Another day and another review. Today we bring you the lowdown on Gaijin Entertainment developed Birds of Steel
which is published by Konami. The title centers around World War II and stars a mind boggling number of faithfully reproduced aircraft, some of the most intense missions of the conflict and a control system to please amateurs and hardened aviators alike. Have Gaijin Entertainment got victory firmly in their cross-hairs, or will it find itself dead in the water?
Upon installing Birds of Steel
to my HDD, I loaded into the Main Menu and moved straight to the Pre-War Campaign. This acts as a tutorial as you are taken through the key points and finer details of piloting your aircraft. My initial impression after half an hour or so with the instructor was; ‘this is a bit dry’. Apprehensively I completed the tutorial and approached the American Historical Campaign. The focal point here is the attack on Pearl Harbor.Taking to the skies
I am happy to say the game explodes into life at this point. The movement and control of your aircraft which feels slow and technical in training becomes responsive and fluid in combat. Setting your throttle power with the right analogue stick frees your mind and fingers to dedicate full concentration to the dogfight at hand as you attack, evade and counter with ease no matter what your chosen control method is. Your available options are Simplified, Realistic and Simulator. As the names suggest each tier gives you more and more control over your fighter and increases the difficulty and level of punishment for mistakes.
Simplified for example, strips controls right back and any gamer will be able to jump in the cockpit and fly with the best of them. Realistic introduces g-force (including blackouts and tunnel vision), engine stalls, tailspins and afterburner damage, not to mention the buffeting winds and currents as you battle to bring your craft into position. Simulator removes HUD prompts, and ramps up the responsiveness of the aircraft which makes it a difficult yet hugely rewarding beast to fly. You genuinely feel on the higher difficulties that this visually glorious bird you’re flying is in truth a mechanical beast to be wrestled with and coaxed constantly against the elements if you’re to outsmart the enemy and remain alive for any length of time.
Whilst I enjoyed the pick up and play of the Simplified control scheme, the additional options offered through Realistic and being able to throw yourself into a deliberate tailspin to lose a pursuer or kill the engine and force it to stall and cause rapid descent is a lot of fun if you can ride out the demanding g-force.Atmospherically impressive and faithful
Graphically Birds of Steel manages very well. The difficulty in games such as this is that the majority of conflict takes place in open sea, with a few ventures inland or along estuaries. The tedium is lifted here though by packing the conflict zone with more aircraft than you could comfortably count and paying a lot of attention to the decals, details and representation of each model you’ll come across. You should check out the first person pilot camera too. Each plane has an exceptionally well crafted interior with the correct instrumentation layout and visibility. It brings a whole new level of authenticity and challenge to the fight. There is no stuttering or drop in frame rate; even as Pearl Harbor is razed to the ground before your eyes, and the intensity of the dogfights above descends into total chaos and tracer fire dashes the sky the game runs like silk. For the ultimate graphical delight this game has to offer, fire up a mission and set the weather to storm and hit the cockpit view. It’s terrifying yet beautiful.
Audio is also very well done with the engine drone varying appropriately across the many different. The ambience of a dog fight as machine guns whir, bombs whistle and stricken craft whine combine for the perfect setting. I did notice however a few discrepancies in sound as I cycled through the different viewpoints. Sometimes the engine volume wouldn’t increase/decrease as expected until I adjusted the throttle or hit the afterburner.Content is king
Content was a big factor for Gaijin Entertainment as there are over a hundred planes to unlock and fly in game, plus new skins and decals. There are new weapon load outs to experiment with, two full Historic Campaigns (American and Japanese), online multiplayer plus something called Dynamic Missions. These Dynamic Missions allow you to jump in and rewrite certain aspects of historical conflict from a variety of periods with a lot of customisation as to the factions involved, and the missions you’ll want to take part in. This stops the game from becoming stale after two relatively short Historical Campaigns (a negative worth nothing here, I completed both of these on the lower difficult settings in two days) and offers a break from the open sea combat. One example drops you into the cockpit of a stricken aircraft pursued by the enemy, eager of a confirmed kill. Your only way of salvaging the valuable aircraft and your own life is to dump it on a very short road running through a town a few miles away.
In this mission being shot down, or suffering a crash landing is a mission failure. However, in most other missions you’re allowed to hot swap into the cockpit of another of the three aircraft in your fleet. It’s like having three retries on a mission and it’s very welcome for those gung-ho attacks I liked to attempt which usually ended up with my plane leaving a black burn mark on the ground. Being shot isn’t always fatal however, you can bleed fuel, suffer a damaged rudder, aeleron or sustain propellor damage (sometimes inducing a total failure and an emergency landing or bailout). The enemy can suffer the same fate which can sometimes come to their aid. I blew out the fuel tank on one Japanese bomber only for the fuel to paint my cockpit window black - totally unexpected and very cool I pulled off the only retort I thought appropriate as I caught a fleeting glimpse of the target dropping into a dive attack of an American warship. Slam the plane downwards, max the throttle and fire wildly; I got him too.
It begs the question then, why with this level of excitement and customisation, some of the Historical Campaign missions are perfectly constructed with plenty of action throughout, and why some are oddly short. There could have been better pacing and distribution of objectives. I know the missions are required to tell aspects of the story, but as the story is portrayed by way of the key milestones and conflicts of the time, we could have stood to lose one or two of these in favour or something more substantial perhaps. Similarly is the fact that across the half dozen or so Dynamic Campaigns you have the exact same mission layout in each, though you need not do them all. If you do however, it's a touch rinse and repeat.Joining the skies of Xbox LIVE
Away from the Historical Campaign in these kinds of missions, the title deploys an ‘always on’ multiplayer mode if you’re connected to Xbox LIVE. This is supplemented by an XP and ranking system which transfers seamlessly across modes. As you’re playing single player offline you will still earn XP for certain events; takeoff, landing, landing on an aircraft carrier (tough!), confirmed kills etc. You can earn a ton of XP online for successful missions and versus victories which bodes well, as those hundreds of planes and decals are locked. You must purchase them with your banked XP before you can use them online or in Dynamic Missions. This adds a nice sense of longevity and reward to the title.
Speaking more about the multiplayer element of the title, the versus modes revolve around battling for supremacy of the sky in various ways. The favourite mode online as I played dropped you into an airborne plane hurtling towards a zone. The opposing fleets must both try to capture to the zone by being within a small radius of the airborne marker with typical ‘capture the flag’ type rules. With up to eight players allowed on each team, the battles are often furious and very hands on. No missile lock, fire and break here. You get to know your enemy and their fighting style as the machine gun works best at a range of 500m or less. Watching them jink and attempt to pull themselves out of trouble is really exciting to be a part of. Picture the scene, you chase down your target, he’s square in your sights. He has no early warning system and until you squeeze the trigger he’s oblivious to the impending danger. You close the gap further still and unleash hell from the machine gun - instantly the target wrestles the plane into a nosedive racing for the relative safety of the tree line. The host has specified no respawns in a battle that could last twenty minutes, and we’re only five in. Do we give chase for the kill as we scud along the dangerous terrain, or is it wiser to break away and find another to prey upon?
The bottom line? It’s a great multiplayer experience if you have the right settings on your lobby. It can come down to the true grit and skill of each pilot with some high stake gambles. There are a couple of other modes featuring ground domination, and straight up dog fights. There’s not too much you can vary up in this kind of game. A negative I experienced a few times on multiplayer was the imperfections in host migration. Perhaps it’s because the community/servers isn’t public yet, but when you’re twelve minutes into the conflict and the host migration fails, it’s pretty depressing.The final word and those all important achievements
As we start to round off the review, let’s talk about the achievements. 95% of them are relatively easy. You typically earn an achievement for each ‘round of conflict’, (i.e.: All Pearl Harbor missions, all The Battle of Midway missions) with an additional achievement available per mission for passing certain criteria, or amassing a certain number of kills. There are a couple which require play on the higher difficulty levels, and some which require a big time investment to unlock all planes from a certain country, and fly them all. The balance is great though, and you could bag around 800+ Gamerscore before hitting the final half dozen or so higher difficulty achievements. The balance is almost perfect.
In summary, it’s great value for the money, and with the varying difficulty levels gamers of all ability levels will be able to jump in and enjoy the title. Aside from some Historical Campaign pacing discrepancies, this is incredible value for money and I have no difficulty in saying ‘if you buy this, you won’t regret putting down your money’.
The reviewer has played around 12 hours of the single-player campaign, switching between all difficulty settings for comparison. The reviewer spent around two to three hours in the multiplayer game modes.