Birds of Steel was built for people interested in the history of aviation during World War II. That isn’t to say that more casual flight enthusiasts won’t have fun; my expertise stops at knowing planes need two wings to function correctly, and I was entertained.

Unlike other entries in the flight genre, Birds of Steel isn’t wrapped around a narrative structure. It feels like a World War II aviation sandbox with a few goals peppered here and there to help drive you forward. Playing through the two similar campaigns earns experience to unlock new planes. One arc follows the path of the Americans between 1941 and 1942, and the other follows the Japanese during the same timeframe. The missions come straight from true events, and you pilot more than 100 historically accurate planes. World War II history buffs will be in heaven reliving the memorable moments of the war in the real planes that flew during that era.

Each mission involves taking off, shooting at your enemies, and landing. The only significant variation is your ammunition; you dogfight with bullets, take out carriers with dropped bombs, and destroy submarines with missiles. Unfortunately, getting to and from the combat zones requires a surprising amount of non-combat time. These stretches were likely incorporated to create a sense of realism, but once I’ve completed my objective, I can do without a five-minute flight back to home base.

When you are fighting – not simply flying over the ocean on your way to fight – Birds of Steel is intense. Barreling toward an aircraft carrier to drop a bomb and pulling out at the last second with explosions wracking your ship on the way down is exciting, even if you are doing it just about every mission.

If you really want to up the intensity, bumping up the realism of flight control effectively heightens the difficulty. Leaning too hard into a turn can send you spiraling and you have to pull out of your spin before meeting the ground. It changes the game drastically, but in ways that those pining for a realistic experience will appreciate. Instead of simply focusing on lining up your reticule with your enemy, you will be devoting more than half of your attention to keeping your plane in the air. Wind becomes a terrifying factor in your ability to stay afloat, and getting out of a rough spot is no longer as simple as pushing the control stick to the left. I found myself pulling out of fatal spirals frequently in this setting all while trying to maintain the upper hand in dog fights.

The historical campaigns offer a meaty chunk of single-player combat, but the reason to continually return to Birds of Steel is the multiplayer. Along with the unlockable planes, decal options allow you to paste giant four leaf clovers to your favorite plane, among other images. 

Plenty of cooperative and competitive options round out the multiplayer modes along with options for tournaments and special events. A surprisingly deep customizable multiplayer mode lets you create just about any scenario. These options are well and good, but at the time of this review (just a few weeks after the game’s release) there weren’t many people online to take advantage of all the interesting features.

AI fighters fill the void when real humans aren’t available, which is good, but it also highlights how few people are currently playing the game. I played a match where there was only one other real human and 14 AI pilots. When that human being left the game, I might as well have been playing single-player. When you can find some people to play against, you will have a rewarding and highly challenging game on your hands where each kill feels like a battle of wits.

Sincere attempts have been made to make this game more universally appealing to a wider range of gamers with the simpler control options. Removing the need to focus heavily on keeping your plane in the air leads to a fun-but-simple flight combat game. Unfortunately, you can’t escape the fact that the gamer who will get the most from Birds of Steel is the one who has at least one meticulously painted World War II model airplane.