Air Support

Title           Air Support
Game Type       3D Combat Sim
Company         Psygnosis
Players         1
Compatibility   All (Reset VBR, NoCache (*1))
HD Installable  No (*2)
Submission      Hidehiko Ogata Profiled Reviewer (

I love vector-scan display.

Nowadays it's all raster-scan; it effectively "knits" pictures, as it's
most likely doing on your monitor right now.  Vector-scan, on the other
hand, plays "connect the dots", typically at 30 sheets per second.  It
produces luminous, monochromatic, jaggie-free stick-figures in motion - or
constellations come alive - on a velvet-black CRT.  If you haven't seen
one in action, imagine a laser show on your monitor, or search arcades for
Atari classics like Asteroids, Tempest, Major Havoc etc. (and no,
emulators won't do).  I can't quite nail down its appeal... maybe its
mechanics delight the geek in me.  Maybe it leaves space for my
imagination to fill in.  Maybe I reminisce about the days of old with
that old time vector- scan!

Enough rambling, but why?  Because without that background, you wouldn't
understand why Air Support, a Psygnosis release as late as winter '92, has
the "old, boring" appearance of vector-scan display: wireframe objects,
bright vertices, pitch-black background, bony letters, flicker... they all
add up to the "this is a serious scientific drill" pomp, the same kind
which adorned the original arcade cabinet of Lunar Lander so many moons
ago.  Obviously the author, Alaric J. Binnie, happened to share my
enthusiasm. Isn't diversity wonderful?

The game itself is a multi-vehicle realtime tactical/strategic simulator,
like Armour-Geddon from the same publisher 18 months earlier, or like the
grandaddy of the genre: Carrier Command, an '88 classic.

Here you fly the Command Ship - a futuristic hybrid of helicopter gunship
and AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) - where you conduct a
series of local wars, organizing up to 16 friendly units, such as
fighter aircraft, tanks, missile launchers, and recon vehicles.  It
starts with simple one-on-one affair, then gradually builds up toward
full-fledged war, which also involves the management of the Defence
Complex: Your base with its own radar/defence/production facilities.

Oddly enough, Air Support is played as a simulator; it is a training
course for military cadets... and that's not just a manual filler.
There's a strong sensation of "entering" the simulated virtual world when
switching from the quiet, distant view over the top-down/isometric
tactical map, to the thick of the battle in the first-person-3D cockpit
view of each vehicle.  Here the graphic contrast between the gorgeous
rendition of the relief map - the only part in the game with filled colors
and the vector grid abstraction (or should I say matrix?) of the
vehicle-control screen helps most to enhance the illusion.

The selection of visual style may be arguable, but the implementation is
hard to fault.  The whole section can be played with just a mouse and
handful of keys, with ease, power, and adaptability; a respectable combi-
nation which is duly needed by the inherent busyness of the genre.  Yup,
here's a title, for once, which looks poor yet plays slick - quite
atypical of Psygnosis, who used to just bulldoze through the lack of
accessibility with artistic and technical prowess.  And the game does
feature some Amiga rarities too, such as rolling fractal battlescape,
synthesized speech, and 3D-glasses support (*3) - not too bad a feat for a
1-disk game.

So how does it stack up as a game?  Neat, yet unfulfilled.

Neat, thanks to one major asset: The artificial intelligence for your
"vacant" vehicles. Here they can perform patrol/attack/search-and-destroy
missions unattended; it not only buys precious time for
strategy/logistics, it finally makes a multi-vehicle campaign possible -
both of which remained elusive in its predecessors (and in Armour-Geddon 2
('94) for that matter). The key is that you can "take one over" anytime,
but you don't have to; actually you could easily have fun just watching
your plan unfold from various points of view.

Yet unfulfilled is each element of the game.  It has a little bit of
everything, but not quite enough of any(*4): The physical model is
"fantasic"; the combat system is basically to "duke it out"; the logistics
is just a choice of production; the strategy is mainly the proper use of
smallish terrain.  They do amount to rather interesting, short
mission-based play - then again, it's the only playmode available.  Was
this simplification really by design ("this is an idealized drill"), or
yet another case of the "barebone A500" syndrome (*5)?  Either way, the
game plays not unlike a set of chess problems as a result; it can be
intriguing, yet one can't help wishing for the "full game" that was never
to be...

All in all, Air Support is worth playing if you're not absolutely averted
by the "obsolete, obscure" look of the vector-scan display - if not for
the challenging gameplay, but for the sheer potential of it.

If you're a "vectorhead" like me, on the other hand... this one could
become your favorite vector sandbox (it is mine); it's like flying back into
Battle-zone with a full arsenal (*6)!


*1  ...if you boot from disk 2.  The disk 1, which contains just a typical
    Psygnosis "intro", doesn't seem to work on anything more than 68000.

    Also, it seems to be just the instruction cache that causes problems.
    You can turn on just the data cache, then boot the disk 2 with one of
    the "degrader" utilities (I use TUDE: aminet/util/misc/TUDE.lha).  It
    makes a notable performance impact even on 030.

*2  The game has a look-up-in-manual copy protection. The relevant text is
    printed in hard-to-photocopy, faint blue ink *which seems to fade with
    time*.  Write it down, before it's too late!

*3  A pair of red/blue-filter glasses is included in the package.

    Undocumented is an optional support for LCD-shutter glasses ala
    X-Specs3D (which goes into the second joystick port).  In the stereo-
    scopic mode, the "JOYSTICK" button in the Command Ship's option panel
    switches between these two types.

    By the way, all the manual says about the button is: "allows you to use
    a joystick for flight control"... correct, yet entirely misses the
    point.  Sadly, this is the typical tone of the 68-page manual, which
    ranges from cryptic to just plain wrong.

*4 it seems, at the time of this writing (I've only played about
    halfway through the missions, I reckon).  It's entirely possible that
    the game would reveal some new elements afterward.

*5  The game claims to run on 512K systems (unconfirmed).

*6  ...which is a bit ironic, because that's basically what the designer of
    Battlezone was forced to make, and left Atari Games afterward.

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