The Flare Path: Museum Piece

Bomber Crew is warming its engines and waggling its flight control surfaces. On Oct 19th, if all goes to plan, a green Very light will fizz heavenward and anyone with £TBA to spare will get the chance to find out whether Runner Duck’s 3D-FTL-with-Lancasters is W for Wizard or S for Shite. The evening I’ve just spent with the single-mission sliver of preview code suggests the game will generate far more compliments than complaints, but won’t fully satisfy fans of No Moon Tonight and B-17: Queen of the Skies.

In the press tempter you’re asked to take your Avro bomb-bus to occupied France, photograph a couple of suspicious structures, crater an airfield, and return in one piece. The sortie begins with an aircraft and crew customisation phase that made me harrumph like a retired colonel in a slow-moving Post Office queue.

Tweaking everything from crew headgear to the armour thicknesses on specific fuselage sections in order to achieve double-edged, ahistorical performance gains? I guess some will enjoy the faffing, but to me it’s simply a tiresome illusion eroder, a cheap, discordant way of adding interest to inter-mission intermissions.

Things start improving when tyres leave tarmac. The dumpy 3D Lanc is a dear, the bobbleheaded crew hard to dislike. Moody lighting and clotted cream clouds encourage camera twirling and daydreaming.

Initial decisions are few, altitude choice determining flak and fighter vulnerability, crew comfort (higher = colder) and bombing, recon, and navigation efficiency.

You don’t actually ‘fly’ the plane or operate the turrets yourself. Your heading is set by switching to a zoomed ‘tag mode’ and placing a nav marker in an appropriate sector of sky. Combat is handled in a similar manner. When bogey blips appear on the GUI radar it’s up to you to quickly switch to tag mode, scour the sky, and centre each bandit in your reticule for a few seconds. Once tagged, Luftwaffe interceptors are automatically peppered by turret gunners…

…assuming those turret gunners are still conscious, and haven’t quit their battlestations to wield spanners or syringes.

Like FTL, Bomber Crew really blossoms when crewmen start keeling over and things start catching fire and spewing sparks. The preview mission is no cakewalk and a dramatically condensed map mean difficult choices aren’t slow in arriving. One minute you’re admiring a Lincolnshire sunset, the next you’re looking aghast at a cutaway bomber riddled with holes and awash with calamity. Should Woods try to staunch Taylor’s wounds or stay in the mid-upper turret just in case those Bf-109s return? Should hard-pressed Henderson repair the hydraulics or oxygen system first? If I order Walker to fly a corkscrew manoeuvre in order to shake-off that horribly persistent enemy ace, will Mackay, currently out on the wing fighting an engine fire, be able to hang on?

My first three trips to France were one-way, a talkative cove in a balletic Bf-110 downing my lumberer as, job done, it headed for Blighty. With a little help from some radioed-up Spitfires, I eventually made it home on trip #4, the relief of a successful automated landing slightly marred by disappointment that there was no anxious reception committee waiting to greet me.

KIA crew are commemorated with statuary on the main menu screen. It’s a nice touch but I remain uneasy about BC’s tonal timidity, its eagerness to draw on the Bomber Command war experience without actually acknowledging that experience directly. It looks like Runner Duck have succeeded in creating something novel, exciting and approachable. What aviation anoraks like myself may well rue is that Bomber Crew could have been educational and powerful too had a few bold design decisions been taken in the early stages of development.

*       *       *

I’ve discovered an interesting bit of small print in my RPS contract. On National Ampersand Day I’m allowed to review anything, not just games. A less responsible wargame/sim correspondent would use this freedom to Wot I Think the completely irrelevant. You’d get appraisals of biscuits… clouds… carpet stains. Me, I’m going to use it to tell you about a museum which compliments Cold Waters, Silent Hunter, and Shells of Fury play sessions perfectly.

One of a cluster of naval attractions in and around Portsmouth, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum doesn’t look all that impressive on paper. Compared to the sizeable war machine collections on show at Britain’s premier aviation and armour museums, its selection of four preserved subs seems, at first glance, rather measly. When I handed over my thirteen hundred and fifty new pence yesterday, I was a little concerned I’d have seen all there was to see inside an hour.

I needn’t have worried. While the museum’s crown jewels are indeed its beached krakens, a fascinating treasure trove of smaller exhibits meant I had no trouble filling four hours profitably.

Its massiveness emphasised by its plinthed position, HMS Alliance, an Amphion-class diesel sub launched a few weeks before WW2 ended then adapted for Cold War intelligence-gathering work in the late 1950s, dominates the compact Gosport site.

Access to her is by timed tour only, a restriction that starts making sense once you’re inside and realise how congested and dangerous the compartments could become if people were permitted to come and go as they pleased. The tour system also means you get to travel the length of the vessel in the company of knowledgeable museum staff with personal experience of serving in submarines. My two guides were both excellent, providing a well-paced stream of anecdotes and technical insights that breathed life into the cramped spaces every bit as effectively as the piped sound effects and artfully scattered period possessions.

I imagine Dave had explained the olfactory reality* of living aboard an on-patrol submarine and the reasons why sailors chose to serve in such difficult conditions** hundreds of times but there was nothing weary or stilted about his delivery.

*Two parts sweat, two parts diesel, two parts toilets heads, one part cooking, one part vomit.

**Double pay. “You’d go on an eight week patrol and return with enough money to buy a shiny new Triumph motorbike.”

Pimped with ruched velvet curtains and a bit of quilted leather, Alliance’s wonderful control room could pass for the Nautilus’ with ease. On my next visit I must remember to ask the guide why the Admiralty felt their sub crews needed depth gauges the size of Saxon shields.

X24 might be a fraction of the size of the Museum’s Cold Warrior but it has comparable charisma. A four-man WW2 midget sub split into two sections to allow easy inspection of its interior, the exhibit is a veteran of attacks on Bergen harbour and a sibling of the three craft that famously maimed Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord in 1943.

The X-Craft carried no torpedos, relying on large timer-detonated pannier charges jettisoned under or next to targets to achieve their goals. I’m not sure what’s more amazing, that men volunteered to serve in these alarmingly basic swimming sarcophagi, or that the ZX Spectrum years passed without anyone producing, a side-scrolling 2D version of Above Us the Waves.

The Museum has Neptune to thank for what is arguably its most extraordinary large exhibit. In 1913 Holland I, the RN’s very first submarine, was en route to a Welsh scrapyard when it broke its tow rope in heavy seas, and sank close to the Eddystone Lighthouse. Located in 1981, and raised a year later, it now rests in a purpose-built wing at Gosport, gently warmed by the rust-discouraging exhalations of several fan heaters. Although little remains of the original internal fittings except the single gullet-like torpedo tube, it’s hard not to feel privileged standing alone inside this brine-ravaged progenitor.

Some of the Museum’s most interesting stories are told by its most unassuming artefacts. Wandering the display case-lined galleries in the two-storey main building, there’s food for thought – inspiration for games and thrillers – everywhere you look. The symbol-littered ‘Jolly Rogers’ flown by WW2 RN subs are particularly communicative – every one a pithy summary of risks taken, targets trashed, and dangers survived.

Examining one modest brass nameplate and its associated cabinet and info panel, I found myself reading about Thetis, unquestionably the RN’s unluckiest submarine. A few metres further on, in a display devoted to Cold War exhibits, a sad Scalextric controller caught my eye (Ah. Not actually a Scalextric controller – the launch trigger for a Polaris nuclear missile!). Around the corner, via some unobtrusive piped audio, I was introduced to ‘The Trade’ a wonderful Kipling poem I’d never encountered before.

I visit military museums not only to ogle, touch and sniff the war machines I’ve admired for years through books and games, but to be led down rabbit holes, nudged towards new reading matter, and introduced to people who’ve lived remarkable yet little-known lives. The Royal Navy Submarine Museum didn’t disappoint in this respect.

If I had to find fault – and I do, this is a Wot I Think after all – I’d mention that I was a little surprised to find the Museum sim-less (one of the usable periscopes in the main building would make a fab simpit centrepiece) and a tad disappointed not to find a Chariot on display (you’ll see steering gear from one and some connected items including the helmet from one of the ‘Clammy Death’ suits worn by charioteers, but no actual ‘human torpedo’).

I’d also point out that I left without realising I’d missed “the only fully operational WW2 sub in existence”.  Assuming the Biber is still at Gosport , it definitely deserves to be better signposted.

Oh, and I was distinctly unimpressed by the shop’s book and model selection. Two shelves of ‘RN’ jams and chutneys but no Airfix SSNs or copies of Iain Ballantyne’s Hunter Killers? Hmm.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer

32 Comments

  1. Chiron says:

    Bomber Crew sounds amazing but I cannot deal with those graphics.

    • LNO says:

      The idea of the game is good, the graphics of the crew members are just jarring. In FTL one of the main ideas was that you could instill your own ideas about the personality of the crewmembers because they were purposely kept very low res. In this game there is simply too much personality impressed on you by the game, which is a mistake I think for such a delicate subject. Still might pick it up for the gameplay.

    • corinoco says:

      I love the vector graphic Lancs, I think they look awesome. I’m not a huge fan of the Nintendoid characters, but the planes look great!

      • Vilos Cohaagen says:

        Yes the planes look great but the chibi (?) style chatacters really don’t work for me. Like others have said I am concerned about the tonal clangers that might be in this game. However a proper WIT by Tim could swing me.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I wonder if the game features the actual bombing. Do you make decisions with regard to proximity to target and risk to your plane? Are you scored on the accuracy of your run? And the graphics seem completely tone deaf… cute visions of strategic bombing and causing firestorms in inhabited areas?

      • Chiron says:

        “You have incinerated +1000 people, so close, better luck next time pilot!”

      • Tim Stone says:

        The preview code implies you can approach targets from any direction and height and choose the exact moment bombs are released (targets appears in a simple bombsight in corner of the screen, assuming there’s no cloud below). Destruction states seem to be binary – I don’t remember seeing any accuracy assessment.

    • Dogshevik says:

      It´s not just the graphics. That pre-school level “taunt” seen in the screenshot is just as jarring. I have no idea where the cute-fication trend originated, but I can´t stand it. No matter how sound the game mechanics might be.

      EDIT: Actually the visuals as the saturday morning cartoon villany remind me of the newer The Settlers titles a friend of mine used to play. It was intolerable there as well.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Maybe there is some Lego game influence in the design? It looks like a hybrid of Lego and FTL.

        The movie-based Lego games are successful because they take a subject that’s taken very seriously in a movie like Lord of the Rings or Batman, and then cute-ify it with cartoon characters and jokes. That works fine with fictional subject matter like LOTR. It doesn’t work (for me anyway), when this cute and light-hearted approach is applied to a real historical event, where actual people risked their lives and died in the air, or died on the ground.

        I look forward to the sequel where they switch to ground combat, and your group of cute cartoon soldiers liberates Auschwitz.

    • Shadow says:

      Controversial subject and approach, as I’ve explained in the comments of a previous article. But if the gameplay’s solid, I’m willing to look past it. Love the concept.

  2. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    While trying to solve one of the foxers last week, I was ensnared by a virtual tour of the USS Pampanito, which I thoroughly recommend to FP fans who can’t make it to a real submarine this weekend.

    Thanks for the recommendation though Tim, I’ve got some time off soon, maybe I’ll pop down to Portsmouth for a day.

    • Dogshevik says:

      Didn´t get past the after engine room (yet) but this is quite the interesting source. Thank you.

  3. GT5Canuck says:

    Wonderful tour, but I fear my enjoyment of the museum would be precluded by my terrible claustrophobia.

    • Stugle says:

      That’s my thought as well. Just looking at some of the photos and imagining being there (and crowded by other visitors) is enough for a gentle knotting of the stomach…

  4. Shiloh says:

    I like the idea of a bomber sim, but I’m not sure this is the one for me. I can’t get past the graphics (shallow of me maybe, but there it is).

    Incidentally, I’ve posted this before, but here’s a Lancaster crew doing their job over Essen in April 1943.

    link to youtube.com

    Astonishing to listen to.

  5. corinoco says:

    ” On my next visit I must remember to ask the guide why the Admiralty felt their sub crews needed depth gauges the size of Saxon shields.”

    They are the OMFG WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE gauges. Large; so that plenty of crew could see that for the next 30 seconds at least they weren’t going to die.

  6. Stugle says:

    “Inter-mission intermission” is a wonderful turn of phrase, Tim. And if I might ask one question about the Jolly Rogers(es?) – does it explain anywhere how a submarine bagged two trains and what appears to be a factory chimney and a bridge?

  7. Tim Stone says:

    That’s HMS Ursula’s flag. There’s no mention of the actions on her wiki page:

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    I assume the targets in question were on the Italian coast and destroyed by deck gun fire or shore parties.

    • Stugle says:

      I found this fascinating site which shows detailed information for submarine war patrols:

      link to uboat.net

      On 30 November 1942, Ursula deployed commandos to sabotage a railroad tunnel. Maybe that covers the trains? Also, earlier in the war there’s a reference to shelling a bridge with the deck gun.

      • Tim Stone says:

        Gosh, what a great resource. I had no idea unboat.net also covered Allied subs.

        I reckon the train on the flag is a reference to events of 2 Dec ’42. “Between 2300 and 2330 hours HMS Ursula (Lt. R.B. Lakin, DSC, RN) damaged a train with gunfire near San Lorenzo, Italy.”. The following night she bagged the (olive) oil tanks.

  8. Fishbreath says:

    the only fully operational WW2 sub in existence

    Au contraire, Mr. Stone! Although they’ve been subject to upkeep and minor upgrades over the years, the Taiwanese Navy still operates—and dives—a pair of WW2 US fleet boats, a Tench class and a Balao class. Hai Shih, one of the two, was recently in drydock receiving propulsion maintenance and upgrades to sail until 2026.

    • jabbywocky says:

      Depending on what we deem ‘operational’, the USS Silversides in Muskegon, MI still runs its engines periodically.

    • Tim Stone says:

      That will teach me to rely on info in 13-year-old RN Sub Museum press releases!

  9. Numptydumpty says:

    Thanks for the review of the Sub Museum. I’ve always wondered if it was worth a visit when I drive past. I’ll stop in next time.

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      likewise. I really should, after all I am bloddy fascinated by subs and have been on several in museums, just not this particular museum.

  10. weissenwulf says:

    Can we knock it off with the allusions to faux outrage about the “subject matter”? Of all the innumerable examples of cheerfully splattered gore and explode-y military lampoon in video games this brightly colored and cartoon Lanc on its low-poly and indistinct bombing mission is too much? Good grief.

    Additionally, Tim’s pen — “Moody lighting and clotted cream clouds encourage camera twirling and daydreaming.” — is still the crown jewel of this site.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Can we knock it off with exaggerated claims of outrage?

      There is a difference between outrage and just feeling some discomfort about how this game handles the subject, compared to other games and air combat sims that have dealt with exactly the same thing. It just seems an odd choice for the cute bobblehead treatment.

    • Leafy Twigs says:

      Most of the games with cartoonish graphics are set in their own universe or aren’t replicating actual historical events. Considering what both the bomber crews and the people in the firebombed cities went through, it’s enough to find a cartoon WWII disconcerting.

      Though as I get older, even the imaginary cartoon wars can set me off a little. For example, thinking about Advance Wars where cute anime-ish characters are “War! Yay!” For me personally, that just doesn’t work well anymore because I know a little about what real war is like. But we’re all different. There’s nothing wrong if that doesn’t bother you.

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      I’ve not seen any outrage, just genuine concern about the cognitive dissonance between the tone of the game and the reality of the situation the game is addressing. It just feels tone deaf, though as I said before I’m not wielding a pitchfork though I might wield my wallet.

  11. racccoon says:

    The graphics in this game are very good..

  12. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    Great article today Tim, I’m going to have to get down to Portsmouth and finally visit the sub museum I keep thinking about visiting.

  13. TheBeret says:

    “What aviation anoraks like myself may well rue is that Bomber Crew could have been educational and powerful too had a few bold design decisions been taken in the early stages of development.”

    Like what, exactly? There’s no point in having an idea that can improve a game/genre/industry if you just keep it to yourself.