Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rebooting: Martian Dreams (1991)

My characters, who wouldn't survive on the red planet, pick berries, which wouldn't grow there.
    
At some point in her childhood, Irene became a fan of The Brave Little Toaster, a 1987 film about inanimate objects who become animated when their owner isn't around and show unwavering loyalty to him despite the fact that they're almost certainly destined for a dumpster. (How they didn't sue the makers of Toy Story is a mystery to me.) I didn't care for the film, so I didn't much care when, some years after we met, she discovered that the film had a sequel. I only remember that she was watching it in the living room one weekend afternoon while I was messing around on my computer--probably playing an RPG. I got up at some point to get a snack and, walking past the living room, I heard the unforgettable line, "Me--a little toaster--the Supreme Commander of Mars! Wow!"

For years, without even knowing the context, I held up that one line, heard in isolation, as the prime example of the most absurd plot point that could ever exist. That was before I rescued from a Martian cave a man named Cooter McGee, who was hiding from Rasputin, and got, as a reward, a map to some rocks that release oxygen when you chew them.
     
There's a dialogue suggestion that we might not even be on "real" Mars. I don't know how this is going to play out, but I'm willing to bet it will be stupid.
     
I hate this game. I hate it beyond its faults. I hate it while recognizing that it's not objectively bad. I continue to like the Ultima VI engine. I just hate what they've done with it here. I like talking to NPCs by keyword, but I hate these NPCs. I like the combat system, but I hate the actual combats against these stupid, meaningless foes.

Most of all, I hate what the game has done to my favorite game mechanic: open exploration. There's nothing I like more than being cast adrift into an open game world, where I can explore the landscape and visit ruins in essentially any order, learning neat things about the history and lore of the setting. Martian Dreams offers that gameplay but perverts it by ensuring that anything I find is going to be stupid. Every ruin is going to fill in the backstory of a Mars with a breathable atmosphere that dozens of people have visited after being shot out of a cannon. Every NPC is going to be some VIP from the Victorian Age with no depth or wit to his characterization beyond the initial, "Hey! It's Marie Curie!" or "Hey! It's Buffalo Bill Cody!"
 
Hey! I led her to come up with the name "radium"!
    
Somehow, I've let over a year elapse since my last attempts to play Martian Dreams. The reasons for this were partly thematic (i.e., my reaction above) but mostly technical. The issues with saving and crashing really bothered me. I don't mind working around bugs when I can clearly define them, but when the solution is ambiguous ("don't save near the equator"), it just creates a paranoia throughout my entire gameplay. Especially in this case, where the consequences are both dire and not immediately clear: you can never save the game again, and it continually crashes after you successfully save the game twice.

I downloaded a DOSBox version with save states and found that it works reliably as long as I don't close the session in which the save states are created. If I do that, all bets are off. So I waited until I knew I was going to be home for a three-day stretch on President's Day weekend and determined to finish the game in one go. I'll quickly recap the beginning of the game below, but please refer to my first and second entries for a full discussion of the silly backstory, how I feel about what the games did to the "avatar" concept, and the initial game moments.
   
Restoring power to Mars is clearly going to be part of the plot.
   
If you'll recall from the backstory, the Avatar and Dr. Spector (from Savage Empire) have followed clues given by a disguised alien to travel back in time to 1895 to Nikola Tesla's lab. Two years prior, a malfunctioning "space cannon" had sent a group of dignitaries to Mars from the Chicago World's Fair. Realizing that history will forever be altered if Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt et. al. remain on Mars, Dr. Spector conceives a rescue mission involving the Avatar, the journalist Nellie Bly, Sigmund Freud, Tesla, a cowboy named Dallas Garrett, and a doctor named C. L. Blood, whose full Wikipedia article has been the best thing to come out of my playing this game.
   
Sigmund Freud offers an interesting character-creation mechanism.
   
I created a new character and went through Dr. Freud's pscychoanalytical character creation again, choosing responses that made me a male character with decent strength. As before, the game started in the rescue mission capsule with Nellie Bly and Dr. Spector in my party. I loaded up on cold-weather gear, guns, and tools for everyone (though as we'll see, not enough), pried my way outside, and headed for the wreckage of the crashed 1893 expedition.
  
   
There, as before, I encountered a Lt. Dibbs, who had been commander of the ceremonial guard at the British pavilion. Dibbs gave me the rundown of how the previous dignitaries had fractured and dispersed. Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane set up a trading outpost. Percival Lowell's group settled in the Martian city of Elysium and used something called a Dream Machine until they went mad and started believing they were Martians.
    
This is later confirmed by another NPC.
    
A group led by someone named Jack Segal (no idea on the historical analogue) settled at Olympus and began constructing another space cannon to return to Earth. They refuse to allow anyone "contaminated" by the Dream Machine into their compound. Finally, Grigori Rasputin led a group to the Martian city of Argyre to investigate dangerous Martian technology.

I took the party, now with Lt. Dibbs, to Buffalo Bill's outpost and got Cody's quest to rescue Cooter McGee, a prospector who has been supplying the outpost with Oxium. Oxium is a sponge-like rock that releases oxygen when chewed. It both serves as a currency and prevents your characters from suffering attribute drains associated with oxygen deprivation.

This was as far as I had made it in 2015. Every time I tried to visit McGee's place, the game crashed at a specific place along the way. The bug seemed to be associated with the general saving bugs. Since I was saving only by save-state this time, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when the party passed the same area with no problem. By using the sextant and following the coordinates given by Cody, I found McGee's cave without too much trouble.

Cody had also given me some berries and said something about needing them to access McGee's cave. Thus, even though it didn't seem to make sense, I turned to them when I reached an uncrossable chasm with a board on the other side. It turns out that the berries, which I guess are blue, convey ESP and allow you to move objects from a distance. I'm not sure how long they last, but I was able to move the plank across the chasm and enter McGee's residence.
   
Maybe there was a better way to say that I've acquired ESP?
   
I looted his crates and boxes for ammo and such, and searched around until I found a couple of notes. One indicated that McGee was being harassed by Rasputin for information on the location of Oxium lodes. The other was a note from Rasputin telling McGee to meet him at a cave "in the middle of the Coprates Chasma" and bring his Oxium map. The official game map had the location of the chasma; it was basically an extension of the network of chasms I was already in.
    
Rasputin's note.
    
This would be a good time to talk about navigating the game. After this session, I realized I would have to bring the official game map into something like Paint and start annotating it, because it shows neither coordinates nor the locations of key geographical features like bridges. The landscape, which allows you to walk around the entire circumference of a planet more than half the size of ours, is bisected by chasms ("chasmata" in geo-speak), canals, and other geographic features that can make navigation a nightmare. You might be at 20N 140E and have to go to 25N 150E but end up walking for hours until you find the right combinations of bridges and chasma entrances to get there. The game world is more like a maze than an open world. That isn't necessarily a complaint; it actually adds a dimension of puzzle-solving to the game once you realize what's happening and what you need to do to solve it.
    
To get to the north end of this screenshot, I first have to find my way out of this chasm.
     
More annoying than the navigation are the enemies that you encounter along the way. They seem both more numerous and more persistent than their counterparts in either Ultima VI and Savage Empire. In those games, if I didn't want to fight, I could usually just walk away. Not here. Once a "creeping cactus" or "sextelleger" has you in his sights, he follows you relentlessly until you give up and turn and fight. Enemies often attack in large swarms that overwhelm the party, and I found myself doing something in this game that I rarely did in either of its predecessors: reloading.
   
Fighting off a group of "creeping cacti," which use similar animations as slimes in Ultima VI.
   
Because of all the combats, my ammunition has depleted quickly and I've resorted to equipping half the party with melee weapons. Much like they do in the previous games, characters have a way of accidentally hitting each other with their shots, too. I also have the same problem seen in the other games where characters just stand around in combat and don't act at all, although it's not consistent. (And yes, I have adjusted their combat actions in their profiles.)

The only upside to all the combat has been fairly rapid character development. In contrast to Savage Empire, where everyone started at Level 6 and maybe leveled up once during the game, in this game plenty of NPCs start at Level 1 or 2. The Avatar starts at Level 4. Almost every time I sleep, someone levels up. This is accompanied by a dream in which the character sees an obelisk and can touch it with a sword, heart, or book, corresponding to a 1-point bump in strength, dexterity, or intelligence. (Although there are no spells in this game, intelligence is apparently important for using some weapons and the duration of the berry-conferred telekinesis.) This same mechanism was done with animals in Savage Empire.
   
Nellie levels up. I'm still not sure why the heart/love is associated with dexterity.
    
Leveling up occurs during sleeping, which you do frequently because an insulated tent (found among the opening supplies) is the only way to get out of the cold. Once 18:00 falls, characters without sufficient protection start taking damage from the cold. A few hours later, almost everyone does (I haven't been able to figure out the exact combination of clothing I need to keep warm). So you have to stop and sleep until dawn just to survive. I don't know what my companions back in the capsule are doing.
   
Girls are always freezing.
   
Anyway, back to the plot. I found McGee in the cave in Coprates Chasma after fighting some Martian critters and moving a barricade of boxes. McGee related that he'd found a mother lode of Oxium, but it was behind some kind of powered door and there's no electricity running on Mars any more. He suggested that Thomas Edison, living at Olympus, might be able to help get the power running again. He gave me directions to where he'd buried the map to the mother lode and then headed back to his own cave.
    
Finding Cooter.
    
During the conversation, he mentioned three explorers who have been planting marker flags around the planet. Their names are Sherman, Yellin, and Duprey. You know where this is going.

I found his map, and based on the canal configuration around it, it seems to correspond to an area in the northeast section of the game map.
     
     
The next obvious step seemed to be to head to Olympus and speak to Edison. Dibbs knew the coordinates of the city, but when I arrived, the gate guard, Nathaniel, refused to let us inside unless we could get a voucher from three people who could certify that we weren't insane (i.e., not affected by a Dream Machine). Dibbs suggested the trio of explorers mentioned by McGee, and Nathaniel agreed. Nathaniel indicated that they were last seen headed to Syrtis Major and he gave me the coordinates.

Getting to the location took longer than most of the game I'd played already, thanks to the navigation issues described above. On the plus side, I ended up in some random chasm with a bunch of Oxium geodes (you have to smash them with a hammer to get Oxium) and significantly increased my supply.
  
Cha-ching!
    
Arriving at Syrtis Mons, I found "Dr. David Yellin," a geologist, who told me that the trio was looking for iron for Jack Segal's space cannon when his companions, Major Greg Duprey (a former U.S. cavalryman who fought Indians until he met one) and Richard Sherman (an explorer), became trapped in a cave-in. These NPCs are, of course, stand-ins for Britannia's Iolo, Dupre, and Shamino. They even use the same base portraits. This recurring trio also had doppelgangers (never fully explained) in Savage Empire, and as in that game, the characters react to their Britannian names.
  
Sure it is.
   
To free Duprey and Sherman, I had to assemble a drill, which first required a wrench. There had been a wrench among the supplies back at the capsule, but I had declined to take it, so with a groan, I hauled my party back to the capsule, got the wrench, and found my way back to Yellin. I put the drill together and shoved it into the nearby cave, moving it along tracks until we reached the cave-in. A few uses of the drill cleared the way.
    
This game is turning into more of an adventure game than an RPG.
     
Sherman joined my party and all three of them were happy to sign my voucher. I returned to Nathaniel with it and gained entry to Olympus.

I leave you in that city, having spoken to Marie Curie, the actress Sarah Bernhardt (who has turned to painting in her new circumstances), and Theodore Roosevelt, who believes Rasputin sabotaged the cannon in 1893 and caused its premature discharge. Thomas Edison said that he thinks that power on Mars is broadcast from a series of towers controlled from a central location. The irony vis-a-vis Tesla is not lost on him.
    
Unfortunately, Roosevelt won't join me.
     
There are some ruins under the city with gears and control panels and whatnot that I haven't explored yet. Some comments from Admiral Peary suggest that I might have to melt the ice caps and re-flood the canals at some point. A man named Legrande Coulliard is preventing access to the Dream Machine in Olympus, but he'll let me in if I can find his brother, who was lost exploring Olympus mine. I've yet to see or speak to Jack Segal. There was too much to keep track of at this point, and I took a break.
   
I have a feeling there's going to be some exhausting puzzle behind this.
   
Miscellaneous notes:
  
  • The game has a pretty jaunty soundtrack, credited to Dana Glover, Tom Hollingshead, and George "The Fat Man" Sanger. It's lost on me because I don't like in-game music, but I recognize its quality.
  • Even with the CPU cranked, gameplay becomes maddeningly slow and stuttering when monsters are near.
  • I continue to like the inventory system in this engine, both in terms of the types of equipment slots the characters have and the way inventory items work with each other. Lighting a lamp involves filling it with oil and then using a match or tinder box on it, for instance. Shovels and hammers are important tools. You don't often see this kind of complexity outside of roguelikes.
  • Unlike its predecessors, Martian Dreams has no food system.
   
Nothing I've described throughout this entry suggests a game that I should hate, but I still do. The engine remains solid, but I don't care anything about this story. It was already done in Space: 1889 and it's not done cleverly in either game. Wandering through the caves of Martian Dreams just made me wish I was playing Ultima VI again. Oh, I'll finish the damned thing because it's an Ultima game, but I'm not going to be happy about it.

Time so far: 8 hours (includes 2015 entries)
Reload count: 4

Monday, February 20, 2017

Game 242: Roadwar 2000 (1986)

Graphically, there's not much to this game.
    
Roadwar 2000
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for Commodore 64 and Apple II; 1987 for Amiga, Apple IIGS, Atari ST, and DOS; 1988 for PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1
Date Started: 9 February 2017
Date Ended: 12 February 2017
Total Hours: 23
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Roadwar 2000 isn't really an RPG, and its inclusion on my blog is only justified if you regard vehicles as both "characters" and "equipment" and you accept a simple 1-5 scale of character levels as "attributes" for combat purposes. Nonetheless, MobyGames classified it as such (or, at least, it did at the time that I originally made the list) and I remembered it fondly from when I was 14, so I decided to give it a try. I could have turned it into 3 or 4 postings given how long it took to win, but since I'm making an exception by playing it at all, I'm going to try to cover it in a single entry.

Although I never won the game as a youth, I had stronger memories of it than most RPGs I played back then, down to some specific lines in Shay Addams's accompanying coverage in Quest for Clues. As I fired it up, I was astonished to find that I still remembered the keyboard shortcuts and commands despite not having played it for 30 years. Everything was as I remembered: the tension that accompanies the few seconds of disk access after you choose to search for (p)eople, (l)oot, or (v)ehicles; the infuriating way that some gangs have of attacking your party without giving you a chance to retaliate; the palpable fear when you learn that a city is controlled by "invaders"; the joy of finding a bus, armory, or drill sergeant; the way that your imagination embellishes the long and soundless tactical combat. But when I was a kid, I never got out of the game's opening stages. Replaying it now, I found it just a bit too long and repetitive, but it was still a lot of fun.
     
A typical Roadwar 2000 screen has me arriving in Spokane with options to search for loot, people, or vehicles.
    
Roadwar 2000 draws upon SSI's primary strengths, honed in dozens of wargames: resource management and tactical combat. The backstory, presented in the form of a series of journal entries from the director of the secret Government Underground Biolab outlines the collapse of society, in 1999, from a plague--actually, from a bacterium that somehow has a pupal, larval, and adult stage. (This was before you could Google how bacteria actually work, so the developers may not have realized that phrases like "two months after the adult bacterium breaks out of the cocoon" were absurd.) The plague was engineered by some unspecified anti-American sect that sent infected suiciders across the nation to spread the disease. They apparently developed a vaccine but kept it to themselves. Then, if that wasn't enough, once enough people had died that there was no military structure to retaliate, they nuked us! As society collapsed completely and cities were taken over by gangs, half the population turned into aggressive mutants. Vaccinated foreigners invaded the country through Mexico (make your own wall joke here) but soon started to succumb to a mutated form of the disease.
    
In my game, New York City and Colorado Springs were the two that were nuked.
    
By the end of 1999, the director decided to seek out a powerful gang leader and use his resources to find the eight field agents of GUB, get them back to the institute, and somehow find a cure for the disease. You become that chosen gang leader.

As you traverse the landscape--which includes cities, highways, farms, forests, mountains, oilfields, and radioactive zones--you try to build your gang by acquiring more vehicles, people, and supplies like fuel, food, guns, medicine, and tires. As you grow in strength, you can take over cities--and thus catch the attention of the GUB director--but your actions put you in constant conflict with mercenaries, street gangs, cannibals, mobsters, satanists, mutants, and other undesirables.
    
My empire grows.
    
You begin as the leader of a gang with a name of your choosing, starting in some random city. The game takes place across the entire North American landscape on a geographically-accurate map that includes 120 metropolitan areas in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Plenty of games have been set in New York City and Los Angeles, but here's a rare one that allows you to adventure in positionally-accurate cities like Waco, Spokane, and Dayton. Everything is randomized at the beginning of a new game, including your starting city, the factions that control each city, the location of the GUB, the locations of the eight field agents, and which cities have been nuked and are thus crawling with mutants.
   
The included game map has both cities and highways in the correct positions.
    
Randomness is also the prevailing game mechanic as you explore and build your party. For instance, you start the game with only 8 gang members, one vehicle, and 80 cargo spaces, but you have the ability to recruit up to several hundred members, acquire up to 6 vehicles, and stuff them with thousands of units of cargo. You can do this all in the first city if you want--and if you're lucky. In every city, you have the option of hitting "V" to find new vehicles, "P" to look for new people, and "L" to look for loot. Take the last one as an example. Every time you hit that key, one of several random things can happen:
    
  • You find nothing at all, and time simply passes.
  • You find any one of several dozen types of locations, including convenience stores, grocery stores, gas stations, parking lots, armories, hospitals, and schools, in which you might find any number of goods specific to the location (e.g., food in grocery stores, tires and fuel at gas stations, guns and ammo at sporting goods stores, medicine at hospitals) that you can either take or cache for later.
  • You find a special location type that improves your vehicles or party members. Some of these are specific to certain cities.
  • You run into a group of people, as if you had pressed "P" instead, and play through the associated options.
  • You get attacked by the faction that controls the town. If you defeat them in combat ("abstract" combat, as below), you might have a chance to take over the town.
  • If it's nighttime and you're near a nuked city, you get attacked by mutants and fight "abstract" combat.
  • You run into a road gang and can fight either "quick" or "tactical" combat.
  • Some faction gets a chance to shoot at your party from hidden places with no chance to retaliate.
     
In that long list, I'm probably forgetting a few things. The point is that if you set out to do a specific thing--add 50 members to your party, find a bus, find a large cache of fuel--then you have to be fairly lucky with the die rolls to have it happen in anything less than a dozen tries, with any number of consequences to your party from each attempt.
    
Options when finding valuable loot.
    
But in the long run, the odds are with the player. I don't think there's a time limit on the game, and generally speaking, goods, vehicles, and people are easy to acquire. Enemy parties seem to scale a little in size but stop at some point, so large parties almost always win combats against them. Playing Roadwar 2000 is a little like playing a casino game where your edge is 52%: you'll go through a lot of ups and downs, but the overall trendline is almost always in your favor. Even if it's not, you can save the game at any time and place and reload if you get a few bad breaks in a row.

Throughout the game, you're basically trying to manage three things: your party, your vehicles, and your goods. Of the three, the party is the easiest. Your members fall into five classifications from strongest to weakest: armsmasters, bodyguards, commandos, dragoons, and escorts. You draw them from various parties that you encounter in cities, and you can usually tell by the parties' names what types of members they're likely to offer. For instance, "mercenaries" might sign up a couple of armsmasters, a few bodyguards, and a bunch of commandos, while "the needy" will almost entirely be escorts with maybe a couple of dragoons.

After combat, all party members have a chance of promoting to the next rank. Over time, you hopefully get top-heavy with armsmasters. The effects of promotion are nebulous, but a party with 50 armsmasters and 10 escorts quite clearly outperforms the reverse. Once someone joins your party, they follow your every order and there's no morale/desertion/mutiny system like in Pirates.
    
A standard screen when first encountering people. They might join me, flee, or attack me depending on what I choose.
   
There are three "special characters" who are difficult and valuable to find: doctors, who reduce casualties in combat; drill sergeants, who increase the pace and number of promotions; and politicians, who in some nebulous way help you deal with bureaucrats. I never found a politician in any of my games, but the drill sergeant and doctor were particularly useful. They don't fight in combat, but they can be killed.
   
Finding a key NPC.
    
Goods are also somewhat easy to manage. Tires are so plentiful that it's almost laughable. After a really tough combat, you might have to replace 8 of them, and you routinely find them in batches of 50. The developers may as well have left them out of consideration entirely. Food and fuel are a little harder to acquire but not very hard; you get copious amounts from both city looting and longer combats. Your crew eats 1 unit of food per member per day and consumes between around 3 and 12 fuel units per vehicle, depending on the types of vehicles. Get a few thousand of both and you're okay for a while.

The only resources I had trouble developing over the long-term were ammo and medical supplies. Medical supplies don't do any good on their own, but you occasionally come across healers who will trade "anti-toxins" for them. These "anti-toxins" somehow cure disease conferred from fighting mutants. I got attacked by mutants constantly and was always on the verge or running out. As for ammo, I ended the game with plenty of it, but there were times that my reserves dipped dangerously low. A visit to a sporting goods store might only provide around 250 cartridges, and a single volley against a random attacker could easily deplete twice that amount. I cried out in relief every time I found an armory and picked up 2,500 rounds at once.
    
Quickly checking my supplies near the endgame.
    
There are special encounters that offer fuel additives, food additives, and snow tires. Each makes their respective supplies last a little bit longer. If there are similar "bonuses" you can get for guns, ammo, medical supplies, or anti-toxins, I never found them.
   
Getting a fuel upgrade.
    
The fleet of vehicles is perhaps the most difficult part of the game to manage well. There are 20 vehicle types in the game, and each one has different considerations for maneuverability, speed, armor, cargo capacity, crew capacity, and fuel use, as well as some less often-used statistics like the difficulty involved in boarding it during combat. I tended to fight my battles conservatively and favored slower high-capacity vehicles like buses and trailer trucks that could pull up alongside enemies and unleash volleys of a dozen rifles or more. I tried to load up with as many of those as I could, but I often took pickup trucks, vans and limousines when I couldn't find them. I mostly ignored faster, more maneuverable vehicles like motorcycles, compacts, and convertibles even though I could understand building a combat strategy around them. I also eschewed tractors and construction vehicles because I didn't do much with ramming.
    
Checking out the stats and deployment of one of my vehicles.
   
In addition to finding all these vehicles, you have to worry about keeping your crew at numbers that take advantage of the vehicles' capacities, and you look for the occasional body shop or other special facility that will upgrade their speed, armor, braking, or maneuverability. Losing a vehicle that has gone through several upgrades really sucks.
     
In "abstract" combat, results simply flash by at the bottom of the screen.
   
The combat system in Roadwar 2000 is interesting. Its main feature is the ultra-tactical showdowns between PC and enemy fleets, but since these combats can easily take an hour or more, the developers introduced a couple of quick combat options. The first is a bit too quick. Known as "abstract combat," it basically consists of messages flashing at the bottom of the main exploration window, letting you know which party members and enemies have been killed and which vehicles have crashed. You get absolutely no input into what happens during these combats, which makes it all the more annoying that most battles in cities (involving just people, no vehicles) can only be fought this way. When you're given the choice, you almost never want to fight vehicular combat the abstract way, because there's a decent chance that even a strong party will lose a couple of cars.

The second option--and this is just for vehicle combats, mostly on the road--is "quick" combat. Under this system, you still have the ability to allocate your party members by vehicle, specify your preference for ramming (including "never"), and give priority to where your characters shoot at various parts of the vehicle. After you set all of this up, the rounds scroll by on the screen and you can see more details about what's happening to your party. It's still mostly out of your control, but it's more predictable than "abstract" combat and I used it for most of the battles.
    
Watching the action scroll by in "quick" combat.
    
The third option is to control everything manually in "tactical" combat. This is where SSI shows its quality, of course. There are a billion logistical considerations to the system, and I managed to get through the entire game without completely figuring them all out. The system is entirely turn-based--everything I describe below might sound action-packed, but it's not. You make each choice and move each icon one round at a time and mostly get told the results in the text window.
    
The game gives you a sense of what you're facing before you decide whether you want "quick" or "tactical" combat.
    
Tactical combat starts with a movement phase. Both parties starts at opposite ends of the tactical map and have to find each other first. On the road, this is pretty easy. In the city, it can be annoyingly hard, and I stopped fighting tactical combats in cities after the first couple of tries.
    
Trying to find enemies among all the buildings got old fast.
     
But even the highway is full of wreckage and burnt cars, so you have to maneuver around them. In this phase, each vehicle can accelerate, decelerate, and turn, which sounds easy enough but there are all kinds of rules depending on the type of vehicle, its speed, and whatever upgrades it's found. Sometimes you can't turn because you're going too slow. Sometimes you can't turn because you're going too fast. Sometimes you can only turn once. You might get multiple "rounds" with each vehicle depending on its movement speed. If a tire gets blown out, all the rules change. Early in the game, I often found myself in situations where my cars bunched up around each other and, with nowhere else to go, I ended up ramming my own cars. Other times, I found I couldn't turn in enough time to avoid a bit of debris. Eventually, I learned just to keep everyone moving slow, even though I think it made my vehicles easier to hit.
    
The movement phase of tactical combat. My cars are the solid ones; the enemy's are hollowed out. We've created a bit of a traffic jam, and I need to be laying on the brakes if I haven't already.
    
After the movement phase comes the shooting phase. You have to picture that your limos and pickups and buses are crammed with people just waiting to take a shot, and the direction that the vehicle is facing really matters. If you're facing an enemy head-on, only a few guys can shoot from the front. But pull alongside an enemy and you might be able to hit him with 12 guys from the side of a trailer. A full bus can fire 26 shots from each side as long as there's a line-of-sight. This means that during the movement phase, you want to try to angle your vehicles so that an enemy can be hit from both the front and side of yours.

When shooting, you can target the interior, topside, or wheels of most enemy vehicles. Since killing the driver is the only way to take it completely out of commission, I found that it was best to focus most shots on the interior. Shooting topside (if the vehicle has one) just reduces enemy guns, and shooting the wheels is (I think) only useful if you want to capture the vehicle, which I was never able to successfully do. I didn't try that hard.
     
Firing options. My limousine is alongside the enemy vehicle, so I'll be able to shoot at it with 6 rifles.
    
After the shooting phase comes two more phases: transferring and boarding and melee. I barely explored either. The first allows you to move party members from one of your vehicles to an adjacent one. Maybe you've given up one as a lost cause and you want to increase the number of guns in the other or something. The second phase allows you to try to board and capture an enemy vehicle, putting your characters into melee combat. I found that the interface for this was so cumbersome that I gave it up. It's easier just to find desirable vehicles in cities.

Imagination goes a long way in these tactical combats. If you try hard, you can picture an epic Mad Max-type scene as you accelerate a motorcycle to 90 miles per hour and broadside an enemy limo, firing volleys from the sidecar as you approach. You drive a tractor up the median strip and ram it head-on into an enemy van, bringing it to a sudden stop as two buses pull up on either side and unload their rifles into the interior. You maneuver your tractor trailer alongside a enemy's and have your party members jump from one to the other, deciding ownership of both vehicles in a display of fisticuffs.
     
I rarely did this deliberately.
   
Again, though, these combats can be long, and eventually I got tired of them. (Trying to win the game in just a couple of days undoubtedly made me more impatient than I would have been at 14.) The primary motivation to fight tactically is that it's the only way to increase the size of your fleet: for every one that you win, you get one more maximum vehicle, up to 15. Once I hit 15 vehicles, there was little incentive to fight tactically anymore, particularly since a fleet of 15 vehicles and 400 men is essentially unbeatable, no matter what combat option you choose.

On we go, then, to the game's plot. As you visit each city, you can scout around to find out who controls it. Often, you'll find that no one controls it and you can immediately take it over. Other times, it's controlled by a local gang or by "invaders," at which point you just have to keep looting and letting them attack you until you wipe them out in abstract combats and the game asks you if you want to take the city. I never found any way to get control of cities run by either "bureaucrats" or the "lawful national guard," and indeed it's dangerous to even loot there. The oddest option is to find a city controlled by "reborners": you take it without struggle, but up to half of your party runs off to join the cult.
    
At first, I thought this was a bad thing. Then I remembered it was my gang name.
    
Once you capture enough cities, you'll find a random encounter in which someone whispers the password for the GUB. Minutes or hours later, in another random encounter, you run into a GUB agent who asks for the password. Provide it, and you learn in which city the GUB is hiding out.
     
The first step on the main quest.
    
You have to visit that city and look for (p)eople an indefinite number of times (usually, it doesn't take more than 10) before you actually locate and get admittance to the GUB facility, where the director tasks you with finding eight agents and returning them to the facility. If you're lucky, the facility is in some place like Kansas City. If you're unlucky (as in my winning game), it's off some place in a corner like Montreal.
   
Getting the main quest from the GUB director.
   
Before I get into the agent quest, I should mention that a lot of the cities have special encounters. If you visit Anaheim, you can send your party to Disneyland for a potential "morale boost" that causes a lot of them to promote. The same thing happens if you let them gamble in Vegas. A trip to Indianapolis upgrades all your cars. I understand that being in New Orleans at the right time can let you experience a (textual) Mardi Gras parade, though I missed that. There are several more that I forgot to note.
    
Popping in to Disneyland.
   
I ran into an odd encounter in Amarillo that's worth mentioning. There was some kind of plane or shuttle that I could enter. By pressing the right sequence of buttons and switches--mostly by trial and error--the plane took off with me in it, dipped into orbit, and then returned back to Earth on an island. There, I found an abandoned military facility in which a memo in a folder suggested that "death squads" target my gang. That was all there was to do here, and a few more buttons brought me back to Amarillo and my waiting gang. (The entire episode was told in text while still on the Amarillo screen.) I don't know what this was all about, but it didn't seem to have an impact on gameplay.
    
One of the few special encounters in the game.
    
The part of the game where you hunt for the eight agents is the longest and most tiresome. By the time you even get the quest, you've experienced most that the game has to offer in terms of logistics and combat. Now you have to scour the continent for the agents, and that essentially involves visiting every city. Occasionally, as a special encounter, you'll get a hint to the general area of the country in which an agent is located, but that's about it.
    
The most specific hint you ever get as to the agents' locations.
    
Moreover, even if you're in the correct city, you may have to hit the (p)eople search option a dozen or more times before the agent will make his presence known and join your party. I really have trouble with this kind of uncertainty when playing an RPG.
    
Luck prevails and I find an agent.
    
I eventually ended up making a list of all 120 cities in the game in a notepad. I visited them one at a time (following a variety of logical paths from coast to coast and back again), prioritizing those in regions where I had hints as to the presence of an agent. In each one, I forced myself to search for people at least 20 times. This generally meant fighting a lot of combats and then having to find loot, vehicles, and people to recover from those combats. I also searched until I had found enough food and fuel to cache 255 units (the maximum amount) in each city. Then I moved on.
    
Checking cache levels in Tucson.
    
Sometimes, I found agents based on hints; sometimes, I just happened to get lucky and wind up in their cities. Eventually, with 7 of the 8 agents in my party, I found myself back in the area of Montreal. Although I hadn't visited more than half the cities on the map, I decided to see if anything happened when I delivered my partial group to the GUB.
     
The game keeps me updated on the agents I've found.
     
I'm glad I did. After gratefully receiving the first 7 agents, the GUB director handed me a radio device with two switches and said it would lead me to two "final agents." At first, I was confused since I thought there was only one more, but then I noted that one of the switches pointed to GUB itself, indicating I'd already found that agent.
    
That's definitely a bio-scientist's name.
     
The last one was hiding way down in Durango, Mexico--the city furthest south in the game, and possibly the last one I would have visited in a natural search pattern. Eventually, I made it there and grabbed him.
    
The radio device points me directly to the final agent's location, not just a general area.
     
At this point, I was a little disappointed. When I was 14, Shay Addams's book had completely freaked me out about the final stages of the game. This is what he wrote: "The final trip to the GUB is the toughest part of the game. Road gangs are everywhere and supplies are scarce. Throughout the game, prepare for the end game by setting up supply lines of cached supplies along key routes back to the GUB." Based solely on my 30-year-old memory of that advice, I had obsessively set up maximum caches in practically every city.

It was all a bunch of bull. If, during the last journey, combats are more prevalent and supplies, vehicles, and party members are harder to find, the difference is so small as to be imperceptible. I didn't have to touch a single cache. By the time I made it back to Montreal, the entire "cache" system seemed like a waste of time. By ignoring it, I could have easily cut 3 hours off the game.

The endgame featured no special graphics, but the text was fun. Once I delivered the final agent to the GUB, the director said:
     
Now our research can be completed! I am certain we shall succeed. Your name will be revered by all until the end of time!!!  

Having served your country so bravely, I feel that you can be counted on to fulfill the one final need of our reconstruction of America. Congratulations, Mr. President!
        
I'm not sure the director of a biological research lab in Canada has the power to appoint me President of the United States, but I'll go with it.
   
While waiting all this time for an RPG in which my character becomes king, I never knew there was one in which he could become President.

The game ends with a promise of a sequel--namely, 1987's Roadwar Europa. I'm sure it's fun, but judging from screenshots, it doesn't seem to offer much that Roadwar 2000 doesn't, and since I never played it as a kid, I don't feel particularly compelled to visit it here unless it offers more RPG elements that I'm not seeing.
     
This seems a little hyperbolic.
     
As for this one, a GIMLET awards it:
   
  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory is silly in places, but it goes well with the terrain of the game itself, and the player's actions make notable changes to the landscape.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Even if I consider vehicles as quasi-"characters," there isn't very much to develop except for numbers and a few status upgrades that the player doesn't even control.
       
A summary of my gang towards the end of the game.
         
  • 2 points for NPC interaction, in the form of the GUB, the agents, and some of the hints.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The different factions really don't behave differently in combat, but you do have to treat them differently out of combat. I'm using this category to otherwise reward the game's approach to visiting cities, finding people, vehicles, and items, and hitting on special encounters. It's mostly random, without a lot of roleplaying, but still exciting.
  • 5 points for combat. The tactical combat offers enough logistics to satisfy the most fervent wargamer, but the "abstract" combat offers too-little choice for the player (which is particularly unforgivable since he's so often forced into it). "Quick" combat is a happy medium but could have benefited from a few more choices.
  • 2 points for equipment. I'm being generous here because the game's approach isn't much like an RPG.
  • 0 points for no economy. You can't even barter goods.
  • 3 points for a main quest with no options or role-playing, though you do have some freedom to determine how you want to find the agents.
        
The stakes are high.
        
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There's no sound at all in the game. The graphics are primitive but serviceable. Most of this credit goes to the excellent, keyboard-driven interface which is fast and intuitive. The only thing I didn't like is the system of movement through the numbers 1-8, with 1 going north, 3 going east, 5 going south, and so on. I should mention that I played the game with the CPU speed set to around 400%. At era-specific speeds, abstract combat results and some other messages are maddeningly slow.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It's mostly non-linear and quite replayable given how much is randomized at the outset. Its difficulty and length aren't well-balanced, though. Maybe half the number of agents would have been a good idea. It's a bit too easy to build up an unstoppable party who can nonetheless get mired for an hour in a single city trying to find fuel.
        
I had to work hard to get this screen. The overall game tends easy.
    
That gives us a final score of 30, not bad for a non-RPG being ranked on a RPG scale. Most of the things that it "lacks"--real character development, NPCs, an economy, side-quests--aren't things that you'd expect from games in its "real" genre.
   
The advertisement carefully avoids showing what the game actually looks like.
     
Of course, the fact that it's not an RPG and doesn't really have many RPG elements didn't stop Dragon from giving it 5 out of 5 stars in October 1987. Other contemporary reviews are hard to find; Computer Gaming World seems to have overlooked it except in a November 1992 retrospective that, calling it a "cyberpunk simulation," seems to be remembering a different game. A review in the March 1987 Compute! mostly covers the game in factual terms without attaching much good or bad to them, except to say at the end that it is "another successful product from SSI."

For our purposes, it's interesting to note the similarity between Roadwar 2000 and Wizard's Crown, released the year before, also offering a "quick combat" option. Despite the vastly different settings and underlying mechanics, the two games offer a similar interface, including making all relevant commands visible on the screen at any given time, the 1-8 movement system, options changing depending on the square the party is standing on, and of course some of the combat tactics, including the importance of facing direction and terrain. I don't want to take this too far because obviously Wizard's Crown doesn't have acceleration or boarding or a lot of the vehicle-based options of Roadwar 2000, but it seems likely that Jeffrey A. Johnson, author of Roadwar, started with a Wizard's Crown base. As he was on the development team for Wizard's Crown, but not the primary developer, it's hard to know how many of the features common to both games should be credited to him.
   
I'm President of the United States now! I'm not going to lead an expedition to Europe.
     
I haven't been able to find out much about Johnson. His credits go back to Automated Simulations' Dunjonquest series of 1978-1981, where he is listed as one of the level designers, and he continues as a playtester on some other AS titles through 1983. He must have joined SSI before 1985, as he first appears as a playtester on U.S.A.A.F. and Battle of Antietam that year. Roadwar 2000 seems to be his first title as the lead developer and programmer, and he lent support to Rings of Zilfin the same year. After Roadwar Europa (1987), there's an 8-year gap in his resume before he shows up as the co-designer of a strategy game called Stars! (1995).

MobyGames has him working on a variety of sports games for Midway Games after that, but I think maybe they've conflated him with a different developer. I found a LinkedIn profile for a Jeff Johson who indicates that he started his career at Midway Games in 1991 and was getting his bachelor's degree for the 4 years before that. He seems too young to have been programming for Automated Simulations as early as 1980. This raises the question of what happened to the "real" Johnson after 1987. In any event, I can't find any indication that he was ever interviewed about Roadwar 2000 or his time at SSI, but it's hard to untangle him from a bunch of other people of the same name. Parents, this is why if you have the last name "Johnson," you give your kid a name like "Jezezzery" instead.

Finishing that one feels like scratching off a longstanding item on my "to do" list.