Underneath a charming exterior lies a complex and brutal management sim.
Beneath Bomber Crew’s cutesy exterior is a tough-as-nails World War II aircraft simulation with an eye toward historical accuracy. Its frantic real-time gameplay sets it apart from other ship sims, and there are lots of interesting options for tackling its tough levels.
Like the classic roguelike FTL: Faster Than Light, Bomber Crew puts you in charge of a vehicle which you must staff and manage as it goes on missions, but the comparisons end there. That’s mainly because you can’t pause to give orders, so the challenge comes from performing all the duties of a bomber crew, from gunnery to navigation to bombardment, at the same time. Targeting enemy fighters, picking destinations, and lining up bombing runs all work the same way: press the middle mouse button to zoom out into targeting mode, find your target, and hold your sights on it until the circle is filled.
It requires careful coordination: you can’t drop your bombs without opening the bay doors, but opening them too soon slows down your bomber and wastes precious fuel. You have to make that decision while you’re juggling other tasks like lining up the plane for a run, extinguishing engine fires, and resuscitating downed crewmates. Sometimes all at once.
Some of the best missions have special requirements for completion. One of my favorite mission types involves the Dam-Buster bomb, a weapon built during World War II that required bombers to fly dangerously close to the ground and skip bombs across the surface of a lake to hit their target. It’s a tricky shot because it requires perfect timing, dropping the bomb when two circles in the targeting reticule overlap, but there’s nothing as exciting as blowing open a dam with a well-placed hit.
The Grand Slam was the biggest non-nuclear bomb used in the 20th century.
Another great mission type involves the Grand Slam, the biggest non-nuclear bomb used in the 20th century. Most bombs can be dropped at low altitude, but the Grand Slam’s detonation is so large requires you to bomb from much higher up – so high that the cold can freeze your crew and a poor oxygen supply can result in quick asphyxiation. The targets are a lot smaller from high altitude, too, but pulling it off is all the more satisfying.
And those are just the main objectives. Bomber Crew throws some optional objectives into the mix as well, most of which involving reconnaissance photos, but I’ve also shot down enemy aces and incoming V-1 guided bombs and V-2 missiles. My proudest achievement was when I dropped a bomb directly onto a V-1 in mid-flight.
Beyond the reward of self-satisfaction, completing missions unlocks a wide range of upgrades. Those range from simple, passive things like leveling up engines for more speed or gunners for dealing more damage to more interesting stuff, like the ability to call in a squadron of Spitfires to back you up in a fight or giving your homing pigeon a tiny helmet, increasing its chances of survival after a crash. Those frequent unlocks make every mission feel like a meaningful step forward.
Bomber Crew won’t go easy on you.
You’ll need them, because Bomber Crew won’t go easy on you. After the training missions the difficulty ramps up considerably, and some missions will seem impossible when you first try them. Slow, piston-engined fighters are eventually replaced by rocket-powered enemies that are much harder to hit and can chew up a poorly defended bomber in a matter of seconds. Victory is a matter of experimenting with combinations of upgrades or running easier alternative missions that can make the challenging ones easier.
Higher-level missions are daunting because a single mistake can doom your crew. In one mission, my hydraulic systems broke, which meant my turrets couldn’t aim at enemies, who promptly took advantage of that fact and set fire to my engines. I sent my engineer to repair the engines, but he fell to his death when the next attack blew a hole in the plane. Gravity then took its natural course, and my bomber crashed shortly after, leaving me to consider what I’d done wrong. Maybe if I had sent the engineer to revive a downed crewman instead, that crewman could have fixed the hydraulics, allowing the turrets to defend the bomber and preventing the engineer from dying long enough to fix the engine, and keeping the plane aloft. In hindsight it’s clear, but it takes some trial and error to figure out.
But because the missions take place in real-time and you can’t save mid-mission, failure can feel like a major setback. A crash means restarting, rebuilding your bomber, and replaying the first half of what can be a tough 20-minute mission, and doing that a few times in a row is frustrating. Games like FTL are great because even though a whole run ends if you die, individual encounters are much shorter, and some locations are completely peaceful. With Bomber Crew, once you’re in the air over Europe you’re likely to face constant flak fire and enemy fighters until it’s over, so if something goes wrong it can feel like there’s rest and no way out. Fortunately, most of the missions balance the challenge well; and at the very least I was always engaged with keeping my bomber in the air, so I was never bored.
Still, it rarely feels unfair because there are so many options for different approaches. Most of the missions are fun, win or lose, and every action you take offers tangible feedback for how to improve or unlocks new upgrades. If something goes wrong, you can try again with a different build or take on a different mission first. There’s always something new to try.
Bomber Crew’s user interface has a few weaknesses that make the job a little harder than it probably should be. Tooltips would be especially useful, because even after a couple of dozen hours I occasionally find myself forgetting what certain upgrades do. I once crashed because I moved my pilot by accident, causing the plane to fall from the sky – it should probably be a little harder to do that by mistake. Another failure came a few times, when I told a crewmember to man a turret, but he chose to stand next to it instead because I wasn’t quite as precise as it demands with my clicks. And, as a weird, minor thing that came up, there’s no way to adjust the volume in-game.