Newly arrived, based on an older sim engine, filled to the brim with content and tackling a lesser known battle of World War II. IL-2 Sturmovik: Desert Wings – TOBRUK is nothing if not filled with potential, contradiction, and all the while seeking to tell a new story on the troubled legacy of an old one. This new title, the first add-on DLC package for IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover, focuses in on the conflict in North Africa during WWII featuring a wide variety of types of aircraft and scenarios in both single and multiplayer with which to represent it. How does this sim hold up and what is it up against in 2020? This is my full review.
Team Fusion Simulations was nice enough to send me the preview build for Desert Wings – TOBRUK which, in addition to allowing me the opportunity to do a couple of exclusive Flight Journals (here and here) on the blog, enabled me to get a head start on writing this review. I’ve taken my time writing this so I could fly as much as possible with the new release. Team Fusion Simulations answered many of my questions and let me write this review as I saw fit. As always, I like to be upfront and open about my relationships with groups in the industry.
Of confessions and histories
I have a confession to make – I never bought IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover when it came out in 2011. Excited as I was for the next generation of the IL-2 series at the time, the early reviews and the difficulty in locating a boxed copy (yes… that long ago) delayed my purchase long enough to convince me that the then newest IL-2 sim was not worth getting. I did what countless others did and stuck with the original IL-2 Sturmovik series for years after that. Cliffs of Dover was dead and so was any chance at a follow-up. Or was it?
In the intervening years, a core group of dedicated modders took on the task of improving the parts of the sim that they could. This group grew and became known as ‘Team Fusion.’ While official support fell away and the mantle of IL-2 development passed to 1C Game Studios, Team Fusion kept IL-2 Cliffs of Dover sim alive together with a core base of fans.
Then, in December 2016, it was announced that Team Fusion was becoming Team Fusion Simulations and that they would officially take over development of the Cliffs of Dover series. IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover BLITZ Edition was released almost exactly a year later which solved a great many problems with the original sim. Following that, they announced that the team would continue to develop and that they were bringing a North Africa themed expansion to the sim world. That brings us up to now.
Compatibility and of two different IL-2 series
There are currently two parallel IL-2 Sturmovik series in development right now and there’s been some confusion around the community on which is which. I wanted to do my best to help clear it up.
IL-2: Great Battles is the third generation of the series, developed by 1C Game Studios who initially used their Rise of Flight engine (and has since grown it significantly) to build a collection of WWII themed titles. Meanwhile, Desert Wings – TOBRUK is a DLC of IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover BLITZ edition which Team Fusion Simulations built on top of the second-generation Cliffs of Dover. The generational numbers don’t tell the full story and there’s a complicated history but I hope that helps to further understanding that there are two parallel sims sold under the IL-2 Sturmovik brand by the publisher 1C.
Desert themed, mostly
Desert Wings – TOBRUK is an aptly named title with most of its focus on the desert warfare of North Africa from about late 1940 through to mid 1942. Taking on the North African campaign is something of a novelty for flight sim fans. It’s worth pointing out that this is the first simulation title to be sold commercially (to the best of my knowledge) that explicitly covers the North African campaign in detail. Yes, other sims have included some of this theatre before but this is a complete package of map, aircraft, vehicles, ships, and single player mission and campaign content that focuses on this part of the war.
The title comes with a significant list of aircraft with German, Italian, British, American and one French type represented. The set matches the history of the desert battles from the end of 1940 through to the end of 1942 and includes everything from the Cr.42 and Gladiator bi-planes to the Wellington and Heinkel He111 bombers. Air dropped torpedoes are available on some of these aircraft which adds a unique dimension that is not as commonly found in sims. Many aircraft are also available in desert and non-desert modifications – often with modified air filters that prevent the fine dust of North Africa from fouling the engine. A nice nod to realism and operational realities of the desert theatre. The full list of aircraft is available here if you want to see if your favourite is on the list.
While most of the new content is focused on the North African scenario, there are other missions and content that has been created with the early war European theatre in mind as well. For example the Spitfire Vb that the series has introduced comes with both the North African, tropical adapted version of that mark of the Spitfire as well as a European edition too. Team Fusion didn’t have to do that but it’s clear that this DLC aims to up the ante for both products.
Content, content, content
Desert Wings – Tobruk is loaded with content! Recently we’ve seen some developers focused mostly on the simulation itself providing only smaller amounts of single player content but that is not the case here. Team Fusion made a very smart move here and ensured that you get quite a lot of content right at release. You can start this sim up and have lots to do on day one.
There are several campaigns to enjoy that add on to the two that released for the original Cliffs of Dover and they range in experiences from a late 1940 bi-plane campaign with the Italian Air Force and the Cr.42 to a Royal Australian Air Force squadron campaign flying in the P-40B or a series of missions flying with a Wellington bomber squadron.
There’s also a campaign featuring the late stages of the Battle of France putting you in the cockpit of a French Air Force D.520 – another novelty and a part of WWII that we’ve never really seen represented in a sim title before.
The available campaigns, excluding the two that come with Cliffs of Dover BLITZ, include:
- Desert Hawks – Flying the P-40 with the RAAF
- Eagles Over Tobruk – B109F campaign with the Luftwaffe
- Gravity is my friend – Ju87 campaign
- On Ne Pas Pas! – A D.520 campaign with the French Air Force in 1940
- Operta Aperta – Gladiator campaign
- Rats over Tobruk – Hurricane campaign defending the skies of Tobruk during the siege
- Rising from the Ashes – Flying Beaufighters at night defending Britain from enemy bombers
- Tempesta sull’Africa – Cr.42 campaign with the Italian air force
- The Blue Wellingtons – Flying the Wellington campaign in a series of rare daylight raids over North Africa
Single missions are also available with a wide range of aircraft types. Some are new and some others are legacy although it does create an impressive list. Quick missions fill in the gaps from there which you can configure to fly a variety of aircraft through some different scenarios. The raid on Tobruk is one of my favourites.
I’ve only flown the first few missions of most of these campaigns now but I can say that they are consistently styled and created and the mission design is very good. In one case I needed to re-fly the same mission and events played out differently which suggests to me that they have built some randomness into each scenario which always helps with replayability.
Visual style and quality
No flight sim review is complete without a study of the visuals. As much as we want fidelity in the physical simulation of flying, we also want it to look good. Here I think Desert Wings – Tobruk finds some successes but not in every category.
What Team Fusion Simulations have done here is refine the old graphics engine from the early days of the Cliffs of Dover release and do about as much with it as they are able to. In 2011 it was a forward thinking sim engine with more detail than most PC’s could reliably push. In 2020 our PC’s have caught up but the industry has also moved forward too.
Visual detailing is good when it comes to damage. Aircraft can have bent propellers, broken away pieces of aircraft, and even entire engines can be ripped from their mounts with plenty of detailing to support that. The underlying structure is also modeled and revealed when damaged. Ground vehicles and ships throw debris out relatively convincingly when destroyed.
The built-in decal system also means that markings can be swapped and a Bf109 can go from JG3 to JG53 markings in a snap. Cliffs of Dover also pioneered a dynamic wear system that meant that your aircraft could appear as factory fresh with a nice coat of paint or a well-worn type with plenty of wear with an adjustable slider. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else.
From the 3D modeling to the texture work, Team Fusion wrings as much out of this engine as possible to provide detailed aircraft, but there are instances where the engine shows its age too. Compared to the latest flight sims out there, Desert Wings lacks many of the newer technologies that help boost that quest for visual realism. There are no 4K resolution skins on the exteriors or interiors of the aircraft and it doesn’t have the level of environmental shading and reflection mapping. Shadows cast jagged edges in the cockpit and from clouds on the ground. None of this would have caused me to bat an eye at a few years years ago but in 2020 it starts to stand out.
I’m also not a fan of the colour pallet which seems graded more towards war movie epic rather than realistic real world colour. In a detailed conversation I’ve had with several fans of this sim, I’ve learned that quite a few prefer this interpretation so your own impression may vary, however, I prefer something a bit more vibrant. Despite the aged engine and technologies, this sim still manages to look spectacular and things like towering smoke columns, raging fires and dust clouds are convincingly done.
The map is another subject that I feel is contradictory. It has areas of well thought out detail, but it also has vast swaths of nearly featureless desert. Set the sun angle low and you can appreciate the relief and the subtle hills and valleys but at noon the details become a dusty wash. Up close, the shoreline has a great transparent look to it but then view it from 20,000 feet and the jagged edges reveal themselves.
Consistency sometimes can make up for older technology and here Desert Wings – TOBRUK does well with a consistent look and feel in their art and design for the aircraft and environmental objects.
Before moving on from this section, I wanted to mention that Desert Wings – TOBRUK runs runs extremely smoothly on my system. The less demanding visuals have a notable benefit to performance and my 5-year old CPU and 2-year old GPU are able to project a rock steady 60fps (locked in at the 60Hz of my monitor) with no stutters or glitches at all.
And then there is the UI
When Cliffs of Dover first came out, it was panned by reviewers for having a poor interface and that remains a shortcoming. Both single and multiplayer interfaces feel haphazardly put together and are sometimes difficult to navigate. Even after several flights in multiplayer I still struggled with spawning my aircraft or sorting out which airbase was one I could fly from. The icons being similar shades of grey and white or the icons either being small, difficult to make out, overlapping as in the case of many objects on the map, or just not clearly communicating what they do.
The control binding screen is another challenging area. Although I did not find it to be as difficult to manage as some have reported, it is still a bit clunky. The assignment list for controls is limited to ‘keys’ and ‘axes.’ There are categories but with all aircraft assignments in that category there’s no way to break it down by engine, systems, weapons or be able to do a search. Everything is in one list which means a lot of scrolling and hunting.
It is functional and I was able to bind keys and controls for most of my equipment without many challenges – with one notable exception that won’t affect everyone. Cliffs of Dover cannot handle more than 16 buttons per individual piece of hardware which means only part of my VIRPIL MongoosT-50 HOTAS can be bound. There are workarounds both from VIRPIL and by using third party software but it would have been nice to see this solved.
The in-flight overlay interface does benefit from having flexibility with the ability to display digital or analog information almost anywhere on the screen, but getting your setup configured is reminiscent of developer tools rather than a user interface. I had some help from a veteran of the series who walked me through how to set up my overlay interface.
Once setup, I was happy with what I had done and I appreciate the custom options that this enables, but it took me time to get through it and I’m not sure if I would have gotten there on my own if I didn’t have the help. A few different presets plus the provided custom option would provide for a better experience. So too would the ability to temporarily hide and then reveal the interface – something I make plenty of use of in other sims.
Veterans of the series will no doubt have worked out what everything does and how it functions but for a new person trying out this DLC pack, this may be difficult to parse. DCS World’s simple art style or IL-2: Great Battles clinically clean interfaces have been criticized for not having much life or flare but right now I appreciate the simplicity over the confusion.
Flying the desert skies
I admit being a bit surprised at generally how well Desert Wings’ flight model holds up and I think this is both a credit to the current developer team as well as the original Maddox Games team who were very forward thinking with this sim.
Aircraft have a weighty feel to them and fly in a convincing fashion. I haven’t tested specific numbers but everything flies the way I expect them to from the Bf109’s superb climb rate to the strong turning capabilities of the Spitfire and Hurricane. Having flown many of the same aircraft in multiple sims now, it’s interesting to see the interpretations of each and wonder who really has the “most accurate.” At the end of the day I don’t think I can be a judge of that except to say that they feel good to fly although the snap stalls can be quite surprising.
The sounds are well connected to the flying experience as they generally convey basic information on what your aircraft is doing. The aircraft’s frame creaks and groans when thrown into tight turns though there is a lack of rushing air noises makes judging speed and angle of attack more difficult. In-cockpit engine sounds are convincing and I particularly like the machine gun and cannon sounds.
On the exterior, however, there sounds provide a mixed appeal. The aforementioned cannon and gun effects are good but aircraft engines are average and at times disappointing. It is awfully hard to capture the growl of a Merlin or hiss and wine of the DB601 and are not convincing in this sim.
Environmental audio levels are on the other hand good with the low rumble of flak, artillery, or a departing aircraft being of extremely good quality. Flying through a barrage of flak sounds great and if you’ve got the camera in the right spot you can hear things like the horn on a passing ship under attack.
Managing your aircraft in this sim is also generally good. There are clickable cockpits and detailed systems modeling at work behind the scenes. For those of you who like to manually start your warbird, a start-up system is also employed where you need to run through the steps (turn on the fuel cock, set the magneto, etc.) and get your aircraft ready to go. I, however, was a bit frustrated when I got into multiplayer and then had no options for starting my aircraft up automatically. While I appreciate the ability to potentially do a cold and dark start-up, I also frequently press the auto start button in sims when I just haven’t had the time to learn the aircraft yet and so missing that feels like a bit of an oversight in the current context. I’d love to see this as a future addition.
Mitigating this are excellent flashcard PDF’s located in the game’s install directory that walk you through the start-up procedures for the aircraft in the sim. The guides are well laid out, useful and necessary when you’re starting out in a new aircraft.
There are some excellent aspects about the damage model with this sim. Deep systems modeling for systems such as hydraulics where sufficient damage can cause the gear to drop down (singly or in groups). The visuals are also generally good as smoke pours from the engine and radiator, small and large flames can be sometimes seen on the wings and fuselage. There are also nice small visual details such as tiny fires on just a piece of a wing burning that are subtle and just not seen in other sims.
The effects are, on the other hand, a little less visceral than the series stablemate, IL-2: Great Battles is capable of performing. When a wing breaks here it just snaps off rather mechanically rather than having a crumpling or folding effect. That’s more objective while this next comment is subjective – it is sometimes hard to see if you’re hitting the target aircraft or not as visual effects on bullet strikes and impacts are very subdued. I suspect some will suggest that is a nod to realism and accuracy. I’d like to see a bit more personally.
It is a very consistent system in my experience and so when something breaks visually it’s always been broken in the flight modeling too.
Artificial intelligence is the area of gaming and flight sims has barely progressed at all in thirty or more years. While strides have been made in research AI, gaming AI essentially relies on the same scripted approaches that they have for a long time and advances in computing power have had truly little effect on AI. There are two methods that flight sim developers have employed in recent years that have had at least something of an effect on how well the AI fly and fight. The first one is to simplify the AI flight model and give the AI a wide range of scripted behaviors. The other is to make the AI fly with the same flight model as the humans but with added challenge in terms of just how well that AI can then pull off complex maneuvers. Given enough time an attention, both methods can be made to work, however, we’ve seen no sim truly pull this off.
IL-2 Sturmovik: Desert Wings – TOBRUK falls in the prior category with an AI that is suitably aggressive and perhaps better at pulling off complex defensive and offensive moves than any other sim in the series or in the genre. It’s also frustratingly annoying at times where the AI can out roll or out maneuver a human player flying the same aircraft because their flight model just isn’t the same. I have had some great dogfights against this AI system and then also had a few that I was genuinely annoyed at when the target ahead of me flick rolled away like no human could ever do.
There are currently no flight sims that truly do combat AI well right now and when viewed from an overall perspective, the AI in Desert Wings – TOBRUK can easily be called competent and capable and they are generally good at doing what they are supposed to do. They attack air and ground targets with aplomb and urgency and I think most people will appreciate the good sides and ignore the shortcomings. Still, I admit to being somewhat annoyed that the overly fast rolling AI aircraft pulling off the same stunts that they did with IL-2: 1946 are still with us now. It annoyed me then and it’s still a pet peeve for me now.
Virtual reality into the future
Virtual reality headsets are becoming firmly entrenched in the flight simulator landscape and any article I’ve posted about any sim in recent history has been met with comments about what the VR is like. Flight simulators are the killer app for headsets with VR struggling in areas such as first person shooters but finding success in this genre. Unfortunately for VR fans, at the moment, Desert Wings – TOBRUK does not yet have support for VR.
The development team has indicated that they want to support the feature and intend to work on it post release. For now, however, TrackIR (and OpenTrack) work well for head tracking although I know there is no substitute for VR fans.
Other future updates
As much as a review is about the current state of the flight sim I’m reviewing, the model employed by all flight sim developers these days is one of constant updates and a recent post by the Team Fusion Simulations team has shed some light on future planned updates for the sim.
Big changes are likely coming including the aforementioned plans to incorporate VR into the sim. There are also plans to upgrade the scenery, use a new weather engine using trueSKY technologies (used popularly in Ace Combat 7), and create a dynamic campaign generator. See that announcement here.
At $69.99 USD, Desert Wings – TOBRUK is a priced at the same level as an entirely new game. That does create a bit of a challenge for some as this is a DLC rather than a separate entity and that means that you’ll also need to spend $24.99 USD to get IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover BLITZ if you don’t already have it. Given the variety of aircraft and the quantity and quality of single player scenarios I see this as a relatively good deal, however, I also suspect that it might feel like a high price to ask for many.
Desert Wings benefits strongly from the detailed aircraft, the consistent 3D modeling and art design of the objects, to the tremendous amount of single player content that is available on launch. You are never short on things to do, aircraft to fly, or scenarios to play out. From basic fighter sweeps to detailed bombing raids and torpedo attacks, this sim definitely delivers on that side of the experience and it does it in a theatre that, as I have said previously, has never really been covered before which definitely adds to the novelty.
These strong points are weighed against the age of the engine which delivers good, consistent visuals and performance but which always looks just a little dated to me. The slightly faded and washed out look some may appreciate as an artistic choice but it doesn’t fully cover up the lower detail textures, environmental lighting effects, or sophisticated shading that we’re seeing from other titles in 2020. On the other hand, it’s likely that development will continue and new features will help to fill in those cracks as time goes on.
At the end of the day with any review that I write, I seek to illuminate the details of the product both good and bad and give you, the reader, the ability to decide for yourself if this title is for you. For die-hard veterans of IL-2: Cliffs of Dover, I think Desert Wings – TOBRUK is a worthy and worthwhile upgrade offering plenty of new content in a sim that you already love and have worked out the quirks with. For someone new coming in, getting used to the new sim will be a bit more of a challenge, but the sheer amount and variety of content will be tempting factors.
I said at the beginning that Desert Wings – TOBRUK was filled with potential and contradictions and through this review I think I’ve expanded on those thoughts as much as I can. The generous helping of content from aircraft to missions makes this sim enjoyable while some of the more dated pieces of the sim detract from the experience. It’s clear that Team Fusion Simulations, developers who have a very real passion for the genre and the aircraft, have done a terrific job of taking a sim that many had written off as dead and not only resurrecting it but also adding plenty of life to it as well. That is the real story of this release and it’s my hope that we will continue to see more from this team of talented developers.
For your viewing enjoyment, 77 screenshots used in this article, in my Flight Journal articles, and just randomly dispersed showing off all things in the new sim. Enjoy!