June 9th, 2010
PC Review - Wings of Prey
Here's a little quick history refresher. The flight/combat military simulation market died about a decade ago. Throughout the 1990s, and even in the late 1980s the market was flooded with many great flight simulations products, some geared towards the casual player, and many designed specifically for the die-hard military aviation lover, or more commonly know as the Hardcore enthusiast.
Companies like Microprose, Spectrum Holobyte, Jane's Combat Simlations/EA, Interactive Magic, Novalogic, Graphic Simulations, Sierra/Dynamix, Digital Integration, Digital Image Diesign, and even Microsoft we're the Gods of flight simulations during this golden age of the military aviation/combat flight simulation. The producers were like the demi-gods too, as Andy Hollis, Wild Bill Stealey, Paul Grace, John Garcia, Damon Sly, Oleg Maddox and many others were treated like celebrities by the loyal flight simulation worshipers.
I think the genre really took off when the original Iraqi conflict of Operation Desert Storm started. It sparked the interest of many after seeing smart bombs being dropped on CNN over and over, combined with the night vision camera shots of the US flying in and taking control of Baghdad in F-117 Stealth Bombers. There was something sleek and sexy about it all, and having the means to play a game flying a machine like that, was a dream come true for many.
At the same time the PC was becoming a strong gaming platform, with the processing power to simulate stuff like never before. Nintendo and Sega we're the biggest console players of the era, and neither could compete with the PC at the time with their meager 8-bit, and later 16-bit cartridge based systems.
Then one day in about 2001, the publishers realized how much they were spending on a simulations, versus the production cost of say a Real Time Strategy game, or 3D shooter, which now outsold most any two flight simulations combined. Hard-core flight combat simulations demanded hefty budgets, as a lot more work goes into simulating so many different parameters of airframes, ballistics, environments, etc, versus making something like the next hit RTS title. Even the lighter fare survey simulations at the time we're big budget affairs. All of a sudden, it was over. It happened almost overnight, it was that sudden, and that shocking.
Add to the fact by the early 2000s, now the true next generation console systems were as easy as, or easier than, developing for the PC, and console products in general is where most gamers started to spend their money. The developers followed the money. Who can blame them?
Time to jump ahead, it's 2010 now. In the past 12 months I've seen more new flight simulation products, and related hardware than I've seen in the past decade, could this be a rebirth of the genre? One of the latest to surface is Wings of Prey. Granted this is a polished and enhanced version of the console game IL2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey. It's ironic to say the least to see a console game, retooled for the PC ending up being the title to try and re-ignite the combat flight simulation genre on the PC.
There weren't many releases during the dark ages since 2001. The original IL2 did continue to flourish, via expansions, patches and new bundled versions up into around 2006. A few other titles surfaced here and there, but they were few and far between, and none really stood out enough to gain much enthusiasm from the community.
IL2 ended up by 2006 to offer 256 flyable planes out of 347 modeled, via the 1946 compilation bundle, making it not only one of the most realistic simulations out there to last throughout the dark ages, but also featuring the most aircraft flyable ever, outside of maybe Microsoft's Flight Simulator series. It's crazy to think that IL2 1946 sells now for $9.99 online at places like GoodOldGames.com, with full blown Vista-64/Win7 compatibility. Having said that, Wings of Prey has some big shoes to fill, and some lofty expectations to meet. Let's see how it does...
Wings of Prey
Installation was fairly straightforward. I reviewed the downloadable version from YuPlay.com. More recently Wings of Prey was released on DVD by 777 Studios here in North America. The DRM (Digital Rights Management) required I punch in the serial key, and afterward it reached out to the server to activate my copy. Once done it told me I have 2 activations left. I'll start off with stating, that I fully understand a publishers' need to protect their products, but I'm not a fan of DRM. I should be able to install or re-install my software as many times as I desire. Not even Microsoft is as anal about DRM as some PC game makers these days, and their products cost hundreds of dollars, not less than $60 like most PC game titles.
So the DRM went without a hitch, but I don't like the fact it only gives you 3 activations. If my hard drive poops, if I need to re-install windows, or if I decide to install it on a new PC, and then something happens, I'm done. I also ended up with a virus, before finishing this article, so I'm down to 1 activation left already.
I was however told that if I ran into trouble, that Gajin would give me more activations without a hassle.
I'll start by saying that this title doesn't have Il2 Sturmovik anywhere in the title, and they don't claim the unparalleled realism of IL2. This was on purpose. Gaijin is the developer of Wings of Prey, not 1C (Oleg Maddox's company who is responsible for the IL-2 legacy). The Xbox 360 version of Il2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey also didn't claim the level of realism as the previous versions of IL2 for the PC either, altho 1C did co-develop Birds of Prey. It's evident they wanted to bring this to the PC, but separate it from the IL2 legacy as much as possible, since the PC crowd is far more verbal, and brutal about the titles on the PC featuring planes, which claim any form of realism.
They do however offer a few different modes of realism in Wings of Prey. Arcade, Realistic and Simulation are the options provided. Arcade is relaxed mode, with all of the player aids and so on, and relaxed flight models. Realistic bumps it up a notch via more realistic flight models with red/black outs, etc, and less aids, and Simulator is the highest mode of realism offered, with what they claim are the realistic flight models, and lacking many of the non-realistic aids. However, even in Simulation mode you still have access to many of the flight aids, but you don't have to use them. I prefer the Realistic mode myself. I think it offers the right balance between fun, and realism.
One major gripe that killed even the most realistic Simulator realism setting, is the fact that you used to start each mission in the air already. Take off and landing is a big part of the experience, and helps to immerse hardcore simulation enthusiast into the mission.
I'm glad to report that this has been addressed, because the version I reviewed is the latest patched version, and you can now take-off, and land if you want. There's a little toggle option before flight allowing you to choose to take-off now. This was the biggest gripe players had with Wings of Prey's initial release version, but this has now been addressed by the latest version 188.8.131.52. free update.
The bigger issue that I have with Wings of Prey is, that while there are many pre-setup configurations for various joysticks to choose from, I still had nothing but trouble getting a simple Thrustmaster Fox2 Pro joystick setup for it initially.
About half-way through putting together this review, I ended up with a brand new Saitek X52 Pro HOTAS (stick and separate throttle). I also had nothing but problems initially with setting up the X52 Pro with WOP too. This is by no fault of Saitek or the X-52 Pro either.
Even though WOP supports the X52 directly, it's buggy, and it not only has the aileron, elevator and rudder axis's setup wrong, but by default when you plug in a higher-end joystick, it automatically enables the trim settings. Therefore after I managed to get the axis assignments right, the plane was still totally uncontrollable once in the air, and the only way to fix it was through the trim settings. This is even when you select the Arcade mode of realism too!
It's horrific to have to go in and set every option myself manually. A plain default joystick setting, for anything other than a gamepad would have been nice for the Fox 2 stick as well. Once I had either stick setup, I had no problems, but I had lots of trial and error to tend with, until I realized I just have to set both up almost entirely by hand in the keymapping menu.
I visited the support forums for WOP, and it's clear the bigger issue is that since this was a console game first, the PC input controller code was an afterthought, and someone dropped to ball when implementing it. No other flight sim was ever this much trouble to setup with any Thrustmaster or Saitek stick either. So be prepared to manually setup your gear, and to figure out what the trim settings are, because you'll need to fine tune things by hand to get a joystick working in Wing Of Prey.
Campaign action takes place via six battles, The Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, Battle of the Bulge, Battle of Berlin, Invasion of Sicily and Korsun' Pocket. Single Missions are also available, but only a few of these are available to you at first. Once you've made progress though Single Missions, then the later missions are unlocked for you. Fair enough. There's a multi-player option as well, provided via the YuPlay.com servers.
I had next to no luck with YuPlay and online games of Wings of Prey at first. Every time I tried to connect, or start a game, I ended up loosing connection to the server. It might have been bad hosts, because a few days later it worked fine. Features include VoIP communications, and 4 different online game types (Dogfight, Team Battle, Strike and Capture Airfield).
Playing in the realistic mode, it's quite an exhilarating experience head-2-head versus a variety of other pilots. For the most part it was smooth sailing, once I was able to connect to games.
Visually speaking, this is an amazing looking game. I'm a big fan of ground detail. It's nice to see cities that look like cities, forest that resemble a forest... realism for me is in the little details. On the ground, I'm yet to see a better looking representation of ground realism anywhere else. I'm surprised with the number of 3D objects on the ground in Wings of Prey, that the PC doesn't just come to a halt. There's just that much detail down below.
One mission in particular had me trying to take out ground targets, and the threats we're hidden between the buildings in Stalingrad, but I just couldn't get in there to them, because I was too distracted by everything else I was looking at around me, and kept smacking into buildings. You can see tree tops like never before too.
My first flight over Dover during Battle of Britain near the English channel was breathtaking too. The level of detail of the port is truly astonishing. There's so many things to say about the simulation visually. Shooting planes in front of you, at closer ranges ends up splattering oil on your cockpit windshield, in addition to all of the lovely smoke and fire you'd expect. It's really easy to gush about the visuals in Wings of Prey, because they are truly stellar. The damage modeling is really slick too. While finding a huge hole blown through your wing isn't usually cool, it at least looked pretty impressive, as I headed towards the ground in a death-spiral. Cockpit detail is also really sharp, and each and every plane is rendered with amazing attention to detail.
Audibly the one thing that totally blew the immersion-factor for me is the voice-overs during the in-between mission cut-scenes. During the first campaign, the very first thing you hear is the voice of an RAF pilot that doesn't even speak with a British accent! Come on, a crappy bad British accent would have been better than some American guy telling the story. This is the way they handle the voice acting all the way through the game, because the Russian pilot had absolutely no accent either. Now the radio chatter is a different story. Radio chatter is present with various proper accents, so why they didn't make the extra effort to do the rest properly is puzzling.
Thankfully the music fits the mood in the interface menus, and is very well done, and the SFX help to compliment the visuals very well once in-game. Aside from the voice-over flubs, there's not a lot to complain about audibly. There's also some very nice historical B&W video footage which is played during the intro, and at other times as you proceed through Wings of Prey. It's nothing really fancy, but the Hangar section also lets you spin around the 3D models of all of the planes, giving you some basic Information and Weapons details when highlighting those options.
The Encyclopedia option offers Stunts, Tactics, Interface, History and Multiplayer Modes entries. It shows that they really tried to do something a little different, and I think of it as minor bonus content. Novice pilots will find the Tactics, Stunts, Interface and History sections all helpful too. I still don't think it makes up for the skimpy .pdf manual.
There is a Training section too, and the training missions are nice, and can be quite helpful for the novice pilots, and surprisingly they do cover a lot of ground. I didn't mess with it too much, since I've been at this almost 20 years now, but others will no doubt find it a very helpful section to explore.
The aircraft included in the game are as follows.
United States. A-20G, B-17G, P-51D, and P-47D
Great Britain... Blenheim MkIV, Hurricane Mk IIb, Spitfire Mk IIb, and Spitfire Mk IX,
Russia...I-16 Type 24, I-153 P, IL-2, IL-2M, IL-4, IL-10, La-5FN, La-7, Li-2, Po-2, Yak-1B, Yak-3, and Yak-9T.
Germany...Arado 234, BF-109 E-3, BF-109 G-2, BF-109 G-6, BF-109 G-10, BF-109 K-4, BF-110 C-4, FW-190 A-5, FW-190 D-12, FW-190 F-8, HE-111 H-3, HE-111 H-6, HE-111 H-16, HE-162 A, Ju-52, Ju-87 B-2, Ju-87 D-3, ME-163 B, ME-262 A-1, and Ta-152 H-1.
That's a ton of planes, but many of them you won't be able to fly without making progress through the game first to unlock the missions that they're available for. There's also the fact that all of the German planes aren't flyable. Therefore really there's only just 22 planes to fly throughout the solo single-player side of things. Wingman commands are limited, but they're there to command, and overall the AI aren't going to win any awards for tactics, but we've also seen much worse in other products too. They're better than none at all, but don't expect them to keep your six clear very well without guidance.
The manual is all of 19 pages, and is in .pdf format in the program directory, which goes to show how serious they are about realism. There's not even a quick reference keycard, aside from a few diagrams of how they have the latest joysticks on the market pre-setup, but that's it. To figure out what keys are needed, you need to go through the Options part of the game, and dig through the key-bindings. Thankfully not a lot of memorizing is needed, most all I needed to get by with was mapped to my joystick.
Wings of Prey really reminds me of a WWII version of the classic US Navy Fighters series from Electronic Arts, before Jane's got involved, only with better flight models. This isn't a bad thing either. Quite frankly, titles like this almost always outsell the more hardcore realism sims, because what some don't realize is, that the more people a title can appeal too, equals more people who will buy and enjoy it. The truth of the matter is, hardcore realism simulations towards the end of the golden-age of simulations helped to kill the genre, because they cost so much money to make, and sold minimal copies in the overall scheme of things. At the end of the day, the player base who would purchase a hardcore simulation, is just a very small fraction of the people who'd buy say Wings of Prey. It's all about dollars, and common sense.
I can still enjoy hardcore simulations like the next guy, so don't get me wrong, but we need more titles like Wings of Prey to sell, so that developers can use the proceeds from a title like this to fuel the development of the next big hardcore simulation. Coincidentally, Battle of Britain is supposedly the next big hardcore simulation from Oleg Madoxx who is the same guy responsible Il2: Birds of Prey, and the hardcore Il2 legacy titles. Which leaves no doubt in my mind that IL2: Birds of Prey, and now Wings of Prey is fueling the next project.
A console game ported to the PC usually spells disaster, and almost always is just a way for a developer to try and make a quick buck, but this is a rare exception too. It was such a great console game, that it logically ended up an even better title on the PC due to higher resolution graphics, and better flight hardware available to the PC market of flight simulation enthusiasts. It's just too bad they did such a terrible job of adding the support for PC devices.
As for replay value, that's somewhat limited for single player. They do offer more content for download, but sadly none of them are free downloads. The P-40-E Kittyhawk for instance is $3 from YuPlay. For a single plane, that's pretty absurd. There are also no mission editors, or tools for creating mods included with Wings of Prey, which really kills this titles longevity for many. Even classic survey simulations offered an in-game quick mission creator, or something along those lines.
It's fine to provide professionally made expansion packs as a company, and charge for them, so don't misunderstand me. It's the fact that there are no tools to add to the lifespan of the product from the user end that stinks, when most sims before it had them. Then you see the company charging $3 for a single plane to download for it. At this point one can only assume what their motives are, based on the facts provided. The Wings of the Luftwaffe official add-on was recently released too. It costs $15, which doesn't sound too bad for an add-on traditionally, as most official expansions cost $10-$20+ on average. The problem is there's not enough to it to justify the price tag of even $15.
Wings of the Luftwaffe adds 2 new planes, and 10 missions, allowing you essentially to play through the reverse side of the existing conflicts via 10 German Single missions. Granted they did also claim that there's 44 new skins, and Co-Op multi-player for 4 players, but still, just 10 missions and 2 planes, with some new skins for existing planes still isn't worth $15 to most players, even with Co-Op.
The only missions that Co-op work with are the 10 German single missions added via Wings of the Luftwaffe too. It doesn't upgrade the existing missions, so sadly Co-Op is not an option for any of the other missions. Usually expansions enhance the existing product, and add a little something to it. That's just not the case with Wings of the Luftwaffe.
At $15 Wings of the Luftwaffe is at a price-point where I guess you could spend that, and not think twice about it, but you may feel a little short-changed. However I cannot deny that the Wings of the Luftwaffe missions are fun, and even thought it doesn't offer enough content to even call it an expansion, it's still equally as much engrossing as playing Wings of Prey. So it's more of the same, which in this case isn't a bad thing.
Wings of Prey is the best thing we have at the moment in the way of WWII combat flight simulations, because there's not a lot of new competition out there. The other glaring reality is that the majority of our beloved, and now classic simulation titles from the golden-age won't even run now under Windows Vista, and now Windows 7, especially the 64-bit versions. Therefore this is one of the few, and maybe only WWII titles developed since Vista/7 arrived to cater to the combat flight simulation crowd, which we can actually run on Vista/7 machines. Actually the only other WWII title I can think of that will run under Vista-64/Windows 7, is ironically IL-2: 1946, but only the version from GoodOldGames.com.
If you have the original IL2 Sturmovik, and all the updates and add-ons, Wings of Prey can still be a lot of fun, but if you are looking for the level of realism of the IL2 legacy, this isn't going to cut it for you. The ultra-hardcore enthusiasts are better off waiting for IL2 creator Oleg Maddox's Battle of Britain to surface, or getting IL-2: 1946 if they never tried all of the previous IL-2 titles.
Those that can accept a downgrade in the realism department will find that there's a lot of fun to be had in Wings of Prey tho. The most realistic settings aren't that bad either, and with some of the aids you have the option of using them or not. Therefore, it's only as dumbed-down as you want it to be.
Visually speaking, nothing out there looks better either. Even taking into account the multi-player issues, lack of solo replay value, crap joystick code, and little audible voice-over goofs...the missions and environments just feel right. Wings of Prey plants the player into the cockpit of one of many WWII planes, to encounter hordes of non-stop action, over truly breath taking scenery, in some of the most historically epic air battles of WWII. I can't knock that.
I like the fact that Wings of Prey is all about non-stop action too. It's rare that a moment passes you by without having something to shoot at in the air, or on the ground. Every mission is target rich, and each also holds a variety of secondary objectives to try and complete optionally after you've completed the Primary mission objectives. That I thought was a neat touch too. Once the mission ends you can quit, but if you want to press on to complete the secondary objectives you can.
While at first I had some problems getting YuPlay.com multi-player support to work, once it did work, it worked great. Multi-player is finicky though, because the other half of the time you find yourself endlessly disconnected from the server, and cussing like a sailor at YuPlay.com. So when it works, multi-player gives you something more challenging to engage in once you have exhausted all of the single player options. I'm not the biggest fan of online head-2-head in flight-sims either, but Wings of Prey was surprisingly great fun in all of the multi-player modes.
Most importantly, Wings of Prey is the most entertaining PC combat simulation title I've played in almost a decade now. It's not perfect. It definitely has some issues and faults, but it has managed to keep me glued to my seat for hours on end ever since I installed it. There are certainly better simulations in the hardcore realism department, but few are to offer this much atmosphere, and non-stop true flight combat simulation action.