Dusty But Trusty: B-17 Flying Fortress

To qualify for a ‘Dusty But Trusty’ article, a game must be old enough to vote in the Federated States of Micronesia, buy tobacco in Algeria, and serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guard. More importantly, it must be demonstrably super, smashing, great, ace, wizard, bonzer, the knees of the bee, the testicles of the dog, and the whiskers and pyjamas of the cat. You don’t need rose-tinted pince-nez or a cutting-edge pixel pump to enjoy 24 karat golden oldies like… B-17 Flying Fortress: World War II Bombers in Action.

Am I really about to heap praise on a combat flight sim that’s cloud, rain, fog, and wind free, and makes Wright Cyclones sound like bees trapped in bottles? Am I seriously suggesting you should put IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles, DCS World, Wings over Flanders Fields, and War Thunder to one side for a spell and play a game in which Europe looks like a billiard table sprinkled with raffle tickets and lengths of yarn, and the horizon morphs into a saw blade every time you bank?

It appears so.

Around ten hours away from a long-overdue Steam release (hopefully the price will reflect the fact that the game was MicroProse-approved freeware for many years), B-17 Flying Fortress: World War II Bombers in Action has had almost thirty years in which to fade from my memory, yet stubbornly refuses to do so. Periodically, I find myself drawn back to RAF Alconbury by a design that proves sims don’t need to be realism-rammed or hardware-humbling to be brilliant.

Few games described as ‘novel’ in 1992 can still be described as such in 2021. The adjective remains apposite for B-17 because, amazingly, this is still one of only three or four dedicated heavy bomber sims in existence.

For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, during the last three decades no-one has looked at MicroProse’s ground-breaking approach – the gripping in-sortie crew management, the tour-mimicking unscripted campaign – and thought “Let’s translate this to the Far East, or use it to tackle the RAF’s night bombing campaign”. “Maybe this format would work with Gothas… Zeppelins… B-52s!”

While the pilots of large simulated warbirds have grown accustomed to switching turrets at the click of a key, the ability to move individual stat-endowed crewmen around the fuselage of an airborne bomb bus, and get them to undertake a variety of potentially life-saving tasks, never caught on in Simulatia. I reckon that’s a crying shame, because B-17 demonstrates that this kind of high-altitude man management is the perfect foil for first-person piloting and bandit swatting.

Picture the scene. You’re approaching your target – a marshalling yard in central France, perhaps – on three engines when you’re bounced by a swarm of disconcertingly professional Fw 190s. Ed, your tail-gunner, tears a wing off one, but gets perforated by its vengeful companion seconds later. Keen to patch him up (he’ll bleed to death unless attended to) and get your rearmost Brownings back in action ASAP, you send Pete, the radioman, to the tail with medkit in hand. While he’s threading his way through the fuselage, you tell your bombardier, Jack, to switch from the chin turret to the Norden (You’re loathed to lose his defensive contribution, but the target is in sight) and hop into the top turret for a spot of first-person gunnery.

By the time Pete reaches the tail it’s been set ablaze by another attack. Dabbing an on-screen button, you order him to fight the fire rather than dress the wounds of his buddy. The same stern-to-stem cannon fusilade that ignited the tail also riddled the cockpit. The oxygen supply has been knocked-out and Eugene, the co-pilot, is incapacitated. Moments after you press F3 to switch to the pilot’s seat, engine No. 3, vandalised over Normandy, decides that the time has come to sheath itself in flame.

As you push the yoke forward with one hand (you need to descend to below 10,000 feet so that everyone doesn’t pass out due to oxygen starvation), you reach for the relevant fire extinguisher switch with the other, and mutter a short prayer to a god you haven’t talked to in years.

Not every sortie is this intense, this cruel, but when the ordure hits the fan, B-17’s beautifully engineered interface and nicely judged complexity ensures you’re never battling the game in addition to the Luftwaffe, Lady Luck, and Gavin Gravity.

In addition to being wonderfully malleable in the difficulty department, the sim is, more often than not, willing to hasten the clock when you’re feeling impatient, and take the reins when you’re feeling overwhelmed. There are hidden points penalties for allowing the AI to operate the bombsight, and manipulate the yoke during take-offs and landings, but the consequences of indolence and timidity – fewer medals, promotions and stat upgrades – aren’t especially punitive.

B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty Eighth, the equally-deserving-of-a-Dusty-But-Trusty sequel, enriched and improved numerous aspects of its predecessor. Unfortunately, the improvements inadvertently sapped approachability and charm here and there. Gone were Dean Betton’s and Mark Griffiths’ lovely incidental illustrations and 2D cutaways – the art that gives B-17 so much character.

This might sound odd, but I believe something valuable was also lost in the move to textured, accelerated 3D. The ink-black smoke pennants that stream from burning Cyclones… that globes of fire that briefly swell when bombs detonate… the angular olive drab fuselages that look like they’ve been crudely whittled from chunks of balsa by idle aircrew…there’s a primitive solidity to B-17’s 3D visuals that, exposed to an unceasing bomber stream of ever-more sophisticated and ‘life-like’ flight sim graphics, I’ve slowly come to appreciate. An active imagination has plenty of room to stretch its legs here.

The new Steam version comes with a bespoke DOSBox launcher and an integrated mod manager. Whether I’ll ever be able to use the latter to improve the feeble default sounds and fix the overly sensitive nav map, I can’t say. Bombsaway.net, the traditional gathering place for B-17 fans and modders, bought the farm a few years back, and, sadly, doesn’t seem to have been replaced.

Another legacy flaw I’d fix if I could is the sim’s mealy-mouthed modelling of wounds and stress. B-17s, like B-24s, B-25s, B-29s, Lancasters, Halifaxes, etc. offered little protection to their crews and were breeding grounds for PTSD. There’s little evidence of these harsh realities in this classic. You never switch to a cutaway view after a flak hit or fighter mauling and find a corpse, or an empty compartment. Men leave your crew because they are wounded during sorties, or killed during crash landings; no-one ever vanishes from the sepia group photo because months of dicing with death over occupied Europe has shredded their nerves. It will be interesting to see how the coming generation of MicroProse bomber sims handles war’s psychological and physiological consequences

15 Comments

  1. I had the sequel, The Mighty Eighth, some years ago and was very impressed by its depth but never had the time to really delve into it. Ever since it has been somewhere on my infinitely long list of games I need to get around to some day. Looks like I will need to add this too!

    And I second the thought- why oh why are there not more bomber sims, especially for anything postwar? There are so many possibilities- running a B-47 under the radar at night to toss-bomb facilities in the USSR in 1953 as the Cold War goes hot, piloting a B-52 halfway around the world to launch the AGM-86s that started the Gulf War, Vulcan operations in the Falklands- there’s an entire missing genre there!

    • I always hoped they would add at least a proper bombardier role to IL-2: Great Battles for multi-crew multiplayer, since as it is right now only the pilot can access the bomb sight. But the chances of that happening are very low apparently.

    • @CaptainKoloth

      I’ve also had the same desire for a high fidelity bomber-specific sim… the current dearth is surprisingly explainable: the details of strategic bombers from the end of WW2 to present are especially closely guarded secrets. Sim devs need very regular access to (and often cooperation from) manufacturers and even militaries themselves to recreate all the important details necessary to make a sim a sim. Short of this access, a dev is confined to creating an arcade representation.

      “But we have so many fighter sims! Aren’t these also secret?” Yes — but fighters are built in innumerable variations for foreign sales and even commercial use, all with crucial differences and distinctions. Not a single B-52 or Vulcan was/is/nor will be sold to a foreign govt or made available for the close scrutiny necessary for a decent sim… unlike the fighters.

      That aside, Asobo’s opus in MSFS may permit the scale necessary to model — even if unfaithfully — a true strategic bomber playground (i.e. flying a 30 hour mission spanning 6,000 miles).

      Just my take!

  2. This is why I love coming here. I doubt this would have popped up in my Steam Discovery Queue.
    Now excuse me whilst I go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and read about the air war on Japan

  3. The visuals on this really are a triumph. With the modern era of retro-styling and advanced pixel-love, I’d hope to see more games borrow the great 90’s imagery of games like this.

    Looking at the Mighty Eighth on steam, this has so much more appeal. Here’s hoping it comes available shortly.

  4. We never got the original when I was a kid. By the time I got it from an abandonware site, it was too dated for my 20-something taste (I’ve found that any aged classic that I didn’t play when it was new can be very hard to come around to).

    The Mighty Eighth was my first experience with a sim community forum. I would visit bombsaway.net every day and follow the discussions anticipating the game’s lofty promises and speculations on how much better life would be with the finished product in our lives. As time went on, features were cut, delays were experienced, and the game was finally released in a very buggy and nearly unplayable state, I got to experience the unsavory side of the sim gaming community. My enthusiasm significantly drenched, I put the game on the shelf to wait in hope for patches and mods to make it playable, but instead I never went back to it until a few years ago. I tinkered with it a bit and got it close to what I considered playable, but then life or some other thing got in the way and so I never started my campaign. I still hope get to it eventually.

  5. There have been entirely too few games about wars or war theatres other than the usual suspects. But I think games tend to just follow other media in that regard. It is hard to imagine all the Normandy/Iwo Jima/Battle-of-the-bulge or Vietnam themed games without the decades of rehashing the same campaigns in movies.
    Almost by definition any game not covering them is niche and risks commercial marginalisation.

    It is not like games about the usual topics aren´t fun. But does anyone remember a game centering on the struggle in Burma exclusively? I can´t. Not from the top of my head.

    Slight change of topic, but let me also just throw in how much I love the clean and easy to look at art style of this generation of games. Especially the way they did the shading in those 2D+ views.

  6. Superbly written, as always Tim!

    Speaking as someone who is, it seems, perpetually short of time, I love reading these Dusty pieces. It’s a great way to relieve old memories without a big time commitment. I really enjoyed it!

    In this particular case though I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know The Mighty 8th was a sequel! I’m old enough to have been playing many of these games when they were new, but I was completely oblivious to the existence of this title until reading this article.

  7. Have anyone (apart from me) tried the Bomber Crew game on Steam?
    https://store.steampowered.com/app/537800/Bomber_Crew/

    This is one of those “manage your crew to avoid disaster” type games. I really liked it, but I found the cartoon-y graphics a bit off putting. But that’s just me. There is also ‘Secret Weapons’ and USAAF DLC available for this game.

    If you are willing to scrape the bottom of the barrel, gaming-wise, please feel free to try my Bomber Command game, which is my take on the whole “bombing targets in Germany with a B-17 bomber” thing:

    https://zombiewarrior07.itch.io/bomber-command

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