B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th!
Windows - 2000
Description of B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th!
Having played the original B-17 Flying Fortress almost a decade ago, it has been a very long wait for the sequel. We don't see a lot of sims released these days and I had high hopes for B-17. It turns out that this is not really a flight sim in the traditional sense of the word. B-17 shifts focus away from the actual flying and onto other aspects of the simulation such as crew management, different tasks onboard, and quick reactions to events such as fire, breakdowns and injuries.
Installation, documentation and interface
Installation was problem-free and while I thought the 146-page manual looked a bit thin at first, it turned out to be fairly well written and sufficient for the game. There is also a reference card with all keys and instrument panel layouts for all the aircraft types in the game.
The wrapper is slick and has a pleasing panel-design with neatly rendered switches and gauges. It works fairly well though it's a bit tedious at times since you end up clicking a lot of switches to get back and forth between the settings screens.
Graphics, sound and performance
So, let's start with the graphics: does it look as good as they say? Well, yes and no. I am not that amazed by the terrain and clouds, and would say that those aspects are average, but the aircraft models are truly gorgeous. This accounts for the game being a major resource hog. The polygon count is extremely high for the B-17 model and having up to 18 of them on-screen (plus some fighters) takes its toll. Smoketrails and flak bursts are also very nice. It is unfortunate that the clouds do not live up to the same standard. One thing that may be a matter of taste but which irritates me is that the view through the cockpits is distorted. This is obviously intentional and supposed to make it realistic but it just makes the picture look dirty to me and I don't really think it adds much to the realism.
All things considered, and after my initial fascination with the wonderful bomber models wore off, I feel that the game is still a bit too demanding for what it provides. Above all, this game demands RAM - the minimum system requirement is a whopping 128MB and the recommended specification is 256MB! After some initial problems with stutter and long load times (even on a 256mb machine), I found that the apparent solution is to have a huge and permanent Windows swap file - increasing it from a half gig to a full gigabyte, it actually resulted in a visible performance increase. Bottom line is that this game requires lots of RAM and swap-space. When they say 128MB minimum, they mean it.
The sound is very, very good. The machinegun sounds are especially wonderful and a true joy to listen to. Flak barrages will give your sub-woofer a thorough workout and I am generally impressed with the sound effects. Top score in the sound department!
You have the option of flying single missions or campaigns. The single missions are split into Quickstart, Training, and Historical missions (six of each), coming to a total of 18 missions. The first six are a mix of B-17, fighter-escort and Luftwaffe missions, the next six are designed to provide some specific challenges for training purposes, and the last six-pack is modeled after real historical missions.
The campaign comes in two flavors: Bomber Commander and Squadron Commander. As the name implies, the Bomber Commander campaign puts you in command of a single B-17 and its crew. You have access to crew management in the bomber but the squadron commander handles the mission planning for you. In the Squadron Commander campaign you don't have to deal with the crew of any single bomber but instead you have access to the mission planning and you manage the crews and the aircraft of the entire squadron.
Crew and aircraft management is a main part of the game and it is well implemented. As your squadron flies its missions, you get more and more work on your hands trying to keep your planes in the air, in spite of injuries, deaths and aircraft damage. The mission planning is performed on a very nice map where you can zoom, tilt and pan in 3D. Each new mission can have primary, secondary and tertiary targets, but you can also mark up to three targets for reconnaissance. When you've flown the mission, the recon-targets will be completed with additional information (flak and fighter intensity and so on) and filmed in stylish, scratchy black-and-white.
The available targets span over a variety of (military) installations and infrastructure: airfields, wharves, railroad switchyards, submarine bases and so on. Due to the inherent nature of a WWII heavy-bomber mission, the execution is pretty much the same regardless of the target. Your main concern in planning the missions is to choose targets and set the waypoints that will keep you out of the worst flak and away from enemy fighters.
I should mention something about multiplayer: there isn't any! Considering the enormous scope of this game, it might be understandable that multiplayer didn't make it into the sim as originally intended, but it is also a crying shame. It would've added tremendously to be able to crew a bomber with ten real people and fly campaign missions. If you could also have real folks in attacking and escorting fighters, it would have been even better.
The actual bomber missions follow a uniform pattern, the differences mainly being how much flak and fighters you will encounter. You start in the briefing room where you can watch a film of the target area (if previously reconned), read a mission briefing and examine the route on the map. When you are done, you're off to the field and the bombers. During the mission you can decide for yourself how much you want to participate. If you please, you may do the entire, rigorous, start-up procedure, taxi and takeoff, or simply press [Return] to time-skip until the gaggle is airborne.
During the mission, you can perform any task on the bomber and if you are attacked by fighters, things start to happen fast. Except for the obvious chores aboard the B-17 such as piloting, navigating or gunnery, you also have to assign crew members to handle any emergency that comes up. Somebody might get hurt and need medical assistance or something might break and need repair (mainly jammed machineguns). All this is done by a fairly intuitive menu-system. Each position in the plane can be viewed from the respective compartment, or firsthand through the "Action View" (3D cockpit or guns) or "Instrument View" (2D cockpit, navigational map etc).
When you arrive at the target, the most important (and for that matter, interesting) position in the plane is the bombardier. During the bomb-run, the bombardier is effectively in control of the aircraft. You can adjust the complexity of the famous Norden bomb-sight and it's quite demanding at full realism. Once the bombs are away, your only goal is to get out of there and back to base in as few pieces as possible.
A big problem with this game is the strange mix of abstractions and details that makes up the mission simulation. What detracted the most from my enjoyment is the fact that the number of bombers on a raid is inaccurately represented. Regardless of how many aircraft you assign, the amount you see in your gaggle is determined solely by the game setup - depending on the graphics settings, you see precisely 6, 12 or 18 planes (low, medium or high setting). This is a very strange design decision, and it greatly detracted from the feeling of being there.
All the planes you see defend themselves against fighter attacks and they all drop bombs but the bombs from your aircraft are the only ones that actually hit the ground. For all practical purposes, the other planes are carrying dud bombs. The effectiveness of the mission is based on how one bomber performs, namely the one you are in. That should be interesting since theoretically you could have, for example, 18 lost aircraft on a 6-plane raid. It never happens though. I have not met enough opposition to lose a whole gaggle. You end up with one or two lost aircraft at the most.
At the same time, you find plenty of details in the actual jobs on board the plane. Bombing, for instance, is a fairly tricky business if you enable full realism (though simple if you relax the realism and "cheat" a bit). Inside the plane is where B-17 really shines, but this also provides a strange contrast to the abstracted formations. While it may be impossible to simulate "thousand-plane raids" with current technology, I can only say that I would prefer less realism in mission configuration and more realism in mission execution. Flying with three planes on a raid might be historically incorrect but having numbers that actually matter does more to the feeling of flying a real mission.
Driving a Bomb Truck
One other problem that B-17 has is that while the aircraft itself is truly fascinating, the task it performs is inherently boring. WWII heavy-bomber missions do not offer any diversity to speak of. You fly the waypoints to set up the bomb-run and fly over the target in a straight line at medium to high altitude. The bombardier does his best to make the bombs drop at the right moment and then you go home. In other words, "driving a bomb truck" is just that. In sharp contrast to attack aircraft and fighter-bombers, different targets do not present different challenges. Whether you bomb a submarine base, airfield, railroad or weapons factory, you still fly there, fly over and fly home in a straight and level fashion.
The "fun" parts of the missions consist of the individual tasks. Gunnery is a blast, learning to use the Norden bomb-sight is interesting and jumping into a fighter for an intense dogfight is action-packed and fairly amusing, though the unsatisfying flight-models limit the possibilities of the latter. Of the different jobs in the B-17, the pilot's is the least inspiring one. The whole sim is focused on things other than flying and that does make sense. Unfortunately, it does not leave much for those who look for a flying experience. The B-17 handles a bit too simplistically to provide a serious simmer with any lasting challenge. Better leave that to the AI and concentrate on the other aspects of the game like planning, gunnery, and bombing. If you actually want to experience flying a B-17 I think you are better off trying to find one in FS2000/CFS2.
Flying the Fighters
Unfortunately, the fighters are a parenthesis in this game. There are no career modes available for fighter pilots, and the only ways you can get behind the stick in one of them is through the single missions or by starting a B-17 campaign mission and jumping into the lead fighter (friend or enemy) when it appears. Even if you choose to get into a fighter when it is still on the ground, all the Luftwaffe missions are pure scramble missions. Flying escort is a fairly predictable affair, too, since the Germans follow a distinct pattern of scrambling as soon as you get in range.
The possibility of jumping into a German fighter from a B-17 campaign mission might add a bit of diversity, but it is also a bit surreal. I fail to see the value in planning a bomber mission, starting and crossing the channel, then jumping into a 109 and firing away at your own bombers only to jump back into the B-17 and continue the mission. Jumping from your bomber into one of your escort fighters makes a little more sense, but I would have preferred to see a different design altogether. A career mode for the Luftwaffe would have added a whole new dimension to the game, but it was not to be. That said, the fighters all have their own instrument panels and they have slightly different flight models, though all of them are fairly simplistic. The Me262 isn't as much fun as one could've hoped for and I have some serious doubts regarding the fidelity of its abilities, especially acceleration and climb rate.
Diversity over Depth?
I said before that B-17 isn't really a flight sim and that is my lasting impression. Serious flight simulators have a long (though not necessarily steep) learning curve. You can continue to build your knowledge and technique over an extended period of time and the sustained challenge is what flight-simmers seek and enjoy. B-17 does not provide this. There is a distinct plateau in the learning curve of each task and when it is reached, there isn't much of a challenge left. The simplistic flight models and lack of tactical options make the dogfighting an action-oriented affair as well, so except for basic ACM skills, it becomes a matter of rolling the dice. The fact that there are lots of different "jobs" to try out (pilot, gunner, bombardier, fighter-pilot, navigator) extends the longevity but it does not solve the problem with the inherent lack of depth.
Regarded as a general wargame (rather than a flight simulator) B-17 scores much better and makes a lot more sense. For a casual simmer or general wargamer with an interest in WWII air combat, it offers plenty of eye candy and lots of distinctly different but action-oriented tasks to play around with. I am sure that it is in this role and among this audience that B-17 will find the majority of its fans.
In spite of the fact that this is an entertaining and very good-looking game, it missed out on a GDR Award. After the initial wow-effect (that the game undoubtedly has) wears off, the lack of gameplay depth and the built-in abstractions put a premature end to what could've been a truly novel flight sim experience. The inclusion of multiplayer would have elevated B-17 to a higher level, also.
To answer the common question, "should I buy the game?" depends on what you expect and what your preferences are. If you enjoy flight simulations with depth and longevity that continue to challenge your skills as you practice and refine your technique, then give it a miss -- it will end up on the shelf quicker than it should. If, on the other hand, you want a good-looking B-17 experience with a full range of different tasks to tinker with and some quick blasts of action all wrapped in a lightweight strategy envelope, then go ahead and buy it. B-17 Flying Fortress has lots of things to offer; depth, however, is not one of them.
Review By GamesDomain
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