The English Channel glistens in the morning sun as a flight of four RAF Typhoons, taking off from their English countryside airbase, cruise towards an assigned target. Rockets hang from the wings and cannons are the ready. Then, without warning, a FW190 streaks through the formation an air battle erupts. This is the kind of scenario that the IL-2 series is really good at presenting and it makes up the bread and butter of IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Normandy’s gameplay. Careful evolution of a well trodden subject? Or, does Battle of Normandy take the series beyond its roots? It’s time to take a close look at IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Normandy and the state of the whole Great Battles Series.
Released in October of 2014, the IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Series is the third and most recent generation of flight simulators that stretch all the way back to 2001. This newest generation is no spring chicken either and is now a veteran of the market with almost a decade of development time poured into it by the folks at 1C Game Studios.
The Great Battles Series represents several different titles with Battle of Normandy representing the latest content release. What do I mean by that? I’ll try and explain.
Each title in the series exists as on its own while also being simultaneously interconnected with other titles in the series. You can own just a single title or you can own them all and you’ll find the core technologies and features (graphics, sound, physics, etc.) are all shared while the content being the key distinguishing feature between each of them.
Over the years, the series has gained new features, enhanced its graphics, and overall pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with current technology. Those enhancements have applied to every title along the way ensuring that the first title in the series, Battle of Stalingrad, looks and flies just as good as the rest in the series. Great Battles has also expanded to include World War I content as well as World War II tanks.
Which titles are part of the Great Battles Series? Here’s the list as it stands right now in November of 2022:
- Battle of Stalingrad
- Battle of Moscow
- Battle of Kuban
- Battle of Bodenplatte
- Battle of Normandy
- Flying Circus Vol 1
- Flying Circus Vol 2
- Tank Crew – Clash at Prokhorovka
In addition to these titles, the series also sells Collector Planes and Collector Vehicles as part of individualized packages. These connect with one or more released titles and give you the opportunity to fly even more aircraft. Collector Planes and Vehicles are often unique types so they are worth having a look at. Their primary goal is to add some variety to already released titles with some, such as the Hurricane Mark II, being valuable to more than one title.
For a high end and relatively modern sim, Battle of Normandy and the rest of the Great Battles Titles have very reasonable specifications. Normandy has ushered in a slight bump to the system specs with the series now requiring 2GB of VRAM on your graphics card. That’s extremely modest although having 4GB or 8GB is important if you want to turn up the details.
Here are the specifications as listed on the official website (as of November 2022):
- 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: 23 Gb+
- Internet connection: 256Kb/s for single-player career, 1Mb/s and faster for multi-player
- DirectX® compatible flight stick is recommended
Not listed as supported is Microsoft’s Windows 11. I’ve been running the series on a Windows 11 PC for about 10-months at time of writing and had no issues with the newest OS.
The above are minimum specs, however, I would recommend equipping yourself with the strongest CPU possible (a 10th gen or later Core i7 or AMD equivalent), 16GB of RAM, and a GPU that has 6 or 8GB of VRAM. I also recommending installing the sim on a reasonably modern SSD (solid state drive) for best results.
Included in Battle of Normandy
Battle of Normandy, as a product standing on its own, comes with eight standard aircraft and two premium aircraft. The standard aircraft included are:
- P-51B/C Mustang
- P-47D-22 Thunderbolt
- Typhoon Mark IB
- Mosquito FB.VI
- Bf109G-6 (Late)
The premium aircraft included are:
- Spitfire F.XIV
For a map, we have Normandy on the northern coast of France where the famous D-Day landings were held. We also have the English channel and a good chunk of southern England which plays host to a number of seaside villages and towns. There are a huge number of airbases scattered all around the map.
There is actually two variants of this map as there is a pre-invasion map as well as a post-invasion map which features the infamous Mulberry Harbours and the massive number of airbases the Allies built in the days after invasion.
Also included are dozens of new and previously offered ships, vehicles, and even some new infantry objects which can traverse the beaches on D-Day.
Battle of Normandy follows in the footsteps of the rest of the series offering a quick mission builder, career mode, scripted campaigns, single mission mode, and multiplayer. I’ll expand on all of that below.
I’ve already listed the aircraft above but I wanted to talk more about the aircraft set in a more specific way.
Battle of Normandy follows immediately after Battle of Bodenplatte from a software development point of view but the inverse is true when it comes to the history books. While Bodenplatte gives us a selection of late 1944-1945 types, Normandy gives us early 1944 through mid-1944. As far as WWII is concerned, there are some key differences. When viewed together, these two titles offer a very cohesive aircraft set that work together beautifully with most of the Bodenplatte and almost the entire Normandy collection showing up in either campaign.
In the future, when answering the question on which titles people should get, Normandy and Bodenplatte together will be a natural go-to if you’re looking for the Western Front experience.
Among my favourites are some of the new twin engine types. The Mosquito, Me410, and Ju88C-6 are beautifully done aircraft with some very fun medium and long range mission profiles that usually involve massed firepower, high speeds, and low altitude flying.
There are also the classic favourites like the Bf109, Fw190, P-51B/C and P-47D-22. The latter two, the Mustang and Thunderbolt, represent earlier versions which have those beautiful “Razorback” fuselages that make for terrible visibility but beautiful aesthetics.
Most of these comes with an extensive list of modifications that I so love to see. For example, P-51 Mustang fans can rest easy as the type comes with standard canopy and Malcolm Hood options along with three different gunsights, two engines and the ability to boost to even higher performance levels with the 150 octane option. I love the completeness that this represents!
The Me410 stands out with a huge amount of variation available through the modifications screen giving us most variants of that aircraft. It’s a type that has been under serviced in previous western front simulators so I’m pleased to see it make not just an appearance but a definitive one.
Graphics and visual modelling on these aircraft, both inside and out, represent the best that 1CGS has ever done. The attention to detail continues to climb and while rivet counters might notice the odd rivet out of place you’d be hard pressed to find one unless you studied each airplane extensively. These are like digital museum pieces… in action.
Not player flyable but existing in the sim nonetheless are the B-26D Marauder, a USAAF medium bomber, and the V-1 which technically counts as an airplane. The V-1 being the infamous German weapon that is roughly analogous to the modern day cruise missile or drone and one that you can intercept in AQMB or Career missions.
For the strategic air power enthusiast, there are some gaps that are worth noting. There is no B-17, B-24, Lancaster or Halifax bomber. A slight disappointment but an unsurprising one as the series has generally focused on the tactical air war.
Of course, Battle of Normandy draws on other aircraft available in the series and types like the A-20B, B-25D, Bf110, and innumerable other variations of the Bf109, FW190, Mustang and Spitfire are also inserted in to the scenario where appropriate. This adds greatly to the variety and speaks to the legacy of the rest of the Great Battles Series.
1CGS’ map team have really pulled out all the stops to make the Normandy map a success for the title.
On the positive side, the map is large and varied with a good array of different pieces coming together to form a whole. There’s the famous white Cliffs of Dover, notable landmarks such as Stonehenge, Caen Castle, the La Falaise d’Amont chalk arch near Le Havre, the numerous fortifications of Germany’s Fortress Europe, and dozens of other points of interest. The cliff edges, an area that many of us were worried might not look all that great – but these turned out well too! There are the occasional blending issue with the surrounding terrain but on the whole they look really good.
There are also dozens upon dozens of airfields spread out across the map. All located at their historical spots and all laid out according to their historical layouts from WWII. There’s no copy and paste airfield here as every single one is unique even if some assets such as control towers are shared.
The map team have also done a reasonable job of making it look like Normandy. The farmers fields are an obvious repeating texture pattern but its done well enough to not be overly annoying and there are at least some noticeable regional differences across sections of the map.
There are a few downsides of course. The map doesn’t model the bocage (a series of interlocking hedgerows, trees, and fields) of Normandy very well. The pattern is there but there are no hedgerows. Instead the map makers opted to use rows of trees as have been done on past maps in the series. To be fair to this map team, no other flight sim have adequately done this yet either and from up high it doesn’t matter all that much.
I have spotted a few glitches in the water near the shore, a rare visual artifact that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the series. And those cliffs that I mentioned earlier aren’t perfect and sometimes the blending isn’t as good as it could be. But I’m nitpicking here.
There are simplifications in some areas as well with some smaller towns simply not existing on the map. For those hoping to pay a visit to London or Paris, I want to make clear that you won’t be able to as neither of these major cities are on the map. I can’t find much fault in these design decisions as I recognize a complex series of priorities were involved ranging from time, to performance, to simple scope but I understand the desire to visit these places too.
Single and multiplayer
It’s hard to separate Battle of Normandy from the rest of the series when it comes to features but I will alternate back and forth a little bit here while evaluating the single player experience specific to Normandy.
I want to start with single player and begin with the Quick Mission Builder. This remains one of the IL-2 series strong suits as the QMB is a simple yet useful tool for setting up some simple flights. Want to start parked on a side of a taxiway at an airbase so you can run through a startup, taxi and takeoff? Perform a couple of clicks and you’re there. Want to do a 1v1 duel against an AI of varying levels? Same thing. Or, my favourite, fly a 8v8 air battle that gets you into the action in under a minute. Same!
The still-new feature here is the Advanced Quick Mission Builder (AQMB) which lets you click on a zone on the map, select an aircraft and a mission type and the sim will then generate a random mission with those parameters. Feel like taking a Mosquito on a quick anti-ship mission? Done. Fly a Mustang to intercept some V-1s over the channel. You got it. Me410 raid on an English airbase? You can fly it. I think this is the best new way to experience Great Battles and other sims should take note!
Career mode remains a highlight for the series as well. Here you engage in a bit of roleplay by picking a pilot name, profile, aircraft and squadron. You can choose to lead the squadron or be the rookie in the outfit. The sim will then generate complex missions for you and the squadron to fly. Missions are based roughly on the unit history while using historical weather and target selection.
Each phase of the campaign also comes with a short overview of the situation explaining, in broad strokes, what’s going on. They have a consistent style, theme, and tone and they feel like historical exposition rather than something more bombastic. I like it this way.
Career mode can become quite familiar over time with some units flying the same mission type every time they go out. This is generally a historical reality, but, from a gameplay point of view it can be a bit boring. Some missions are more challenging than others too such as free hunt missions at night with a Mosquito flying entirely on your own and out looking for trains, trucks, and aircraft to shoot up. Other missions can be quite fun. I like slightly longer missions when I do get going with my sim time and so I don’t mind a good long distance Me410 flight from Normandy, over the channel, hitting a target on the coast, and then back again with a steady stream of 410s all spaced out. Thats fun for me these days! Pitched dogfights are of course still a good time too!
There are still some age old issues that crop up such as the AI chasing you all the way home. Sometimes your AI wingmates make weird choices too such as sticking around over a free hunt area after the objective is already complete. The dev team have attempted to stamp these out but they still come up sometimes. None of this is a show stopper but they can be annoying sometimes too.
Different squadrons will have different experiences so if you don’t like one squadron, try transferring your pilot over to another.
Scripted Campaigns are hand crafted selections of missions which offer greater narrative and variety that only a human generating a mission can offer. Quality varies but usually they offer a more curated experience than the career mode. Battle of Normandy doesn’t include any scripted campaigns at the moment but its likely to pick up both free and paid campaigns in the future.
Importantly, the AI in the series offer both strong points and weak points. Veterans of the IL-2 series will note that Normandy’s AI is a bit more aggressive than it used to be but it also is highly predictable and often resorts to similar defensive moves in response to the players actions. It tends to work best in multi-plane encounters and is less effective in a 1v1 situation.
I do, however, continue to credit the series for making the AI fly the exact same flight model as the player. That means no cheating, no “UFO” situations, and an overall good experience despite the issues. The downside to all of this is that IL-2’s AI is CPU heavy and that means that 20-30 aircraft encounters are possible, but they can bog the system down particularly on older PCs.
IL-2 does offer strong multiplayer options for when single player isn’t challenging enough. Fighting with and against humans can be intensely rewarding and fans of the series run several popular community servers that are typically highly populated.
There are multiple modes too with the first being co-operative mode which is fun but seldom used outside of specific events or among friends. The second is dogfight mode which is the bread and butter of the series and is highly popular. With a number of strong server communities offering both quick action dogfights and more drawn out persistent scenarios. There’s nearly always activity going on at some point although European and North American timezones tend to see the most activity during the evening.
Battle of Normandy-only owners will find their options a bit limited with only some servers offering at least one airplane from the set. Buy a few other titles in the series (particularly if they are on sale) and your Normandy content will seamlessly blend into whatever multiplayer scenario is brewing at the time.
With several years now under its belt, the Great Battles Series is no longer the lead in flight sim visuals. You’ll find that it has been eclipsed by DCS World and Microsoft Flight Simulator in some visual aspects. It’s not bad either! There is a charm here that cannot be understated thanks to a consistent art style across the whole of the product. This lets IL-2 partially transcend its less sophisticated visual technologies. The team at 1CGS also hasn’t been sitting still as Normandy’s dev cycle has helped to move the needle forward visually.
Some highlights that are new among the sides include dynamic and custom tactical codes on all aircraft in the series. In most cases they are historical implementations or very close approximations and while a historian might be able to point to some inconsistencies I have to say that the implementation is still very good at giving us flexibility while also being historically accurate. Not perfect but still excellent.
There’s also the new dynamic vehicle damage system which paints accurate damage decals on the specific parts of the aircraft that was hit. This means that you no longer have a generic representation of damage on various zones but a more specific visual indication of the exact point that the aircraft was hit. This has now been implemented on all aircraft across the entire series – not just Normandy’s aircraft.
The lighting, sky and cloud system have also seen substantial overhauls. The new clouds use the same ray-marched volumetric cloud technology that other flight sims are using. IL-2’s implementation of the technology isn’t as visually impression as DCS or Microsoft Flight Simulator but it still looks really good and it does it while maintaining high frame rates. Rain columns are almost as good as the competitors and wind speed and direction does cause clouds to smoothly cross the map meaning that weather conditions at a target can change – sometimes dramatically.
There is a a new visual feature, unique among games that I’m aware of, that simulates night vision by reducing the colours and washing everything in a shade of grey. This mimics the loss of colour that human vision experiences at night while also highlighting that it’s still possible to see something even in the dark.
It’s a bit unusual and unexpected at first but once I realized what they were doing I appreciated it all the more. Night is still unbelievably dark but a moonlit raid on the coast of England is much more playable.
All of these visual elements blend together beautifully and consistently and IL-2 remains one of the best performing sims on the market. That more than makes up for slightly less sophisticated lighting and cloud technologies.
Battle of Normandy doesn’t push the series sound design any further from what it has been. Aircraft, guns, button pushes, the ‘woosh’ of braking systems, and other elements are all more than adequate but they aren’t any better or worse than what the series has previously offered.
What they lack is the authenticity of a real-world recording. This is a consideration that a smaller dev studio without access to rare vintage aircraft has to do. I don’t want to sound too down on this because the synthetic sounds are lovingly crafted and the overall sound design is excellent from a sound stage point of view. But you do loose a little something in the translation so a Merlin, BMW radial, or R-2800 never quite sound like their real world counterparts.
We haven’t seen any changes to the series’ radio communications either which remain the same basic voice compilations that we’ve seen since the series started. The dialogue is stilted but functional. For the most part, they exist in the background and at some point, I’d love for the series to reexamine this area both from an audio perspective as well as from what kind of messages the AI can send and what you can send to them.
Flight model and damage model
I am like many of you reading this, not a real world pilot or aeronautical engineer, so my ability to evaluate aircraft from a performance perspective is limited to examining numbers and charts from historical sources and taking my limited real world aviation experience and applying it here. From that perspective I wanted to briefly give you my impressions of the series and of Normandy in particular.
Overall, IL-2 Great Battles offers an impressive flight model experience that gives me the sensation of real flight. Aircraft all have historical quirks, many of them can be challenging to fly, and although we’ll never stop arguing over the specific modelling of aircraft, the overall point of view I take here is that we have one impressive combat flight sim experience.
Much has been said on which sim offers the most accurate flight model and I’m not here to settle that particular debate. But what I can say is that IL-2 offers a high fidelity experience that’s among the best we’ve been able to experience on a home PC.
There are some quirks here and there that I would like to see corrected. For example, the one that sticks out to me is the Mosquito’s engine torque going in the opposite direction from the real one. It’s a bit of a rare miss for a team that gets so many details bang on. Minor issues aside, Normandy continues to offer the high standards that we’ve come to expect from the series.
1CGS has, over the course of Normandy’s development, made several improvements to the overall damage model with the most recent coming in the version 5.01 release update. These have generally been well received though it’d not be the flight sim community without some complaints. Even the very controversial discussion on the modelling of the US M2 .50cal seems to have moved forward a few notches although I would like to see the series finally model incendiary bullets.
The overall damage model is still industry leading with beautiful damage effects, peeling wings, and structural failures from over-G conditions. Pilots themselves have been given special attention to with the most sophisticated simulation of a pilot’s physiology on G tolerance over a prolonged period of time that I’ve ever seen. Your pilot can actually become tired and even incapacitated not only by a high G but also by a lengthy series of medium or high G turns too.
Difficulty modes and newbie friendliness
Battle of Normandy, like the rest of the Great Battles Series, includes a customizable difficulty modes.
If you want aim assist for your guns, bombs, and rockets you can turn that on. If you want advanced engine management (such as propeller pitch, mixture, supercharger stage and other settings) to be managed by a helper, you can turn one on making life simpler. You can also turn on and off icons that highlight friendly and enemy aircraft. The map too can be configured to show you everything, some items, or nothing, forcing you to navigate using the available landmarks. In single player, you control the difficulty of the experience.
These granular settings apply to multiplayer too with one difference. The server you’re flying on sets the difficulty so that everyone flies according to the same settings. Most servers turn on most or all of the higher difficulty options, however, there are a few that cater to those looking at a more casual experience too.
Looking back over the last several years of development, you can see the constant through-line of improvement that 1C Game Studios has put into this series. Battle of Normandy represents a new peak for the series offering new ways to play such as the AQMB system, enhanced visuals with the new clouds system, and numerous refinements to nearly everything from damage models, to sky colours and lighting.
The content of Battle of Normandy also impresses offering a classic mix of western front airplanes. Typhoon and Mosquito are my personal all-time favourites. We also have classics like the “Razorback” P-47 and P-51 to some very unique German options like the Arado Ar234 jet bomber and the rarely modelled Me410. All of them are spectacular and superb aircraft to fly. I’d love to see a few more bombers become flyable someday too but the set is really good as it is.
If there is an overall criticism to be levelled at the series, its that it hasn’t gone for any revolutionary upgrades. Instead, it offers a huge list of refinements and new and enjoyable content. It sticks to what its good at and it’s done a great job of it. Those hoping to see strategic bombers or for the AI to make some dramatic leaps forward either in ability or in the number that we can see on the screen at once will be slightly disappointed.
Normandy keeps the constant march of content going while also providing a series of core updates to the whole of the sim. It represents a new peak for the series and I highly recommend it to lovers of World War II air combat and aircraft in general.
There is uncertainty in the series’ future right now with a few high profile departures from the project and real world issues clouding everything. Flight simmers tend to invest not just in a single product but in a whole series and the Great Battles Series up to now has built an enduring legacy that I hope will continue for a while yet. Battle of Normandy is a high point for a series and a major accomplishment that can still be celebrated despite any uncertainty but I also hope that my worries for the future are unfounded.
Battle of Normandy Standard Edition can be found for $59.99 USD regular price on the IL-2 Sturmovik website and on Steam. The Premium Edition is available for $89.99 USD also found on the official website or through Steam.