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 Nonetheless, MobyGames classified it as such (or, at least, it did at the time that I originally made the list) and I remembered it fondly from when I was 14, so I decided to give it a try.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 "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. It's 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.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Fate: Gates of Dawn: Summary and Rating

Fate: Gates of Dawn
reLINE Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for the Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 21 April 2016
Date Ended: 3 February 2017
Total Hours: 272
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Fate was conceived as a successor to Alternate Reality, which had promised much--a city, a wilderness, an arena, a palace--but delivered little. In that, Fate succeeded. Not only did it retain most of the logistical considerations of Alternate Reality--hunger, thirst, fatigue, nutrition, encumbrance, disease, and so forth--as well as the complex NPC interactions, it allowed multiple characters in the party, created a full game world, and added a main quest.

The problem is that the game didn't know when to quit. I recommend that modern players, if they want to play Fate, end when they solve the Cavetrain quest. Up to that point, it's a great game. Different NPCs create a very different experience in combat and exploration, as in the beginning each one only has one or two spellbooks. You get to explore a large city, a large wilderness around it, a smaller sister city, and a large, complex, 7-level dungeon with a variety of navigational puzzles. Leveling is relatively swift and rewarding, and the economy still holds some value. Hints are plentiful, and the main quest is adequate. Seriously, play it this way. Don't read the backstory. Some mage has cut the city of Larvin, enclosed by mountains, from the outside world. Winwood is the son of a tavernkeeper whose family was murdered by marauders looking for supplies, since no goods are coming in from the outside world. Your only quest is to restore the function of the train. You'd have a 60-hour RPG with decent mechanics, and you'd walk away happy.

Instead, the game continues for another 200 hours, with senseless plot developments, character development that becomes less and less important (my characters ended the game with dozens of improvement slots), and combat that becomes either mindlessly easy (outdoors) or absurdly deadly (indoors). Equipment upgrades slow and then stop, the economy spins out of control, and the player spends dozens of hours just getting from one place to another. What would have been high GIMLET scores for Fate: Quest of the Cavetrain start to bleed away as the game gets more sprawling and pointless.

Yes, I got seduced by the map. It's happened before, often at work. With major projects on my "to do" list, I'll get sucked in by some boring, menial, seemingly-incompletable task and I'll have to tear myself away from it. "Chet, that report was due last week!," I'll hear, and respond, "Sorry! I'm busy coding some variable I'll probably never use across 200,000 records!" The process of filling in those little boxes became an opiate. I'm glad I stopped myself before insisting that I finish. I will admit that the map is pretty cool. The developer could have set an excellent RPG there, full of lore and side quests. He just didn't.

The plot of Fate starts out intriguing. Winwood is transported to the real world and current year to an alternate Earth in the year 1932 in which magic is real and other races exist. The agent behind his transport seems to be an evil wizard named Thardan. Thardan uses one of his followers to disable the Cavetrain and block Larvin's access to the rest of the world, ostensibly to keep Winwood from escaping the starting area.

It's not a bad beginning, but from there the game doesn't develop the plot at all. Thardan's motives are never revealed. Unlike the much later Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, Fate doesn't try to put real-world analogues into its alternate Earth. (And I'm not suggesting that Lionheart is a particularly good game; it's just the only other one I know set in an alternate history.) Neither the maps nor the names of the cities suggest an alternate Earth. The only real "plot twist"--having Winwood whisked to the dungeons beneath Cassida via the wand on Naristos's body--isn't explicitly part of Thardan's plot. If it is, it was a stupid idea, as it was the only way that Winwood came into contact with Bergerac and Morganna.

Morganna, the deus ex machina, comes out of nowhere with a compelling back, but no compelling backstory. Thardan comes to a swift and ignominious end without even the traditional villain's exposition. He remains a passive villain the entire game.
Fate officially jumps the shark.
The hint system, which starts out strong in Larvin, requiring only that the player find the right class of NPC, completely disappears by the end, where the player has to make several nonsensical leaps of logic.

The name of the game remains a complete mystery throughout. What are the "gates of dawn," exactly? What "fate" is at stake here?

I don't even know what to expect from a GIMLET at this point.

1. Game World. The backstory of the alternate Earth is clumsily explained and never referenced in-game. As noted above, Winwood's part in the world starts out intriguing and ends stupid. On the other hand, the developer did a good job with the design and mechanics of the game world. The cities feel like huge places, populated with hundreds of NPCs. The map is exquisitely detailed, if light on the thematic content. The day/night cycle and changes in the weather pattern have meaning and consequences in the game. A mixed bag overall, but I suppose a step up from the typical RPG of the era. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. There's no creation, but the game gets some credit for the variety of ways that you can develop your party by selecting different NPCs. The strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of the various classes create a fundamentally different game for each player, particularly in the opening stages.

The races are entirely unreferenced and unused. The guild-based development system, supplemented with boosts from the altar in the Alarian Vaults, is only "okay." I saved my development slots the entire time I was in Larvin because commenters told me it was more efficient to use the better guilds outside the city. Once I did so, I really didn't notice that much improvement in my characters' performance, even though in some cases their attributes (like strength, dexterity, and skill) went from the 20s to the 90s. Acquiring spells is the more important mechanism of development, but even this stops being important after each character has 3 or 4 books.

I also give the game credit for the multiple-party system, which I really didn't exploit the way I could have. For instance, instead of circling my single party around the world to look for hints, I could have kept several parties in convenient locations. Since all party members get experience from all kills, it wouldn't have diluted my leveling very much; in fact, it would allow you to develop a party explicitly for grinding and to keep them in a convenient grinding location (near an inn and tavern in Katloch would have worked well), switching to them periodically to add a couple of levels while everyone else explores.

I don't know whether to regard the various logistical challenges--hunger, thirst, nutrition, fatigue, sins, conditions--as part of character development or not. Either way, the game made them too easy. Trivial amounts of money and time take care of them, and by mid-game you can deal with them all with various spells. Score: 5.
Fate features a large number of attributes and statistics to develop.
3. NPC Interaction. NPCs make up a major part of the game. You need them to join your party, give hints, train your characters, and further a variety of steps on the main quest. A complex system of gaining their favor with various chat options is undermined by a system that allows you to simply bribe most of them. Like most things, it's stronger in the beginning game than the ending.

I do like that once characters join the party, they have some wants and preferences of their own. They occasionally pipe up with hints or random comments. They may refuse to give their money in bribes, to hide in combat, to yell, or to go off on their own in taverns. I look forward to later games that develop these unique personalities deeper and allow more role-playing encounters with the NPCs. Score: 6.
A party member refuses to follow orders.
4. Encounters and Foes. There is a huge variety of monsters in the game, and it follows the old Bard's Tale tradition of using the same graphics for many different monsters, some of which are trivially easy and some of which are bafflingly hard. The inclusion of monsters that never die from any hit point loss, no matter how many rounds, was inexcusable, as was making an initiative system in which some groups of enemies always go ahead of the party. Overall, the various strengths and weaknesses of the foes never really impressed me or led me to create different tactical templates for dealing with them, beyond simply bashing weak monsters and using my few NUKE options against tough ones.

I do admire the various pre-combat options, which allow some limited role-playing and additional encounter tactics. Again, though, these are terribly unbalanced. "Prayer" shouldn't work as often as it does, nor should it be necessary as often as it is.

Then we have the various non-combat encounters with objects and buttons and such, all of which use the same set of menus. Since the correct selection is often nonsensical, you learn to just try every option, often with every party member, before the solution is revealed. The various button and lever puzzles never rise to the level of even the weakest Dungeon Master knock-off. Score: 4.
These types of special encounters were nice, but rarely offered much in the way of role-playing.
5. Magic and Combat. "Overblown" is probably the best word to describe the combat and magic systems. I like systems that have lots of options, but only when those options come together to create real tactical decisions. I never found any use for "Grope," "Steal," "Warcry," or "Mock," even when they worked. Many of the spells, as I covered extensively, are essentially useless, or duplicates of each other. Straight attacks become overpowered when you get "greater melee weapons" that damage all creatures in one attack.

And yet, we have to give credit for the sheer number of options, even if they don't all work. As with everything, the first third of the game does best here, as you gingerly approach each new party and try a variety of actions to create "tactical templates" to use against different foes. When each character only has a couple of spellbooks, you find yourself experimenting more than when all characters have half of them. Some of the spells are highly-original and fun. Score: 5.
Towards the end of the game, combat difficulty got pretty nutty.
6. Equipment. This category is perhaps Fate's strongest. I always like games in which you regularly get equipment upgrades, and this only happens when the game offers numerous equipment slots or numerous characters. Fate does both. Each character gets two weapons, two pieces of body armor, a helmet, gloves, and boots, plus a variety of potions and special items. Multiply that among 7 characters in a single party and potentially 28 characters in all parties, and you find that the game never stops giving regular rewards except in the final act.

Fate also has solid mechanics here. Examining each item tells you most of what you need to know about it, including who can equip it and how it affects your statistics. Encumbrance becomes a real concern as the best armor tends to be quite heavy. My strategy was generally to equip the best item and deal with the encumbrance effects by discarding other things, but it's possible I could have done better by equipping lighter armor and keeping a greater variety of weapons in inventory, for instance.

Fate gets the highest score here that I can offer without complex item interaction (a la NetHack), detailed item descriptions (a la Might & Magic VI-VIII), or item crafting. Score: 7.
Rarely do games give you this kind of detail to help with equipment choices.
7. Economy. I like games that give you plenty to buy. Early in the game, Fate sets a tone like Alternate Reality in which you need gold just to survive. You might find yourself murdering a peasant for enough cash for your next meal, or a night in the inn. If you find a nice weapon, it's a real dilemma whether to keep it or sell it for enough rations and water to keep you going for the week. Above those basic needs are a variety of shops selling weapons and armor, healers, chapels selling indulgences, and of course new spells and character upgrades. Offering "alms" to NPCs also burns through the cash very quickly.

But having a lot of things to spend money on is only fun if money itself is scarce. From the moment you wander outside, kill your first dwarf, and get 1,500 "piaster" for the deed, you generally have as much money as you need the moment you need it. There was never a point in the game that I worried about going broke, and because of that, I never bothered to sell a single piece of equipment--I just dropped it when I was done with it. You saw how I bought about 6 redundant ships (perhaps the most expensive item in the game) and shrugged off the loss of over $7 million towards the end.
Towards the end of the game, when you have millions of piaster, the most expensive potions--such as this one that restores all spell points--only cost a couple of thousand.
The imbalance in the economy is perhaps best illustrated by the uselessness of the banking system. The developer spent a lot of time positioning banks with various investment opportunities throughout key cities, but you'd have to be daft to bother with them. Just go kill some more dwarfs. Score: 3.

8. Quests. The game only gets credit for having a main quest, and a rather stupid one at that. There are no alternate paths or outcomes, no opportunities for role-playing, and worst of all, no side quests throughout the enormous game territory. Oh, I suppose you could argue that it has some "side-areas" that improve character development, but anything it would gain here would be lost in light of the idiocy of the main questline. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics and sound are perhaps the best that they could have been for the era. The developers put a lot of effort into well-composed monster and NPC portraits, outdoor settings, and little mises-en-scène in the taverns, shops, and train. They certainly pass the "good enough" point that I require for this category. The sound effects go beyond that; not only are the clashes and zaps of weapons and spells done well, the game is one of only a few to offer evocative background sounds, so well-composed that I sometimes confused them for the real thing.
A diverse group awaits the Cavetrain.
The interface is the only place that I had real trouble. The game is meant to be used with a mouse--which makes me hate it already--but even worse, you have to click on very small menu options and frequently double-click by accident. Although you can use the keyboard in a limited sense, you have to mentally number the menu options to select the right key; an explicit numbering would have partially redeemed it. Too many options that you might want to use in concert are on different menus. All told, a bit of a nightmare. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. Fate offers extensive map non-linearity but not plot non-linearity, and I prefer to see both together to really enjoy myself. (The 7-part Moonwand quest, which you can do in any order, was the exception and probably the high point of the post-Larvin part of the game.) I definitely would not call it "replayable." You'd have to be insane. In difficulty, it starts with a nice moderate level but goes off the rails after the Cavetrain quest, alternating between very easy and very hard. For "pacing," we of course award a big, scrawled "F" for being way, way too long. Score: 2.

This gives us a subtotal of 45, which puts it fairly high on my existing list. I'm not sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, the game does so well mechanically that you absolutely have to recommend it. For 1991, it is a wonder to behold, and when I first started it, exploring Larvin and its environment, every hour I discovered some new nuance that led me to admire the developer even more. On the other hand, the inability of the developer to know when to quit seems like it ought to count more than a few points in the final GIMLET category. And it's especially bad for offering an ending that isn't worth reaching, and for hints and directions evaporating towards the game's end. In the end, comparing it to the other games on the list, I feel better knocking off 3 points and kicking it down to the level of Knights of Legend, which had similar problems, at a final score of 42.

But let's talk for a moment about the game-within-the-game: Fate: Quest of the Cavetrain. Not only does it not lose those 3 additional points, it gains 3 more in the "gameplay" category for not being too long, 1 more in the "quests" category for not being stupid yet, 2 more in the "economy" category for not having gone out of control, and 1 more in "character creation and development" for development being more significant, and 1 more in both "combat" and "encounters" for not yet becoming bland and rote. Fate: Quest of the Cavetrain is a solid 54-point game, 9th-highest on my blog so far, better than everything except titles that offer extensive side-quests and more detailed role-playing options, and an obvious candidate for 1991's "Game of the Year." Don't cheat yourself out of this excellent game. Just don't worry about where the Cavetrain leads.

I say all of these things coming from an era in which 200- or 300-hour games are hardly uncommon. Steam tells me that when I last played Oblivion on my PC, it took me 213 hours. Skyrim took 278. (Neither totals count the multiple times I played both games on my console.) But of course these titles are packed with content, including so many side quests and faction quest threads that it's hard to keep track of them all. Even if you don't take a single quest, simply exploring each dungeon or structure and learning its individual story provides more rewards than the totality of Fate's plot.

On top of this, I have a sneaking suspicion that Fate was actually supposed to take even longer. I base this on the horribly unbalanced initiatives of the monsters towards the end of the game. Certainly, the developer didn't intend for the player to "pray" away every fight, right? Certainly, he didn't intend every encounter with the wandering demons to completely wipe out the party. Given that Morganna joins the party at Level 105, I wonder if the party wasn't supposed to be of a comparable level (my characters topped at around 60) before braving the Cassidan dungeons in the first place. That would have required an insane amount of grinding, but the game is already pretty insane.
Before any of my characters even had a chance to act.
I was therefore curious how reviews of the time treated a game of such unprecedented length. I scanned reviews offering both the best rating (89/100, from Amiga Joker in March 1991) and the worst rating (26/60, from Aktueller Software Markt in November 1991). Of the two, the Amiga Joker reviewer seems to have gotten the furthest--screenshots show scenes that could only be in Mernoc or Katloch, plus hit-point totals that suggest Level 50+ characters, which is pretty impressive. While recognizing that the game will involve "months of play," he doesn't seem to attach much quality to that, though he does warn of the game's overall difficulty. He particularly seems to enjoy the graphics and sound, and like me, he praises the background effects. (I only translated parts of the review, so if any German-speaking readers would like to read the entire thing and offer more details, I'd be grateful.)

The ASM reviewer, on the other hand, manages to make most of his negative points not about the gameplay or length but about the very graphics that everyone else seems to like. Only Amiga magazines would take a game with graphics as well-composed as this and find some way to bitch about them--in ASM's case, the complaint is that they're not animated. This is the 1991 version of modern reviews that, faced with a game like Fallout 4 where you can count individual blades of grass, conclude that the graphics "suck" because the blades don't cast individual shadows. ASM also seems to have issues with the scope of the game, at least in terms of numbers of party members, spells, and dungeons.
I'm hard-pressed to find any contemporary reviews of the English version. I understand reLINE was going out of business (although later recovered) just as the English version was published. It's possible that it barely made it to English players' Amigas, let alone American ones. This is unfortunate, because--no offense to my European readers--American players had the most experience in 1991 with actual RPGs, and it would have been fun to see their reactions to both the length (Scorpia surely wouldn't have been able to finish the game before turning in her review, which would have galled her) and the clear foundation in Alternate Reality mixed with The Bard's Tale. Most European reviews focused on its relationship with Legend of Faerghail (1990), reLINE's previous RPG, which also showed a heavy Bard's Tale influence and also featured graphics by Matthias Kästner.
Fate's auteur was Olaf Patzenhauer, who apparently began working on the game around 1986, after some experience with Alternate Reality, The Bard's Tale, and some of the Ultima titles. I otherwise haven't been able to find very much about the man, such as age, education, or previous employment. He died in late 2011 or early 2012, some sites say from a heart attack but I was unable to find a specific obituary. Fate and a 1992 strategy game called Dynatech seem to be Patzenhauer's only non-adult games, and as we've seen, even Fate had plenty of adult material. His post-Fate credits include Penthouse Hot Numbers Deluxe (1993) and Biing!: Sex, Intrigue, and Scalpels (1995), described by MobyGames as "an erotic hospital-management simulation," which raises a number of questions I do not want answered.

From what I can gather from message boards, mostly in German, sometime in the early 2000s, Patzenhauer wrote a Fate 2 but never published it. Instead, he sent a personalized copies to friends and fans with the stipulation that they not share them. Accounts suggest that the game was never finished and had no main quest. (If any German-speaking reader would like to browse the forums here, you might find more information about the game than I did.) I've seen some sites that say the source code was destroyed upon Patzenhauer's death, as per his will, and others that say he lost the game in a computer crash before he died. (On one message thread in 2006, Patzenhauer talks about a computer crash but later says he recovered his data.) What everyone does seem to agree on is that the game featured plenty of manga-influenced graphics and nudity, if not outright hentai gameplay. (By his own account, Patzenhauer developed a deep interest in all things Japanese in the post-Fate years.) The image below, minus the black bars, came up in an RPG Codex thread in 2008, for instance. (As for the black bars, the images in my "won" posting are as explicit as a I dare get without worrying that Google will require me to turn on the "adults only" flag.) There are some rumors of a fan sequel in-progress called Fate 3.
Purported screenshot from the privately-distributed Fate 2.
It's going to be weird not having the occasional Fate session on my "to do" list, and I have a feeling that my memories of the game are going to be wrapped up in my memories of a weird year in which Irene and I moved 4 times. I played Fate in the cramped study of a temporary apartment in Boston, and on the porch of a beach house we rented for a few months on the North Shore. I had it going on the kitchen table of a one-bedroom in Portland as the summer breeze came through the window, and in the comfy office of the condo we eventually bought near Bar Harbor, as the snows fell on the harbor outside. Perhaps the instability of my living situation explains why I took refuge in the stability of mapping square after square of the huge game world. And perhaps it also explains why I was so personally offended at its shaggy-dog ending. Despite a relatively high score, I'm glad to be done with it and moving on.