1C Game Studios officially released IL-2: Battle of Kuban to the public in March of 2018. The title release includes a year and a half worth of development on new content and game features that has added to the value of the entire IL-2 series. Has the third generation of IL-2 now met or surpassed its predecessor? Find out in my review!
A brief history of the series
In the fall of 2014, 1C Game Studios revitalized the IL-2 series with the release of IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad. When Battle of Stalingrad was released I gave it good marks and suggested that it held enormous potential, but it just wasn’t there yet. The series had a great feel to it but it needed more content and more development.
The follow on, IL-2: Battle of Moscow, released in May of 2016, added a lot of content and refined some features but needed to do more to really help the series fly. Now, with the official release of IL-2: Battle of Kuban, the series takes a leap forward. Battle of Kuban represents a huge step forward for the series in several dramatic ways. Read the full review for an in-depth breakdown of the features and content or skip to the conclusion at the end for a short summary.
System requirements and hardware talk
The official website lists the official requirements but it probably has not been updated in some time other than to reflect the change to DirectX11 (from the earlier DirectX9). The overall requirements haven’t changed dramatically but if you want to turn on all of the latest bells and whistles, you might need to invest in some extra hardware.
The minimum specs:
- OS: 64-bit Windows® 7 (SP1) / Windows® 8 / Windows® 10
- CPU: Intel® Core™ i5/i7 2.8 Ghz
- GPU: GeForce GTX 660/Radeon HD 7770 with 2GB VRAM or better
- DirectX: Version 11
- RAM: 4 Gb+
- Sound Card: DirectX®-compatible
- Storage space: 10 Gb+
- Internet connection: 256Kb/s for single-player campaign, 1Mb/s and faster for multi-player
- DirectX® compatible flight stick is recommended
These days I would suggest having 8GB of RAM at least and having a video card with more than the 2GB of VRAM they suggest. My system has has GTX 960 with 2GB of VRAM and its just not enough to run at Ultra levels of detail anymore. That said, all of my screenshots posted here were taken at High and the game still looks great so you can still have a good experience on lower end hardware. But don’t expect all the extras.
For best results I would up the hardware required to a modern Core i5 or i7 processor or equivalent high end AMD Ryzen, 16GB of RAM, and a GPU with 6GB or 8GB of RAM. GPUs can be expensive these days but worth it if you want relatively stutter free gameplay with top level visuals.
Overview of an evolving series
Reviewing any flight sim these days is like hitting a moving target. Unlike early PC titles where a game was released and nothing came after, most games these days see their titles develop over time. Adding new features and fixing old problems is par for the course of flight sim development.
1C Game Studios continues to update and evolve the series under a common banner called the IL-2: Great Battles Series. Any title available under the series banner is fully integrated into the studio’s proprietary Digital Warfare simulator engine and all titles in the series take advantage of shared technologies and features. That means when the series updates with new core features like 4K texture support, 4x terrain rendering distances, and new game modes, they apply to every title in the series.
Three full titles are now available from the 1CGS developers:
- IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad available on the IL-2 website store and on the Steam store
- IL-2: Battle of Moscow available on the IL-2 website store and on the Steam store
- IL-2: Battle of Kuban available on the IL-2 website store only (at date of publishing)
To reiterate the point above, you always have the “latest” version with the latest refinements to the graphics, flight models, damage models, and gameplay features. What changes is the content that you have access to.
Four title independent Collector Aircraft are also available for separate purchase. These are the Ju52/3m, Yak-1B Series 127, La-5FN Series 2, and Bf109G-6). You don’t need them to enjoy the rest of the content, but they do add extra options to your hangar if you want them and the latter three are best suited to the time period represented in IL-2: Battle of Kuban.
Multiplayer is also fully compatible no matter which title you have. The developers have made it so that you can fly with your friends online over any map. The only catch is that a given multiplayer scenario must have at least one aircraft that you own so that you can participate. This is the fairest way for the developers to ensure that each new release doesn’t split up the already small multiplayer community. It’s smart and its working very well.
As the IL-2 series grows, the new features have been filtering back along to the previously released titles. In the last year new core technology changes have included 4K textures, full VR support, a flight model upgrade for all aircraft in the series, and most recently, new gameplay options including the Scripted Campaign, Career, and Co-op modes.
Content and variety
Battle of Kuban continues to add new content to the series and comes with a typical collection of its own content. It also benefits from building on content that has come from earlier titles too. Many aircraft from both IL-2: Battle of Moscow and IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad make plenty of appearances in the Kuban campaign – you just can’t fly them unless you also own the other two titles.
Even on its own, IL-2: Battle of Kuban offers up a diverse array of flyable aircraft including some fan favourite western types like the P-39L-1, A-20B, and Spitfire Vb. All of these were lend-lease types flown in the Kuban battle.
The following is a summary of what is included in IL-2: Battle of Kuban:
- Kuban map (416 km х 288 km in size or 120,032 square kilometers total)
- 1 Scripted Campaign called “Sea Dragons” for the IL-2 Model 1943
- 5 Chapter Career mode based on the Battle of Kuban (from spring to fall of 1943)
- 10 aircraft of which 2 are premium edition Collector planes that can also be purchased separately
- Co-op and Dogfight oriented online battles
- Mission builder and 3D skin viewer
- A variety of vehicles and ships historically suitable to the battle
These are the aircraft that are part of the IL-2: Battle of Kuban Premium package:
- Yak-7B Series 36
- IL-2 Model 1943
- Spitfire Vb (Collector Plane included in Premium Bundle)
- Hs129B-2 (Collector Plane included in Premium Bundle)
The Standard package includes all but the Hs129B-2 and Spitfire Vb.
From fighter bombers and attack planes to level bombers and dueling fighters, IL-2: Battle of Kuban has something for almost every type of player and that helps keep the appeal wide (sorry four engine strategic bomber fans – nothing for you yet).
Battle of Kuban adds very few to the extensive list of vehicles but what it does bring to the table is over a half dozen new ships. These are more complex types than have been seen before in the series and they include submarines (which can submerge and fire torpedoes), destroyers, large cargo vessels, and fast torpedo boats.
The ships are well detailed and have relatively complex damage models. Gun stations and turrets can be individually targeted and ships sink in a variety of different ways.
The IL-2 the series is clearly not content to just be about dueling fighters and makes sure that ground attackers and level bombers get their share of the action.
Gameplay and pilot experience
The weakest part of the IL-2 experience in the past has been its single player options which were somewhat limited. Players were limited to a simplified campaign system, quick mission builder and a few single missions were all that was available. That has all changed with this new release and it bears some explaining.
The new singleplayer standard: the Career system
When the new IL-2 launched, many players were disappointed that the series had not imported the excellent Career mode available in Rise of Flight. That mistake has been now been rectified. And then some!
The experience is built around fictional pilot(s) that you create. The pilot may be fictional but the squadrons that you join are historically based. Squadrons have appropriate unit locations, histories, emblems and date specific aircraft availability. Bomber, fighter and attack units are available on both sides of the conflict thanks to extensive research by the developers.
Missions are flown day by day with your squadron usually participating in two missions each day and your virtual pilot being randomly assigned to at least one mission per day. Pilots within the unit are tracked individually and its possible to lose your favourite virtual wingman or watch as their success and score begins to compete with yours. It’s possible for numbers to dwindle in the unit as losses mount but you can also be reequipped with replacement aircraft and fresh new pilots.
Much of the work done for the Career system is meant to make you feel part of the larger battle. Squadron HQ gives you an overview of the missions flown during the day and successes and losses while an available Newspaper screen helps add to the experience by filling you in on the bigger picture. If you choose to fly as a squadron commander or you get promoted to the role, you’ll also find some finer control over your missions by being able to assign pilots (and aircraft) to the different missions. The only thing really missing here is the ability to alter your flight plans or make substantive choices on which targets you might attack. I’m not even sure a squadron leader would get that kind of say in any case.
The missions for the Career mode are much improved over the earlier Campaign mode. These missions offer greater diversity and interest than before and feature several dozen different mission “types” of which there’s enough random elements built in to make each one feel more unique than flying the same scenario over again. It makes missions less predictable and keeps you on your toes better than ever before.
This variety does come at a price and the extra aircraft and objects requires more CPU and RAM. If you have a lower end system it is recommended that you keep the frontline density setting on ‘low.’ With a higher end CPU and lots of RAM, feel free to crank it up and enjoy the added chaos over the frontlines as friendly and enemy aircraft duke it out on missions independent of yours.
The concept of “dead is dead,” for players familiar with the concept, is available in something called ‘Ironman’ mode. This is a mode where if your virtual pilot dies for any reason, your career will be over, and it’ll be time to start a new one. It’s a great way to challenge players to be careful and fly differently than they might if you can just quickly respawn. It’s a small feature that has a potentially huge impact and a smart addition.
This experience is easily on par with what Rise of Flight offered in terms of dynamics but with what I find are even more engaging missions. 1CGS has also committed to adding additional mission types to Career mode which will continue to expand that appeal. Anything more than this is frankly bonus as this new feature is already a huge win for the series.
Career mode is easily the best new feature added and it enhances the single player experience in a dramatic fashion. This takes the IL-2 series from lackluster in single player dynamic missions to essentially at the front of the pack all in one move. Truly outstanding work!
Scripted Campaigns add variety
Another mode available is ‘Scripted Campaigns’ which offers a different kind of single player experience than Career. These are missions that have been hand built by a mission designer and they can be a lot of fun when the missions are well designed.
IL-2: Battle of Kuban comes bundled with the ‘Sea Dragons’ campaign and if the first several missions are any indication, it will be an excellent experience that is on par with the previously released (and separately sold) Ten Days of Autumn and Blazing Steppe campaigns.
Sea Dragons is the first Scripted Campaign to come bundled with an IL-2: Great Battles Series title but other scripted campaigns are for sale for IL-2: Battle of Moscow and Battle of Stalingrad. The prior two campaigns have featured detailed briefings with a ongoing pilot story that provides background and context and Sea Dragons is no different. The missions are accessible and not overly difficult while providing just enough challenge.
Additional Scripted Campaigns are also available from the IL-2 community and I can recommend several including Cold Winter, Fritz’ Life, and JG51 over Velikie Luki as just a few that you can play for free.
The artificial intelligence is better than before
The AI for IL-2 is still what I might call hit and miss although more hit than miss in my book. There are definite improvements that have been introduced to the series including reduced CPU usage allowing for more AI units to be in action. There are also better routines for ground attack that improve the experience.
The AI was mostly useless in ground attack operations before and that has been considerably improved. They can even handle doing attacks in hilly areas – something that just didn’t work very well previously.
I would estimate that double or triple the number of AI units including aircraft and ground vehicles are present in missions now than were possible in the past. The developers have succeeded in both making the AI more efficient and less of a CPU hog as well as maintaining their basic flying abilities.
There are some problems too as I mentioned. Generally the AI fly smoothly but they can get jittery in large formations and occasionally the AI still runs themselves straight into the ground in situations where they should have been able to avoid it effortlessly. The effect is certainly reduced from before but it still happens on occasion.
AI gunners are also inconsistent and can still peg you off at extreme long distance with a sniper shot although I’ve seen less of that in recent updates. By contrast they sometimes miss easy shots too and you wonder what your gunner was thinking (we never think that when its the enemy gunner though!). Though both of these have been issues for a long time there have been improvements and that’s always good to see.
On the whole, the AI offers a solid challenge but they can do some frustratingly silly things too. This isn’t a problem unique to the IL-2 series but it is one that causes players frustration.
Multiplayer has a lot to offer
1C Game Studios’ version of IL-2 has had decent multiplayer support from the start at least in terms of what can happen inside of a multiplayer match. The same scripting support available for single missions works well in multiplayer too leading to the ability to have either simple dogfight deathmatches or complex multiplayer scenarios with scripted events and detailed objectives to work with.
The game also currently has a limited support for multiplayer ground vehicles with the Pz. III and T-34 tanks both available to command. This leads to interesting possibilities for combined warfare in the multiplayer environment.
New to the series is the Co-op scenario which works a little differently than other multiplayer scenarios. Players join a co-op scenario and slot into specific aircraft and roles in order to accomplish a given mission. Everyone starts at the same time and there are no respawns so if things go badly you’ll have to wait until the scenario has ended before you can fly again.
Both Dogfight and Co-op offer compelling multiplayer opportunities. In most cases this works well and IL-2 is surprisingly resistant to warping and other maladies that tend to affect multiplayer games. That said, when servers become overloaded they can cause a stuttering effect which can be disruptive to players.
Server operators are still having trouble keeping servers running stable over longer periods of time and some players can have difficulties joining a server when multiple people are trying to login.
I’d also like to see a multiplayer server lobby system which would ease matchmaking and hopefully see more server events come about. The community has stepped up with an unofficial Discord server that has helped.
The developers have said that they intend to address these most of these concerns over time so I’m still hopeful to see more done on this in the future.
On the whole, IL-2’s multiplayer is a good experience with a few weak spots. Once you’ve made it through the simple server browser you can be guaranteed a small but dedicated multiplayer community with multiple servers offering different styles of gameplay. Co-op is just getting started and is somewhat limited for now but I expect to see it grow over time.
Kuban: The best in series map
The Kuban map is breathtaking and is one of the most beautiful maps I’ve ever flown over in a simulator and is definitely the best in the IL-2: Great Battles series.
Notable landmarks dot the Black Sea coast and the map boasts sheer variety of terrain that other maps lack by comparison. It makes flying in the mountains, over flat steppe, marsh, and along the coast all the more interesting. There are definite changes between the spring, summer and fall variations of the map which gives a great sense of change to the Career mode in particular as the seasons pass by.
The Kuban map overlaps considerably with DCS’ recently revitalized Caucasus map sharing many of the same locations, albeit set 70 years apart in a different era. It’s difficult for me to say with certainty that one version of this map is better than the other as both titles bring their A-game to the experience.
Terrain detailing is very good at both high altitudes and down low and you can find small and large details in villages, towns and cities that dot the landscape. Port facilities, industrial areas, railways and other terrain features are all present here.
The biggest gripe I have is not with the map itself but with how the terrain rendering works. It’s more noticeable on the Kuban map than earlier maps that certain terrain features “pop” into a more detailed versions as you get closer. This happens even when details are maxed out. The developers are aware of this and hope to implement changes in this area in the future but for now it remains an occasional distraction.
Graphics and sound remain excellent overall
I’ve been impressed with the IL-2: Great Battles Series visuals and sound since the start and IL-2: Battle of Kuban doesn’t disappoint.
The biggest visual update changes the look of the whole series. Previous editions had the ability to render to about 40km with a white fog horizon obscuring details beyond that. That has changed with the ability to render the terrain out to an eye popping 150km. It looks really good! If you’ve got the graphics horsepower to handle it, you can also increase the render distance for things like trees and buildings out to a much further distance than ever before.
New 4K texture mapping for aircraft helps add to the realism that the series is striving towards. These textures are crisper than their lower resolution counterparts and if you have the hardware you can have some truly stunning looking aircraft. NOTE: These are 4K textures and have nothing to do with 4K resolution although you can certainly play IL-2 at 4K.
New shadow settings on the highest levels are sharper and less pixelated than before and cast shadows on objects nearby. Trees and vegetation look impressive with a wide variety of types depending on the map. DCS’s implementation of SpeedTree have slightly more varied trees and vegetation but IL-2 offers up an experience that is a close second. To 1CGS credit, it has been at this level for a long time now and recent patches have only improved the look in some small ways.
Several new visual effects have been added to the series including new and very convincing water droplets that appear on the cockpit glass or pilot goggles when flying through a rainstorm. You can also see these droplets when you fly through clouds or very close to the water.
Some missions now also feature multiple layers of cloud formations which look absolutely gorgeous and are easily the best looking in the series to date. I have seen them only a few times so screenshots are currently in short supply but I will show more once I see them.
Virtual Reality is here
IL-2: Great Battles now has support for VR arriving about a year ago in April 2017. I don’t have a VR headset so I cannot review the VR implementation but the general consensus I’ve heard is that if you have a powerful PC and have a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift VR headset then IL-2 is a spectacular experience. Apparently the feeling of being there in the cockpit is like nothing else.
Some issues with graphics
Some visual issues are still present despite the overall good looks.
Aircraft flying in-front of clouds at a distance become pixelated and are sometimes difficult to see. It hasn’t improved with the new cloud visuals in 3.001 and may have gotten worse. Players running on lower visual settings will notice it more and players with the highest settings enabled will notice it less…. but its still there. Updates may yet solve this irritant.
Some players have also reported excessive stutter and reduced performance compared to previous iterations. This is, in part, expected due to the new effects and four-times increase in rendering distance but even with some of these features toggled off there are still some performance hits that weren’t there before.
Reducing graphics settings solves most of these problems and a thread is available on the official forums with tips and tricks on how to solve these issues. It remains to be seen if this is a new normal for the series or if additional tweaks may be implemented by 1CGS to help smooth these stutters out for more players.
The Kuban map itself does require more resources to display than either the Moscow or Stalingrad maps. Some users have no issues so its very much a function of how powerful your system is. There is a price to pay for how stunning that map is.
IL-2 is pushing GPU technology hard and players will benefit from having a powerful GPU with a large amount of VRAM if they want to play at the highest settings. Dropping the visuals may degrade the visual appeal slightly but the series still looks good even with a few features turned off.
Sound adds immersion
Sounds for the series remain at a very high level with detailed and pleasant sound in most cases. Some of the best sound work is in communicating what it feels like to be in a cockpit. The whistle of air rushing past or through the cockpit is extremely well done and sound is used to good effect to communicate what your aircraft is doing in the air. That rush of air changes in character while stalling or performing a tight turn and it gives you the feeling that is otherwise lost by actually being in the cockpit feeling the aircraft and world moving around you.
Pairing of sound with the visual and flight model systems really come together to create something special. The sound is what really brings it all together in a convincing way.
There are plenty of added sounds around the game world from vehicle noises, tank treads squeaking, distant and nearby artillery fire, the sounds of a distant airplane, bells on ships, and the horn on a train. It’s all there and really nicely integrated even if you rarely hear these things in normal play.
The weakest part of the experience are the aircraft engines from the external views which sound decent enough most of the time, however, you’ll never be fooled into thinking they are their real-life counterparts. If I’m being real, this would be very difficult to do as I’ve yet to hear a flight sim truly nail this and I’m nitpicking on this point.
Realism and attention to detail
The IL-2 series has always erred more on the side of a hardcore flight sim than something such as War Thunder or World of Planes that has focused more on the arcade experience. Though IL-2 can be played via mouse control, the series really shines when you have a full flight control system with at least a good joystick.
With the appropriate controls, the aircraft come to life with very different handling characteristics for each aircraft. Though there is always room for debate, the series focuses on getting historical details right from the big things like speed and climb rate to the way that the aircraft look. Small things are attended to as well – for example, the A-20B, experiences an uncomfortable and unpleasant shuttering if you leave the inlet shutters open when in-flight. A very real problem on the actual aircraft. This is the stuff that people like myself love to see.
Damage modeling goes into detail with individual systems that can be damaged, structural features that can fail instantly or fail over time or in reaction to violent aircraft movements, and that all comes together to make for some very tense returns to base when your aircraft is falling apart around you. The combination of graphical effects and in-depth systems modeling helps IL-2 have one of the best if not the best damage models I’ve seen with competitors like DCS working to play catch-up in some areas.
At the same time, IL-2 does do some simplifications. Start-up procedures for each aircraft are modeled in-depth, however, they happen on their own with a single press of a button. Not being able to click through the start-up is an annoyance for some and a benefit to others. It keeps IL-2 more accessible than a sim like DCS where every system has to be started-up.
Engine management can be made complex with the need to control inlet and outlet shutters, radiators, flaps, and other aircraft systems that are essential to WWII piloting.
IL-2 finds a middle ground that angles towards the hard-core but offers some helpful hints to newer players with tips and GUI elements offering advice in some cases. Expert mode requires complex engine management and a more thorough understanding of your aircraft while Normal mode simplifies the experience and ensures that players can jump in with less knowledge.
While there can always be arguments about damage and flight modeling, what IL-2 does offer is one of the best feelings of flight in any simulator around. That feeling of flight happens even without the VR headset so let that sink in for a moment.
Conclusion and scoring
What IL-2: Battle of Kuban and the rest of the series do best is offer a complete gameplay experience that includes just enough content to add up together to be something special. No matter which title you buy for IL-2, you will have a complete package with the historically matched aircraft, scenario, scenery, objects and gameplay offered up together – something that competitors have had trouble doing in one package.
The launch of IL-2: Battle of Kuban has confronted one of the weakest points for the IL-2: Great Battle Series, its single player, and turned that into one of its biggest strengths. Long gone are the old unlock progression systems that frustrated hard-core users so much and in its place is something that is both accessible and easy to get into as well. It will be a feature that will offer potentially hundreds of hours of replayability and it stands out as a real crowing achievement for 1C Game Studios.
Both Career and Scripted Campaign modes offer up the kind of single player experience that I, and many other experienced sim pilots, wanted to see. The developers also saw fit to add this experience to the two previous titles which is a huge boost to the entire series. Players can now have single-player Career that spans multiple scenarios from Moscow, Stalingrad and then on to the Kuban. This is the kind of thing that sim players dream of and it bodes well for future titles too.
Multiplayer is both a strength and a weakness for the series with a strong experience once you’re in a server and a weaker experience before that. Getting into matches can be a little unfriendly and the lack of a lobby or matching system makes it a bit more difficult to arrange multiplayer scenarios than it could be. That the developers have recognized this and planned future updates makes me hopeful.
IL-2: Battle of Kuban is an inflection point for the series as the last year and a half has seen the series address many of its shortcomings and turn them into strengths. Almost every aspect has been improved in the series from the way the aircraft handle to new visual options and new ways to play.
A few minor graphical and performance issues aside, IL-2: Battle of Kuban launches with an incredible effort by 1C Game Studios to offer a solid flight sim that has something for just about any WWII flight-sim pilot out there.
Holdouts still playing IL-2: 1946 need to take note that the new series has, in many ways, well surpassed the original in gameplay, visuals, and in flight and aircraft fidelity. It has also started to close the gap when it comes to offering the kind of variety of aircraft that the original offered.
If you’re in the market for a compelling and historically accurate World War II flight sim experience then you need to look no further. IL-2: Battle of Kuban and the rest of the IL-2: Great Battles Series offers complete packages of content that are hard to beat in the sim world. Though not as in-depth as DCS and not as arcade-oriented as War Thunder, IL-2: Battle of Kuban finds an ideal space in between that should keep players coming back for more.
Overall Score: 9/10
- Detailed and faithful recreations of WWII warbirds that are both authentic and accessible to the average sim player
- Beautiful graphics and good sound effects help make you really feel like you’re flying
- High developer support continues to evolve the series, even for people who only bought the original
- VR support
- Multiplayer lobby still a much needed feature
- Performance issues on some PC’s can sour the experience for players, particularly in dense multiplayer and singleplayer scenarios
The road ahead
Although there is much excitement about the launch of IL-2: Battle of Kuban right now, there is also great hope for the future. The series continues with a 1944 to 1945 setting on the Western Front in the form of IL-2: Battle of Bodenplatte.
Its the first time that the third generation of IL-2 will venture away from the east into the conflict in the west. Future expansions are planning to return to the Pacific theatre as well which, with some time and development, will be extremely exciting for many fans.
The series is also expanding into other areas as well. 1C Game Studio’s team was also responsible for the excellent work on Rise of Flight and they will be rehabilitating aircraft and content from that series and bringing it into a new generation with Flying Circus Vol 1. If that was not enough, fans of armored gameplay should be excited by the announcement of Tank Crew: Clash at Prokhorovka. All of these will be integrated into the IL-2: Great Battles Series and become part of the expanding world that this series is building.
The future is bright!
One area that IL-2 really shines in, the graphics, open up possibilities for taking some great screenshots. Many are already in the above review but here’s several dozen for your enjoyment.
EDIT: Review was updated April 12, 2018 at 6:28 pm for minor grammatical and factual corrections. IL-2: Great Battles Series represents the third, not second, generation of IL-2 flight sim.