Looking back on Tactical Air War’s latest IL-2 multiplayer campaign

One of the things I said I would do a bit more of this year was multiplayer and thanks to connecting with a few fellow players I’ve been able to jump into both IL-2 and DCS multiplayer like never before.

It’s a challenging environment but it can be fun and it is the most fun when you’re tackling difficult challenges with some very fun and talented virtual pilots at your side. With the latest Tactical Air War campaign now over, I thought I’d reflect on our successes, losses, and what it’s like to fly on IL-2’s most challenging server.

What is Tactical Air War?

TAW as it is commonly referred to is an IL-2 multiplayer server that has, for a long time now, been known as being one of the more complex and certainly one of the most challenging multiplayer environments in the series.

TAW is no simple dogfight server. This is a multi-stage campaign that challenges both Allies and Axis, Red and Blue, to fight a war across multiple time periods and maps of the eastern front from 1941 through to 1943. With no airplane map icon, no kill notifications, and no team balance, TAW is about as challenging as it comes. It also attracts some of the best virtual pilots in the community to come and test their mettle.

You can fly solo on TAW but you’ll find most of the pilots joining in are flying in loose teams and dedicated squadron organizations.

Getting started

A couple of things are necessary before you join in on TAW. First, you need to go on to their website and create a pilot profile (using the same name as your in-game pilot). This profile will let you choose between Allied or Axis for the duration of the multi-stage campaign. Once there, you’re flying for that side for the whole duration so choose wisely.

Next, you can also choose if you’re a fighter pilot, an attack pilot, a bomber pilot, or all three. This is done because your aircraft collection slowly grows as you complete combat missions. Either damaging and destroying enemy aircraft, or flying a 20 minute flight with no enemy combat, or flying specific transport missions, will all net you a combat mission.

Fly more missions without dying and while landing at specific allied airfields will grant you resupply and additional aircraft will appear in your available list. The aircraft available are dependent on the map and the corresponding time period of that map.

On Red team you start off with I-16s, IL-2 Model 1941s, and Pe-2 Series 35 and slowly go up to aircraft like the La-5FN, Spitfire Vb and A-20B. For Blue team its the Bf109E-7 and Ju87D-3 eventually giving away to types like the FW190A-5, Bf109G-6 and Bf110G-2.

This is the aircraft set across the 8 maps. Newer aircraft become available as the time period advances.

This all serves to make you value your virtual pilot and your aircraft. Lose that favourite fighter in a taxiing accident or in combat and you may be flying something less to your liking on the next mission. And, if you die, you have to wait for 10-minutes before coming back into the server as well.

You can learn all of the details of how TAW works by reading their online manual. It’s concise and gets you to the point of everything quickly.

Flying missions

This is the tactical map on the TAW server and it shows the current state of any on-going campaign. Campaigns typically run for several weeks at a time and they are persistent across 24 hours with players logging in and out as the match continues.

Unlike some servers where I sometimes hop in and just do whatever I feel like doing that day, TAW rewards careful planning by your teammates.

Flying with Roger Meatball developer Jon Coughlin, Requiem from The Air Combat Tutorial Library, and others, we would often start off by deciding what aircraft we had and what target we wanted to tackle. Pre-planning the mission helps a lot.

TAW has a virtual mission planner built into their website with travel times by speeds and heading information so you can build your own waypoints list if you want. This is important as is navigation using features like cities, roads and railways, and various terrain features like mountains and rivers because TAW doesn’t give you a map icon or any navigation aids.

Flying in TAW was the first time where I started to use systems like the Bendix navigational system so that we could home in on our airbases’ radio on some tense flights back. It’s a feature that I seldom had use for before but became a very welcome addition.

Finally, the website also serves as a hub for all of the activity and resources that you might need to know. Planning strikes on enemy airbases often saw us visit the website and use the tactical information there to plan the exact nature of the attack – complete with ‘photo recon’ images that gave us the layout to specific targets.

These “photo recon” style photos give you important information on enemy airbases so you can plan your attacks precisely.

Improving our early missions

We flew I-16s and IL-2s on some early raids. They weren’t often successful and we got shot down a lot either by flak or enemy fighters but we were learning.

Then we flew a lot of Pe-2 missions utilizing the types excellent speed, altitude, and dive bombing capabilities.

Those Pe-2 raids grew more sophisticated as we planned our raids better, learned the aircraft’s capabilities and engine quirks better, and just got more experience. That didn’t necessarily make our efforts necessarily better (we still had a lot of missed bomb drops) but we were improving and surviving many of our missions.

You can see some of our raids from the Roger Meatball YouTube channel.

The Pe-2 wasn’t our only mount of choice as I flew many missions with the IL-2 as well. Every time I come back to the IL-2 I wonder why I went away as the IL-2 is so magnificent to fly, easy to operate, yet faced with a challenging and interesting mission that often ends in exciting ways. Many of these missions were successful because of allied fighters keeping our tails clear and our improving high speed tactics and AAA drag and bag type flying.

The later missions

As the missions progressed we found new mounts for our preferred missions and it is the A-20B that I came to appreciate the most. It was already one of my favourite aircraft in the IL-2 series and these missions made me appreciate the aircraft even more.

Less about TAW and more about IL-2 but I had to take a sidebar here too because the A-20B is so beautifully and exquisitely modeled in IL-2. Each button, each system that the IL-2 devs gave attention to is really beautifully done here. Although IL-2 aircraft aren’t full fidelity in the DCS World sense, there is a real sense that this is almost a living aircraft here. It’s the combination of the sounds, the textures, and the way that it flies that gives me so much joy from the moment the engines roar to life to the successful completion of a mission.

We flew the A-20 in a variety of missions and most of them low level.

In one night, we, along with some other Allied pilots temporarily turned the tide of battle against the Blues and in favour of the Reds. That advantage wouldn’t last but we held them off and it was thanks in part to some dedicated A-20 flying (and great teamwork all around).

We also did more combined formations using the capabilities of aircraft such as the P-39 in conjunction with the A-20 or IL-2 to tackle troublesome targets.

The P-39 is a fighter I have a new appreciation for as a flexible fighter and attacker. It’s FAB-250 and 37mm make it great against lighter targets and a well flown 39 can tackle flak batteries better than most others.

The final three missions

We didn’t know it at the time but we flew some of the final missions of the TAW campaign and they are symbolic of the intense challenge of the campaign in all kinds of ways.

Our first mission was an A-20 strike against an enemy tank column. Had the tanks proceeded forward any further they would have taken a critical strategic point on the map and so we set out at dusk to stop them.

Our initial strike was successful but we caught the attention of the enemy flak gunners and a patrolling FW190. Jon, in flight lead, made a successful run on the target and was about to attack a second time when a FW190 bounced him.

With critical damage to the aircraft, the A-20 pitched up uncontrollably before going back down in a massive fireball. Disaster hit for me as well with my A-20 coming under flak fire taking out the port engine. I was now an easy target for the FW190 that quickly finished me off… but not before my turret gunner gave him some critical damage of his own. We both crashed a kilometer from each other.

Our second mission saw us looking to avenge our fallen A-20s… But we were soon the target once again.

Bounced by a FW190 and Bf109 team, our Yak-7Bs took damage with mine suffering damage to the wing and a large fuel leak. A ten minute cat and mouse fight ended in a draw with the Bf109 and FW190 flying elsewhere and two of us making it back or nearly back to base. In my case, the Yak-7 I was flying crash landed with a dead engine just kilometers short of the base.

Our final sortie was a short one and it would be the last of the campaign.

With only Spitfire Vb’s now left in our fighter inventory, we once again went looking for the enemy with our goal of positioning us on the outskirts of the enemy airbase. With twilight setting in we hoped we’d be able to catch some aircraft departing or arriving. Our initial tactics were successful as the enemy was landing their aircraft when we arrived and we were well positioned for the attack.

A Bf110 with its lights on and gear down became a quick target for me and with the Bf110 filling my gunsight I pulled the trigger… Nothing happened. I hit the cannon button. Nothing.

Was my Spitfire not loaded with weapons? No, it was fully loaded. As the final screenshot illustrates, my cannons did work but not at that single opportune moment. What happened here remains a mystery to me but I was this close to scoring my first TAW air to air kill, and as it turns out, it would also have been the last of the campaign as the scenario ended.

That was it. The server ended the match and the whole campaign had reached it’s conclusion!

We lost the final

The TAW campaign was over and the Blue team had won! As one of our squad remarked, “It feels like our team has just lost the final in a sporting match.”

Though disappointed, it is always sportsmanlike to congratulate the victors. Infact I have to congratulate everyone involved for some fantastic virtual flying, smart tactics, and an overall challenging and enjoying experience the likes I’ve never had in an IL-2 multiplayer setup. So, kudos to all and especially to the victors. Well done!

While other servers have offered a great “jump in and have fun experience”, TAW is more serious, catering to the most experienced pilots, offering the kind of challenge that a persistent campaign offers. With the battles stretching out over weeks and the tension of a losing match being felt palpably, it’s both fun and tense with a lot riding on each mission and the skills of you and your teammates being put to the extreme test.

Flying in TAW is a rush of emotions from the satisfying and fun to the frustrating and tense. Any mission can be a mix of all three and that adds and aids the experience. Each mission is a fight and you care more about your virtual plane and pilot more here than in other scenarios.

Other servers can be more straight up fun but the challenge here is supremely satisfying. Plus, when you’ve lost most of your planes and you want to do something different there’s always Berloga, Wings of Liberty, KOTA (read my Q&A with them here), and Combat Box! In fact, when we lost our planes on evening we ended up on Combat Box having fun with the U-2 which you can read about here.

More TAW action

If you want to see more TAW action you may want to check out some of these videos.

Der Sheriff’s guncam compilation is a great example of his excellent flying:

jharvey407 has a cool cinematic of some dusk hour winter air strikes.

Check out this formation paradrop with the Ju-52!

And here we have Slegawsky busting up some targets with a P-40 on TAW.

And finally, in this video we have Windhover’s ‘Operation Submarine’ featuring 10 Ju87s on a raid.

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