Sunday, November 16, 2014

Video Game Slush Pile: Aerobiz Supersonic

It's been seven months, I think it's time for another one these. Besides, today's slush pile represents everything that is right and pure about this concept. I'm talking about a rather obscure game that just so happens to be a lot of fun once you clear the initial hurdles of "bidding for slots is a major game element" and "you don't get to shoot nuffin'." The concept is tight, the historical realism is on point and the music is 16 bit bliss. How did this one end up at the bottom of a box?

For whatever reason I was both deeply into strategy games but largely lacking in the patience required to be successful in them when I was younger. Today, as a biological singularity that resembles a cross between James Bond and the guy from Altered Beast after two upgrades, I've learned to pay the dues necessary for fictional air line success. This slush pile is all about that amazing, feel-good story of the rite of passage that occurs when you learn that the fuel economy and repair needs of an imaginary jet plane matter more than whether or not its name and general shape are appealing to the eye.
"Can't wait to start leading my airline, bro!"

Before we actually start talking about the glory that was air travel before our schizophrenic war on evildoers began, there's one other point that needs to be made. I always thought it was strange that strategy games, especially ones that travel far afield from army builders, tend to be dismissed as having "limited appeal" while the unspoken corollary to this is that everyone loves the  newest "save often!" first person shooter mess. Then I discovered that game reviewers are more corrupt than a Moldovan parliament and pretty much got over it, but I just want to say that this myth needs to die, along with the tendency to mock something like Aerobiz to score points with some ill-formed mainstream. Bidding for slots is awesome, anyone who says otherwise is either hopelessly deluded or wicked.

Yes, bidding for slots. A significant portion of this game is spent in that activity, since you need to establish profitable routes around the world and this is done by negotiating for rights. You send one of your four "corporate warriors" out to do the dirty work. There's a surprising amount of depth here, as your corporate home base and world events will influence this activity or make it just plain impossible. For example, during the Cold War era don't expect your capitalist oppressors to be warmly received behind the Iron Curtain or vice versa. Your nationality will also effect what planes you can buy and how willing customers will be to fly on your airline. Definitely something to think about before you set up "Air Iran."

 Scowling Lady Liberty says "Hit the bricks."

Luckily it is possible to mend fences between competing ideologies by performing charitable tasks for international representatives that apparently can't tell the difference between private industry and government foreign aid. If you help these hat-in-hand sad sacks you're rewarded with improved relations. Yes, this means that if Pravda Airlines helps restore runways in Atlanta this token gesture will bring an end to decades of conflict and probably save millions of lives. Who knew that patching up tarmac in Hotlanta or Minsk could succeed where ping pong and Olympic boycotts failed. "As I was laying that tar, you started to change. And if you can change, we all can change."

Or really easy, depending on how you want to look at it.

In addition to such corporate diplomacy, various other historical events occur, ranging from wars, oil shortages, the Olympic games and revolutions. It gives the game a sense of immersion that you wouldn't expect from something released in Japan under the incredibly catchy name "Air Management." There's also random events, including tourism booms, bad weather and worker strikes. 

Experts are worried that it might tip over.

You can play in four different eras, including the amazing "future" of 2000-2020. The middle two scenarios are the most entertaining, since the early scenario finds you mostly using prop planes instead of the jets you're supposed to switch to and the speculative scenario centers on the gimmick of supersonic flight, as impractical in this game as it was in real life. I give the designers a lot of credit for conceding this, especially with "supersonic" in the title. A wonderful future of sonic booms just isn't in the cards, sorry. 

How do you win? In many ways you win the moment the game starts, since you've been promoted to CEO. Sure, the airline might fail, but you're certainly lining your own pockets, so who cares, right? Well, if you do care, you must become the #1 airline in a set number of regions, beating out three opponents. While this is the goal, it's somewhat misleading, since the big money is made by flying between regions and you'll need that steady profit to eventually dominate the shorter flights. Each scenario gives you twenty years to meet this victory condition. Sadly there is no sandbox "play forever" mode, but the limited scope lends urgency.

The game also lets you purchase businesses, hold riveting board meetings (Yes, I would like to direct the topics!) set various budgets and indulge all your non-sexual airplane fantasies. Yes, you too can ask the opinions of your underlings and then perform a complete emotional meltdown after hearing their lame advice. Then it's back to getting those slots or solving all the world's problems.

We're making mad Golden Ring Rubles.

I was able to beat this game fairly reliably on harder difficulties when based out of New York, London or a similar desirable hub. My current goal is to win the game as a Moscow airline in one the cold war scenarios, but so far haven't been able to do it. Again, can't fault that realism. 

Graphics: You mostly look at a map. It looks a lot like a map. There's also a goofy Mode Seven opening and a take-off sequence that plays when you start a new route, but this one is not about the visuals. 

Control: Once you figure out the goofy symbols, the interface is easy to use. This one would probably work better with a mouse, but the controller works well enough. 

Depth: It's a strategy game, so there's plenty. You get control over many aspects of your airline and can make adjustments to ticket prices, number of flights and what planes to use on individual flights. There's five difficulty settings, four players could play at once if you could somehow engineer an Aerobiz party and you can even watch the computer play itself. There are numerous hub cities to select as your headquarters and the game can change a lot based on this selection. The historical and speculative events are well done and the cities and planes seem accurate.

Overall: Please send me to bid for slots. I'm so ready!

Check Out My Books!

Aaron Zehner is the author of "Posts from the Underground," now available in paperback and e-book. Read free excerpts here and here.

His first novel "The Foolchild Invention" is also available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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