Last year I made the mistake of passing over "B17 : The Mighty Eighth" at the European computer games trade show ECTS, writing it off as yet another flight combat sim. This year we weren't about to make the same mistake again, and so we dropped by Hasbro's stand early on the Sunday morning to find out more about the game which looks like it could shake up the flight sim genre...
B17 puts you in charge of one of the famous American World War II bombers of the title, letting you take over the role of any of the ten crew members - navigator, pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, radio operator, and five different gunners.
The beauty of the game is that the AI is more than capable of taking care of itself, leaving you free to do what you want, when you want. Fancy a bit of flying? Take over the pilot and make your bombing run. Want to shoot down some Nazi fighters, or take pot-shots at your fellow bombers? Grab one of the mounted guns and let rip! Alternatively you can just sit back and enjoy the show as your bombers fly over occupied Europe, fight off enemy attacks, and drop their bombs in roughly the right place - avoiding "collateral damage" wasn't a high priority in the Second World War.
The crew members are all rendered in real time 3D, and you can order them to move around and then watch as they walk, crawl, and climb their way through the lovingly recreated interior of the plane. For example, if you are under heavy attack from interceptors on your way home and one of your gunners has been killed, you could transfer your bombardier to take over the spare gun.
Our demonstrator indulged in a little friendly fire to show just how this all works, blasting away at the nose of another B17 in the formation. Switching to the other bomber, we found the bombardier and navigator slumped over their controls, bullet holes peppering the windows on one side. The co-pilot was ordered to provide first aid, which can prevent further bleeding and shock, and so help you get your wounded crewmen back to base in more or less one piece. We watched as he made his way through the plane and then stooped over the bombardier's unconcious body to see what he could do for him. All very impressive.
Of course, the B17 wasn't alone in the skies over Europe, and several German and American fighters have also been included in the game to provide you with something to shoot at.
The best part is that you can fly all of these other aircraft as well as the B17 itself. The Americans have the P38 Lightning, P47 Thunderbolt and P51 Mustang to defend their bombers, while the Germans have a mixture of the ever popular FW190 and Bf109 fighters, as well as the more exotic Me262 and Me163 Komet. All of these planes naturally come with their own flight model and a full 3D virtual cockpit, and you can transfer to controlling one of your escort fighters at any point in a mission if you fancy stretching your legs a bit.
Each plane is highly detailed both inside and out, and looking through your cockpit windows you can see your flaps and engine cowls moving, guns firing, and the world drifting past as you fly along. All of the recquisite dials and knobs are represented in the cockpits, and even the flight stick and pedals can be seen moving as you wrestle with the controls.
To get you started, the game features a series of ten training missions which will lead you into a full historic campaign, in which you can fly 25 missions as any one of a number of bomber groups from the 8th Airforce. As the war continues the Allied lines advance across Europe, taking you deeper and deeper into Germany as the game progresses.
Even more exciting though is the option to take the role of squadron leader, assigning your own missions for your planes rather than simply taking orders. You have to select targets from a priority list, select a route to get you there while avoiding enemy fighters and flak, and set up the payload and amount of fuel your planes should carry. All of this is done from a series of screens designed to look like an airbase headquarters with period maps and dossiers on targets, planes and crewmen.
There is also a certain amount of resource management involved, with the two vital resources being men and planes. Dead crew members are replaced by inexperienced rookies who will have to be worked in, and morale will suffer if your men keep failing their missions or seeing their comrades getting cut down by flak and enemy fighters. The answer is to mix in some easier "milk runs" to ensure that your unit stays in top shape, while still damaging the Third Reich. Success depends not only on how accurate your bombing runs are, but also on how important the targets you hit were.
Planes are also in short supply, and although you will receive replacements these will begin to dry up if your losses continue. It is therefore vital to keep your older planes flying for as long as possible, making sure that all your bombers are well maintained and if necessary cannibalising spare parts from damaged planes. It all adds a welcome degree of strategy to the game, which should provide long term appeal once you have exhausted the preset missions.
Another thing which should help the game's longevity is its sheer scope - you can fly over much of western Europe, including England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as Germany itself. The whole area is modelled based on period Ordinance Survey maps for maximum authenticity, and the terrain certainly looks good, even from up close.
The sky is also impressive, with beautiful cloud cover and smoke effects, as well as tracer fire flashing through the air and flak exploding around you. The planes are nicely detailed, although the engines of the B17 look a little blocky. They look even better as they belch smoke and spiral groundwards though, and the damage effects are solid - bullet holes riddle the bodywork of the plane on the outside, and can be seen on windows, panels and chairs on the inside.
The sound hasn't been neglected either, although it was rather hard to make out over the background noise of ECTS, especially as Hasbro were right next to Konami's rather boisterous stand... Still, we are promised that engine noise will be fully dynamic rather than simply looped and pitch shifting, meaning that the tone, colour and volume of the engines will all change as you adjust throttle and attitude.
B17 should prove to be a breath of fresh air for the flight sim genre, with a range of realistic historical missions as well as the ability to take control of your own destiny, managing the squadron's men, materiel and missions for yourself. Combine that with solid graphics and AI, and a range of fighters to fly if you get bored of the lumbering bomber, and Hasbro could well be on to a winner.