Sometimes taking the greatest risks lead to the greatest reward. I think this is the maxim that the 1C Game Studios team was thinking about when they decided to try something different and put a historical tank simulator in a flight sim. Creating Tank Crew was a bold move but it also invites a lot of questions. How will the series flight sim oriented engine hold up? What is the experience like? Is it any fun and does it stand up as a serious tank simulation standing on its own? Let me try and answer all of those questions in this in-depth review of IL-2 Sturmovik: Tank Crew – Clash at Prokhorovka!
Part of the Great Battles Series
If you are new to the series or if you’re checking out Tank Crew because you’ve come from other tank sims like Steel Fury, World of Tanks, or War Thunder, and aren’t sure just how this all works, let’s fill in a few blanks before we move on.
Tank Crew – Clash at Prokhorovka is part of the IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Series by 1C Game Studios (or 1CGS). It’s a platform that has been, until recently, focused WWII flight simulation but has since grown to encompass a World War I flight sim and now a WWII tank sim. Every title in the series is interconnected with each other, sharing the game engine, assets, and multiplayer compatibility. Even if you don’t own the entire series, you can still participate in multiplayer battles on any map which is great because even if you’re not interested in the aircraft, you can still fully enjoy the multiplayer on any map.
Being a part of the series means taking advantage of across the board upgrades to the engine that, over the years have made the sim run better, look better, have better looking clouds and effects, and means that Tank Crew can make full use of VR in a series that is widely considered to have one of the best VR implementations around. NOTE: I do not yet own a VR headset so I can’t attest to this personally.
If you buy from the official IL-2 Sturmovik webstore, you can buy any title in the series, download the client, and play. If you buy from Steam, you must buy IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad (frequently on sale for 85% off the regular price) before buying Tank Crew.
It’s all about the tanks
Tank Crew focuses on it’s collection of ten tanks that are included in the sim. Each tank has an intricately detailed exterior and interior model that have been created together with 1CGS and a third party studio called Digital Forms. The detail and scope of the tanks are in line with the work that 1CGS has done with their aircraft and it’s something that, if you’re coming from War Thunder, is a step above what you are going to be used to.
The inside of each tank includes all of the gauges, dials, and people that make up the inside of the vehicle. From the gun sight to the gauges, hand cranks, and turret mechanisms to the armored glass view ports, you’ll find that every component of the interior of the tank is here. Nearly all of it is also part of the damage model. Together, these details make you much more connected with the operation of the tank and the various advantages and limitations inherent to each tank design.
The tanks systems are modeled at an extremely high level of detail. Just like the aircraft in the series, they have sidestepped a few of the less interesting parts of the simulation (such as the start-up procedure) and made sure that you can get to the business of operating your tank as quickly as possible. That said, each tank is still modeled at simulator levels of operation with engine start-up, shut down, and performance modeled according to available specs.
One of the criticisms that are leveled at more casual tank simulation experiences is the mismatch in tanks across battles and even time periods. That’s not the case here as 1CGS and their partners at Digital Forms have meticulously researched the ten tanks featured in the title. All are historically connected to the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943 and represent the specific types, modifications and capabilities available during that battle.
The Battle of Kursk, one of the biggest tank battles in history, featured an attempt by the German Wehrmacht to pinch off a Russian salient centered around Kursk, approximately 450 kilometers south west of Moscow. On the southern flank was the town of Prokhorovka which saw some of the heaviest fighting and serves as the thematic backdrop for this sim.
To represent these battles, Tank Crew includes a variety of mostly heavy and medium tanks as well as a couple of self-propelled howitzers and a heavy tank destroyer. This is the full list of available player controllable vehicles:
- M4A2 “Sherman”
- PzKpfw III Ausf.M
- PzKpfw IV Ausf.G
- PzKpfw V Ausf.D “Panther”
- PzKpfw VI Ausf.H1 “Tiger”
- Sd. Kfz. 184 “Ferdinand”
Each tank has its own unique quirks and unique crew arrangement. For example, the German tanks tend to benefit from having a slightly raised commander position with near 360 degree visibility thanks to armored glass which can also be found on the Russian KV-1S. Other Russian tanks are much less likely to have that kind of feature. Some are able to traverse rough terrain relatively quickly while others bog down and move more slowly. The American made M4A2 Sherman tank was sent in large numbers to fight in the east and offers its own unique combination of features too including a .50cal machine gun that is stowed on the top of the tank and which is very useful at engaging enemy aircraft.
Tanks also have modifications allowing for a couple of variations on ammo capacity and some tanks such as the PzKpwf IV Ausf.G has optional sideskirts for added armor protection. There are a few skins available for each tank included, however, I would like to see more added. Custom skins are also available from the community.
I should mention that the series also has two tanks that are free to owners of any IL-2 Great Battles Series title. The T-34 STZ 1942 and PzKpfw III Ausf.L are less detailed representation than those you’ll find in Tank Crew. Read my article about how they differ and why you may not want to use them to compare to those in Tank Crew.
The line-up of vehicles lacks in just one category – mobile AAA vehicles. Fortunately, 1CGS and Digital Forms are going to fill that gap with a pair of Collector Tanks which will be coming later in 2021 and are sold separately. These vehicles will add further variety to the gameplay experience and I’m excited to see them come along too.
Driving and fighting in armored beasts
I’ve talked so far about the tanks themselves but what about how they drive and fight?
Each one has plenty of character as I have learned! Put the throttle full forward and your virtual driver will run through the different gears as the tank accelerates.. Bring the tank to a halt quickly and you’ll feel it shudder and rock back and forth on its tracks. While I’ve never driven a tank, there’s no question that the physics feel spot on.
Bumps and undulations in the terrain can and do throw off aim while moving. None of these tanks feature modern gun stability features so real WWII tank tactics are required. Firing on the move frequently results in wasted ammo while move, flank and ambush tactics tend to work extremely well and waiting until the suspension has settled to get off a well aimed shot is essential.
Gun ballistics are also well represented. Tanks have a variety of historically relevant ammunition types and, with some of the assists on, you can see just how different each ammo type’s ballistic quality really is. Turn those assists off or play on a multiplayer server where the feature is disabled and you’ll find yourself need to make some educated guesses. Windage is also a factor which means getting your shots on target at 1,000 or 1,500 meters range can be a real challenge. Finding the right shot may take more than a few rounds in the general direction of the enemy before scoring a hit.
Damage models are typically something that 1CGS does well with their aircraft and, unsurprisingly, they do them well here too. The supporting visuals hold up reasonably well too and are similar to the series aircraft damage visuals. Texture and 3D model alterations give the appearance of a beaten up tank and some parts will even fly off it hit in the right way. Recent developer diary updates suggest that there are improvements coming to a few of the effects which could use some updating. We’ve already see effects like muzzle flashes take on realistic shapes for the weapon in use which is a great added attention to detail – I think we’ll see these effects improve in the future.
Making the crew work for you
Beyond the tanks themselves, the other main component of Tank Crew is the crew. What Tank Crew does is make each crew member matter in terms of the role that they play in that tank.
The gunner is obviously responsible for the weapons, driver for driving, and the commander position is where you can give orders either to your tank or to the whole platoon if you’re in charge. If one of your crew is knocked out, you’ll no longer have that capability or your capabilities could be significant degraded (i.e. another crew member can step in to help load the gun but they will not be as fast at doing so).
There are some concessions to gameplay to make this as fun as possible and so if you are in the gunner seat, you can still control the tank instead of jumping from position to position. I think that was a smart move by the developers to include. In multiplayer the same is true until you start adding multiple humans to your tank at which point the individual roles start to matter more – more on this in the multiplayer section!
Even when you’re the only human operating the tank, you can still count on your AI crew members to still do some work. For example, you can play as tank commander and issue orders through the command interface and let the AI do all the driving and gunning for you. I tend to do most of the gunnery myself but this is absolutely an option if you want to direct the mission more than play it. In the single player missions you are also often a platoon leader and can issue orders to multiple tanks including move, fire, suppressing fire in specific directions and ranges, formation controls and more.
Is there enough single player content?
One of the key pieces for many players is just how much single player content is available and Tank Crew delivers just enough. Included are two ten-mission, single player Scripted Campaigns as well as ten additional single player missions available from the single mission screen. That’s thirty missions total and anywhere between 15-20 hours worth of single player experience if you play through every mission.
For the Scripted Campaigns you have two. ‘Last Chance’ and ‘Breaking Point’ are both high quality experiences from the 1CGS mission making team with the first covering the German perspective and the second covering the Russian. Each mission comes with its own written diary and briefing that details what’s going on from the perspective of a tank crew as well as briefing you on your next mission.
As with previous efforts from 1CGS, they are well written and provide plenty of historical backdrop as to the life of a tank crew on the front as well as to the historical context of what’s happening all across the frontlines. They are well researched and detail rich.
The missions themselves are detailed and engrossing and most of them contain some very entertaining set pieces. The first mission of the Russian campaign, for example, features a huge tank column repositioning to a new defensive position before swinging around and waiting for the German columns to attack. There’s a tense build-up and then movement is spotted between the trees and over the fields as enemy Panzer’s come into view and then into range. The order is given to open fire and suddenly there are tank shells and smoke columns everywhere. It’s one of my favourite moments in the campaigns and its just one of many such moments in the single player campaign.
Some missions are short and action packed and may only last 10-15 minutes while others are much longer. Tank Crew has plenty of action but it is more deliberative than a more “arcade” title and sometimes you’ll find yourself driving slightly longer distances, often to flank an enemy stronghold, before joining the battle. The long missions have occasionally made me wish that there was a checkpoint system as the chances of sudden death are very real in a tank and somehow seem more frustrating than when you suddenly get shot down in an aircraft.
AI tanks in most single player scenarios perform well too. Those in your platoon follow commands and generally do what they are supposed to do. The developers have worked to try and make the AI a little less accurate and use ranging shots before settling on a target distance. There is still the odd time where the AI seems to have sniper levels of accuracy and that has sometimes been frustrating. We’ve seen improvements in this area during development and I’m sure it will continue to improve.
Tank Crew does not come with a Career mode that you might see from other IL-2 Great Battles titles. Career mode is a mission generator that creates random missions based on historically inputted data. It works really well for aircraft but I’m not quite sure what it would look like for Tank Crew and I found that the two Scripted Campaigns and the available missions offered just enough single player experience to satisfy.
If the available missions aren’t enough, there are options out there from the community that should add many more hours. Additional single player missions and campaigns are already available including Volokolamsk Highway by Elliott543 (set on the Moscow map), and TIGRE88 has put together over 140 simple missions to satisfy the need to have some variety. If that isn’t enough, SYN_Vander’s Easy Mission Generator can now be found with a Tank Crew specific version that can generate its own missions. Of course, you can always make use of the series’ Quick Mission Builder which will let you setup 12 vs 12 tank battles and solo tank experiences on every map in the series.
I was a little worried in the early days of Tank Crew if the series would get any traction but it seems to gained a lot of interest recently. One of the popular IL-2 aircraft servers, Finnish Virtual Pilots – Dynamic War, has long had tanks as part of their dynamic moving frontline but in the last few weeks we’ve seen rare tank appearances become frequent as a dedicated cadre of players jump in to the experience.
Multiplayer I liken to a very challenging game of ‘cat and mouse’ where spotting and ambushing enemy tanks involve patience and skill. There’s often a lot of tension as just driving down a road or through a town could make you an easily spotted target. With luck, you’ll be able to out position and out spot the enemy. The tension is suddenly cut by intense action. With luck, you’re able to out gun or out aim the enemy or score a crippling blow before they do. It’s absolutely intense!
Enemy and friendly aircraft will zoom overhead, engage in dogfights, attack tanks with anti-tank weapons and get hit by returning AAA fire. It’s impressive to marvel at and its where Tank Crew takes a step further than any other sim. Sure, War Thunder has aircraft sometimes over the battlefield but these are more like special events that happen and then are over. In Tank Crew, those aircraft are on their own complete missions and their presence may be constant or entirely absent depending on the circumstances of the battle.
Simply put, when played with some friends, Tank Crew offers some of the best teamplay I’ve ever experienced. Tank Crew was actually designed from the ground up to feature single tank multi-crew multiplayer combat. I’ve done it and it can be very fun with one person driving the tank while another manages the guns with all eyes looking for the enemy. It’s a lot of fun!
If you want to see more of what the multiplayer is like in action, check out Wolfpack345’s YouTube channel including his ‘Highway Blitz’ video.
The graphics, from the ground up
IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles is, in general, an excellent-looking visual experience and when experienced from altitude and speed, everything looks great. Bring that action down to the vehicle level and it still holds up. Surprisingly well in fact!
Tank Crew’s ground war in a flight simulator presentation does come with some limitations to present on the scale that it does. Trees, shrubs, and bushes look adequate, but their appearance very similar without a lot of variation. It’s not going to be at the same level as a first person shooter nor is it the visual feast that War Thunder. It is, however, certainly few steps beyond other tank sims such as Steel Fury.
The ground itself has seen dramatic improvements since the early days of Tank Crew. They now have more subtle undulations of the ground which helps to break up some of those flat areas scattered around the maps. It visually communicates to you when you’re getting into rougher terrain and it matches with what your tanks treads and suspension are reacting to.
The Prokhorovka map that comes with Tank Crew also has a high-detail area (marked by a box on the map GUI) where the terrain mesh has been made significantly more detailed and has more subtle changes in the shape of the ground. It looks far better here than anywhere else and its the peak of what Tank Crew can offer. Leave that area and it’s still pretty good but you will see the odd hard angle in the ground’s geometry.
Buildings and other scenery details are also available in two detail levels. Inside that same detailed area of Prokhorovka map, you’ll see buildings that feature higher resolution textures and more mesh details.
Nearly all of them are destructible in some way too which means you can go crashing through some of them in your tank to dramatic effect. I love this feature as it wasn’t strictly necessary but it was added anyways and the sim is better for it!
Bushes and grass will bend under your tank while trees, depending on their size, can get pushed over. Thicker trees, will resist the weight of your tank and may even cause damage if you ram them too quickly.
Animations for the tanks themselves are superb. Tank treads realistically track across the different types of terrain and leave tread marks on the ground (though those marks are relatively short lived). The crew inside the tank are a little stiff looking but they do move around enough to make them seem at least a little bit alive. You can also see effects with smoke and fire filling the cabin when hit.
The sim is, as I said earlier, fully integrated into the rest of the Great Battles series and you can drive your tank anywhere on any map. That said, some users have had experiences with invisible walls on some of the maps that weren’t specifically built for Tank Crew. Some of these have had their locations recorded and fixed while others may still be lurking, waiting to be found. I have not experienced this glitch myself despite many hours of play so your mileage here will vary.
Purely as a tank simulation, Tank Crew’s graphics are decent but not class leading. That said, Tank Crew has scale and scope that few other tank sims have. While most War Thunder matches feel like you’re fighting over a postage stamp, Tank Crew conveys the sense of scale and scope of the biggest tank battle of WWII with style and purpose and that, I think, is worth a little less eye candy.
Thinking about controls
Flight sims have had both the years and the necessity to develop a wide variety of peripherals purpose built for just about any flight sim experience you could have. Racing sims are the same. But what about a tank sim?
You can play this with a keyboard and a mouse and be reasonably happy with the experience. I’ve decided to go with the slightly quirkier setup using my VIRPIL WarBRD stick with its Z axis to control steering and my T-50 throttle to control the movement of the tank with a 50% middle point (also where my detents currently are) to ensure I’m always able to stop the tank. Some of you may have wheel and pedal arrangements from racing sims that you use. I am legitimately curious to hear what everyone is using to control their tanks.
You can control the turret controls with any axis you can imagine but I’ve found the mouse to work the best for this. The turrets, of course, move at realistic rates and sometimes require a long time to traverse from right to left.
Help screens are built-in
Tank Crew is also offering up some helpful control information in a way that the IL-2 series has not previously done. Station notes for each station within the tank include a detailed description of each component in the tank as well as access to that specific station’s control bindings.
It makes the difficult process of figuring out control schemes for Tank Crew much easier. I suspect this will eventually filter through to the rest of the IL-2 series but for now it remains a Tank Crew exclusive.
Final thoughts and conclusion
Tank Crew – Clash at Prokhorovka has been, by far, the boldest entry into the IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Series. Putting a tank sim in a flight sim was not guaranteed to be a hit but bold moves do sometimes pay off. Here, it absolutely has.
The sim delivers the complete package with a highly detailed simulation of armored warfare that feels far more at home in the IL-2 flight sim engine than I thought possible. While the graphics may not be quite at the same level as War Thunder, it makes up for it with scale, historical attention to detail, and integration with the rest of the IL-2 series which gives Tank Crew an advantage that other sims simply do not have. There’s plenty of single player gameplay available both from official sources and from the community and multiplayer popularity is steadily rising too. There’s no shortage of available gameplay experiences.
Watching dozens of tanks trundling along to the next objective or engaging in open warfare at scale is impressive to behold and Tank Crew handles that scale well. Yes, the series has no infantry yet but to me it has hardly mattered. I came for the steel behemoths smashing each other with high powered cannons over the fields and steppes of western Russia and Tank Crew delivered.
At its $79.99 USD full price (available from the IL-2 store or on Steam), I think the level of detail and the types of content on offer justify the high price, however, I know some will find it to be outside of their price range. If Tank Crew is just too expensive for you right now or if you’re uncertain about if the sim is going to hold your interest, you can always wait for a sale. Those may, however, be many months away.
No matter if you bought in during early access or you’re not sure if you’ll ever buy Tank Crew, the addition of this title to the IL-2 series has permanently altered the landscape of the IL-2 series’ multiplayer experience. Player controlled tanks are now appearing on a few popular multiplayer servers and I’ve already seen a trend towards more cooperative battles where tanks and aircraft are working together on similar or complimentary objectives. These tanks, together with the mobile AAA vehicles (planned to arrive later this year), are adding more depth to the Great Battles simulation experience, even if you never virtually sit in one of these vehicles yourself.
It’s taken a while for me, as a flight sim enthusiast, to get into the grounded armored warfare experience but Tank Crew has made a believer of me. The attention to detail on the tanks, on the parts of the armored conflict that matter, and on the scale in both single and multiplayer levels are thoroughly engrossing and they make up for any of the shortcomings that the sim has. If you’re at all interested in armored warfare or combined arms, Tank Crew is worth your attention!
Get an alternative take
While the thoughts above are what I think of Tank Crew, it always pays to have a second opinion and in this case I’m very happy to share Wolfpack345’s full review of Tank Crew. Featuring IL-2, Tank Crew, DCS, Silent Hunter and more, Wolfpack345 is well versed in simulation battles and I’ve coordinated many Tank Crew missions in multiplayer over recent weeks. Check out his review and his channel for a second take!