This week publisher 1C Game Studios and developer 777 Studios came to San Francisco to show off their joint project Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad and to share their plan for using it to create new flight enthusiasts. From what I saw, their argument is fairly convincing. For one thing, their enthusiasm is infectious, no surprise since ten years ago, many of the current publishers and developers on the game were simply Il-2 Sturmovik fanatics. As Executive Producer Jason Williams joked, Battle of Stalingrad is being made by “fanboys who took over.” What that translates to is some of the most skilled and passionate Il-2 Sturmovik players turning their obsession into a full-time job; a fact that can only bode well for the company's latest game.
For some of us, ultra-real flight sims can seem as dry and clinical as a bank statement, but 1C and 777 are out to change all that. Their intent is to use realism to evoke emotion. They've gone to crazy lengths to recreate the feelings felt while flying, from detailing aircraft instruments to making the wind roar when you open your cockpit window. By focusing on the thrill, anticipation, and terror of flight, they hope to drop the invisible barrier keeping people from enjoying the fun multiplayer flight sims have to offer.
Of course, the kinds of people who make up the Il-2 Sturmovik community might make any neophyte nervous. During the presentation, 1C showed snaps of jet pilots, war veterans and commercial pilots—guys with tons of real-life flight experience—who play the game during their down time. What hope does a regular Joe have against them? The guys from 1C insist they'll have plenty.
For one thing, 1C is bent on making the game playable on basically any modern machine. If you have a fancy setup with a PC powerful enough to send probes into space, that's all to the good—it'll make the 48,000 square mile game map look amazing. However, it's really not necessary. Also unnecessary are sophisticated controllers. Battle of Stalingrad can be played with any low-end joystick or console controller, and 1C is also working on a keyboard and mouse configuration for players who'd like to dip their toes in the water but aren't ready to spring for new peripherals. (1C also mentioned they're currently working with Oculus VR to create a good scheme for Oculus Rift.)
Another inroad for newbies is Battle of Stalingrad's Campaign mode. The Campaign tells the story of (duh) the Battle of Stalingrad and takes place in five chapters, each covering a different time period. By completing these chapters, players learn how to fly different planes and perform different missions while learning something about World War II in the process. 1C calls what they do “documentary game-making,” and their stylish pre-mission cutscenes bear that out. The ones they showed during the demo were surprisingly stylish, like something from a high-production-value History Channel presentation, and like the best kind of “edutainment,” they helped make learning a side-effect to having fun.
Of course, in addition to bringing in new players, 1C's other goal is to evolve the flight sim genre. In the interest of that, they've created Quick Mission mode, an easy way for players to fit a quick game session into their busy schedules. They've also added a mission generator that allows players to set a range of different parameters, depending on the kind of experience they want. Even better, mission conditions are randomly generated so every time a mission is performed, different things happen. Best of all, they've created a more realistic, human AI--one that can make mistakes.
Once you feel comfortable with single player, then the meat of the game awaits--multiplayer. Up to three players can ride in a single plane, (one pilot and two gunners) and depending on the server size, matches can involve more than a hundred players. (That sounds nuts. I imagine there'll be a lot of panicky yelling involved in that setup.) Multiplayer matches can involve either fulfilling objectives or strictly racking up kills, and it's up to players to determine whether to allow downed planes to respawn.
Beyond the company's commitment to initiating new pilots, 1C is committed to faithfully researching and representing history. While making Battle of Stalingrad, they performed mock dogfights, referenced recently declassified Russian war documents, studied German photos of pre-bombing Stalingrad, and enlisted the help of 91-year old pilot and war veteran, Stepan Anastasovich Mikoyna. Using these resources, they've recreated ten historical aircraft as well as Stalingrad and its environs—every town, tree and stump—in exhaustive detail.
If that's not sufficient evidence of their diligence, then the fact that they've gained something of a reputation in the scholarly community should be. Jason Williams said that they're often quoted in texts regarding the World Wars and have been approached by television producers and researchers looking for info about the planes used in them. Most recently, they were commissioned by the Russian Military Society to make something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
1C's response was to make a stand-alone product called Ilya Muromets: Igor Sikorsky. The game lets players join the Russian Imperial Air Force's fight against the Austro-Hungarian army by flying the wood and canvas bomber created by the legendary Russian engineer. There's precious little information about this aircraft, and 1C had to reverse engineer it from a handful of old photos. From what I saw, the plane looks like a big clunky RV with propellers stuck to it—the kind of thing you see in old silent films crashing into barns. Not exactly the kind of thing most of us would want to fly into a firefight, but hey, those World War I pilots were hardcore.
Aside from touting all of its technical and gameplay advantages, 1C reps said that to them Battle of Stalingrad is a social game. What they were referring to is Il-2 Sturmovik's tight-knit community which has helped players form real-life bonds due to their shared niche interest, real world jobs, and competitive spirit. To me, that's a far better definition of "social game" than games make me pester people online when I need an extra life.
Thanks to its slick presentation and the passion of its developers, Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad has a good chance of winning over multiplayer fans who have yet to try a flight sim. Its gameplay innovations, easy-going attitude toward PC specs, and interesting historical information could well make it one of the most inviting flight sims ever made. Fortunately for you competitive types who'd like the try you hand as a World War II flying ace, the game currently in beta and set for a September 2014 launch. Early Access supporters are playing it now, and are enjoying having a say in how it's developed so if you'd like your voice to be heard, now's the time.
For more information about Early Access to Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad, visit the game's official website.