Over in the quonset hut that the crew calls home, the kettle is on. On the radio, the latest Dinah Shore song fades out only to be replaced by a new refrain: “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!” The crew stands at attention as I step inside.
There’s my engineer, Mary Wright, an amateur boxer from Ross-on-Wye. I catch her looking nervously at our navigator, William Gordon, a pig farmer from Wadhurst. They’re nervous, all seven of them. I can see it in the slow blinking of their big, pixelated eyes.
This is how every mission begins in Bomber Crew, with you the player staring into the eyes of the virtual men and women you are about to lead into battle. It’s a strategy game through and through, but delivered with an endearing art style and unique gameplay mechanics.
On the surface, at least, it looks a bit like FTL: Faster Than Light. In motion, it’s so much more than that.
Players will juggle the responsibility of manning various stations on the plane. There are gunners, engineers, navigators and pilots. Everyone can do a little bit of everything, but just as in FTL, some of your crew are better at their jobs than others. It’s your role as the captain to bring them home alive and, to do that, you’ll all need to work together.
The target given in this press-only preview build is the Luftwaffe airbase in Juvincourt, France. Historically, it was a major installation for Luftwaffe aircrews during WWII, and in this game it’s home to at least two ace fighter pilots.
My team will be flying their Avro Lancaster bomber, a legendary aircraft that played much the same role that the B-17 did in the U.S. Army Air Corp. I’ve renamed this one from Flak Magnet to the Evelynne Christine after my oldest daughter. From the looks of it, Bomber Crew will feature many customization options, including paint schemes and nose art. You’ll also be able to upgrade the various components of your aircraft, including the engines and the defensive machine guns. Even the crew is highly customizable, right down to the kind of gloves they’ll wear into combat.
To take off, I click on the pilot. A control panel appears below the Evelynne and before long we’re off, sailing past the unmistakable blue curves of the River Thames and out over the English Channel. Everything in the Bomber Crew world feels authentic, lovingly rendered in a faux eight-bit style.
The first job is navigation. When my navigator calls out a new waypoint, it gets marked as a floating circle far off in the distance. Clicking a button on the mouse allows the camera to zoom in. It’s my job to place a reticle on the waypoint long enough for a timer to count down. Once it does, the pilot changes course. Simple enough, I thought.
Just before we cross over the coast of Normandy, the first wave of fighters comes at us. They’re spotted at 2 o’clock high and take the form of tiny red blips in the distance. Just as before, I use the mouse and hover a reticle over them while a timer counts down. Once they’re locked in, my crew begins firing. A few rounds spark off Evelynne’s flanks, but the Germans are shot down in short order and we continue on to the next waypoint, turning north along the coast.
Here’s where things start to get interesting.
Historically in the Lancaster bomber many roles were shared among the crew of eight. That included medical personnel, trained pilots and radio operators as well as skilled gunners. Later in the mission, as we were flying over Pointe du Hoc, the flak was whistling all around the plane and buffeting the camera. That’s when a second group of fighters came at us from the 11 o’clock low position. I used the mouse to mark the targets, but as the fighters came in no one was firing the guns!
The man in the nose of the Evelynne Christine is the bombardier, but he’s also the forward gunner. When the Germans came in, he was lying down in the nose, lining up the instruments for his bombing run instead of firing back.
If I were to take him off of his station to man the forward gun, the pilot would have had to turn the ship around for another pass. The navigator would have needed to make new waypoints, and I — the player — would have to mark them again with the mouse while under fire. That would be a lot of time spent passing through the vicious guns at Pointe du Hoc, and another chance for a German fighter group to vector in and intercept.
So I did the only thing I could do: I zoomed in to a cut-away of the Evelynne and took the navigator off his station, assigning them to the forward gun. The brutal, short-range gunfight took down one German fighter. It also gravely wounded our navigator.
To move your crew around, you have to take your attention off the situation outside the ship. We missed the target on the ground by a hair, and had to shuffle crew around inside the ship to deal with the wounded navigator.
From there, things only got worse.
While defending the ship from another wave of interceptors we missed a navigational waypoint and wandered off course. A new battery of flak guns lit us up, and I had to tell the pilot to climb to get us out of range. At that altitude, however, the crew quickly got too cold to man their stations, so I dropped down once again. That’s when the German ace appeared on the horizon. Before long he knocked out our ball turret gunner and parked himself underneath the plane, raking us with his dorsal machine gun.
An engine caught fire, and I had to send my engineer crawling out onto the wing to repair it. That’s when the fuselage itself gave way and the entire tail section fell off the plane. Three little bodies went sailing out the back before we hit the ground. The poor bastards weren’t even wearing parachutes.
At the end of the mission, crew members spin a wheel to see how they fared. There’s a chance that they died of their wounds in the plane, of course. But if they can manage to land safely on the ground, they still need to survive on land or at sea until they can be picked up by friendly forces. The butcher’s bill was high on that first mission. We lost the plane, of course, but there were also five crew members killed in action and two who went missing. Only one man, the pilot, made it back alive.
At the loading screen, I was greeted with a statue memorializing them at a modern-day train station.
For all it’s kitschy art style and simplistic gameplay inputs, Bomber Crew is as gritty a simulation of the air war over Europe as I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to play more. The game will be out Oct. 19 on Steam, and it’s scheduled to come to PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One at a later date.