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by Microprose and Hasbro

When it comes to flight simulators, Microprose has recently produced very ambitious games that push available hardware to the wall but never seem quite finished upon release. The classic example of this is Falcon 4.0, a game at once so stunning and so buggy that we gave it a grade of incomplete. B17 has a lot in common with Falcon 4.0; while it's the best game on the Eighth Air Force's WWII daylight bombing ever, contains an original and almost RPGish crew management component, and looks fantastic, it also has some significant problems. As in Falcon 4.0, looks don’t come cheap, and it'll take a monster of a machine to run the game. Again like Falcon 4.0, the game comes with some serious bugs that can cause crashes and various problems with some video cards. Support from Hasbro has been terrible. But if you can work through these problems, a very rewarding gaming experience awaits you.

B17: The Mighty Eighth allows you to fly the famous B-17 “Flying Fortress” Bomber that played such a large role in the bombing raids on Germany that helped cripple German industry and demoralize the population. B17 allows you to play from any one of the B17’s crew stations, so you can play as pilot, copilot, bomber, navigator, radio man,  and ball, tail, waist or or top turret gunner. You can switch between each of these positions during a mission.  This is a good thing, because the “flight sim” part in itself may not seem like such a big deal; after all, these are bombers, and the actual piloting of them isn’t nearly as exciting as, oh, say, doing an Immelman in a P-38. You have to fly in formation with a bunch of other bombers, and when the FW-190s come up to get you, there’s no breaking from formation with your wingman for a thrilling furball. You just have to take it. As a flight sim, B17 is sort of like a racing game that features UPS trucks; it’s not nearly as exciting as a fighter game. Or at least it’s not at first glance. That’s because the drama and excitement in B17 comes less from flying the beast than from managing your crew, fending off fighters with your gunners, holding your breath while flying in formation through curtains of flak, and coaxing a severely damaged bomber home with half of your crew wounded. And then getting up the next day and doing it all over again. While you can fly fighters in the game from both the German and American sides, they seem an afterthought; though fun, don’t expect the depth or realism of a superior WWII fighter sim.

In the campaign games, which are the meat of B17, you take the role of a bomber crew pilot trying to get his crew through 25 missions. As you progress, your crew members get better at their jobs, so it’s devastating when you lose a very experienced bombardier or navigator to flak somewhere over Germany. Crew losses are very common in the game; and even minor wounds will keep a crew member out of action for a few missions. It’s this RPG aspect of the game that makes it stand out. You really start to care for your crew, and with good reason—an experienced ball turret gunner is a life saver, and his green replacement may not be. If you want to be really ambitious, you can take the role of   squadron commader, which allows you to plan missions for the entire bomber squadron, move men around from crew to crew, and even jump from one bomber to another on bombing runs.

In missions you can take control of any crew position, and you’ll want to roam around the plane a good bit during most missions. The pilot position is fun to take during take-off, the navigator position is great while making your way from England to your target (though you’ll probably use the “skip time” feature for most of the flight), and you’ll want to take the bombardier slot and fiddle with the famous Norden bombsights during the bombing run itself. Throughout you’ll probably want to pay occasional visits to the various gunner positions to help stave off Nazi fighters. Of course, nothing is this leisurely during the actual missions; during many of them, you’ll find yourself scrambling from position to position whilst dealing with damaged engines, wounded crew members, and fires on board. Switching crew members from position to position in-mission is sometimes necessary, so it’s good to know their strengths and weaknesses. 

One very good thing about the game is its scalable complexity. You can, if you want, play this as an ultra-realistic bomber sim, learning everything from the complex startup procedures to the operation of the equally arcane navigation and Norden bombsight systems. On the other hand, you can just kick back, play the turret gunner, and let the computer handle most of the more daunting chores. Just don’t expect your bombardier to hit much of anything.

The game’s graphics are excellent, but the hardware requirements to coax out the game’s full beauty are steep. This is the first game I’ve played that lists 128 MB of RAM as a requirement, and 256 MB of RAM as recommended. And they’re not kidding. Needless to say, a very speedy 3D card is a plus as well. But even with a fast system the game’s frame rates can lag during combat, and (worst of all) it can take several seconds to switch between crew positions. This can be frustrating when you’re dealing with a ME-262s on your tail, but need to switch back to your waist gunner in order to patch up your ball turret gunner, only to find by the time you’ve switched back to your tail gunner several seconds have passed and your thrilling suspension of disbelief has turned into annoyance with some less-than-tight coding. Sound is excellent throughout; from the rush of the wind to the plane-rattling reverberations flak near-misses, and adds a lot to the game’s atmosphere.

When it all comes together, B17  is a remarkable sim. But it’s not without faults. First and foremost, this was supposed to be a multiplayer game. Can you imagine how cool it would have been to join up online with nine other players and crew one of these babies? Unfortunately, the game includes no multiplayer support, and it’s hard to play without thinking of What Might Have Been. The manual runs about 150 pages, but can be hazy about some of the bomber’s more complex operations. The game is also buggy; I’ve had many crashes to desktop. Make sure you have your latest drivers, too—for instance, T&L won’t work with the offical Detonator 3 drivers on the Nvidia site. It doesn’t help any that Hasbro has offered virtually no support for this sterling game. In fact, though a patch has been out since February 1, the official B17 site still hasn’t posted it. If you want it, go to the excellent, my source for all things B17.  

This can be an amazing game, and for sim fans it’s well worth the time and small frustrations it will take to master. Given the overall dismal state of the flight sim industry, I’m happy just to see a game this ambitious on store shelves. I’ll be really happy when and if all the bugs get patched, and ecstatic if multiplayer ever materializes. But I’m not holding my breath.    

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: Excellent crew management system and stellar graphics, very immersive gameplay.

Downs: High system requirements, bugs, lousy support

System Reqs: Recommended: PII 400, 256 MB RAM, fast 3D card


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