B-17 is a brave attempt to do something new with the flight simulator genre. Let's face it, there is not much flying to be done in a B-17 beyond taking off, holding her steady for hundreds of miles, and then landing. The B-17 is a heavy bomber and is therefore unsuitable for the aerobatics that attract gamers to the classier fighter aircraft; no B-17 pilot sim was going to do very well.
Something Old, Something New
Wayward have therefore decided to make the game a B-17 crew simulator - a game where the player can act as pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator or gunner in addition to being the aircraft commander, with a total of eleven positions in the aircraft for the ten man crew to take. Anyone who has seen the film "Memphis Belle" will feel immediately at home, watching crew members move about the aircraft, unjam guns and tend to the wounded. When the player is not actively manning a station, it will be manned competently by the AI crewmembers, who gain in experience as the campaigns progress. The main let-down tends to be inexperienced navigators - it's embarrassing when they can't even find Bremen!
In addition to the bomber itself, B-17 allows you to fly three escort fighters (P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang) and three German interceptors (Messerschmidt Bf-109, Focke Wulf-190, Messerschmidt-262 Jet), although none of these aircraft offer the features one would expect in a pure fighter sim. You start in the air and your world revolves around the bombers in the neighbourhood. This game is therefore a complex mix of flight simulator, crew management simulator and role playing game; at its highest level the game even allows you to manage a whole twelve aircraft squadron of the Eighth Air Force, with all the resource and personnel management issues involved, such as deciding when to give your crews a break or whether to replace a battle-fatigued but competent tailgunner with a fresh rookie. Inevitably Wayward have had to make compromises to fit this ambitious package into a workable game. Have they succeeded?
View To A Kill
The B-17 is modelled well - from the shiny metallic skin to the tiny catwalk through the bomb bay. Looking from outside you can see the pilots sitting in the cockpit and the waist gunners peering from their positions, while inside the crew move about the cramped interior convincingly. There are six compartments - nose, cockpit, bomb bay, radio room, waist and tail - and you will spend a lot of time in them watching the crew go through their tasks, while adding some of your own. Damaged by flak after the bomb run? Order the bombardier to man the chin turret, while the left waist gunner manually cranks the jammed bomb bay doors and the ball gunner gives first aid to the radio operator.
There are two other main views inside the bomber - the action view and the instrument view. For the pilot/co-pilot these are clear - the action view looks out the windscreen while the various instrument views check the panel. The gunners' action view is their gunsight, while their instrument view is merely a check of how much ammunition they have. The two most complicated views are those of the navigator and bombardier. The navigator has to keep the aircraft on course over hundreds of miles of enemy territory, and unless you have navigation set to flawless or have a very experienced navigator you will spend a lot of time in this view comparing the map with landmarks you can see on the ground and updating your position. Given that you can start the campaign in December 1943 and experience nine-tenths cloud cover this is quite a task.
The bombardier has to aim using the Norden bombsight, by far the best part of the game. As you approach the target you will get a met report from the radio operator and will have to decide if the target can be hit. Then you must acquire the target through the cloud and stabilise the gyroscopic bombsight on the target, with allowances for altitude and wind drift. This is not as complicated as it seems, though it gets harder when flak bursts fill your bombsight, the nose compartment is filling with smoke, and the navigator just three feet away has a fragment of iron sticking out of his chest and needs urgent attention.
As you will have gathered, this game is more of a combat simulation than a flight simulation. The pilot seat is perhaps the least-occupied seat of the game, partly because of the restricted view and the inability to see out of the window and see the panel at once, and partly because the flight model is not great. There seems to be no appreciable difference between a fully-loaded B-17 and an empty one, though damage to the plane is well reflected in increased handling difficulties. Those looking to fly the B-17 full time will have to look elsewhere.
If flying the B-17 is unsatisfying, flying the fighters is best described merely as an entertaining diversion. The flight models are amateur and the fighters are limited to tiny flights rather than mass attacks. This is strange, given the amount of work that has clearly gone into making the cockpits as realistic as possible. It's almost as though fighters were originally to have played a bigger part in this game but have been hastily finished.
Another aspect of the game where time ran out is multiplayer, which was cut from the game entirely. This was originally to have been the central theme of the game, and what fun that would have been! Given the problems this game has running smoothly on even the best machines though, it is hard to see how multiplayer could have worked. The game seems stable (I have not experienced a single crash) but there are problems - the sound is erratic, especially in the gun positions where it is most important, and the terrain scenery needs to be set as low as possible in order for views to pan quickly enough to track an incoming fighter.
You've Got ... Personality
The core of the game lies in the campaigns, where you can name your aircraft and crew and track them from mission to mission. In one campaign my aircraft "Little Susie" was crewed by friends from work, with myself as bombardier. During the first mission I was wounded, along with the navigator and co-pilot. While we recovered in hospital, Little Susie was tasked with hitting oil refineries in Hamburg and flew through a shredder of flak and enemy fighters, hitting the target but losing lift on the return leg over Bremerhaven. All the crew were injured and spent the rest of the war behind wire, which certainly made those of us in hospital in England feel lucky. This game really brings home to you the cost of combat.
In addition to the Historical Campaign, which allows you to manage a single aircraft, the Squadron Campaign allows you to manage twelve aircraft and their crews. In fact, by a strange system of ghost aircraft in the formation, you actually get to fly with double this number. Unfortunately 120 aircrew are more than I could track or get attached to, so most people will probably concentrate on the lead aircraft and let the others just tag along. The main advantage of the squadron campaign is the ability to pick routes and targets, letting your crews hit easier targets and avoid flak concentrations while you build up their confidence and experience. The German industrial heartland is no place for rookies, especially given the density and power of the very impressive flak.
The downside to both campaigns is that the B-17 is an aircraft with a single purpose - bombing. Once you have fought off fighters a couple of times and sweated out your first runs through the flak it is easy to lose interest, the more so as there isn't too much you can do about either flak or fighters. Ultimately this lack of replayability must count as the game's biggest drawback.
If you are looking for a flight simulator you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a bomber commander simulation though, B-17 fits the bill very nicely. However there is no reason why it could not have been both, nor why some of the glaring technical problems reported by so many users should have been allowed to remain. At its best though, B-17 is an immersive combat game that will have you on the edge of your seat, if only for the first few flights.