A Wargamer’s Guide to IL-2 Sturmovik… in VR!

There are only a few computer sims that one could classify as a real wargame, but of those few, one of the best is IL-2 Sturmovik – Battle of Stalingrad. We reviewed this back in April 2019, and since then things have only gotten better, if a little pricey. Other DLCs have been added, for example, to include Flying Circus which continues the tradition of the older game Rise of Flight.

There are also the typical mix of collector’s aircraft, and since this product line seems to be always on sale somewhere, I picked up one of my favourites, the Italian Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore (Thunderbolt) Series VII.

But the neatest thing about IL-2 is the fact that it supports native VR (Virtual Reality), to include handling for the Oculus headset and others. It will cost you some coin, so you might wonder if it’s worth it. After logging some 10 hours so far this past weekend, all I can say is…

Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn!

In the Hanger

To play IL-2 in VR you will need a VR headset and mine is the Oculus Quest 2 I received for Christmas, which admittedly piqued my interest in taking Sturmovik for another spin. The Quest 64 gig will run you $299 US, but don’t think that’s the only upfront cost. Much to my chagrin I found out neither of my rigs could run the game in VR with the Oculus, so I had to find a gaming PC with the exact specs to run it to the tune of $ 800 for a refurb. Now that’s not as bad as it sounds because even my high horsepower PC is ancient, so it was time for a replacement, not to mention making other high-end games like Steel Division 2 really rock and roll.

So, what kind of specs are we talking about? Well, my new computer has Win 10 (required), 32 gigs RAM (8 required), an Intel i7 3770 3.4 mhz processor (Intel i5 4990/AMD Ryzen 5 1500X minimum) and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 Super Desktop 6 gig video card (one of nine NVIDIA cards supported, for AMD you need a 400, 500, 5000 or Vega series). You will also need a connector cable, Oculus Link software (free, it allows the headset to communicate with the PC) and if running a Steam game, the Steam VR software (free, it allows Steam to launch the game into VR mode on the Oculus). Simple, right?

Not so much. This, in addition to learning how to operate the Oculus and associated software, and then just getting used to the VR environment, is a whole lot harder than actually playing a game in VR. When you actually get into a sim and play under the VR umbrella, my experience is that the game is easier to play and you will do much better at winning your contest.

Adjusting to the VR environment is by far the steepest part of the VR learning curve, partly because we are not talking about just the ability to look around by turning your head instead of arrow buttons. With the Oculus the headset will actually track how you move your hands, for example, so that you can actually grab 3D joysticks and push 3D buttons that happen to reside in whatever you see through your headset. Il-2 doesn’t go that far, thankfully, but other games do with those modelling mechas most common. Likewise, safety is a must, so the Oculus-Steam VR will also map out an area around where you are standing or sitting for you to play.

But the biggest adjustment surfaces when your brain immediately causes you to believe you’re in a different piece of real estate somewhere else in the world. I found myself forgetting that I was sitting at a desk in a chair in my family room. When I wanted to do something like exit the game, I instinctively started spinning my head to find a door or other exit point. In a game like IL-2, which prides itself on realistic photo-quality graphics and accurate movement protocols for both man and machine, this means things can get really weird. If by chance, the VR game you are playing requires you to push but one keyboard button during the game, you might have a problem because you could temporarily forget said keyboard exists. There isn’t one to be seen in your VR reality so there is nothing to touch in the real world either.

When they say have a partner when you take VR for a spin, take this seriously. Or have an extra set of underwear when you try the included Roller Coaster software.

Tally Ho!

When you go through the semi-laborious process of starting IL-2, you will be taken to the ubiquitous hangar with aircraft, the normal vertical side menu floating in the air. I went through several of the Quick Missions because those start you off in the air and you don’t have to take off and land. Given how much I’ve depleted the squadron’s repair budget in the past, my flight commander was very happy.

When you start, everything you need to do will be through buttons attached to the joystick you are using. IL-2 does not use the 3D hands option, though there are some other nifty bits of optional chrome such as being able to see outside your cockpit as if you were actually outside the cockpit (turning this off means you’ll hit your head on the glass). Surprisingly, my joystick of choice is not HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick), but rather the older Saitek Cyborg 3D Gold USB. Make sure you calibrate this thing before you play or you will find yourself forever turning left and crashing. A lot. As in at least five times (ask me how I know). Otherwise, the Saitek works just fine.

But once in the air I discovered playing in VR actually allowed me to start killing stuff instead of grabbing for my parachute. Playing in VR is really a lot easier and this makes shooting down enemy aircraft a pretty common occurrence. Yes, you can talk about the realistic force feedback or how smooth the controls and throttle are, but that’s not the big reason. The reason is the non-necessity for the player to memorize a bunch of keys on your Logitech G105 to perform even the simplest of human physiological actions. This requirement simply disappears. There is no more having to remember where the up-down-right-left arrows are, and thus take your eye off the monitor screen. When playing I was literally gob smacked at how much my uncoordinated fingers did not have to do. I never knew the extent to which the keyboard was such and integral part of play and how distracting it was as well. I could concentrate more on flying and shooting rather than reach for keys with my short fingers.

But there is another aspect I noted, one all too seldom discussed. This is how hyper realistic the combat environment becomes. Yes, the 3D imagery is so good you find yourself trying to reach and grab the Folgore’s joystick, but it’s more than that and hard to explain. Perhaps an example will suffice and for me it was cockpit size. Though I flew several aircraft types, my favorite was still the Macchi C.202.

Anyone can fly a Mustang or Spitfire, but I revel in tackling the enemy with lesser-known aircraft from Russia, Poland, France and Italy. Yet with all aircraft, but the Folgore in particular, I was surprised how cramped these aircraft felt in VR. There just seemed to be a lot less room than I imagined, and some quick research validated that impression. I was compelled to continuously turn my head or look up and down because there did not seem to be enough room to move anything else. I never had that feeling when I was playing the non-VR version of this game.

My first VR experience was not only a good one but a very surprising one as well. Game functions I knew about worked better, and there were many new aspects of gameplay introduced that I never imagined.

Debriefing at the Officers’ Mess

OK, this cost me a bit of coin and boasted a bit of a steep learning curve, but if you do have the shekels to invest, I think it’s worth it. Yes, there may not be a lot out there in terms of pure wargames, which may or may not include online products like War Thunder, but I can see where there might be. RTS games are now popping up with native VR and first person shooters like Verdun would seem to be naturals for this type of environment.

But there is another direction to explore as well, based on the fact that TableTop Simulator is also native VR capable. Wut now? No, I didn’t stutter or stammer. I’ve yet to try this out but my impression is TTS VR solves one of the most persnickety problems us old board and mini types have to deal with. This is having to scroll left-right-up-down to see a battle map in detail. With a hex board game, for example, a single glance with peripheral vision conveys to me a lot more I can remember about gameplay that instant.

With scrolling, if I move left, my brain does remember what I just saw to the right and can’t connect the two. Younger folks who have grown up with computers seem to have no problem with this, but for the life of me I just can’t make it work. And given that Steam VR has a Desktop Theater Mode that will let you play any game in your library as if it were on a 225-inch screen, could this be the start of a trend? VR, it’s not just for sims anymore?

Time will tell of course, but for this round I have to say that VR simply takes the prize for realism and ease of play in the sim world at the very least. It wasn’t a small investment, but I’d still say I got my money’s worth… with a little left over to purchase that Italian CR-42 Falco I’ve a hankering for.