ST Format Review
For this review I’m running Steem with a 1MB STE, running TOS 1.62. I’ve gone with Automation 424, not one of their more exciting menus (fairly mediocre chip tune and some scrolly text) but it gets the job done. Into the game.
A cool intro with the stealth fighter fading into view (to illustrate the stealthiness of it) with a nice sampled tune, then into the copy protection and setting up my pilot.
Choices choices.. kick Saddam’s ass or go deal death to some commies?
So I chose an air-to-air mission, fighting commies, with full realism and difficulty settings. The mission generator suggested this. I need to destroy a transport plane which will undoubtedly have a fighter patrol around it, and then blow up a Surface to Air Missile battery before returning home. I pick the fuel pods, the mavericks for blowing shit up on the ground (4 of them in 2 bays), and 4 sidewinders for some air-to-air fun.
Time to take off. The vector graphics look a little primitive by modern standards but in motion they do a decent enough job that you can tell what’s what.
Here’s a missile’s-eye view of the plane I’m about to blow up.
And it’s dead. See the pilot’s parachute by the red aiming reticule? Naturally I try to shoot the pilot but to no avail (probably no collision detection enabled – boo).
More planes turned up, the dogfight got intense and I didn’t keep an eye on my altitude and.. this is awkward.
My bloated corpse is eaten by maggots.
Let’s try this again. Let’s get properly into the mood this time.
You are not permitted to read the rest of this review until you have listened to the whole song. I will know, and I will kick your ass.
New pilot is ready to go. 2nd Lt Hari ‘BuzzTheTower’ Seldon at your service.
I pick commies, conventional war, top level opposition and realistic landings for maximum points. That’s what I used to run back in the day and that’s what I’ll run now dammit. So, I need to destroy a plane orbiting an airbase (a TU-95 Bear), before blowing up a Surface to Air Missile battery and then land at Gutersloh. Simple.
I get to choose a plane, but in truth it doesn’t make much difference. For all the talk of realism in the manual and in the ST Format review, the flight model is actually pretty arcade.
I’ve gone with a loadout of sidewinders (you only get 3 of the longer range amraam per slot – I’m happy to get up close and personal) and 4 mavericks despite having only one ground target to destroy. The idea is that I’ll also take out some radar sites and other bits and pieces just for fun. I usually use either Mavericks or Slicks. The Maverick is guided and most of the time hits its target, while the slick is a dumb bomb, which requires a bit more precision and work and leaves you vulnerable to enemy fire while lining up your bombing run though you do get 3 per slot which is better. For my purposes the Maverick is fine.
Time to start my mission. Before continuing, I just want to highlight how good the pixel art is in this game. The coffee swirls in its cup and the background even on this simple page is lovely, and you’ve seen some of the beautifully-drawn stills earlier in this review. While the game is all about those vectors, for me the bitmaps do much to evoke atmosphere between missions.
So here I am at take-off. I remember all the key bindings even though I played this 30 years ago. I remember 7 is autopilot, 6 is gears, 8 is bomb bay doors, I remember space switches weapons, I remember return fires missiles, I remember F2 toggles between air-to-air, air-to-ground and navigation modes, I remember F3 toggles the map display from map to tactical view with z and x handling zoom levels in both. I remember the + and – do engine power with shift making it go 100% either way. I remember the camera modes are selected with /.,m keys for each direction with B picking the next item in that direction. I remember shift + z or x speeds up or slows down time. I remember alt+d toggles detail levels (0 is smoother). No idea why all this is still in my brain all these years later, but it is.
I also want to take a moment out to discuss the manual. It’s a hefty tome. Microprose made big games with big manuals. This one is every bit as massive as the Midwinter manual. And it’s excellent. It covers a lot of ground, teaching you basics of combat techniques and telling you a lot about the plane and its history. It’s the kind of thing that made paying £30 for a game seem ok. You also get a proper map in the box.
That sense of detail continues in the game – night missions for instance get a proper night sky with stars in the right place just in case your HUD dies. Brilliant stuff.
So, I head for the first target, the TU-95 Bear. For this trip I have plenty of fuel but I’m running a little lighter and slower than full speed so I can have a bit of fun en route. The F-19 is not an agile fighter plane, it will stall if you get too clever with it, but it’s good enough with decent missiles on board to take down some migs. I intend to do precisely that.
There’s an SU-27 Flanker ahead. The SU-27 and the MiG-29 were Russia’s finest, with the SU-27 in particular being an absolutely gorgeous plane with a huge power-to-weight ratio that reminds me of the F-15 Eagle in some ways. It’ll be a job to take it down, much harder than dealing with the likes of the MiG-21, 23 or 25. The ground is reasonably clear, just a couple of patrol boats but nothing I’m particularly worried about. The SU-27 is flying away from me however – there’s a bigger problem with a MiG-29 heading straight for me.
Here it is, another of the harder planes in this game. I’m keeping my radar signature small so it probably doesn’t even know I’m there. Hopefully I can sneak up and blow it up before it even knows I’m there. I bump up the power to give me a bit more thrust and reduce the risk of stalling in a dogfight and prepare for war.
It’s turning my way – but that’s just part of its patrol. It means I’ll be able to close down the distance quickly though which is good as this is a plane that can easily outrun the F19. A few moments after this screenshot I’m spotted. There’s a radar lock on me. I must deploy my radar jammers which makes me a little more visible but a little harder to shoot.
I’ve taken a hit but I’m still going, and that’s my missile flying towards the MiG. He’s dead.
My bomb bay doors are jammed open though due to the missile hit, which means I’m more visible to radar. This is going to be challenging. I’m going to have to just go for it and forget stealth.
The Su-27 has returned – I better deal with it unless I want my plane to be full of holes. I destroy it with my guns but there’s still more bogeys on me.
I should be able to deal with a MiG-31, they’re not so dangerous. Shit.. a SAM site has fired at me. Chaff released as it gets near keeps me in the air.
I’ve got three bogeys ahead and to my right a SAM site flinging missiles at me. This is not going brilliantly.
SU-27 dealt with via my cannons and a MiG-25 meets the same fate. I’ve got a bogey behind me….
My primary target! Well then, time to unleash hell.
Another one bites the dust. Time to find my secondary target (the SAM site).
Oh for fuck’s sake I’ve done it again – chasing a MiG without due care and attention for the ground. Will I even learn?
So.. is the game any good? Well yes actually it really is. It’s fucking amazing. Sound isn’t anything special, the vector graphics.. well pyramid mountains aren’t great though the planes have pretty good detail while maintaining an acceptable frame rate. The pixel art is wonderful, but the key thing is that the game is just fun. It’s in that space between the seriousness of Falcon and the more arcade games like the modern Ace Combat series. As such it’s a gap nobody is willing to fill these days but I wish someone would because it’s brilliant fun.
The game itself is of course a beneficiary of releasing when kids loved planes. 4 years on from Top Gun it was still cool to love planes, it was ok to be male and like that kind of thing, and this game absolutely uses that to full effect. The bar scene when you get back from your mission in one piece, the medals on your uniform, all these little touches bring Top Gun onto your computer and it’s fucking glorious.
I will caveat that there is a better version of this game available on the PC, and it’s called F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, and it’s available on GOG. It’s fundamentally the same game, but with better graphics and a few more places to go blow shit up. This does of course speak to a certain stagnation that took place at Microprose as they never really figured out the next steps. Upgrading that aging graphics engine was certainly necessary but before that point they could also have upgraded the mission system which is the game’s sole flaw. As such, there’s no dynamic campaign, no actual war really going on. Instead there are a set of targets for you to blow up and each mission selects from a list of targets at random for you to shoot down. It’s cool, no doubt, but with a proper dynamic campaign where the effects of your action could be felt it might have been a little more immersive.
PC Version on GOG – it’s inferior to the ST/Amiga version
PC Sequel on GOG – same game, better graphics
PS After finishing the review above I decided to have another try from an earlier save state on the same mission.. it went like this.
So early on I decided to take out the radar to reduce the shit flying my way. This did not prove terribly effective. Note the planes on my arse. I took two missiles, buggering up my avionics (no autopilot for me, nor even a direction arrow) and my radar jammer. Still, I pressed on, taking down plenty of planes, some with missiles, some with guns, including the primary target, that Bear.
Next to the primary target (a SAM battery) was a radar station. I took it out with my last-but-one maverick, and then fired my final maverick at the secondary target. This is a missile’s eye view. Somehow it missed. I then had to go in low and take it out with machine guns.
Time to land this sucker. Tense doesn’t even cover it. I’ve not landed a plane in a sim in something like 25 years.
Angle is ok according to ILS, but little do I know it’s giving me a horrible flight path.
Getting a little closer, the range worries me considering I need to get the bearing from 304 to 360.
Landing gear is down, flaps are out, this angle looks horrible. You can hopefully see the runway ahead.
Landed that sucker. Phew, I’m not dead!
A brief summary before the proper debrief. A good score, and I took out a hell of a lot of planes and 3 additional ground targets beyond the primary.
I’ll take that AFC, very happy with that. If you do really well you get promotions too.
And finally I get to get pissed. Fuck yeah.