Almost three years ago, Saving Private Ryan came out to shock the world about the horrors of WWII. Critics and the mass of movie goers were unanimous in their praise of Spielberg's masterpiece, so much so that even the harshest critics of the director had to applaud at least the initial horrific 30 minute sequence of Omaha beach. It comes as no surprise that subsequently, many titles tried to emulate the tension, drama and fear found in this one bit of film. Upcoming titles like Medal of Honor or WWII Online certainly pay homage to the film. Three years later, Disney is about to release an epic WWII film based on Pearl Harbor. Saving Private Ryan taught that war was not desirable and thus, it will probably be next to impossible to see a licensed game based on that film being developed. Other parts of WWII though, seem to be fair game and with the Pearl Harbor movie coming out, a slew of WWII titles have been released. This particular one focuses on the European theatre but I am sure, with its close proximity to another major WWII box office release, it no doubt wants to capitalize on the public's renewed WWII interests. B-17 Gunner: Air War Over Germany (Gunner) sounds an awful like the recent B-17 title from Hasbro, which was a sequel to the immortalized Microprose title. Both, however, could not be more different from each other.
Gunner is developed by Suncom and published by WizardWorks. A quick glance at the manual explains that Suncom is actually the original creator of Deer Hunter, bar none, the strangest game to hit the PC market in years. Strange only because most veteran gamers don’t quite understand how it can outsell other games that can best it by light years in terms of technology. Gunner, however, features something more than just budget technology. It brandishes a 3D engine in which the protagonist of the game is responsible for manning gun turrets of a B-17 bomber. The controls are rather simple in the game. You can opt to use a joystick or keyboard but the default is using a mouse and I found it more than adequate in handling the game's action. Though Gunner and its developers may try to convince you that this is somehow a simulation of sorts, it bears more similarity to an arcade shooter. And even then, it is more like a mindless one, like Space Invaders only in 360 degrees with six gun ports available.
Some people may already decry by now that this title is not worth playing but I think the developers are trying to aim for something here. If we look at Tribes 2, or any other multiplayer game for that matter, the latest craze is for vehicles or objects that can be manned by multiple players. Undoubtedly, one of these will be responsible for manning a turret. But as Gunner only focuses on doing this one thing, it will probably have to pull it off real well to actually impress its audience.
The premise of the game takes you through the European campaign. In a total of 25 missions, you will have to battle various German (and only German) planes, usually over enemy territory. By the looks of the missions, you are usually launching from Britain, although the map is often unclear where your objectives are. But honestly, it does not matter, since most of the missions are the same. Each one tasks you to approach a location. Interceptors will be launched to try to dissuade you from reaching your waypoints. When the pilot manoeuvres somewhere close to designated area, you will be the one who will release bombs over the target. The target is given to you at the mission briefing in black and white. It is up to the player to determine where this location is. After the bombing run is complete, the plane will return home and as the gunner, you will have to down a few more aircraft that come to harass your squadron.
Unfortunately, the fun wears a little thin, especially within the first five missions, simply because very little changes beyond the formula I described above. You never fly in any night or dusk missions. Moreover, none of them are in inclement weather. Now, the argument can be made that the Americans historically did not believe in night missions to minimize losses but still, I wish there were at least some variation. The Luftwaffe, famous for their flying prowess, are actually quite bland in Gunner. First, they almost always use the same approach vectors. That is, the planes dive down from about 45 degrees above the top turret. It seems that no Germans ever think of shooting from below or at any other angle. This makes turrets, like the rear or the bottom turret, completely useless and most of the time you will just man the top turret.
The game also progresses very slowly, such that the first few missions are so easy that you could gun down an entire fighter squadron within 15 seconds. And the difficulty only increases noticeably after another ten missions in which by that time, you are half way through the game. By the last few missions, the enemy planes give you a run for your money. The Microprose title was able to effectively simulate all crew members in an airplane, right down to the radio man or navigator. In Gunner, the only people who seem to do their job are the navigator and pilots. If there were any other people on board, they must have either died or fell asleep, or something equivalent to both. Thus, the sole responsibility for defending the plane rests on you alone. The initiate to this title will think that perhaps the four bombers that accompany your squadron will help. Sadly, they only serve as cannon fodder and if you miss your bombing run, they are unable to help you out.
The bombing itself is flawed as well. Often you will forget the target's picture but I find it incredibly ridiculous why the target area couldn't be displayed during the bombing. Surely the crew members had a photograph of the designated area on the plane itself. Instead, you are forced to memorize your target. WWII was known for its ferocity on the civilian population, primarily through carpet bombing. Your B-17 is either woefully under-equipped or your crew have a great sense of moral ethics. Not only do you bomb a very narrow strip of land, you can only bomb once. Moreover, your pilot cannot be ordered to make another run if the initial bombing attempt is unsuccessful. Even if your bomb does land on the target, instead of the colossal damage or fireworks you see in war documentaries, the bombs you carry seem to do damage equivalent to a giant smoke grenade. Those keen on the fire trigger can also trick the plane into releasing two loads of bombs, although I am unsure whether the latter is actually effective.
Luckily, the bombing segment is only one small component of the whole game. Much of the time, you will be gunning down various Luftwaffe planes. My history may be hazy but as the game progresses, and I am assuming time progresses forward as well, the Luftwaffe actually get stronger in this title. Not only are they more numerous, they begin to wield jet engine aircraft in massive numbers. But my inference was the Luftwaffe was reduced to shambles even by 1944. Still, this is just a historical complaint but it is equally absurd that while the Luftwaffe seems to get access to better technology, your B-17 remains unchanged. The Luftwaffe will fire waves of rockets at you while the lone B-17 gunner tries to gun down aircraft that zoom by on jet fuel.
To continue on this point, even the mission briefings remained unchanged. There are only a few mission briefing templates which substitute your target's name in the appropriate field. After ten missions, you are bound to have seen all the mission briefings and this repetition makes the title even more monotonous. Visually, the title is acceptable for what by now, ultimately resembles a value class game. However, you cannot test the limits of whatever 3D engine is employed simply because you never have control of the plane. As such, this could probably be easily done with 2D sprites as well. Support is available from 640x480 to 1024x768. Gameplay is smooth except for when the fighter planes get dangerously close to you. It seems like textures are swapped for the object once they are in close range. The game features some radio chatter that is much talked about as a glowing feature of this title. In reality, they are supposed to inform the turret gunner at what o'clock in the sky the enemy is coming at. But your crew members are doing that far and few in between. They often like to comment that engines are blown up or wings are clipped. By the time you switch to a turret that actually looks over that position, the enemy has long past that area. The turret is also unmarked. Since more often than not you will be in the top turret facing the sky, it would have been nice to have virtual markings as to which direction you are facing. Something as simple as a little clock would have been much more helpful in responding to your crewmates' pleas. The radio chatter is also completely random at times. When I was about to release bombs, someone decided to say they needed to go to the bathroom (not in those exact words). Because you can never see any of the crew "active", except for the pilots, the radio chatter does not add to the realism of the title at all. There are supposed to be different guns mounted on each of the turrets but they all sound the same, although physically, I think the top turret's cannon is much more effective (at least it seems so) than any other ones on the plane. Still, the repetitious sounds add to the monotony of the title.
The ultimate conclusion I can come up with about this title is: it is a glorified rail shooter, in the vein of Virtua Cop 2, among others. WizardWorks recently published another title, Beach Head 2000, where it completely disrespected the original Beach Head titles (which I had the opportunity of playing on a C64). At least Gunner has some sort of finality to it, although the end is rather rye since after the final mission, you simply repeat the first mission. In fact, if you didn't read the manual, you would probably play this game endlessly without knowing that you already bombed these places more than once. Certainly the multiple turrets add a few twists to the rail shooter but I thought a multiplayer component would greatly enhance the longevity of this title. Even in hotseat mode, it would have been helpful. Moreover, some variation in environment (inclement weather, etc.) and mission design would definitely heighten the drama of what is ultimately quite a dull job; the gunner position. The final missions are rather absurd with the Luftwaffe seemingly at a greater strength than it ever has before. Historically, the Germans resisted to the death to the Soviets but yielded to the Western allies. My feeling is that, most gamers, even those just slightly above the mass audience crowd, will resist to the death before buying and playing Gunner.