Il-2 Sturmovik is one of the most legendary flight simulation franchises of all time. When the first Il-2 game was released in 2001 it was not only an excellent flight simulator but also a messenger of better times to come; despite many western publishers basically abandoning the genre, a couple of dedicated teams from Eastern Europe would carry on and basically define what simulation gaming in the early 21st century would be like (pretty awesome, actually). However, the long awaited sequel was far from successful and many – me included – thought it might be the swan song for a revered brand. The publisher 1C Company had other plans, however, and when they announced co-operation with 777 Studios (of Rise of Flight fame) for another Il-2 sequel that was to be known as Battle of Stalingrad many – me included – were overjoyed. The initial plans sounded brilliant and the first alpha test versions were basically exactly as promising as one would expect from the team that made the artistically exquisite Rise of Flight.
Of course there just had to be a dark plot twist to this story. Right now, with the dedicated server and mission editor freshly released, we are at a crucial point for the new Sturmovik franchise. With those features included the first installment of the series can finally be considered complete and we get a look at the game in its full glory. Do note, however, that this is not a comprehensive review, but rather a look at some very specific aspects of the game.
Let’s get one important thing straight right away: the emphasis 1C / 777 Studios have given to game design is fantastic and unfortunately not even that common in the genre nowadays. Gone are the days when development companies poured massive resources into Falcon 4 or Battle of Britain / MiG Alley or Tornado level dynamic campaigns. The idea of utilizing typical game design principles to create engagement and sense of progress in the game is one of the things that made the 777 Studios the right team for the job of reviving the Il-2 series. Rise of Flight basically proved that 777 Studios can create a beautiful and comprehensive flight simulation experience with limited resources (even if it took a bit of time), so when we first got our hands on the extremely promising alphas there was every reason to expect the final product to be a clear cut slam dunk winner. However, things turned out to be more complicated than that. Much more complicated.
No options, please, we’re 1C/777
In the following text I will make a few educated guesses and estimations on what is going on at 777 Studios or what the reasons were behind the design decisions made. Please note that although I have some experience in software projects and a bit of knowledge about game design and gaming technologies I have no insider information whatsoever about what 1C / 777 did or didn’t do during the production phase of BoS nor do I have any knowledge of their future plans beyond what is publicly known.
We got the first taste of what was to become a defining factor for BoS general design relatively early on during the alpha stage, when detailed graphics options were removed from the game. I was personally one of those most affected by this decision, since I run an ultra wide setup and they don’t (or didn’t) work properly with the Digital Nature (RoF, BoS) engine unless you turn off post processing – which you obviously couldn’t do anymore after the option was removed.
At this point it’s important to state that you can’t expect a fully functional game at alpha/beta stage and it was no big deal at the time. I also got great support shortly after the release as the programmer got around to fixing the issue and I’m generally happy with the end result and the way things were handled.
However, one of the reasons for locking the options was to lessen the burden on customer support. First of all, that’s a pretty cheap cop out and people have every right to expect both comprehensive options as well as good customer support, especially in a technologically demanding genre such as flight simulators. Even more importantly, my case is just one example of what can and most likely will happen in the future with the chosen approach. It took months for a programmer to fix a problem any informed user could have fixed in a minute or less, so the current approach isn’t exactly a gold standard for customer service if you look at it from that perspective.
There was also speculation (based on some developer comments) on another reason for the locked graphics options; namely the developers wanting to define how the game should look in every situation. This is a much more interesting point of view for me, I can well understand the artistic side of it as well as the interest to prevent people from optimizing the graphics for gameplay advantage – for example basically removing all textures to see planes easier against the terrain.
Of course the low detail option is still available and since we are mostly talking about extra things such as post effects, SSAO and other stuff that makes the game look either better or worse depending on opinion as well as hardware specific factors, so it’s hard for me to even try to justify the decision. I strongly believe that the locked graphics options are a rather strong net negative for the game as a whole and really hope we get proper options in the future. For reference just check out how much the community loved the option to improve terrain graphics via a config file here.
Although I dislike the limited graphics options, they are just a rather small part of what seems to me to be a hard fought effort to control exactly how people play the game. A much more important example of this is the way the campaign difficulty settings are limited to two options; either full hardcore or anything goes with all assists on. This is an immensely complicated topic, I wrote a rather long article on the subject in the Pelit magazine about a year ago and that wasn’t even scratching the surface. Let’s just say that there are a number of valid opinions and approaches on what is “realistic” when flying desktop simulators and the only common thing is that none of them are even beginning to get close to the real thing. Which is why every simulator since the beginning of time has offered a comprehensive set of options to customize the experience to fit people’s personal preferences as well as their hardware.
Except War Thunder. I’ll get back to the subject later when I discuss the unlocks and campaign in general, but let’s just say that although I think I kind of get what the designers were going for when they started removing options, I also think they were dead wrong in doing so. But before I go further down that road, let’s take a look at the campaign and the controversies therein.
All the previous disturbances in the community before or since are a warm summer breeze compared to the furious storm that arose from the MMO-esque unlocks. Just like World of Tanks or War Thunder, BoS only offered the players basic planes and loadouts by default, the rest of the goodies required unlocking by flying the campaign missions. The producer basically stated that gaining more powerful weapons during the game is an often used and powerful, motivating design feature in games like Doom. He is of course absolutely correct. Games like World of Tanks and War Thunder have proven beyond doubt that although players like to complain about “the grind”, it’s precisely the feature that makes them come back and keep playing for thousands upon thousands of matches. The idea is basically reasonable and despite the community uproar, providing a sense of progress by unlocking new equipment is in itself sound game design.
Unfortunately, the way it’s applied in Il-2: Battle of Stalingrad is not.
First of all, flight simulators already have had a far, far better unlocking scheme since the dawn of ages. Let’s take a look at Rise of Flight as an example. In the (beta) career mode the player flies missions and depending on his survival the time progresses between the missions. As time goes on better equipment becomes available – just like in reality – and if you’re good, you’ll get your hands on it earlier than the rest of the pilots. Pretty much as it was in reality, which is a rather important thing for simulation games in general.
Field modifications, bombs, rockets etc. need to be an important gameplay element whose availability is not dependent on some abstract experience number but rather the supply level of your airbase. In a good campaign supply has a vital role that provides meaningful play, resulting in high levels of engagement and a powerful gaming experience.
Consider this: having the access to equipment tied to the supply situation and campaign progress in general works over and over again, every time you play the campaign – whereas the experience-based unlocking approach only works once, providing massively inferior replay value as well as less interesting decisions and variety during gameplay. Once you’ve unlocked everything the motivation provided by the unlocks is gone for good. Games that are built around unlocks get around this by making you play tens of thousands of games before you can dream of unlocking everything.
Pilot level is another gameplay element in the BoS campaign that I really, really don’t like. Basically as far as I know (and this is based on my own and other pilots’ experiences, I don’t know if the pilot level’s full effects have been officially explained anywhere) it’s intended to be an automatic difficulty setting so that as your pilot level gets higher the missions get progressively harder. This means that ideally the game should ease you in at first and keep providing a suitable level of challenge as your skills increase. In practice, however, during for example a hypothetical Russian campaign spanning from 1939 to 1945 you would first have easy times shooting down Germans during the (in reality catastrophic) early stages of the war, after which things would get progressively more difficult until in the late stages you would face massively challenging missions – which is of course the complete opposite of how it was in reality.
Please keep in mind that I am in fact a strong proponent of game design in simulators and my views on historicity is quite liberal (I would ideally like to see dynamic campaigns that could in certain cases produce very unhistorical results depending on the different variables) so I’m not against such results in principle. The real problem with the pilot levels is the way they distort the gameplay experience. First of all, your pilot level will eventually go up by just playing the game, even if your skills don’t, so you might eventually end up with a far too high difficulty level. Even automatically up and down adjusting difficulty levels don’t really work. They are affectionately known as “rubberband AI”, which is basically the most popular way to insult the player’s intelligence in driving games. Simply put, punishing the player for doing well is a bad, bad idea. As with the unlocks, the actual, much better answer already exists in previous simulators. By making the difficulty of the next mission depend on the events of the previous ones you create opportunities for meaningful, interesting decisions and exciting gameplay.
I can’t be the only one who at this point is not the least surprised about the missing campaign difficulty options – which would be the obvious choice for controlling the challenge level of the campaign (in addition to the general campaign setting and design of course). I can’t help but think that the removal of all kinds of options is the basic strategy or paradigm throughout the design of Il-2 BoS. I also can’t help thinking that it is eventually a costly and damaging approach that greatly detracts from the gameplay experience. Next I’m going to slightly venture into the realm of speculation as I try to figure out what kind of design considerations led to the BoS as we know it and especially what the future might look like.
This is not War Thunder
First of all I want to make one thing abundantly clear: although I don’t personally fly a lot of War Thunder I believe it might be the single best thing that has happened to the flight simulator industry for a long, long time. Not only that, I also consider World of Tanks to be a great game and a monumental achievement for a small (at the time) Belarusian company, so even if at times I might explain why I feel certain War Thunder / World of Tanks -like design choices don’t work in BoS it is not because I consider either of them to be bad games themselves.
Everyone must have noticed the massive popularity of the recent MMO-style flight and tank combat games, namely World of Tanks and War Thunder – 1C / 777 certainly have. One of the highlights of the aforementioned games is the incredible addictiveness, which is to a large part derived from the ability to unlock new vehicles and equipment while you play. And who wouldn’t want their game to be addictive, right?
Again I must emphasize the point that I believe the attempt to enrich the gameplay elements in flight simulators is absolutely the way to go. However, I really don’t think that the unlocking of components like in WT / WoT counts as such, because as mentioned earlier, simulators already had better ways of handling equipment upgrades and availability. More importantly, WoT and WT have been completely from the ground up built around the concept of unlocking stuff by playing the game.
The reason I think War Thunder is a great thing for simulators is the influx of new people to the more hardcore side of the hobby. It offers a pretty nice three stage program for “graduating” into flight simulators thanks to its three different difficulty settings. Sounds familiar already? There’s a downside to the number of choices as well, since they do divide the player base quite a bit and I can kind of see how someone looking at War Thunder might see limiting choice as something that might make the game more easily approachable and unify the experience, especially in multiplayer.
However, Il-2 is not War Thunder. This is just a personal opinion, but I really don’t think people coming from War thunder are looking for the same grindy unlocking experience just with better flight and systems modeling. It’s far more likely that they are intrigued by the historical context, more involving long term gameplay through campaigns and such – and of course the “as real as it gets” approach. This is the traditional big question with hardcore simulators, by the way. Balancing between apparent and actual realism and trying to provide the best possible experience for flying aircraft on a desktop is a form of art in itself.
From what I know of War Thunder, it doesn’t handle the realistic end of the spectrum very convincingly, for example the game engine supposedly has problems drawing the objects clearly enough so that you can fly without icons (the simulation mode) without becoming virtually blind. This is precisely the thing Il-2 should offer the immigrants; a functional design making the game as realistic as possible instead of just difficult (which is an incredibly complex topic I won’t go into here, the “full realism” -debate). And the way to achieve that is to give people options to cater for their personal views as well as the broad range of hardware they have.
The reason why War Thunder reduces the amount of choice is because they basically want all of the players in as few queues as possible and the realistic end of the spectrum is not that important to them – relatively few people play simulation mode. In Il-2 there are at most a few dozen people per multiplayer server who need to agree on the best settings for the particular flight – or in the case of the single player campaign exactly one player whose opinion matters in any way. All in all, I simply don’t think that a strictly regulated experience is the thing that will help gain the interest of the people who have played War Thunder and are looking for a more hardcore simulator.
As I mentioned earlier this is not a review and should not be taken as a comprehensive look at Il-2: Battle of Stalingrad. The game itself has a lot going for it and the problems I’ve mentioned earlier are just some peculiar aspects of the game. But that’s precisely what makes them so interesting. I’ve seen a lot of simulators fail for different reasons, usually the sad story ends with awful flight modeling, idiotic AI or more bugs than you’d find in an ant mound. Although every game has its compromises and Il-2: BoS is no exception, it’s still pretty good in most areas and a solid effort in general. Actually the only things I really dislike are the few odd design decisions.
I’m currently waiting for my dedicated server account so that I can start experimenting with the multiplayer a bit more and after I finish this article I’ll take a closer look at the mission editor. These two features will be vital deciding factors as far as the game’s longevity is concerned and it’s important to notice that a lot of the critique above concerns the single player campaign – which might become basically moot if the community really starts pumping out new missions and campaigns. Except of course for the fact that even people who have no interest in single player will have to play it to unlock the equipment for multiplayer scenarios.
It would be a bit of a loss, though, since the campaign is actually pretty good. Yes, it’s basic and the progress is way oversimplified, but that’s what great things usually look like at first. The campaign engine can churn out missions that although appear familiar (which would be the case in reality) are never quite the same and, most importantly, you never ever have to refly one until some predetermined goals are met. There’s actually a lot of potential there and the campaign engine might be a real winner if the unlocks were removed and replaced with more meaningful gameplay mechanisms. The easiest thing in the world would be to just replace the pilot levels with selectable difficulty levels, which would in itself be a leap forward for the campaign.
To illustrate the issue consider this: recently 1C / 777 provided the owners of the Premium Edition or all the premium planes with an option to skip the unlocking mess completely. I guess that would be fine if it was simply a business move to get people to pay more (this is how WoT and WT make a lot of money), but what does it tell you when people are willing to skip (and probably to pay to skip) something that’s supposed to be a central factor in the game design and a major source of engagement?
As for the other issues; none of the lacking options are game breaking by themselves, what really worries me is how there seems to be some kind of a design paradigm in the background that is hell bent on pushing people towards a tightly defined, predetermined experience. The latest addition to the long list of the “my way or the highway” -approach was the announcement about there not being a “mods on” mode in the game. To an extent it is in fact good to keep some parts of a game locked and apparently people who have proven themselves will be given some form of ability to create mods, so the decision doesn’t have to be a disaster by necessity. Unfortunately I can’t help but feel unimpressed by the team’s track record with decisions like this, which is honestly a bit weird considering how good Rise of Flight was and how combining its genes with those of the venerable Il-2: 1946 just felt like a recipe for guaranteed epic success. Even more surprising is how the game design seems to be turning into the greatest weakness for BoS, when I certainly expected it to be one of its strengths.
To me the bottom line is simply this: 1C / 777 are absolutely on the right track making bold experiments and focusing on game design, trying to bring in elements that have been successful in different games and even to an extent holding their ground when confronted with negative feedback – after all people often resist change and new ideas. However, when experimenting with design the by far most important thing to know is when to back off and abandon ideas that simply don’t work. Which is precisely the situation 1C / 777 is facing now. Il-2: Battle of Stalingrad shows a lot of promise, but it is currently severely held back by design strategies that simply don’t work. It is certainly going to be interesting to see how things turn out in the end.