B-17 Flying Fortress Preview

What's it like to fly a massive WWII bomber with a ten-man crew? Read on to find out.

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Few games have generated as much excitement in the flight simulator community recently as B-17 Flying Fortress 2. The original B-17 Flying Fortress, released by MicroProse in 1992, was a flight simulation classic, and talk of resurrecting the famous name was enough to get the attention of sim enthusiasts. Hasbro, the parent company of MicroProse and publisher of B-17 2, has made it a high-profile project and one that gamers have been anxiously awaiting for some time. The game was shown off at this year's Electronics Entertainment Expo, where it received a very positive reaction. Originally slated for release early this year, B-17 2's release date has slipped to sometime in December, and we recently received a beta build to see just how close this massive project is to completion.

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In late August, Hasbro and Wayward Design, the developer of B-17 2, announced that there would be no multiplayer capability in the game because of the difficulty of implementing this complex feature while sticking to a reasonable release date. While this is understandably disappointing, B-17 2 still has a host of attractive features that make it different from all the other flight sims on the market. Even without the multiplayer element, B-17 2 looks like it could well be one of the most compelling flight sims of the year, thanks to the uniqueness of a true bomber sim and the possibilities of not just piloting a single airplane but managing the diverse tasks (gunnery, navigation, and bombing) performed by individual members of the crew. Add to that the epic sweep of a campaign, and it's likely that B-17 2 won't be much like anything we've seen since its worthy predecessor hit the shelves eight years ago.

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B-17 2 is, first and foremost, about the ten crewmembers of a Flying Fortress bomber and the incredible challenges posed by the need to survive 25 missions of strategic bombing while flying deep over enemy territory. In this way, B-17 2 is really a story in flight, with each mission being a chapter written by its crewmembers. There will be times when things go smoothly and times when the bomber barely limps home with several wounded or killed crewmembers. With the number of variables at work in each mission, every one should be a unique experience.

B-17 2 focuses on the strategic bombing of Occupied Europe by the U.S. Eighth Air Force, based in England. As such, a tremendous amount of research has gone into selecting targets that were historically picked out by the "Mighty Eighth" and subjected to its devastating bombardment. As the squadron commander, you'll have the responsibility of choosing targets from a list that reflects valid targets for that time period. Campaigns can start in virtually any month of the war beginning with mid-1943, and the target list will move deeper and deeper into Germany as the war progresses. Initially, you will be faced with targets in France and the Low Countries, which involve short flight times and are generally within the range of fighter cover. Later, as the front moves further from the Eighth Air Force's bases, bombers will have to traverse more territory and be subjected to more enemy fighters and flak, as well as extended periods without fighter escort (until the arrival of the long-ranged Mustang). The transition from these short "milk runs" to harrowing journeys deep into Germany and Austria will hopefully take place after you have had some chance to develop your survival skills on the easier missions. If not, you're likely to end up a casualty.

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In keeping with its focus on the aircraft and crew of a B-17 bomb group, B-17 2 is designed to make you feel as much as possible like the commander of a squadron of bombers and to carry the role-playing immersion as far as possible. Almost everything in B-17 2 is customizable, and that begins with the names and nose art for each bomber. This extends to the names and faces of the crewmembers. The mission selection and planning screens show the inside of an operations building for a bomb group and take you through selecting target and ordnance, reviewing recon film, and getting a mission briefing. Mission planning is done using a large replica of a tabletop map, which shows cities, target types, flak concentrations, and the extent of friendly fighter cover. Targets are depicted as 3D icons representing factories, docks, refineries, U-boat pens, and other cogs in the Axis war effort. As the squadron commander you control such aspects of the mission as the route to and from the target and the mission altitude, and with the aid of the planning map you set waypoints to take advantage of fighter escorts and try to avoid known areas of flak concentration. You're also responsible for choosing the appropriate weapon types, as sometimes you'll want incendiary bombs to set those oil tanks ablaze, while at other times you'll need armor-piercing bombs to get at those hardened submarine pens.

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Once you're in the air, there is plenty to keep you occupied. You can take control of any of the ten crewmembers in the bomber: pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, top turret gunner, radio operator, ball turret gunner, left and right waist gunners, and tail gunner. Each of these crewmen will increase in skill as they go through missions and successfully perform their tasks, so you'll want to try to preserve your crew from mission to mission. Since you're in control of the bomber, you can shift the crewmembers around between positions, and this will be a key consideration, especially on longer missions where crew losses might become serious even before the target is reached. You can have your crewmembers administer first aid to one another, but you'll want to become practiced in all the tasks expected to be performed by the bomber crew, since if your navigator is killed or seriously wounded, you'll have to bring the aircraft home yourself. An incapacitated bombardier can mean that the whole mission was wasted if it results in your bombs being scattered harmlessly in a farmer's field.

The B-17 was called a "Flying Fortress" in part because of its heavy armament, and as with all combat sims, a good portion of the fun comes from blasting your enemies out of the sky with machine guns. The various gunnery positions are interesting and different from one another, and the view from the twin guns of the top turret (don't shoot off your tail!) is much different from the wide-open window of the single gun in each waist position. The angles of attack are different as well, and you'll have to perfect yet another method of gunnery when you try to take out that pesky Messerschmidt with your tail guns as he dives on your six.

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The most striking thing about B-17 2 at first glance is undoubtedly the graphics. They are simply beautiful, and they will undoubtedly set a new standard for flight sims. The aircraft models are detailed and realistic, with fully movable surfaces. The bomber models look great in the external views, with superb movement in the various guns and turrets as they track incoming fighters. The internal views are extraordinarily detailed, and they depict all the instruments and switches, almost all of which are operable, found in the actual bomber. This level of detail extends to the virtual fighter cockpits, so if you choose to fly a fighter escort, or even a German interceptor, you'll enjoy the same realistic instruments and movable surfaces.

Bomber damage is meticulously depicted, and because the Flying Fortress was famous for its ability to take damage, you'll see some pretty beat-up aircraft still managing to stay aloft. The damage modeling extends to the interior compartments, and affects the functionality of instruments and controls in the damaged aircraft. Smoke and flame effects are impressive, and they all add to the hope that B-17 2 can capture the majesty of the sight of an entire squadron of Flying Fortresses en route to a target.

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The thing that stands out the most, though, is the crewman animations. The 3D crewmembers are very lifelike in appearance and their movements even more so. This does a lot to build the feeling that you're leading a close-knit group of airmen rather than a bunch of buttons on your keyboard. Seeing these crewmen slumped on the floor after being shot is a jarring experience when you've spent several missions flying with them and now suddenly feel responsible for their loss.

The terrain graphics use a process called procedural texturing and avoid the effect of repeating tiles while not appearing grainy like the satellite map data used in so-called "photo-realistic" terrain. B-17 2 will use both hardware transform-and-lighting (T&L) effects as well as A3D for positional audio. The combination of audio and visual effects, including some great explosions, means that B-17 2 will be a tremendous improvement over the original in the area of computer games that has advanced most in the intervening years.

Spectacular 3D-accelerated graphics come at a price, though, and that price is paid in CPU cycles, both by the main processor and the video card. While beta builds are often bulky and unoptimized, and thus require excessive processor power to run properly, the requirements for the build of B-17 2 that we saw were among the most onerous we've run across. While a big part of the development process as a project moves into beta is optimizing the code, it's clear that with the ambitious nature of B-17 2 and the number of events to be accounted for in the game, as well as the state-of-the-art graphics, the game will require some fairly hefty hardware to run at its best. If you were anxiously awaiting the release of B-17 2 but were planning to run it on some fairly old hardware, you might want to consider upgrading your machine.

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As stated previously, B-17 2 will ship solely with single-player capability, and no multiplayer patch is planned. What the game will feature instead is a robust, sophisticated AI that will allow you to take as little or as much part in operating the plane as you like. Everything in the bomber can be automated, but nearly everything can also be run manually, and it's these manual functions that will consume a lot of your time as you get more familiar with the working of the B-17 Flying Fortress. Initially, you will get plenty of gunnery practice, because jumping into a turret or waist gun and blasting enemy fighters is the most straightforward activity there is in B-17 2. Later, you'll want to try your hand at playing bombardier, since improving your bombing accuracy is one of the key objectives of the game. B-17 2 will take all sorts of factors into account when calculating bomb placement and drift, and while manual bombing wasn't fully implemented in the build we got, in the full game skilled bombardiers will be able to achieve significantly enhanced bombing results. Another challenging task will be piloting the B-17 when it has sustained severe damage, and feathering props on damaged engines and keeping the bomber in proper trim can mean the difference between staying in formation and being left to the Herculean task of making it home alive as a straggler. Then there's navigation, which is a tricky business when you're also in charge of the cheek turret.

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This richness and depth of gameplay will extend to the numerous combat modes available. There will be extensive training missions, as well as stand-alone historical bombing missions that will simulate famous raids by the Mighty Eighth such as Regensburg and Schweinfurt. When it comes to campaigns, there will again be multiple ways to play. You can choose to play in squadron commander mode, where you're in charge of 12 bombers and the crews that man them. You're responsible for selecting targets, planning bombing runs, and assigning crewmembers. You'll have to strike a balance between payload delivered, crucial targets hit, and aircraft lost. While you can't just rampage deep into the Reich with each mission, because you'll suffer prohibitive casualties, preserving your forces by sticking to nearby targets within range of fighter cover won't exactly do much to further the war effort, and you'll fail to accumulate many points. Alternately, you can play as a bomber commander and try to shepherd your crew of ten men through 25 missions and a ticket stateside. Both campaign modes will be fully dynamic, and instead of being canned missions, they will take into account the progress of the war and your own success in reaching and hitting targets.

Because the build of B-17 2 that we played is still fairly rough, there are a lot of features that will make it into the final version that weren't fully implemented at this time. What we did see was a promising looking simulator that has many of the right ingredients for a truly innovative game. The combination of attention to detail and realism while not forcing you to absorb every aspect of the game at once should make this that rare hard-core simulation that has strong appeal to more casual gamers. If this sounds too good to be true, we can only wait and see how things turn out. We'll all find out when B-17 Flying Fortress 2 releases as the holidays approach.

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