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