition I had to drive off the attackers, then bring my wounded airplane in for a belly landing. My pilot walked away from the incident, and I’ll be picking up the campaign again another night.
What’s remarkable to me is that while that I was playing IL-2, I felt myself reinforcing the same kinds of skills I had honed in months of playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. World War II air combat is all about knowing the limitations of the aircraft — but also the human inside the cockpit, which isn’t something that Flight Simulator takes into account. I was constantly keeping an eye on the airspeed because I didn’t want to stall, and also because I didn’t want to black out. Fatigue became a real factor inside the simulation, and it seemed like I was able to literally wear out enemy pilots over the course of a battle.
There was also the added complexity of ranging the Mustang’s gyroscopic gunsight and getting a bead on enemy planes. But with everything dialed in, time slipped away last night. Four hours later, I emerged from my home cockpit physically sore.
Of course, IL-2 isn’t new. The Great Battles series is a sequel to a game that came out in 2001. The first entry, IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad, was published in 2013. The game has aged incredibly well, adding in higher resolutions and lots of new content. It also runs like a dream. In combat, on a 1440p G-Sync monitor with an Nvidia GTX 2060 mobile card, I was getting excellent frame rates. Your mileage may vary in virtual reality, however.
The game also includes an in-engine recording suite, so that you can go back and review entire missions from every angle. I probably spent more time watching the war movie that I had made than I did playing the game itself.
While I spent all my time learning the P-51, IL-2 also has a number of other aircraft, each with their own campaigns, careers, and missions to fly. They include the German Bf 109 and Fw 190, the British Spitfire and Tempest, and the American P-47. You can also pilot the world’s first combat jet airplane — the Messerschmidt Me 262. The base game will run you $49.99. The deluxe version, at $79.99, also includes the twin-engine P-38 and and alternate model of the Focke Wulf 190. The base game even includes multiplayer. It’s also available on Steam.
There are plenty of other kinds of combat flight simulators out there on the market if you’re looking to take your flight simming to the next level, and we’ll be looking at more in the coming weeks.