World War I flight simulators have traditionally not been as popular as their World War II brethren but there have been some greats with titles such as Red Baron and Red Baron 3D being long remembered for engaging sim pilots in the era of the canvas, wire and wooden flying machines of The Great War.
It was Rise of Flight that more recently carried the mantle for fans of this aviation era but as it slowly recedes in the rear view mirror it begs the question – is there a future for World War I aviation fans? The answer might be Flying Circus Vol 1 which picks up as spiritual successor to Rise of Flight and tying itself to the IL-2: Great Battles Series. Does Flying Circus Vol 1 have what it takes for fans of World War I flight simulation to jump to the latest and greatest? Find out in my full review or scroll to the bottom and check out my final thoughts plus a selection of 90 screen shots from Flying Circus. Enjoy!
A background on Flying Circus, Rise of Flight and Great Battles
Rise of Flight first came onto the scene in 2009 with developer Neoqb and different publishers in Europe, North America and Russia to distribute the title. 777 Studios, the North American publisher, later took the helm and bought the rights to Rise of Flight and retaining the original development team in Moscow. 777 Studios would eventually merge with 1C Online Games Ltd. in 2013 and form 1C Game Studios.
1C Game Studios took their original Digital Nature engine and developed it into the Digital Warfare engine that would power the IL-2: Great Battles Series with World War II as its focus. IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad was closely followed by Battle of Moscow and Battle of Kuban and then most recently joined by IL-2: Battle of Bodenplatte coming out at the same time as Flying Circus Vol 1. In a round about way, Flying Circus brings the experience full circle as the team behind the original Rise of Flight returns to World War I air combat while also joining it at the hip to their well-regarded World War II simulator.
Flying Circus Vol 1 is one of multiple products being launched under the IL-2: Great Battles Series. The idea of the Great Battles Series is to create a common core platform for flight simulation and tank simulation where everything is connected together.
Although Rise of Flight and IL-2 once shared essentially the same engine, many years of additional development has been put into the Digital Warfare engine that powers IL-2. Bringing Rise of Flight up to the same standard would have been prohibitively costly according to the developers and was never a practical possibility. Instead, the solution proposed by 1C Game Studios has been to recreate the content of Rise of Flight in their more advanced Digital Warfare engine. By doing this, Flying Circus makes use of a modern simulation engine with 4K textures, full VR support, and enhanced graphics rendering technologies that better take advantage of the latest CPU’s and GPU’s available.
To help make this happen, 1C Game Studios partnered with third party developer Yugra Media for assistance with refreshing the old Rise of Flight aircraft, vehicle and object models and for building the World War I themed Arras map.
It’s a real flying circus!
Flying Circus Vol 1 comes with 10 remastered aircraft drawn from the most popular types featured in Rise of Flight. The ten aircraft included are:
- SPAD XII
- Sopwith Camel
- Sopwith Dolphin
- Bristol F.2B
- RAF S.E.5a
- Albatross D.Va
- Fokker Dr. I
- Fokker D.VII and D.VIIF
- Pfalz D.IIIa
- Halberstadt CL.II
1C Game Studios didn’t just copy and paste these aircraft into the newer engine either. Each aircraft has been given a thorough overhaul of the 3D model, with new 4K resolution textures, improved material rendering for better reflections on different surfaces, improved the sounds, and they have even made small changes to improve the flight modeling. In many cases they have corrected (or at least attempted to correct) long standing performances grievances that the community has identified from Rise of Flight.
In addition to these aircraft, there’s also a map and about a dozen ground vehicles including trucks, cars, tanks, observation balloons, flak and artillery positions all historically relevant to World War I.
Each of the aircraft comes with a full selection of modifications. There are additional in-cockpit gauges, cockpit lights, ammunition counters, a wide variety of gunsights and telescopic sights, as well as weapon modifications such as added machine guns and bombs.
The Arras sector map
Flying Circus Vol 1 comes with a historical World War I themed map. The Arras map covers approximately 100x100km of flyable area featuring several dozen historical airfields, towns, villages, farms, as well as the blight on the landscape that is ‘no-mans land’.
The map uses the technology developed for IL-2: Great Battles Series and makes full use of the latest terrain and texture rendering technologies of the series. Compared to the original Rise of Flight map, trees look substantially better, fields have greater texture detail and enhanced lighting and terrain rendering shows everything off better than before. The visuals of no-mans land are improved from Rise of Flight though not substantially. Trenches remain flat and painted on rather than having any 3D depth to them.
Haze and auto generated explosions cover no-man’s land reminding flyers that brutal trench warfare remains ongoing and some single and multiplayer scenarios I’ve see add machine gun nests on the ground firing tracers which really start to up the feel of flying over an active war zone. It gives the area the kind of moody atmosphere it deserves and makes the map feel just a little bit alive.
Towns and villages on the map make full use of the newest technologies that are available in IL-2 offering enhanced building render distances and more detailed city centres and landmarks. This helps improve immersion as well as navigation seeing as church steeples, cathedrals, and fortifications tend to stick out even at longer distances.
Yugra Media clearly spent a fair bit of time making sure that some of the key landmarks in the Arras area were represented including the Amiens cathedral, Abbey of St Vaast, Citadelle d’Arras, and Citadelle de Lille to name just a few.
My only real disappointment with the Arras map is that it is small. The 100x100km size is just big enough for complex multiplayer scenarios with the slower World War I aircraft so as not too feel too cramped but there is certainly some limitations to having the smaller size map and for better or worse, you’re going to get to know a good chunk of the map fairly quickly. It’s not deal breaking as most multiplayer servers and single player scenarios still confine themselves to several segments of the map – but it does feel a bit limiting with how much diversity you might be able to extract from this area.
I’d have also loved to see additional seasons added to the map. Though the spring season is historically accurate to time time period that 1CGS has selected for Flying Circus Vol 1, I’d love to see summer and autumn or potentially even a winter version of the map to add variety.
What it does do well is capture the feeling of the fields, roads, towns, and villages that surround a critical sector of the western front. The Arras map impresses with the same high level of detail and care put into it that other IL-2: Great Battles Series maps enjoy but it makes do by being in a smaller area. That said, it’s very clear that Arras is a step forward from past efforts in Rise of Flight.
Plenty of technology to go around
Virtual reality is here
Flying Circus draws on the same technology and systems of the rest of the IL-2: Great Battle Series which means its fully compatible with the features that the series offers. That means that you can fly a bi-plane in VR which, to my knowledge, is the first time that you can do that in a high fidelity flight sim experience.
While I haven’t had a chance to try that experience out myself, my impression of VR with IL-2 in other aircraft has impressed me immensely. The detail and craftsmanship of these World War I aircraft, rendered with high quality textures, really helps sell the experience in 2D and I can only imagine how much better it is in VR. I know some people who fly no other way, so good is the VR experience.
A superb damage model
The damage model for Flying Circus inherits the excellent work that we saw with Rise of Flight and brings it into the IL-2: Great Battles Series – itself also superb at damage modeling. Wings break and fold under sustained machine gun fire, crashes and collisions feel fluid, pieces and parts break off aircraft with some of the best physics I’ve seen.
The slower speeds and closer range combat also help heighten the experience as you can see these effects better than in the much faster World War II editions.
Turn the sounds up to 11
This is another area where 1CGS could have just copied in the sounds from Rise of Flight and called it a day. They didn’t do that. Everything has been updated with new sound effects as well as an updated FMOD sound engine running behind the scenes.
The impact of that decision is that machine gun sounds feel far more satisfying with more layers and tones than the ones from Rise of Flight and aircraft engines sound as good as or better than before. That goes for both in the cockpit as well as outside of it. The sound engine also seems to be able to support new layers to the sounds that I’ve never heard before as well. For example, the wires holding many of the aircraft together appear to add their own harmonics to the rush of wind noises as you fly along. I love it!
Fly over no-man’s land and the sound of exploding artillery shells can be heard exploding faintly just over the roar of the engine – and quite low in the frequency spectrum too. It’s very immersive and it’s no surprise as 1CGS has traditionally done a great job at sound design even if the style is not to everyone’s liking. That said, it certainly is to mine.
Smarter artificial intelligence?
AI for Flying Circus is a few steps forward above Rise of Flight’s fairly simple AI and that makes for more interesting potential scenarios when faced with a dogfight against an enemy aircraft.
That said, they aren’t perfect and they remain hit and miss as they do with the rest of the IL-2 series. The AI can sometimes get stuck into predictable turns that they seemingly can’t break out of while in combat is perhaps the most egregious issue though I have sometimes noticed aircraft go flying off without any apparent damage or awareness that combat is going on right next to them.
When they are flying more or less properly, they are still sometimes a little too easy to predict and tend to overuse the same defensive tactics though that’s a charge that can be leveled against most AI in games.
Those issues aside, we have seen solid improvements over the last year of development and the most recent 4.001 patch has improved the aggression levels of the Flying Circus AI aircraft in the QMB substantially. They pull harder, turn tighter, and fly better than I’ve seen them at any previous point during the early access period. If you feel like the AI isn’t much of a challenge, set them to Ace and watch them do some pretty decent tactical maneuvers.
Visuals are always important and it is a major draw for this new World War I sim. The graphics engine draws from the same IL-2: Great Battles Series core. That means better terrain rendering, visual effects such as fire and smoke, better lighting, higher detail shadows, more varied cloud formations, improved HDR lighting, and a maximum of 160km horizon render distance. Most recently, cities are now able to render out at far greater distances letting you spot landmarks such as cathedrals off in the distance at ranges of 40-50km in some cases. These are all features that exceed the levels of detail that Rise of Flight could previously offer.
It also offers a new interesting visual experience for aircraft that shows smoke and fire leaping into the cockpit when the appropriate levels of damage are felt. It’s an impressive visual effect that comes from the parallel development for Tank Crew. It’s also a tad bit disturbing and as your virtual pilot contends with fire in the cockpit. Disturbing but also extremely immersive.
Oil leaks splatter onto your goggles as do rain drops – something that Rise of Flight pioneered and has since been tweaked.
The newer sim engine also runs more smoothly in my experience and that brings more life and nuance to the flight models of each aircraft. I say that even as the developers themselves state that they haven’t significantly altered the flight model of the aircraft. While I’m sure that’s true, bringing these aircraft forward into the new engine have still had a positive effect on their “feel”. Not having flown a WWI aircraft myself, it’s a bit difficult to know what a real WWI aircraft is truly like, but this certainly has the right feel and I submit that it feels better than Rise of Flight – especially when it comes to those small nuances at the edge of a stall or while doing a flat spin.
It is that feeling of flight that Flying Circus inherits from the rest of the IL-2: Great Battles Series. It does this through a combination of aircraft modeling, physics, visuals, and sound design. It takes those individual features, put’s them together in a cohesive experience that makes you feel like you’re there in the cockpit in a way that few other sims can do.
Multiplayer Flying Circus is just as good as anything you can get from the rest of the IL-2: Great Battles Series – albeit with a smaller player population right now.
Aircraft in multiplayer fly smoothly, damage effects are applied with little lag or de-synchronization and most of the experience is excellent – assuming you have decent internet. There are some issues with joining busy servers as the server can sometimes reject login requests though this doesn’t happen all the time. Lag can cause issues and I have experienced a couple of times a disappearing/invisible aircraft bug (where the aircraft first appears after it fires a weapon) though those experiences are rare and getting rarer as the developers have eliminated a number of multiplayer related issues.
Despite any issues listed above, those are typically far and few between and I’ve had some truly engaging multiplayer experiences flying formation raids on targets, getting into dogfights, and even flying with someone as my back seat gunner (which by they way doesn’t have to own Flying Circus to take the position).
Flying Circus has inherited many of the squadron organizations from Rise of Flight as many of them have slowly transitioned to the newer title. These groups have put together community organized events to make sure that Flying Circus has a strong multiplayer experience and I’ve participated in many Thursday Night Fly-in’s and Flying Circus Furball’s on Sunday afternoons.
Limited single player?
Single player options for Flying Circus Vol 1 are perhaps the current releases’ biggest Achilles heel.
The Quick Mission Builder (or QMB) allows you to get into dogfights quickly or go on sight seeing tours. I’ve had a lot of fun just flying dogfight missions from place to place trying out all of the aircraft and working on my World War I dogfighting skills. As engaging as the QMB can be, it is still meant to be a basic utility intended for practice and training. Those seeking a more fully featured single player experience might be disappointed with what is available at the time that I’m writing this review.
Flying Circus Vol 1 unfortunately does not share the same Career mode as titles such as IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad, Battle of Kuban or the recently released IL-2: Battle of Bodenplatte do. That means that the best built-in single player experience there is for the IL-2: Great Battles is not available right now. Flying Circus also has the ability to tap into the same Scripted Campaign system as the rest of the Great Battles Series, however, no campaigns are currently available though I expect that will change over time.
In a Q&A I did several months ago with Jason Williams, IL-2: Great Battles Series Lead Producer, I asked about the potential for single player content for Flying Circus. You can read the full Q&A with his answers, however, the brief summary goes like this. Both Scripted Campaigns and a Career mode are possibilities but just not something that the team was able to do in the time allotted for the project.
It is my hope that in future months they will be able to deliver on some single player content to add more to that area of the sim.
Update on February 17, 2020: 1CGS and the developers behind the Kaiserschlacht campaign have come to an agreement to bring the 12-mission single player campaign (6 for each side) to Flying Circus Vol 1 officially providing a more solid single player experience than was available at launch. Read more about my experiences with that campaign here.
Some single player solutions
Flying Circus’ limited single player experience out of the box does come with a mitigating factor – community developers are stepping in thanks to available developer tools in the form of a mission builder, plus ingenuity from the community and developer support. 1CGS have been friendly towards third party developers and have opened the doors to enable community members to develop utilities that can help generate the kinds of missions that you might be looking for as a single player virtual World War I pilot.
There are currently two mission/campaign generators that I’m aware of that can generate both single and co-op missions as well as a mission pack featuring some scripted missions that you can check out. These aren’t from the developers but they are something that can bolster the experience:
- Pat Wilson’s PWCG, a popular utility for the rest of the IL-2: Great Battles Series for many years now, is now on version 7.2.0 which has support to generate campaigns for Flying Circus with support for all of the contain contained within Vol 1.
- SYN_Vander’s Easy Mission Generator is another utility that can be used for the whole IL-2: Great Battles Series including Flying Circus.
- At least one mission making author has already stepped forward with single player scripted missions for each of the aircraft available. Check out Motherbrains Missions which is now on Release 1.5.
Strong potential and past comparisons
As much as I prefer to write reviews about what is here and now in the present, I feel like Flying Circus Vol 1 is just as much about what it is now as it is what it might be in the future. Though Flying Circus draws heavily from the rest of the IL-2 series, it is in effect a first release and it shows in places.
1C Game Studios and Yugra Media have worked hard to bring the love of flying World War I aircraft into the IL-2: Great Battles Series and have done so by drawing on content from Flying Circus’ predecessor. It is then inevitable that comparisons to Rise of Flight will be made and that offers a difficult conundrum for fans of World War I aviation. Rise of Flight has the benefit of several years of development, has more aircraft, more single player experiences, and it still plays really well even in 2019. So why would you buy into the new sim instead of the old one? Well, there are a few reasons.
For one, Rise of Flight’s technology is now almost a decade old and it’s not something that the developers can practically support future development on. There are also the previously mentioned improvements in graphics, in AI, in sound and in overall (if subjective) feel of the aircraft. There’s also a more far reaching point. Simply put, Flying Circus is, by it being a part of the IL-2: Great Battles Series, tied inextricably to the development of the rest of the IL-2 series. Even in the event that Flying Circus Vol 1 is the only volume in the series, it’s still now part of the overall future of the series and it will, by association, continue inheriting core system improvements that will inevitably be coming out down the line.
Should a Vol 2 end up being announced, I have high hopes that it would not only introduce more aircraft and content but also bring with it the Career system from the rest of the series and not only add it for a hypothetical Vol 2 but also retroactively add it to Vol 1. 1CGS has shown that they are willing to do that kind of thing already when they retroactively added the Career system to Battle of Stalingrad and Battle of Moscow.
These are all of the ways that Flying Circus has potential and why I feel optimistic about the title even though I can currently only drawn on past experience and future hopes to base that on.
Flying Circus Vol 1 when viewed on its own is a title that comes with an incredibly solid core and strong potential but with some missed marks as well.
The ten remastered aircraft are a lot of fun to fly and they come with better visuals, tweaks to the flight model, and a seemingly a better flying experience than anything offered in Rise of Flight. Those aircraft are paired with strong multiplayer and the beautiful, though small, Arras map which comes packed with plenty of details and some notable landmarks.
Fans of multiplayer World War I air combat and those who want to experience these aircraft in VR are going to see Flying Circus provide something that you can’t get anywhere else. With or without VR, Flying Circus also has a good multiplayer experience and a small yet dedicated multiplayer community that run weekly events that help keep player counts high.
The biggest challenge of the series is overcoming the current drought of single player content. The quick mission builder is a useful tool to get started or to practice with, but if you want a more structured mission experience you’ll need to turn to some supported third party community applications to get you the rest of the way there.
If you like multiplayer and love WWI era aircraft, Flying Circus offers plenty of fun and a decent value for the experience. If you like single player, this is going to be a harder sell for you right now though there are the previously mentioned third party utilities that are already starting to fill that gap. Flying Circus Vol 1 won’t be dethroning Rise of Flight as the best and most complete World War I combat flight sim yet, but it definitely has the potential to in the future. Deciding to purchase Flying Circus Vol 1 right now is going to be as much about what exists as it is about the potential of what it can evolve into later and I feel like this has some very strong potential.
Flying Circus Vol 1 offers up a technological leap for fans of World War I air combat with some of the best looking and flying bi-planes and tri-planes on the market today. It combines that essential flying experience with great multiplayer and a WWI VR experience that nobody else is offering right now. If you love World War I aircraft you should definitely give Flying Circus a look and I hope this review can help you make that decision.
No review is complete without some screenshots so I have selected 90 from the 4.001 release version of Flying Circus for your enjoyment!
Updated on November 19 at 12:25 am EST: Corrected the backstory behind Neoqb, 777 Studios and 1C Game Studios.