Birds of Steel Review: A Quick Flight Over World War II

Before playing it, I was subconsciously convinced that Konami’s Birds of Steel was an airborne rendition of Konami’s classic Nintendo hockey game, Blades of Steel. After starting the game, and realizing that no one was wearing ice skates or hitting hockey pucks, I was a bit disappointed. But alas, this review is not for Blades of Steel, it’s for Birds of Steel – the half-flight-sim, half-aerial-combat title which is the spiritual cousin to IL-2 Sturmovik, and was created by the same development team at Gaijin Entertainment.

Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Genre: A Seaplane Ride With Bullets
Release Date: March 13, 2012
ESRB Rating: Teen

I never was one for the flight-simulation genre, and I’ve really only delved so far into games involving aerial combat – with the exception of a scarce amount of more-popular titles like Star Fox, and, occasionally, Ace Combat 04. So, I thought it high time to try and revamp my experience with both of those niche genres, hoping Birds of Steel would do the trick.

Birds opens the single-player Historical Campaign with a completely appropriate series of very interesting and in-depth “film-reel” style movies, depicting the events prior to the start of World War II. These narrated shorts geared up my excitement to rediscover anything I had been missing from all the dogfighting games I’ve missed out on.

Immediately after this inspirational and patriotic pull into the campaign, Birds throws the player into the cockpit and begins a somewhat lengthy series of instructional missions – running through controls and efficient methods of flying and fighting. Initially, lessons revolve around navigation, taking off, and landing – later covering aerial combat, bomb drops, and divebombing. The lessons are structured well for the most part, but even so, I felt a bit overwhelmed with the available controls: left analog stick rolls the plane from left to right and also ascends and descends; the right analog stick slightly turns left and right, and brings the throttle up or down, respectively. This control scheme – though there isn’t really a better option – throws a bit too much responsibility in the analog sticks alone, and it’s a lot to digest while you’re eventually trying to simultaneously complete mission objectives.

Missions are contained in the Pacific theater with the player taking control of both Japanese and American pilots. Several non-story missions also take place over the European theater. While in a mission, the player is given a squad of four other pilots to accompany them, with the ability to switch planes if the current active plane gets shot down or runs low on bombs or ammo. Unfortunately, the latter happens a lot. A countdown timer shows how long it will take until more bombs or ammo are available, but when you’re in the heat of battle, thirty seconds seems like a long time to wait – especially when you’ve got the enemy in your crosshairs.

The missions themselves are fun enough, when you finally get to the meat of them. Each has a short list of objectives – sometimes only one. But, since the majority of missions force the player to prepare a takeoff and landing, flying to and from the objective destinations can take quite a while, tacking on five to ten minutes going each way. That’s a lot of time spent flying slowly over water with barely any interaction from allies or enemies in the game, and it adds up. Objectives are generally vague and void of any investment or strategy. Destroying an enemy fleet or dropping a couple bombs and torpedoes on a ship hardly seems worth the time spent to fly out to sea. I’ll put it this way: if World War II was anywhere near as tedious as Birds of Steel, and if I was in the plane, the results might have been different.

One area where Birds manages to succeed is that of secondary objectives. After the player completes each mission’s main objective, they can choose to finish up the mission right then and there, or stay in their plane to fulfill a secondary – normally less important – objective, like landing at a different landing strip, blowing up an additional ship, or meeting up with another squad somewhere. This results in an increase in the mission grade, and in specific cases, can sometimes unlock Achievements – it really just comes down to determining whether you really want the Achievement or Trophy so badly.

Dynamic Campaigns are similar to the Historical Campaign, but allow for more customization. Players can set their difficulty for each mission in the campaign, and also choose what type of mission it will be – whether it’s a dogfighting mission, a bomb drop, etc. These, in addition to the missions in the historical campaign, award experience points, known here as War Points, to the player for their completion. War Points are rewarded by completing primary objectives expertly, and additional points are rewarded for having the patience to float through a secondary objective – if the player so wishes. In order to level up the player’s account and unlock access to additional planes, you need – you guessed it – War Points.

I didn’t care to build up my War Points to unlock many planes though; by that time I had gotten my fill of the shallow variation of the game modes in Birds of Steel. I’m forced to believe that the game would have been better off as a PC game, as many flight simulators are, if only for the ease of the controls. It seems that Birds of Steel’s compelling Historical Campaign arrangement was almost wasted on a console version of this game, mainly because the controls weren’t quite smooth enough to make the overall experience a completely enjoyable one. That being said, I have to commend Gaijin Entertainment and Konami for the effort.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Birds of Steel was provided by Konami for the purposes of this review.

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