To qualify for a Dusty But Trusty article, a game must be old enough to vote in Nicaragua, buy tobacco in Djibouti, and make the beast with two backs in Nepal. 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… 101: The Airborne Invasion of Normandy.
While a Brothers In Arms title might be the obvious thing to reach for after a Band of Brothers binge, I’d argue today’s Dusty But Trusty target evokes that brilliant miniseries every bit as successfully as one of Gearbox’s first-person shooters.
Inspired by Ambrose’s book rather than Spielberg and Hanks’ TV adaptation*, Interactive Simulations Inc’s Jagged Alliance-reminiscent TBT is awash with inspired ideas and the kind of soldierly details that traditional tactical wargames usually neglect.
* The ten-episode drama was still three years away when 101 hit shelves in 1998.
For starters the game’s interest in Screaming Eagles begins long before the talons of those Eagles touch French terra firma or tree canopies. Not only do we get to choose and equip eighteen attribute-rich paratroopers prior to a mission, we get to decide exactly where they sit in their Normandy-bound sky taxi.*
* Automatic personnel, kit, and seat selection is possible.
A phase of airborne ops the likes of Close Combat, Combat Mission, and Second Front largely ignore shapes 101’s actions in a strikingly frank, meaningful, and unpredictable way. Assuming you aren’t cutting to the chase using the Training Grounds option, who and what reaches the ground intact during your self-selected portion of Mission Albany, is decided by invisible dice rolls not a scenario author.
If Lady Luck is feeling merciful most of your men and equipment will land close together and undamaged. However, if she’s feeling callous then who you placed close to the C-47’s door and what you decided to put in your jump bags suddenly becomes très significant.
I can’t think of any PC games that recreate the chaos of D-Day paradrops better than 101. Not only can your stick of carbine clutchers land widely scattered and a long way from an objective, they sometimes start in horribly close proximity to foes. In the early turns of an op, when your charges have yet to properly assess their darkness-shrouded surrounding or free themselves from their silky drogue devices, the tension is palpable. Sometimes the first man to fall in a 101 scrap is slain by a pistol-wielding para still attached to their chute. On other occasions KIA #1 is a dangling American busy hacking at tangled lines with a combat knife.
Although Fate can play cruel tricks early doors, just about the only time I restart after a disastrous drop is when extremely bad luck leaves me with a clutch of map-less combatants. Without at least one map there’s no way to compare the rectangle of real estate that is, in effect, the first ‘level’ of your multi-level campaign/op, with the complete venue. In other words, you have no way of knowing which direction you should head after assembling your men and dealing with any local opposition.
I love the fact that even when my band of brothers has a paper orientation aid, I must compare topography with cartography to deduce their position. What could be more in-tune with the subject matter than spending several minutes comparing the DZ’s patchwork of lanes, hedges, and fields with the master map’s patchwork. Muddy L-shaped field with a track to the east and two small square pastures to the south? Hmm. It looks like we are… here! So that means our primary objective, the fuel depot, is due north…
Occasionally you’ll land slap-bang on your goal. Usually, however, your men will need to tramp across several self-contained-but-contiguous oblongs of Norman countryside dotted with hidden dangers, in order to reach the objective. Opposition encountered en-route can be eliminated or skirted – it’s your call. Choose violence over avoidance and while, obviously, you run the risk of losing soldiers in sideshow skirmishes, the rewards in terms of scavenged equipment can be rich.
During my last excursion, a captured MG 42 made a world of difference when the time came to clear the environs of a strategically significant bridge (The HMG I’d planned to use during the assault was in a jump bag lost during the drop).
And it’s not just hardware that can be acquired during hikes to objectives. Sometimes you’ll stumble on a separated paratrooper or a missing jump bag, or find enemy plans on a dead or surrendered foe.
Compared to most of its peers, 101 keeps kill probabilities close to its chest. Although a quick glance at your squad’s stats can tell you who, for example, would make the best point man, who has the best chance of calming a spooked comrade, or who has the necessary space/strength to tote, without penalty, that found Panzerfaust, cursoring potential targets never reveals hit percentages. The numberless approach combined with limited LoS/LoF information prevents pace-sapping forensic analysis of situations, and dice dismay after unsuccessful attacks. You end up relying on instinct in firefights, and because the game’s combat rules are pretty sophisticated/sensible, instinct seldom leads you astray.
Dynamic initiative, influential morale, realistic weapon ranges and reliability*, opportunity and speculative fire, wound locations, no ‘Borg spotting‘… a host of inter-related nods to reality endow 101 engagements with serious plausibility and colour. This is one of those tactics titles where cover and suppression really matter, and smoke grenades, entrenching tools, and prompt first aid, save lives. This is a JA-like in which no-one struggles to hit a barn door at twenty paces, and squad leaders sometimes achieve more with their mouths than they do with their trigger fingers.
* If a soldier doesn’t possess a weapon cleaning kit they are more likely to experience jams!
Because the first few clashes in any op tend to take place at night, and the devs treat darkness with the respect it deserves, inconspicuous foes are potentially one of 101’s most discombobulating features. Unless you’re willing to lavish Action Points on inspecting seemingly deserted surroundings at regular intervals, you’re going to lose lots of men to unseen Germans lurking in hedgerows and foxholes. Even old hands like me get caught out by the stealth-friendly spotting rules from time to time. In my last op my Captain Winters equivalent was slain by a close-range Schmeisser burst in the back. Eager to assist a fallen comrade, he ran straight past his assassin without noticing him.
If fans ever get an unofficial sequel (Most have abandoned all hope of seeing the announced-in-1999 official sequel) then at least one of those fans will be disappointed if it inherits 101’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. Any modern remake worth its salt wouldn’t insist on turn-based play all of the time. Pre- and post-contact drudgery ameliorated in the original by ‘group move’ and ‘automatic walk’ orders could be completely eliminated by the kind of real-time-until-contact option now common in the genre.
Multi-storey buildings… AFVs other than Tiger tanks… livelier enemy AI… better writing… though my sequel wishlist doesn’t stop at turnless phases, it’s nowhere near long enough to prevent 101 from joining other paratrooper-infested titles such as Airborne Assault and Hidden and Dangerous 2 in THC’s Dusty But Trusty hall of fame.
The fact that playing 101 on a modern machine can be challenging, is no barrier to inclusion either. I keep an old Windows 98 laptop on hand for titles such as this, but have managed to get Interactive Simulations Inc’s highly replayable Band of Brothers complementer running on my current rig by fiddling with compatibility settings and temporarily terminating explorer.exe.