Five kilometres away are a rapidly approaching squadron of enemy planes equipped with machine guns. As you tear through open sky towards them, delicately applying pressure to the right analogue stick you get a real sense of anticipatory excitement. Four kilometres. Push the down arrow on the D-pad and flick that right stick around to see your fellow comrades fly by your side, pairs of wings cutting through air and cloud. Three kilometres. Below lies solid ground and glistening sea; the sun beams above bathing the impending battlefield in golden light. Two kilometres. Engines roaring, tension high, your finger resting restlessly on the right trigger. One point five kilometres away: firing range.
Hell breaks loose. Opposing squadrons meet in a fiery blaze of steel and bullets, planes carving paths of fury through enemy fighters as war wages and chaos ensues. You quickly forego tactics in favour of pure fire-power, tracking target reticules and finally giving your itchy trigger finger the freedom to push down hard. Crosses fill circles, experience points light up the screen. Up ahead an enemy fighter veers vehemently towards you; instinct dictates the outcome, finger pushing harder still as the distance between quickly fades. Metres left, the winner of this impromptu game of chicken left in the balance: you throttle the left and right sticks simultaneously left to counter the enemy’s quick turn right, opposing wings centimetres away from contact.
You can breathe now. You delicately shift the rudder to compensate for the sharp angle while slowly levelling out your vehicle; there’s time for a sigh of relief and a chance to view the gorgeous terrain before you’ve turned 180 degrees and head straight back into the madness. Fire guns; kill confirmed. Push down trigger; magazine empty. Recharge time is twenty seconds, next target is closer than you think. Lightning-quick reaction to shift the right stick down to reduce the throttle percentage while telegraphing their flight path. You careen right to match them, clock ticking down, a few hundred metres of space between.
You correct your plane’s angle and find yourself directly behind the fighter, their flight path now fairly straight. You see them open fire on a friendly; the timer’s over, bullets returned. Unleash hell, trigger finger. Kill confirmed, 102 XP. Gold star on the screen: MISSION COMPLETED. You are successful but a battle still rages around you: you’re free to put the adrenaline to good use or return to base and receive earned plaudits. Either decision is a gratifying one but remember that once you’re back home and out of your plane you can select from a whole plethora of enlivening missions framed by interesting back story that let you fight in flight from multiple sides of the Second World War. Heavily customisable missions are available to you should you choose to step out of the twenty-plus mission campaign and try a different, more custom-made scenario.
Other dogfighters from around the world await you online if you want to prove your worth and earn major experience points. These points give you the ability to buy and thus customise new planes from different regions: decals add character to your soon-to-be personal preference, paint job options spicing up the plane aesthetic further. Visual enhancements aren’t a particular asset to you in war though so the experience points are a commodity best utilised in buying noticeably unique to fly planes that are obtainable as you earn your stripes and rank up. Prove your mettle on the Simulator difficulty to earn the biggest experience rewards but be prepared for one hell of a challenge. The Simplified difficulty is a tougher task than the name suggests – as recommended by developer, it’s the one to go for at least at first – with the Realistic setting a more than worthy enough challenge for those looking to get the best of both worlds and still exit the cockpit with a handsome points tally.
Birds of Steel offers plenty for many. The game looks superb and has a rousing orchestral score and set of sound effects to make the experience a treat for both eyes and ears. Few flight sim games will offer such easy access for the inexperienced while providing so much to the niche hardcore: Gaijin Entertainment are becoming masters of the genre now and in the process they’ve cracked the difficulty balancing issue that can frighten window shoppers. Simplified, Realistic and Simulator are perfectly weighted for each type of potential player and the ability to choose whether you want to limit your fuel and/or ammo on missions adds an extra layer if you’re struggling to make the leap from one level to the next.
A functional but cardboard menu layout, repetitive pilot radio talk and a fair amount of cut-scenes breaking up a lot of the fiery action are negatives to an otherwise surprisingly positive experience. This will almost certainly become a hidden gem, a highly accessible fighter flight game that can also give the hardest of the die-hards a challenge. From every take-off to each mission completion, Birds of Steel is nothing short of exhilarating.