Birds of Steel Review
Made2Game Birds of Steel review score: 6/10
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Format Reviewed: PS3
Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Despite strong and rather melodic assertions from TLC, The Sugababes and Christina Aguilera, to name but a few, beauty is not entirely skin-deep, and nor is the desire to seek out beauty in all things a particularly worthy crusade. Some things are ugly, plain and simple. Some things are so damn ugly, they actually hurt you in the brain like a Jack Daniels headache just to look at them.
In videogames, such aesthetic shortcomings appear magnified many-fold by the fact that you have to sit and stare at something being ugly for anywhere between 6 and 60 hours. Such ugliness, once upon a time, seemed less severe, less potent in its hideousness, because we hadn’t yet seen true magnificence in the medium. Before Skyrim, before Uncharted 3, before Crysis 2 and Rage and a dozen other titles that have pushed current gaming technology to its visual limit, before all of these, Birds of Steel – the new historic flight sim from Russian developers Gaijin entertainment – might have actually looked glorious.
Unfortunately, it has been released now, in the year of our Lord 2012, scant months after the end of one of the most artistically-stunning years in gaming history and, as a result, to be completely fair, Birds of Steel looks a bit shit.
BUT (and we feel we need to capitalise that BUT because if this was a face-to-face conversation we’d be trying to stop you walking away from Birds of Steel and, by extension, our critique of it) we don’t judge games by their looks where we come from. Oh, no. Which is not to say we see beauty in even the ugliest duckling, because we don’t; we’ve as much depth as a Hollywood cheerleader – but we simply choose to ignore ugliness in favour of well-crafted, competent and cutting edge gameplay. Well, Birds of Steel has two of those three qualities, which is close enough for us.
For a start, it’s one of the best (yes, the best) examples of a true flight simulator ever committed (or sacrificed) to the humble control pad. It’s such a good example that on the truest setting (called, quite simply, Simulation mode) this reviewer couldn’t even actually do it. This reviewer, who very nearly almost practically just about didn’t quite finish Dark Souls. This reviewer, who occasionally plays Super Meat Boy for fun. Though, this is not a criticism of Birds of Steel, but rather a source of quiet shame for said reviewer.
In actual fact, despite its awful visuals, Birds of Steel is quite a well-made flight sim. Playing on Realistic mode (the middle difficulty) remains tough but much more manageable, while switching to Simplistic mode (which might as well be called Thickie mode) makes it all much easier: you can’t stall, most of the actual controls are handled for you, and you even take damage in a more arcadey way.
Jester is definitely dead
The game is spread across a huge number of stages, either based on specific missions from the first and second World Wars (such as Pearl Harbour and Guadalcanal), or on “fantasy” missions that exist in a parallel “what-if?” universe. Taking the form of escort missions, bombing runs or dogfights, the stages are surprisingly varied in appearance, difficulty and pacing. Thankfully, the action (once you get the hang of the slightly-unintuitive controls) is quite absorbing – anathema to the deathly dull black and white “World at War” cutscenes that pop-up with horrifying regularity.
Part of the problem with Birds of Steel (and indeed, any flight sim for those of us who don’t usually partake) is that there’s an undeniable, irrepressible desire to fly like Maverick in Top Gun whether you’re sat in the cockpit of a Harrier Jumpjet, B52 or Messerschmitt (that’s us, trying to pretend we know about planes). The simple fact is that this is not the game to be attempting to loop-de-loop like Starfox; quite often we found ourselves eating mud when we levelled out and realised we were trying to bank hard at an altitude of three-and-a-half feet.
A distinct lack of useful checkpoints even in the longer missions only compounds the difficulty, and even in Simplistic mode you need to pay attention to the tutorials and keep your concentration up. Once all the elements begin to fall into place and you find yourself becoming used to the controls and are able to spend a few minutes in the air without stalling, Birds of Steel actually starts to become fun. No one is going to take a chance on this game who doesn’t already appreciate the finer nuances of simulated flight, and so it’s unlikely to find itself in the disk tray of non-fans – and for that reason Birds of Steel has every chance of becoming a kind of cult hit.
The sheer number of planes on offer for the intrepid pilot is incredible – there are over 100 unique aircraft to unlock throughout the game, most of which can be taken on any suitable mission at will. For war-plane enthusiasts it’s better than a Forza title, but we personally found ourselves hankering after something with laser cannons.
In all fairness, we’re being a little facetious, and unfortunately Birds of Steel will evoke such a reaction because of its niche appeal. If the controls were better-implemented (though we fear if they were better-suited to a dual-analogue controller they would be more arcade-like, which would probably miss the point), and if there was more of a sense of actual fun to proceedings, we’d have likely scored Birds of Steel higher.
As it is, it takes itself too seriously. It markets itself as a connoisseur’s game, as a title for the history buff and, as a result, comes across too po-faced – which of course it is. It’s certainly a competent flight sim, and as a catalogue of celebrated wartime aircraft it stands peerless within the medium, but when played on the simplest setting it lacks the sophistication of a true flight sim and when played in simulation mode it lacks the fun of an actual videogame. There is some enjoyment to be gleaned in the multiplayer mode, facing off either against friends or strangers online, indulging in graceful dogfights that genuinely will test your skills and reflexes, but such a novelty is likely to be short-lived for any but the diehard when there are similar games out there packing a more arcade-level of fun and frivolity.
It’s a genuine shame that there isn’t more beauty to be found beneath Birds of Steel’s rough exterior, because Gaijin Entertainment’s flight sim does try hard to appeal to a certain crowd (and in fact will likely hit that particular nail right on the head) – it simply tries so hard that it will struggle to appeal to anyone else.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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