Review: Bomber Crew06 Nov 2017 3
Review: Bomber Crew
Released 19 Oct 2017
The side of the plane explodes into splinterings, bullets striking the armour and opening holes in the fuselage. 400 meters from the target V1 factory, the chin gunner of the lone Avro Lancaster climbs down from her .303 machine gun turret and takes position behind the bombsight. 300 meters. The top and tail turrets rain lead upon the German fighters, keeping them at arm’s length as the pilot stabilises the plane for the bombing run. 200 meters. Incoming ground fire from flak and AA guns punch a hole through the fuselage, knocking down the electrical system. The radio operator calls out, the radar dead, just as several new contacts appear on the horizon. The mechanic gets up from his station and tries to repair the electric box. 100 meters. The bombardier opens the bomb doors and primes the ordinance, intently watching the bombsight as the Lancaster gunners down several Me 109s. As their flaming husks spiral and plummet through the sky engulfed in black smoke, the bomber flies over the target. 0 meters. Bombs away.
That eventful bombing run was one of my first sorties in Bomber Crew, and would also be an accurate account of what most of the game’s missions are like. A strategic management simulator set in World War II, this charming indie title lets you recruit, train, and captain the crew of a British Avro Lancaster as they fly into enemy territory and take the fight to the Third Reich. From take off to landing, it is your responsibility to bring your crew back alive and keep your plane in one piece.
An indie title with very little in the way of graphical or sound options, the game has a cute low-poly art design, quite distant from the ordinary “gritty” feel or the removed strategic take of war-related games nowadays. It does not strive to be accurate, but it does worry about being authentic: time-period relevant music plays on the barracks as you inspect your troops, war materiel and locations are real, and crew dossiers are wonderfully British. Sound design and music are surprisingly cute, while voice acting takes a The Sims’ approach and turns every single line into cute gibberish. It is a lovely and novel take on World War II, and a real breath of fresh air after years of Saving Private Ryan mainstream influence.
Revolving around the logistics and flight ops of the famous British bomber, Bomber Crew is primarily a crew management game. The Lanc holds seven people -- a pilot, a navigator, a mechanic, a radio operator, a bomb aimer, and two gunners -- and each one must be individually recruited, geared, and trained. As crew members fly in sorties and survive them, they accrue experience which unlock new skills and a secondary specialisation, allowing each person to perform two jobs -- which given how many times something breaks or someone is incapacitated, is an essential feature.
Once on the air, actual actions like shooting or flying are automated, but they must all be ordered first -- German planes must be tagged, navigation markers must be plotted, flight altitude must be chosen, so on and so forth. The standard gameplay involves taking off, following the navigator’s markers, tagging incoming enemy fighters, and performing the mission’s objective before turning around and landing back home. Those mission objectives are all aimed at helping the war effort via strategic sorties like bombing factories or launch facilities, taking recon pictures of enemy installations, and even delivering supply drops to stranded British soldiers. The game itself features several layers of tactical thinking, with things such as weather, cloud cover, and altitude affecting your ability to perform the mission and the effectiveness of your plane and crew.
While they mostly play out the same way, with you flying towards a place and dropping bombs, sorties do have a certain amount of contextual flair -- you take out V1/V2 launch sites that are threatening the British Isles, rescue Spitfire pilots who bailed in the middle of the ocean, and even help out Commando raids by taking out port defenses before an amphibious assault. Thanks to a number of normal missions that continuously regenerate and “critical” missions that advance the campaign’s timeframe, the game caters to both linear and endless play cycles.
Bomber Crew has a knack for micromanagement especially on the lower levels, where every single action must be ordered by the player. Taking-off, assigning target to gunners, and the actual act of opening the bomb doors and releasing the ordnance are some examples of countless actions you must actively perform -- even the raising and lowering of landing gears must be ordered, lest your pilot fly to Germany with the wheels down or try to land back on a tarmac in England on the craft’s belly. The end result keeps the player engaged, but it does paint the crew in a sort of dumb kind of mindless drones -- instead of returning fire, gunners will happily sit around as dozens of untagged fighters turn their aircraft into a metallic swiss cheese.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the logistic sides of airfare. Similar to XCOM’s base management, these play as the strategic counterpart to the flight sorties’ tactical panic. Before and after each mission, you get the chance to spend your hard-earned money on the plane and its crew. Aside from training and clothing the flight crew, you can upgrade and customise the Lanc with all sorts of equipment, from better armour and turrets to engine fire extinguishers and homing pigeons. Bomber Crew also allows you to paint and decal your plane with different colours and images, including a basic Paint-like tool that allows you to draw virtually anything onto the plane's’ fuselage. Besides always being a welcomed feature, this multiple levels of upgrades and customisation allows players to get personally invested in the craft and its occupants.
However, the game is not without its flaws. More often than not, especially at the beginning, Bomber Crew throws more things at you than you are comfortably capable of handling, and it doesn’t give you the tools to deal with them. The constant need to tag fighters and markers and targets quickly become a bother, as each tag takes a couple of seconds where you must focus your camera upon the respective UI icon. While some skills later in the game help you deal with that by allowing the radar officer to auto-tag incoming fighters, for example, it does come way late in the experience -- which quickly becomes exponentially frustrating when you factor in most people will lose several members of the crew at the beginning of the game and take a lot of time before they even know such a skill exists.
Speaking of knowing things, the game does a terrible job of explaining clearly some of its core concepts. I’ve spent a dozen hours with Bomber Crew for review purposes, and I still don’t know what the official name of the intel currency you get by doing recon actually is. Similarly, I didn’t knew you could bomb intel targets for extra XP after photographing them until I read it on a Steam discussion. Overall, the game just gives you a quick tutorial, and sets you on your way without bothering to explain a lot.
A pet peeve of mine is the reload system in the game -- one of the few tooltips suggest you use another crew member to reload the gunners’ positions, but the interface makes it insanely difficult. Nine times out of ten I was unable to reload the top turret with another officer, as clicking on it would select the occupant inside instead. I eventually resorted to simply choosing the gunner and hitting R whenever possible, losing an active turret for precious seconds but not having to deal with a useless member of the crew holding an ammo box inertly for extended periods of time as I tried and failed to highlight a turret.
It is especially annoying and immersion breaking how crew members will just relaxedly stroll through gunfire when moving about the plane. Instead of scurrying towards an ammo box or rushing to repair a component, Bomber Crew’s characters leisurely walk towards where you ordered them to as the Lancaster catches on fire and breaks in half. Given how fast paced and chaotic the game’s events are, the dozen seconds a mechanic takes to cross the plane often mean the difference between life and death, creating a severely unsavory and unfair situation where death is caused by no fault of the player -- a classical sin of game design.
These small bumps and their disproportionate impact on gameplay are a sign of a bigger issue with Bomber Crew: lack of balance. The campaign features several difficulty spikes, especially late in the game as chronological advance introduces enemy jets to contend with. The game seems geared towards player failure, with non-upgradeable fuel tanks, non-existing flight mechanics (the plane just drops down like a rock when out of fuel instead of gliding), and the constant obstructions that prevents the player from being fully effective. Weirdly, even crew equipment is awkwardly weighted -- presets and class-specific gear are focused on giving you survival chances in case of bailing out, instead of allowing a crew member to perform better and not get shot down in the first place. When ordering emergency dives or crash landing, the plane actually twists and shakes out of the screen, making it literally impossible to order the crew to do what needs to be done to save the craft. It is maddening.
As flawed as it is, the truth is Bomber Crew is a very enjoyable game. I would often close it down in anger after almost losing my crew in a badly balanced mission, only to open the game again after a couple of hours aching to upgrade my craft and do it all over again. In fact, the only way I found to make the game even remotely manageable and actually fun was by replaying non-critical missions over and over again, gathering enough intel and money to upgrade my Lancaster before moving to higher missions and repeating the grind cycle.
In the end, I can recommend Bomber Crew as long as you are aware of its many caveats -- it is a quite good game which frequently verges into a frustrating session, but when it works, it does so wonderfully. I believe most of its flaws can be fixed with careful and dedicated consideration by the developers, as show in the latest patch that added a “slow-down time” feature -- I never made use of it myself, but I praise Runner Duck for compromising and listening to their players. If they maintain that attitude and keep the well-being of the game above any other considerations, I expect Bomber Crew to become an even better gem than it already is.