Meet the most insanely authentic flight sims ever: IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad and Ilya Muromets
"This is how we do games: To understand what it's like to dogfight, we just go outside of Moscow, put ourselves in planes, and do some dogfighting," says IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad's producer Albert Zhiltsov, showing me a video of the team flying maneuvers in real planes.
It's crazy. It's commitment. It's just a small part of what makes 1C Game Studios—built from the original IL-2 franchise owners 1C Company and Rise of Flight creator 777 Studios—a flight simulator dream-team.
This is a demo where I literally hear the words, "There seems to be a desire by users from other titles to be able to play a flight sim with a mouse and keyboard. Surprises the hell out of us, but people seem to want that," come out of 777 president Jason Williams's mouth. This team is hardcore about their flight sims.
How hardcore? They have a ninety-year-old veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad consulting with them on this latest IL-2 Sturmovik entry. Oh, and they're also developing a title called Ilya Muromets which was commissioned by the Russian Military Historical Society.
Enemy above the gates
The first title I'm shown is Battle of Stalingrad, which as I'm sure you've guessed takes place during the famed German onslaught in World War II. The game itself covers a small slice from November, 1942 to February, 1943 though 1C is debating expanding on that timeline post-release.
"We try to create something we call Play, Fly, Learn," says Zhiltsov. "We develop games to provide an opportunity for our customers to develop themselves, whether in history or controlling the airplane."
To that first point, Battle of Stalingrad features a map that's 48,000 square miles, constructed from period maps. "The Germans did everything in order. First they photographed everything. Then they destroyed it. We have a lot of pictures from World War II that allow us to reconstruct Stalingrad building by building," says Zhiltsov.
"We can't do it to a shooter's detail," says Williams, "but it looks convincing from the air."
The game also features historically accurate troop movements across the five chapters of the campaign. "The user will learn about the battle and how eventually the sixth army gets surrounded and surrenders," says Williams. It's not like the campaign takes place in real-time, but it's a rough approximation of the full battle.
The team has built in quite a bit of flexibility for the campaign though, with a mission generator that takes in parameters and seeds you with a one-time-only mission. Even if you go through the campaign again with the same stipulations, 1C claims that procedurally generated missions will ensure some amount of replayability.
You'll also unlock modifications for your plane that reflect real history, such as the ability to have a rear gunner. "Shortly after the battle of Stalingrad began, the mechanics on the field created a place for the rear gunner. This is a type of unlock in our game," says Zhiltsov.
And, as I mentioned, the team had a Stalingrad veteran consult on the project—one Stepan Anastasovich Mikoyan, who was part of Stalingrad's air defense in 1942 at the age of 17.
"We have a very special community," says Zhiltsov. "These are very high-skilled people. Everyone from civil pilots to veterans."
It's a very niche, very specialized community—and thus it's absolutely essential for 1C to nail the flying aspects of IL-2. "Everyone on the market makes games thinking about how to simplify everything. We don't want to do this," says Zhiltsov. "We created a new type of AI—not just an average cheating AI where he's doing the maneuvers sharper than you. No, this is a real flying drone. He's controlling the airplane like a human does. Sometimes he makes mistakes, like a human."
Zhiltsov demonstrates by exercising his developer powers, untethering the camera from the cockpit and showing us how the AI pilots still move every lever and dial inside the plane, just as if a player were controlling things. A very skilled player.
The same AI system can help you, the player, fly, if you don't want to mess with every single detail of the plane and just want to have a more relaxing time. "The easiest way to explain it is like cars," says Zhiltsov. "You can have manual or automatic gearbox. It's not 'changing your car' but changing the way you control it. With manual, you can do a lot of small things to have an advantage over your enemies.
"When [the AI] is flying, he's doing it like a man," says Zhiltsov. "Everything is like real life.
"Basically we're all just fans of this game," he continues. "Right now we're developers, but ten years ago we were part of the IL-2 community. We've grown up creating Rise of Flight. Flight sims aren't just about buttons, physics, all those things. It's about emotions.
"All we need to do is just for maybe ten seconds, you believe you fly. This means we did everything okay."
The Ilya Muromets, flying Winnebago
The Ilya Muromets is a Russian legend. Built by Igor Sikorsky in 1913, it was originally intended for commercial flights. With the outbreak of World War I, however, the Ilya Muromets was repurposed into the first four-engine heavy bomber used by any military worldwide. Only one was ever completely destroyed by enemies—a group of four German fighters managed to take down a single Ilya Muromets, though three of the German fighters went down in the process.
It's a beast of a plane. And barely anyone knows about it.
"Recently we were contacted by the Russian Military Historical Society," says Williams. "They said, 'Hey, you did such a great job with Rise of Flight, we'd like to fund the building of a flight sim about the Ilya Muromets and spread the word about early Russian aviation.'"
Ilya Muromets is based off the same technology that drove Rise of Flight, and follows the same core tenets as Battle of Stalingrad. The game takes place in a section of what's now the Ukraine, and again 1C used period maps to reconstruct a portion of the countryside as it was in 1916—although due to the lack of documents left over from the time period this was much harder than with Stalingrad.
"The Ilya Muromets was used to bomb railway stations and troop concentrations," says Williams. "We'll have a campaign—a string of missions you can fly that have been crafted with high detail to give you a sense of what the Ilya Muromets missions were like."
The Ilya Muromets itself is a strange aircraft—a far cry from today's modern aircraft or even the planes of World War II. It's all bronzed gauges and exposed pulleys, coupled with an enormous glass windshield that Williams jokes "is like driving a Winnebago."
"It's really great for sightseeing, not sure if it's so great for combat," he continues, laughing.
Also included are a handful of other Eastern Front-planes—the Ilya Muromets's contemporaries on both the Russian and German/Austro-Hungarian sides.
And, as I brought up earlier, mouse support. Battle of Stalingrad is strictly for HOTAS/flight stick users, but Ilya Muromets will experiment with mouse and keyboard controls. "If it works, we'll look at putting that in our other titles," Williams said with, I should note, the most skeptical tone I've ever heard used to describe something as ordinary as mouse and keyboard controls.
Did I mention 1C is hardcore about its flight sims? I haven't gotten hands-on time with either title yet, so I can't speak to how the game feels or how the missions play out. 1C has my attention, though—and with built-in Oculus Rift VR support planned for both games, I'm looking forward to hopping into some exquisitely-modeled cockpits sometime soon.