IL-2 Sturmovik: Is it a "Classic"?

by Len "Viking1" Hjalmarson

Article Type: Feature
Article Date: June 03, 2002

Product Info

Product Name: IL-2 Sturmovik
Category: WWII Air Combat Simulation
Developer: Maddox Games
Publisher: Ubi Soft
Release Date: Released (Nov. 2001)
Min. Spec: PII 400 (or equiv.), 128 MB RAM, 3D Accelerator
Rec'd. Spec: PIII 600 or better, 256 MB RAM, 32 bit 3D accelerator with 32 MB RAM or better
Files & Links: Click Here

The Debate Begins
Not long ago I was reading a discussion forum on where a writer had posted a thread advocating that IL-2 was an instant “classic.” This got me thinking…what constitutes a “classic” simulation?

The responses to the writer’s post were interesting. Someone made the point that “classic” should have enduring value. Endurance is a function of time, and therefore IL-2 could not be a classic until it proved its staying power. Others argued that it had redefined the genre. I myself used this comparison in a published review a few months back.

Another writer argued that it could be an online classic, but not an offline classic because of its weak campaign system. This was a particularly interesting position.

Maybe the place to start is with a dictionary. What is “classic?”

Bogart - now that's classic

clas·sic [klássik ] adjective
  1. top quality: generally considered to be of the highest quality or lasting value, especially in the arts
  2. definitive: authoritative and perfect as a standard of its kind a classic example of mixed metaphor English
  3. always fashionable: always fashionable and elegant, usually because of simplicity and restraint in style the classic "little black dress"
  4. generally accepted: conforming to generally accepted principles or methods
  5. extremely and usually comically apropos: apropos to an extreme degree, usually with a comical or ironic twist (informal) (Encarta Online)
From this set of meanings I’d like to choose two for this discussion. I will use “classic” of a simulation that is of top quality and that is definitive, a standard for its kind. By this definition, is IL-2 a classic?

Combat Simulations Keep Getting Better
Any simulation released in 2002 should be better than a simulation released in 2001. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case. Witness the recent release of Jane’s Attack Squadron.

We reasonably expect simulations to become even more impressive as time marches on. For example:

It’s 2005, and you’ve just loaded up Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator 4, a sweeping simulation that covers the entire theatre of war in Europe from 1939 to 1945 and beyond. Building on the success of Combat Flight Simulator 3, Aces Studios have simply outdone themselves.

First of all, the P-51 Mustang you are flying looks photorealistic. It should, since you are running your 256MB NVIDIA ForceOne 3-D accelerator on your new AMD Olympia system at 10 GHz. With 2GB of system RAM and a dedicated 3-D processor, nothing slows your game down.

Mind you, you are flying in a thunderstorm on your curved 22” LCD screen, and the cockpit is fogging up, limiting your view. You glance left and right, and the headtracking unit follows your movement, panning smoothly in both directions, then back to forward view. You decide to pull up over the clouds, and as you do you spy a bandit closing on your 3 o’clock.

With a screen resolution of 1600x1200, even at more than a mile you can tell that the bandit is an Me 109. You call to your wingman to try a drag maneuver as you break high. Real-time voice comms is standard fare and you hear your wingman acknowledge (flying from New York as you are in L.A.) as he turns away.

Me 109s in 1941 - source unknown

But suddenly there is a second 109 on your tail! Tracers are whizzing past you when one pierces your canopy. Now the wind is shrieking in your ears, and two of your gauges are damaged. Oh-oh, oil is splattering your windscreen, one of your lines took a hit!

As you roll and dive back into the clouds to lose the 109 you close your throttle so as not to overspeed. You can’t see the 109 anymore but a second later you hear the sound of an engine above and to your left. You have probably lost him, but you have another problem. The throttle is stuck at 75 percent and soon you are nearing 450 mph, trying hard to pull your ship out of the dive. The force feedback stick is telling you that your control surfaces are barely responding, and suddenly your flaps tear off, then part of your rudder, and it’s time to get out.

You call to your wingman that you are bailing out. Your canopy won’t open at this speed, but you have managed to pull almost level and suddenly your engine coughs and dies. The airframe is shaking and your wrist is getting tired, but with the speed dropping off you are able to move the canopy and bail over the side.

A moment later you pull the cord and your chute blossoms, and you look down and see the wind whipped water of the Atlantic ocean four thousand feet below. You pull the cord on your Mae West and hope that your wingman will survive to locate you.

To your surprise, the Me 109 pilot dives on you and tries to hole your chute. You whip your .45 from its holster and take aim at his cockpit as he zooms past you.

As you hit the water your chute collapses behind you. You detach it and watch it drift away. You are bobbing about in the water and inflate your floatation vest. You look up and see your wingman circling to get lower. You decide to hit the escape key and see what the AI dictates as the result. Whew! you got lucky…your wingman radioed your position and a rescue boat found you.

The Classic Combat Flight Simulation

Damage modeling in IL-2

Except for the hardware details, we are almost there. The other details I have described have all happened to me in current simulations, with the exception of pulling out a virtual .45 and pulling on the cord for my Mae West.

In fact, almost all these details are modeled in IL-2 Sturmovik, the 1C: Maddox Games simulation released by Ubi Soft last fall. In virtually every design component, from physics to FM, from damage model to weather and terrain, from graphics to campaign models, simulations just keep getting better. Are there any limits?

Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there are, but in reality most simulations major on one or two key areas, spending less time (and less of the budget) on other areas. For a simulation to be a “classic,” however, it must do all things well and redefine the genre. Does this definition apply to IL-2?

First, let’s consider the major areas of design that a simulation must incorporate. I won’t list them in any particular order, since we could probably debate endlessly on which areas are the most critical, and every pilot will have their own preference.
  • Flight Model (FM)
  • Damage Model (DM)
  • Systems Model (DM)
  • Physics Model (includes ballistics)
  • Graphics, Lighting and Effects
  • Object AI – Tactical Level (both air and ground)
  • Campaign AI (strategic level)
  • Mission flow (briefings, debriefs, records, maps, etc.)
  • Communications (including command structure)
  • Sound
  • Mission Builder/Editor, Mission Recorder
  • Multiplayer features
  • Flexibility – User can choose own level of entry (novice, intermediate, realistic)
Those who fly a variety of combat flight sims and who also fly IL-2 know that it does all things well, but it neglects two areas almost entirely. While IL-2 raises the bar in almost every area of design, it lacks a compelling interface that would contribute to mission flow, and it lacks a compelling campaign system. (In fact, even the single missions that were supplied with the simulation were quite weak).

Let’s first consider the game flow in Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator 2 (CFS2). I installed Just Flight's “Mosquito Squadron” add-on the other day and was reminded of the detailed interaction and records that are offered in CFS2.

CFS2 places the player in a virtual squadron, and then allows him to name and select his teammates. It also tracks the entire squadron through the missions, just as B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th! (B-17 FF) did. This connects the player to his teammates so that if he loses one, he feels the loss.

Briefing in 'Mosquito Squadron' add-on

In CFS2 briefing material is still somewhat limited, but in B-17 FF the player can look over maps, examine the flight route, make adjustments, and even look at recon photos.

Both of these simulations give the player a sense of an ongoing battle and an overarching purpose. The player has the sense of being “in the story,” and that even where his actions may not change the balance of battle, they will at least affect his own squadron, in turn impacting his future success or even his own survival.

While most of these immersion effects can be achieved with a semi-dynamic campaign system, a good campaign system takes it one step further, creating a sense of the unfolding of history in a persistent world. Missions are logically connected, and the success or failure of one mission impacts future missions. Destroyed bridges must be repaired. Loss of a vital supply column may mean a shortage of ammo or of spare parts for the player’s squadron. What the player does really matters in the virtual world.

These simulations immerse the player in history.

IL-2 fails in these respects, or to be more precise, it forces the player to rely on his own imagination and attempts to carry a sense of immersion on its other excellent qualities alone. Unfortunately, even the best graphics, physics, sound and FM can’t carry the entire load.

Equally problematic, the missions that arrived with the simulation were basic, and often felt unconnected. Closer examination gave me the impression that the missions supplied with IL-2 were created by a mission generator, and not designed by hand. After spending many, many hours designing my own missions, I know why! Careful mission design is very time consuming, and testing complex missions is a long and laborious process.

As a result of these weaknesses, some pilots feel that IL-2 lacks personality. As “Yakkalot” in Australia put it, “If il-2 [sic] was any other sim, the sterile nature of it would've turned me away long ago. But the sim part is so damn good.”

In fact, IL-2 is revolutionary in almost every other dimension. Graphically, it surpasses Microsoft’s last effort even though the aircraft textures themselves are quite basic. The damage and systems model is incredible. Sound is executed beautifully throughout. Cockpits are the most detailed ever seen, and are always 3-D in nature. Clouds and weather are fantastic. Light effects, particularly reflections and sun effects, are excellent. The physics and ballistics are outstanding. Built-in voice communications are available, and offline missions can be recorded for later viewing.

The flight models feel very, very good. The AI has been shown to be as good as anything yet seen, and better than most. It is very, very difficult to beat an ace pilot in the same aircraft. From an outside view you can watch an AI pilot twist his head to keep an eye on his opponent.

The view system itself is outstanding. Never before have we been able to watch the fight between two human players after we are “dead” in online play. It can be an incredible education, and a great deal of fun to just watch the fight.

Custom paint in IL-2 online

Finally, the multiplayer features, particularly with the latest patch, are unbeatable. IL-2 has finally anchored me firmly in the virtual world; a feat no other WWII simulation had managed to accomplish.

Where else can players quickly design a cooperative online mission that involves sixteen human pilots with as many or more AI aircraft in a virtual world with this level of detail? Where else can players paint their own aircraft, and see AI aircraft with historical squadron and tactical markings? Furthermore, where else can we decide exactly what type of icons we want to see, and when we want to see them? Flexibility like this makes for incredible appeal.

But is IL-2 a classic? I would argue that it has redefined the genre, and it has done all things well, with the sole exception of its included missions and campaigns. It is a near classic, therefore, while lacking the features that generally define a persistent and compelling offline combat flight simulation.

Your own sense of “classic” status will be influenced by your own simulation history and preferences. What do YOU think makes a classic combat flight simulation?

If you disagree that IL-2 is a classic, then you’ll be excited to know that IC: Maddox Games has been negotiating with Ubi Soft to publish their NEXT flight simulation. My guess is that we will see a very effective campaign engine in the next simulation, possibly contributing to the best combat flight simulation of 2003. The only clear rival for that title is likely to be Microsoft’s CFS3.

IL-2 Sturmovik Resources

IL-2: Forgotten Battles

Reviews & Features


Interviews with Oleg Maddox

Other Interviews

How-to Guides

Historic Retrospectives

Files & Utilities


Virtual Squadrons and Groups

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