I was in a Lancaster over Bremen. I had to knock out some submarine pens with a mega-bomb from high altitude. My crew were getting cold in the atmosphere, even though they had thermal mittens and electrically heated boots, and if I didn’t get to a lower level soon they would start to get hypoxic, even though I had equipped them with “advanced oxygen bottles” which were probably made in the USA. The target came into view through wisps of cloud, slowly moving across my bombsight. At this height it was a small-but-discernable structure, much different from the seemingly huge targets that filled my bombsight when I attacked from low altitude. As it entered my crosshairs, I hit the “release” button and switched to my pilot to tell him to dive to low altitude. As I dropped lower, I entered a hornet’s nest of fighters. I swiveled my view around and around, trying to pick up the ones I hadn’t yet “tagged” so my gunners could focus on them. I told my radio operator to “auto tag” and start calling out targets. There were too many. So my radio operator got on the horn and requested assistance. An agonizing thirty seconds or so later, a flight of Spitfires flew into view and took down two Messerschmidts right off the bat. Given a bit of breathing room, I sent my engineer to fix the port fuel tank, which was leaking, and sent the bombardier to grab a med kit and give first aid to the top turret gunner, who was down and bleeding. The tail gunner grabbed more ammo. My navigator plotted a course across the North Sea. With some luck, we’d make it home. If we didn’t, my crew had sea survival vests, a dinghy, and a homing pigeon. They had a good chance of getting picked up by the Royal Navy.
Exciting, no? Much different than what I expected from a game that gave me seven bobbleheaded nine-year-olds to fly a cartoony bomber on solo missions over cartoon France and Germany.
Turns out that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t expect.
I had been “warned” about Bomber Crew before I got it: it was a busyclicker that used a solo Lancaster bomber and its crew to make you click furiously on fire extinguishers, ammo crates, recalcitrant hydraulic systems, and a dozen other things, all while scanning the radar for enemy fighters and then scanning the skies to “tag” them so your gunners could engage those in range, and you navigated from waypoint to waypoint on your way to a target that you had to bomb through a bombsight, which included opening the bomb bay doors and selecting the appropriate bombs. It’s the adorable bobble head version of B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th, which I reviewed seventeen years ago for GameSpot. In some ways, Bomber Crew is the game B-17 wanted to be, but couldn’t, because the technology of 2000 wasn’t able to handle it. In 2017, Bomber Crew breezes effortlessly over this same territory, doing loops and split-Ses as it seems to recapitulate almost everything B-17 seems to have wanted to do. Then it suddenly flies off in an entirely different direction, never to return.
But before flying off into the sunset, boy, does Bomber Crew take you on a ride. Early on, you fly some simple missions to bomb an ammo dump, or maybe a factory, or even drop supplies to a downed airman in the Channel while you fly overhead and ridiculously pick off fighters. But Bomber Crew is much smarter than this. It eventually weaves an incredible amount of historical detail into an equally incredible amount of clicking an busywork. Designers Jon Wingrove and Dave Miller have done a really nice job creating some dazzling air-to-air combat vignettes with compelling historical moments. This historical feel is surprisingly good for such a cartoony game. The Me-410 rips you up, but is so vulnerable to your heavy ammo. You have to scan differently for the fast-turning Me-109’s than the Nachtjager Ju-88s. Cloud effects are real. The altitude and navigation mechanisms are very well done. The twin-engine nightfighters have Schrage Musik autocannon pointing up from the fuselage. That’s a very cool inclusion and makes the ventral turret crucial. Who woulda thunk they’d include Schrage Musik? The game has quite a few elegant mechanisms built in, and despite the bobbly bobbly, the effect is strong enough to capture the imagination of even a hardcore historical gamer like me.
The problem is the way the game is balanced. Instead of being a cool rogueishlike clicker with interesting busywork and a coherent, connected storyline, it’s balanced like a level-based arcade game where you need to learn the tricks to beat a particular level, with the concomitant arcade mechanism of arbitrary punishment to make the highs more high. Once, a random fuel leak killed my whole crew before I had even left England. It reminded me of the Pac Man trick the ghosts would do when one (I think the red one) would rush you super fast at the start of a level before you had a chance to react. It was the game’s way of randomizing your outcome, in the intermittent-reward-way that Tom Chick discussed in a podcast in 2010, way before the whole loot crate brouhaha. And that’s a thing that goes way back to arcade games, even pinball. How many quarters did you pop in because you got wiped on some level of Defender or your last ball of a good pinball run? This is that.
Bomber Crew knows what it’s doing. Each step of the campaign resets you to a certain aircraft configuration when you crash, but you can only go backward so far. There are eight steps, each one gated by a “critical mission” that just needs to be completed to advance. No crew or plane survival needed. On the last campaign step, each time I crashed, I lose my engine extinguishers. I’d also lose my homing pigeon and my upgraded engines. So I needed to go do the milk run missions to re-equip the plane and crew. Then I’d do another riskier mission to equip everything some more. Then I’d go do a special mission (only occasionally available) to knock down the enemy armor or flak for the next two missions. Then I’d do the other mission that reduced enemy abilities so I have both abilities in effect when I went for the critical mission of the campaign segment. But I couldn’t just milk the easy missions over and over to build up my bomber/crew forever, because the game would punish me with an arbitrary failure if I perseverated too long.
This is almost certainly for balance reasons, and it chooses an arcade game’s balance solution by making me pick a path and then master the individual missions, one by one, which have the targets in the same place and the enemy aircraft flying in from the same directions. Some missions you can’t win without using the boost power at certain places because the timers on targets are set to expire before a plane traveling at normal speed can get to them all. For example, the one where you protect a ship in Operation Chariot (the historical raid on St. Nazaire) makes you speed up to bomb shore artillery before it sinks the ship. The first time you’re all like “hey, wait this isn’t fair!” and then you figure it out and are all pleased with yourself. The game uses things like this well (and some not so well, such as the uselessness of the ability to photograph things from mid altitude) to give you specific things to do to complete specific missions. It’s classic arcade design.
This leads to weird gamey mechanisms like trying to preserve certain crew members above others for obscure reasons. Crew members can level up, unlocking new abilities (such as the ability to perform corkscrew maneuvers or an emergency dive as a pilot) and also gaining secondary abilities for cross-training at other positions. The best secondary skill (I think) for bombardier is gunner, because when he gets to level 3 he gets focus, making him that much more deadly when he is not bombing things, and he often gets off the first shots because he is at the front of the aircraft. So a bombardier with level 3 gunnery is way more valuable on a late campaign step than a level 9 engineer, because you’ll get a new level 9 engineer when you die who has all the required engineer abilities, but you’ll only get a bombardier who is a level 1 gunner. So you try to get all the survive-y things for the bombardier but don’t care if everyone else dies. Did I mention the dress-up part? By completing missions, you gain money to buy better equipment for your crew and for the airplane. You can get survival vests, better oxygen masks, even a homing pigeon. The systems interact with each other very well, and you can to some extent prepare for different missions by kitting out your crew in different ways. You can get boots that are good at high altitude, boots that give you armor protection, or boots that help you move around the plane quickly. You also need to upgrade your aircraft, with successive levels of armor, engines, types of guns, fuselage armor, and what have you.
But Bomber Crew is really about clicking quickly on a lot of things, and this is where the design clearly focuses. I’ve heard some people complain about the interface, but I’m pretty sure that based on how smart the rest of the design is, this is an intended feature. As I said, the game knows what it is doing, and it is not about to be a hotkey-memorization exercise. You need to look at your crew, monitor the aircraft’s put out fires (by clicking on a crewmember to grab a fire extinguisher), even switch positions at times, such as when I had to send my almost-dead pilot to the “sick bay” while my engineer flew the plane. The pilot was level 10 while my engineer was a level 9 engineer but only a level 2 pilot. So he couldn’t do any fancy maneuvers. Which is why I brought the pilot back to fly as soon as he was done on the sick bay’s magic tanning bed. This is the game’s cognitive load, and it is deliberate and well executed.
Unfortunately, this runs directly into the thing that could be the most interesting facet of Bomber Crew, which is, like, the bomber crew. How cool would it be to have a crew that (mostly) stayed together through 25 missions, have a log that shows their kills, successful bombing runs, ammo expended, etc.?
Oh, wait, that’s Microprose’s B-17. This design is not that, probably because that would require the missions to be longer. It took me almost 150 missions to finish the campaign; with 25 I would have been done a long time ago. There would be severe balancing issues later on because there would be a huge difference between a pilot that had leveled up since the start, and a green pilot you got on mission 23 because your veteran just got killed. Yeah, they could give you a comparable pilot, but that would devalue all the leveling you had done up to that point, so the game just decides to devalue and de-emphasize crew experience from the outset and concentrate on the arcade-style pacing. Which is absolutely a reasonable choice. It’s just one I don’t like.
I liked this game a lot when I had a crew I was keeping together. I got the “Seven Survive Seven” achievement early. I had those super historical experiences I described earlier, such as a spectacular raid on, I think, a “flak tower” near Hamburg. But I eventually realized I wasn’t supposed to keep a crew together, or worry too much when a certain crew member died. Don’t worry! Here’s another one! says the game. There are no endgame stats about your crewmembers — just a couple of pages of names presented monotonously on a set of “memorial” screens. Believe me, when you’re done, you’ll have no idea who Sgt. Jayne Mansfield or whoever was back on mission 22. “Don’t worry!” said Bomber Crew. “That’s not the point! Those guys are disposable and irrelevant.” The game builds a brief connection to disposable characters, and when they are repeatedly wiped out, it trusts that the gameplay will keep you engaged for the duration. But then it stumbles up against silly stuff like either saving enough money in the “bank” before each mission so you can equip a new crew if you wipe, or have stuff in storage ready to replace, both of which feel tedious when you’ve done them for the 30th time. Please, Bomber Crew, just give me a preset default to equip each of my guys automatically at once. My bombardier will always have an Advanced Bombardier Getup after I wipe because it’s cheap. My Gunners will have the Advanced Gunnery set because they need it. The Engineer will have the basic Engineer set because plimsolls. I don’t want to click on this every time I wipe, which is probably every eighth mission.
I can sum up by posing the question, “Do I like that the designers have designed this game?” and I can answer that in three different ways:
1. I like that the designers have designed this game.
This is a true statement: I like that the designers have designed a game about an Avro Lancaster crew.
2. I like that the designers have designed this game.
This is also a true statement: I love that the game is so carefully designed. I love game design, and I think this is a coherent vision done in a consistent way that shows its designers understand how to solve design problems and achieve design goals, which is more than you can say about most games these days.
3. I like that the designers have designed this game.
This is a false statement: I don’t like the actual design itself for the reasons mentioned above. Sadly, answer 3 trumps answers 1 and 2. Sorry to bring politics into it, but that’s the way it is.