Monday, March 25, 2019

Game 321: Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters (1992)

Let's not judge this one by its title screen . . .
               
Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters
United States
Toys for Bob (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for the 3DO console; later fan ports to other platforms
Date Started: 23 March 2019

When I started this blog in 2010, I had already played, at least in adolescence--most of the RPGs that everyone else knows. I may not have remembered all of the details, but I at least could remember the basic outlines of The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, Wizardry, Questron, Pool of Radiance, and all of the Ultimas. There were lots of games I had never played--never even heard of--of course, but those were games that most other people my age had never encountered either. It wasn't until about a year into my blog, with Dungeon Master, that I truly felt I was blogging about a game that I should be ashamed for never having played previously.

For the first time since then, I am in that position again with Star Control II, a game that frequently makes "top X" lists of the best games of all time. My commenters have mentioned it so many times that my usual pre-game search of previous comments turned up too many results to analyze. This one, in other words, is really going to fill a gap.
       
. . . even though the first game had an awesome title screen.
        
There has been some debate about whether Star Control II is an RPG, but at least almost everyone agrees that its predecessor was not. That predecessor went by the grandiose name Star Control: Famous Battles of the Ur-Quan Conflict, Volume IV (1990), in an obvious homage to Star Wars. It's an ambitious undertaking--part simulator, part strategy game, part action game. The player has to manage ships and other resources and plan conquests of battle maps, but in the end the conflict always comes down to a shooting match between two ships using Newtonian physics and relying almost entirely on the player's own dexterity. This combat system goes back to Spacewar! (1962) and would be familiar to anyone who's played Asteroids (1979).

The setup has an Earth united under one government by 2025. In 2612, Earth is contacted by a crystalline race called the Chenjesu and warned that the Ur-Quan Hierarchy, a race of slavers, is taking over the galaxy. (Star Control II retcons this date to 2112.) Earth is soon enlisted into the Alliance of Free Stars and agrees to pool resources in a mutual defense pact. The Alliance includes Earth, the philosophic Chenjesu, the arboreal Yehat, the robotic Mmrnmhrm, the elfin Ariloulaleelay, and a race of all-female nymphomaniacs called the Syreen who fly phallic ships with ribbed shafts.

On the other side are the Ur-Quan, an ancient tentacled species with a strict caste system. They make slaves out of "lesser races" and only communicate with them via frog-like "talking pets." Their allies include Mycons, a fungus species; Ilwraths, a spider-like race that never takes prisoners; and Androsynths, disgruntled clones who fled captivity and experimentation on Earth. Each race (on both sides) has unique ship designs with various strengths and weaknesses, some of which nullify other ships. There's a kind-of rock-paper-scissors element to strategically choosing what ships you want to employ against what enemies.
          
No "bumpy forehead" aliens in this setting.
         
The occasionally-goofy backstory and description of races seems to owe a lot (in tone, if not specifics) to Starflight (1986), on which Star Control author Paul Reiche III had a minor credit. There are probably more references than I'm picking up (being not much of a sci-fi fan) in the ships themselves. "Earthling Cruisers" (at least the front halves) look like they would raise no eyebrows on Star Trek, and both Ilwrath Avengers (in the back) and Vux Intruders (in the front) look like Klingon warbirds. The Ur-Quan dreadnought looks passably like the Battlestar Galactica.

The original Star Control offers the ability to fight player vs. player or set one of the two sides to computer control (at three difficulty levels). In playing, you can simply practice ship vs. ship combat with any two ships, play a "melee" game between fleets of ships, or play a full campaign, which proceeds through a variety of strategic and tactical scenarios involving ships from different species in different predicaments.  The full game gives player the ability to build colonies and fortifications, mine planets, and destroy enemy installations in between ship-to-ship combats.
         
The various campaign scenarios in the original game.
      
The "campaign map" in the original game is an innovative "rotating starfield" that attempts to offer a 3-D environment on a 2-D screen. It takes some getting used to. Until they reach each other for close-quarters combat, ships can only move by progressing through a series of jump points between stars, and it was a long time before I could interpret the starfield properly and understand how to plot a route to the enemy.
         
Strategic gameplay takes place on a rotating starmap meant to simulate a 3-D universe.
             
I have not, in contrast, managed to get any good at ship combat despite several hours of practice. I'm simply not any good at action games. At the same time, I admire the physics and logistics of it. You maintain speed in the last direction you thrust even if you turn. You have limited fuel, so you can't go crazy with thrusting in different directions. You can get hit by asteroids, or fouled in the gravity wells of planets. And you have to be conservative in the deployment of your ships' special abilities, because they use a lot of fuel. Still, no game in which action is the primary determiner of success is going to last long on my play list. For such players, the game and its sequel offer "cyborg" mode, where technically you're the player but the computer fights your battles, but I'd rather lose than stoop to that.
             
One of my lame attempts at space combat.
          
Star Control II opens with a more personal backstory. In the midst of the original Ur-Quan conflicts, the Earth cruiser Tobermoon, skippered by Captain Burton, was damaged in an ambush and managed to make it to a planet orbiting the dwarf star Vela. As they tried to repair the ship, crewmembers found a vast, abandoned underground city, populated with advanced technology, built by an extinct race known as the Precursors.
        
The backstory is reasonably well-told with title cards.
      
Burton reported the find when she returned to Earth, and she was ordered to return with a scientific team led by Jules Farnsworth. Shortly after they arrived, they received word from Earth that the Ur-Quan had learned about the Precursor city and were on their way. Burton balked at Earth's orders to abandon and destroy the base with nuclear weapons. Instead, she sent her ship back to Earth under the command of her first officer and remained behind with the scientific team, planning to detonate nuclear weapons should the Ur-Quan ever arrive.
         
        
The team ended up spending 20 years on the planet, which they named Unzervalt, with no contact from Earth. During that time, the scientists discovered that the city had been created to build ships, and eventually they were able to activate the machines, which put together a starship. The machines shut down just as the ship was completed, reporting that there were insufficient raw materials to continue. About this time, Farnsworth admitted that he was a fraud, and all the success he'd experienced getting the machines up and running was due to a young prodigy born on Unzervalt--the player character.
         
They're not kidding about the "skeleton" part.
         
Burton assembled a skeleton crew for the new starship, with the PC manning the computer station, and blasted off. Three days out, they discovered the derelict Tobermoon, damaged and bereft of any (living or dead) crewmembers. Burton took command of the Tobermoon while the PC was promoted to captain of the new ship. Tobermoon was soon attacked and destroyed by an unknown alien craft, leaving the new ship to escape to Earth. Here the game begins.
         
What "plight"? You live on a technologically-advanced Eden where your enemies seem to have forgotten about you.
         
The player can name himself and his ship, and that's it for "character creation." He begins in the middle of the solar system, in a relatively empty ship with 50 crew and 10 fuel. I intuited that I needed to fly towards Earth, so I headed for the inner cluster of planets.  
            
"Character creation."
             
As the screen changed to show Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, a probe zoomed out and attached itself to our ship. It played a recording from an Ur-Quan (with the "talking pet" doing the talking), informing me that approaching Earth was forbidden, as was my status as an "independent" vessel. The probe then zoomed off to inform the Ur-Quan of my "transgressions," leaving me to explore the planetary area at will. I guess the war didn't go so well for the Alliance.
            
Well, we now know how the first game ended, canonically.
        
As I approached Earth, the screen changed to show Earth, the moon, and a space station orbiting Earth. Earth itself seemed to have some kind of red force field around it, so I approached the space station.

As I neared, I was contacted by a "Starbase Commander Hayes of the slave planet Earth." He indicated that his energy cores were almost depleted and asked if we were the "Hierarchy resupply ship." At this point, I had a few dialogue options. One allowed me to lie and say I was the resupply ship. Another had me introduce myself. A third--more reflective of what I was actually thinking--said "'Slave planet?!' 'Hierarchy resupply vessel?!' What is going on here?'" The commander said he'd answer my questions if we'd bring back some radioactive elements to re-power the station. He suggested that we look on Mercury.
        
I like dialogue options, but so far they've broken down into: 1) the straight, obvious option; 2) the kind-of dumb lie; and 3) the emotional option that still basically recapitulates #1.
          
I flew off the Earth screen and back to the main solar system screen. At some point during this process, I had to delete the version of the game that I'd downloaded and get a new one. None of the controls worked right on the first one I tried. I particularly couldn't seem to escape out of sub-menus, which was supposed to happen with the SPACE bar. The second version I downloaded had controls that worked right plus someone had removed the copy protection (which has you identifying planets by coordinates). The controls overall are okay. They're much like Starflight, where you arrow through commands and then hit ENTER to select one. I'd rather be able to just hit a keyboard option for each menu command, but there aren't so many commands that it bothers me. Flying the ship is easy enough with the numberpad: 4 and 6 to turn, 8 to thrust, 5 to fire, ENTER to use a special weapon. There's a utility you can use to remap the combat commands, but using it seems to run the risk of breaking the main interface, which I guess is what happened with the first version I downloaded.
            
Running around Mercury and picking up minerals. The large-scale rover window (lower right) is quite small.
           
When orbiting a planet, you get a set of options much like Starflight. You can scan it for minerals, energy, or lifeforms, and then send down a rover (with its own weapons and fuel supply) to pick things up. Minerals are color-coded by type, and at first I was a little annoyed because I can't distinguish a lot of the colors. But it turns out that the explorable area of planets is quite small, and you can easily zoom around and pick up all minerals in just a few minutes. In that, it's quite a bit less satisfying than Starflight, where the planets were enormous and you'd never explore or strip them all, and you got excited with every little collection of mineral symbols. 

The rover doesn't hold much, but returning to the ship and then landing again is an easy process, so before long my hold was full of not just uranium and other "radioactives," but iron, nickel, and other metals. In mining them, the rover was periodically damaged by gouts of flame from the volatile planet, but it gets repaired when you return to the main ship.
        
Returning to base with a near-full cargo manifest.
         
We returned to the starbase and transferred the needed elements. With the station's life support, communications, and sensors working again, the captain was able to scan my vessel, and he expressed shock at its configuration. Rather than give him the story right away, I chose dialogue options that interrogated him first.
              
This seems to be everybody's reaction.
          
Commander Hayes explained that the Ur-Quan had defeated the Alliance 20 years ago. They offered humanity a choice between active serve as "battle thralls" or imprisonment on their own planet. Humanity chose the second option, so the Hierarchy put a force field around the planet, trapping the human race on a single world and preventing assistance from reaching them. But they also put a station in orbit so their own ships could find rest and resupply if they happened to pass through the system. The station is maintained by humans conscripted from the planet for several years at a time.
          
Humanity's fate didn't seem so bad until he got to this part.
          
When he was done, I (having no other choice, really) gave him our background and history and asked for his help. Pointing out that starting a rebellion and failing would result in "gruesome retribution," he asked me to prove my efficacy by at least destroying the Ur-Quan installation on the moon, warning me that I would have to defeat numerous warships.

We left the station and sailed over to the moon. An energy scan showed one blaze of power, so I sent the rover down to it. The report from the rover crew said that the alien base was abandoned and broadcasting some kind of mayday signal, "but great care has been taken to make it appear active." My crew shut the place down and looted it for parts.
           
My crew files a "report from the surface."
         
Lifeform scans showed all kinds of dots roaming around the moon, most looking like little tanks. I don't know if I was supposed to do this or not, but I ran around in the rover blasting them away in case they were enemies. I also gathered up all the minerals that I could.

I returned to the starbase, and the commander accepted my report. Just then, an Ilwrath Avenger, having found the probe, entered the system. The arachnid commander threatened us. There were some dialogue options with him, all of which I'm sure resulted in the same outcome: ship-to-ship combat.
           
They're not just "spider-like"; they actually spin webs on their bridges.
        
This part was much like the original game, although with the ship icons larger and against a smaller backdrop. I (predictably) lost the battle the first two times that I tried, but won the third time. In my defense, the game's backstory specifically said that I had minimal weapons. It was also a bit lumbering--slow to turn, slow to thrust.
         
The alien ship destroys me in our first encounter.
       
When I returned to starbase after the battle, Commander Hayes said he would join my rebellion, and the starbase would be my home base. He asked what we would call our movement, and there were some amusing options.
           
The last option tempted me, but I was boring and went with the first one.
           
Through a long series of dialogues, I learned that as I brought back minerals and salvage, the base could convert them into "resource units" (RU) which I could then use to build my crew, purchase upgrades for the Prydwen (improved thrusters, more crew pods, more storage bays, more fuel), get refueled, and build a fleet of starships. I can even build alien ships if I can find alien allies to pilot them.
         
My own starbase. Why can't I name it?
         
Hayes had a lot more dialogue options related to history and alien species, but I'll save those for later. It appears that the introduction is over and I now have a large, open universe to explore, where I'm sure I'll do a lot of mining, fighting, and diplomacy. In this sense, Star Control II feels like more of a sequel to Starflight than the original Star Control.
            
One part of a nine-page starmap that came with the game. I'm tempted to print it out and assemble it on the wall in front of my desk. I suppose it depends on how long the game lasts.
         
I appreciate how the game eased me into its various mechanics. I'm enjoying it so far, and I really look forward to plotting my next moves. I suspect I'll be conservative and mine the rest of the resources in the solar system and buy some modest ship upgrades before heading out into the greater universe.

Time so far: 2 hours



Friday, March 22, 2019

Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers: Summary and Rating

             
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019
Date Ended: 15 March 2019
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:

A shallower, smaller, shorter sequel to a superior predecessor, The Two Towers tells the second of Tolkien's three books from the perspective of three adventuring parties. While the top-down perspective and interface (recalling Ultima VI but with a bigger window) are both adequate, and the game follows its predecessor in offering a number of non-canonical NPCs and side-quests, it remains under-developed in RPG mechanics like combat, character development, and equipment. The switching between parties, over which the player has no control, is jarring, and by the end it feels like no party ever got any serious screen time.

*****

I'm not sure that it's possible to make a truly excellent RPG based on an existing plot with existing characters, particularly ones who live as largely in the imagination as the canonical members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This is different, you understand, than setting a new adventure in a familiar universe. If I had made a Lord of the Rings game, I would have told a story of a group of rangers, or Rohirrim, or even a motley group like the Fellowship, engaged in a struggle ancillary to the main plot, perhaps featuring Frodo, Aragorn, et. al. as NPCs. Games based on Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms largely seem to take this approach, although with much less well-known source material.
           
Offering an option to execute Gollum took some guts.
        
The problem with using existing plots is that either the player is on a railroad towards a predetermined destination, or he's jarred by the detours. Perhaps the only way to do it well is to allow such detours (as Interplay did here) and then give it to a player who doesn't care much about the original (e.g., me). In that sense, the game world worked out very well. Before we get into a litany of complaints, we have to at least admire the flexibility of the plot, plus the game's ability to introduce side quests that work thematically with the main plot points. It was a strength of Vol. I as well.

The game fails, on the other hand, in just about every possible way as an RPG. There is no experience or leveling. Character development occurs through the occasional increase in attributes and the occasional acquisition of skills as a reward for exploration or quest-solving. None of these improvements mean anything because, first, combat is so easy that your characters don't need to improve to beat the game, and second, every party starts with all the skills they need spread out among the characters. Inventory upgrades are scarce and essentially unnecessary for the same reasons. Combat couldn't be more boring, and there's essentially no magic system: "spells" are keywords that solve puzzles, more like inventory items.
             
Very late in the game, Aragorn can learn skills he won't need for the rest of the game.
          
Even worse is the way that it undercuts nonlinear exploration and optional encounters, essentially its only strength. While many of the side-quests and chance encounters are interesting, hardly any of them offer anything material to the characters. In fact, every time you stop to check out an unexplored area or building, you run the risk of some extra combats that leave the party weakened for the required encounters. This is related to the game's absurd healing system, by which characters are only fully healed at a few plot intervals, with meals and Athelas curing just a few hit points in between.

Now, it turns out that I missed a lot of side quests, mostly towards the end. The open world is nice, but the game only gives you any directions along the main quest path. I never returned to Dunland, and thus missed the side adventures there. Ithilien had at least three side quests that Frodo and his party didn't do, including a crypt, a Haradrim deserter who will join the party, and recovering the eye of the statue. If I'd gone another way in the Morgul Vale, I would have met Radagast. Aragorn missed the entire "Glittering Caves" sub-area, which culminated in a fight with a dragon and would have given him some powerful gloves. I still don't know what I did wrong here. I did find the way to the Glittering Caves, but I somehow missed the transition to the multiple levels that the hint guide says exist. I guess I was supposed to return after the Battle of Helm's Deep, but that would have meant embarking on a lengthy side-quest while on the threshold of victory for the game at large.
             
I'm not sure how I was supposed to get past this.
            
It's also possible that I missed some of these side quests because of another problem: the interface. There are parts that aren't so bad. The top-down perspective, the commands, and the auto-map all basically work, and I like the way you can make the interface go away and use the full screen for just exploration. What sucks is the approach to triggering encounters. You don't see an NPC or group of enemies in the corner of your exploration window. No, they just suddenly pop up because you've happened to walk on the right set of pixels or brushed up against the right object. There's very little correspondence between visual cues on screen and the appearance of encounter options. Sometimes, you see chests but walking up to them and bumping into them does nothing. Other times, you're in a blank room, and you're told about items and people that aren't on the screen at all.
            
Note that there are no orcs anywhere on this screen.
          
Finally, we have the matter of pacing. It's like the game itself has no idea what's going to come next. The battle of Helm's Deep involves six combats in a row, in two sets of three, with only a little bit of healing offered between the sets. After this epic battle, the party can rest and get fully healed, then (apparently) go off and find some magic gauntlets, when there's only one more (easy) combat remaining in the game. On Frodo and Sam's side, late in the game they have to figure out how to cut through Shelob's web. The option I chose (use the Star Ruby) causes the hobbits to get burned a little bit, which would suck--except that the endgame happens five seconds later. Why bother to attach a penalty to the choice?

And while we're talking about pacing, it's important to remember how all the erratic cutting between parties makes it hard to keep track of what any one party is doing. I completely missed an opportunity to recover Anduril because the game lurched to a different party when I was on that quest, and by the time it took me back to Aragorn, it was shouting that Helm's Deep was nigh.
           
Making the least-optimal choice hardly matters when the game is over at the next intersection.
        
Lord of the Rings, Vol. I had a lot of these problems (except the last one), and it ended up with a relatively-high 49 on the GIMLET. Before we rate this one, it's worth thinking about some of the differences. One is size. Vol. I is quite a bit bigger. Although Vol. II is good in this regard, Vol. I offered more opportunities for side quests, inventory acquisition, character development, healing, and general exploration. Pacing issues were caused as much by the player as by the plot.

Vol. I gave you a lot less direction on what to do next. There was a general sense that you had to keep moving east, but you weren't constantly getting title cards explicitly explaining the next step of the quest. For that reason, NPCs and the dialogue system took on a much greater importance. Here, although you can feed NPCs a variety of keywords, they mostly just tell you what the game has already told you in long paragraphs. You never really need them for any clues.

NPCs themselves were more memorable. They had personalities, agendas, side quests, and even a couple of betrayals. Vol. II only marginally developed any of that. There was a poor economy in Vol. I, but Vol. II had no place to spend money at all despite showing that the characters had it. Also keenly felt is the loss of nice graphical (or animated, in the remake) cut scenes between major areas.

Both games do reasonably well in the area of encounters. I've always liked the way Interplay games (including Wasteland and Dragon Wars) require you to read clues and then figure out the right skills to directly employ. Sometimes, items can substitute for skills. But Vol. I's encounters of this nature were less obvious and a little less generous in the variety of things that would work. You couldn't ignore options to improve skills or acquire quest objects. In Vol. II, you can pretty much just walk from beginning to end, knowing that your starting characters have whatever they need.

The rest might just be a matter of bad memory. Recalling the first game, I feel like the graphics offered a little more detail, that encounters didn't depend on hitting quite such a small set of pixels, that there was a little more character development, a slightly better inventory system, and so forth.
            
The game tries to evoke the majesty of Middle Earth without showing much.
         
Let's see how they compare:

1. Game world. The Two Towers definitely makes good use of the Middle Earth setting. The backstory and lore section of the manual are thorough and interesting. It wasn't until I read it that I finally understood some allusions from the films and the previous game, such as what "Numenor" refers to and what Gandalf actually is. While the game doesn't do a lot to build on this setting, it certainly is in keeping with it. Score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. There's no creation at all and only the slightest, near-invisible development. You mostly forget that the attributes even exist. Aragorn started with 70 dexterity, 28 strength, 33 endurance 75 luck, and 75 willpower, and he ended with 74, 28, 38, 79, and 77. Clearly, some development occurred, but never was I notified of any of these increases, and I really have no idea what caused them. The skills system would get more points if the game was a bit more balanced in how you acquire and use them. Score: 2.

3. NPC interaction. I always enjoy keyword-based dialogue systems, but here it's mostly purposeless. When a title card has just told you that "Orcs have ravaged this village and its people are forlorn," you don't need six different NPCs saying, "Orcs destroyed us!" and "We have lost hope!" I did like the few NPCs who could join the parties. Without them, the game would have been forced to either avoid combat with the hobbit parties or make the hobbits uncharacteristically effective. Score: 5.
          
I'm sorry we didn't see more of Eowen.
        
4. Encounters and foes. Despite Tolkien featuring a large bestiary, you only really ever fight orcs and men in this game (aside from a few one-off battles). The only points I give here are for the non-combat encounters, which are frequent, require some puzzle-solving skill, and offer some role-playing opportunities. As mentioned, I don't like the way that they appear, but that's more of an interface issue. Score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat features no tactics, no magic, no items to use. Just "attack" and select your preferred foe from a menu. The "magic system," as such, is just the acquisition of some spell keywords that occasionally solve puzzles, but I only had to use one of these words once. (This is in contrast to the first game, where they were constantly required.) Score: 1.
           
The easy, boring combat system.
         
6. Equipment. I found a few upgrades throughout the game: leather to chain, chain to magic armor, sword to magic sword, and so forth. It just didn't feel like any of it did anything. Most of the items that burdened my inventory were quest items, and I found no use for a lot of them. Score: 2.

7. Economy. In contrast to the first game, there is none. The game keeps track of a "silver" statistic for each character for no reason. Score: 0.

8. Quests. Perhaps the strongest point. Each party has a clear set of main quests, an equal number of side quests, and even a few options about how to complete them. I enjoyed the side quests most because with them, I was exploring Middle Earth rather than just hitting a series of determined locations and plot points in a row. Score: 5.
          
9. Graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't objectively bad, but I do think they fail to live up to the player's imagination of storied places like Helm's Deep and Minas Morgul. The failure to show so many things that the game tells you is also pretty stark. Sounds are mostly beeps and the occasional "oof" in combat.
             
The staircase to Cirith Ungol hardly seems hidden, tight, steep, or foreboding, especially with the silly "mountains" on either side.
           
There are aspects of the interface that work well. The size of the game window seems practically luxurious, and you have to wonder if Ultima VII took a lesson from this game or its precursor. The automap works pretty well. There are some nice touches like the star that appears next to the most recently-saved game when you go to load a game. I definitely appreciated the use of keyboard commands for most major actions, in addition to the buttons. Overall, the game would earn a high score in this category except for the encounter-triggering issue, which is both a graphical problem and an interface problem, and comes close to ruining the game on its own. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Vol. II is a bit more linear than Vol. I, but not compared to other games. I suspect that Frodo and Sam could have turned around in the last chapter, left the Morgul Vale, and walked all the way back to the Dead Marshes, cleaning up side quests along the way. The nonlinearity coupled with the side quests lend a certain replayability--in fact, I think the game would probably improve on a replay, with a better understanding of the pacing and terrain.
        
I found it far easier than its predecessor, as exemplified by the battle in which Frodo killed the vampire. I was supposed to solve that with a quest item. The game should have made combats harder and the healing system less erratic. Finally, it's also a bit too short, particularly with the action split among three parties. I suspect you could win in a speed run of just an hour or so. Maybe I'll try when I get some more free time. Score: 4.
        
That gives us a final score of 34, as I suspected quite a bit below Vol. I and even below my "recommended" threshold, though just barely. The engine was a bit better than the game itself, and was used in a superior way in the first title. This one seemed a bit rushed and perfunctory.
              
I did like some of the "instant deaths."
               
Computer Gaming World disagreed with me on the first game by largely hating it: reviewer Charles Ardai obsessed about divergences from the books and didn't even seem to notice the more revolutionary elements of the interface. He dismissed it as "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name." But in the October 1992 issue, reviewer Allen Greenberg gave a much more positive review of the sequel. In particular, he addressed the carping of people like Ardai by pointing out that Middle Earth had taken on a certain life of its own, and if we can forgive Tolkien himself for his many appendices and allusions, why complain about a few side-quests and side-characters in a game that's otherwise relatively faithful to the material?
        
Greenberg also offers a relatively nuanced discussion of the party-switching system, pointing out (correctly) that the very approach is revolutionary, and while Interplay might have refined the approach ("Interplay may wish to consider allowing the player at least a vote in the decision making process as to whether it is time to switch locations"), the innovative system offered a "depth of narrative which would not otherwise have been possible." Greenberg's comments led me to avoid subtracting points for this element despite complaining about it several times.

MobyGames catalog of reviews for the game has them averaging in the high 50s, which is pretty miserable. On the other hand, the lack of any seriously rabid fan base must have softened the blow when Vol. III was never released. A couple of years ago, Jimmy Maher published an excellent entry on what was happening with Interplay during this period. The summary is that the company was struggling as a developer/publisher, with Dragon Wars not having sold well in a crowded RPG market. Founder Brian Fargo managed to secure the rights the trilogy from Tolkien Enterprises, figuring that the Lord of the Rings name would make the games stand out among their competitors. 

Interplay was already in the midst of a new RPG called Secrets of the Magi that would feature a free-scrolling interface. Fargo pulled the team off that project and put them to work on Lord of the Rings. By the time the game was released, the company had been badly hurt by the collapse of Mediagenic, publisher of Interplay's Nintendo titles. Interplay rushed production to make the Christmas 1990 buying season. They ended up releasing the game with a lot of bugs and cut features (including an automap), missed the Christmas season anyway, and got lukewarm reviews.

The company was saved by the unexpected success of a strategy game called Castles. Now understanding that the Tolkien name alone didn't ensure success in sales, Vol. II was produced with a smaller staff. When it, too, got poor reviews, and when repackaging Vol. I on CD-ROM also failed to generate significant sales, there was no impetus to move on to Vol. III. Some sites claim that before it gave up on III, there had been plays to turn it into more of a strategy game. 

". . . no one."
        
Maher memorably concludes:
         
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years.
             
Indeed, the next RPG we'll see from Interplay isn't until 1995 (Stonekeep), followed by two in 1997: Fallout and Descent to Undermountain. It's hard not to see a little of the Lord of the Rings interface in Fallout's: axonometric graphics, continuous movement, a large main game window, and commands hosted in a set of unobtrusive icons with keyboard backup. (Vol. II and Fallout even share at least one designer, Scott Bennie.) Fallout shares these characteristics with the Infinity Engine, which was developed by Bioware but with a close relationship with (and financing from) Interplay. I'm probably grasping at straws, but I look forward to exploring the engines' history more when we get to those games.

The Two Towers was the last attempt to make an official Middle Earth game until after the Peter Jackson film series, which spawned a host of new games that, like the films themselves, are controversial among fans. (We won't see another one until 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) The 1990s were the only era in which Tolkien fans were likely to get an RPG that was technologically and graphically advanced enough to be fun, but not yet influenced ("tainted," as I'm sure some would have it) by the films. While the two Interplay titles have some promise and fun moments, it's too bad that they were the only attempts.

****

While we're wrapping things up, I think I might be ready to throw in the towel on The Seventh Link. I hate to do it, particularly when I know the developer is reading, but I can't seem to force myself to map and explore all the large dungeon levels. I'll chew on it for another couple days while I get started with Star Control II.



Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Two Towers: Won!

Want to bet?
           
It's probably good for my version of the Fellowship that the story ended here, more warped and twisted from Tolkien's tale than you might imagine a computer game based on this material would allow. At the end, we'll have to have a little thought experiment about what happens to the story from here. There's a lot to complain about with this game, but I certainly can't complain that the developers didn't give the player the freedom to diverge from the original.

This last session began with Frodo's party in Ithilien. The map continued to be bounded by the river to the west and the mountains to the east, so I explored in east-west strips as I slowly made my way south. At one point, for no real reason, the game suggested that we were hungry and that we send Gollum to hunt for food. (Food and drink exist in the game, but to provide light amounts of healing. There's no hunger/thirst system.) Gollum took off to hunt, which is ironic because after he left, we found rations repeatedly as we walked.
          
Faramir looks like a jerk in this game.
          
Investigating an elephant, we were ambushed by Faramir and his men and taken to a hidden grotto, where Faramir gave us some lore, a healer tended our wounds and taught the "Herblore" skill, and one of Faramir's men made fun of us for picking up a shovel.
             
What a dick.
            
Wandering around, we found ourselves on a cliff with a pool below. Faramir pointed out Gollum fishing in the pool and asked if his boy Anborn should shoot him. "Sure," I had Frodo say, calling his bluff. Anborn nailed him between the eyes, and Gollum's corpse sank beneath the water.
              
From Gollum's perspective, it's probably better than being burned to death in lava.
         
Well, that's going to make things a bit easier, I thought, and decided to keep going instead of reloading. We left the grotto with Faramir and two other rangers in tow. At the south end of the map were the ruins of Osgiliath, and the game warned me that I shouldn't go in there, but I did and suffered an instant death scene.
          
But where will I get an inspirational speech from Sam?
         
Moving on, we found a statue whose head was missing. We replaced it but then the game wanted me to find a gem to put in its eye. I was losing patience about this point, so I just had the party press east to the gap in the mountains leading to the Morgul Vale. When we reached the entrance, Faramir, the rangers, and Gilglin took off. Gilglin didn't even have any farewell dialogue, and he took a bunch of Athelas with him.
          

This doesn't sound like a good use of my time.
          
In the Morgul Vale, I decided to adopt an exploration pattern that took us counter-clockwise around the mountain borders. We soon came to a river where the game decided it was important that we pick up some "Morgul Water." Then we came to a bridge that was "draped in evil," and Frodo froze, unable to move. 
        
Abrupt changes in the active party continued through the end.
         
The action switched back to Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf, who (the game reminded me) were on the road to Helm's Deep. We passed by a couple of houses where there was this suspicious Rohirrim clearly up to something, but I couldn't figure out anything to do with him. Moving on, we fought some battles with orcs, Dunlendings, and Dunlending leaders called "Dunarches." (There were also "orcarches" a couple of times.) We tried to walk to Isengard, but the game wouldn't let me go past a particular point.

As we headed west, Gandalf suddenly decided that he had to head off on his own to find "the lost armies of Rohan." He split off into his own party with three Rohirrim named Wulfgrim, Hunthor, and Beodred--no idea where they came from--and went north in search of "Erkenbrand." I was a bit confused because in the films, Gandalf goes in search of Eomer, but I figured it was roughly the same quest. We wandered around until we found Erkenbrand next to some mountains, and everyone agreed to return to Helm's Deep.
           
Just a reminder of the manual paragraphs. For the most part, they're shorter than the in-game text.
            
Back to Frodo and Sam. Frodo somehow came to his senses and we walked off the bridge. Two steps later, we were at the gates of Minas Morgul, and the game relayed how we saw the gates open and the armies pour out with the Witch King at their head. We had to use the "Hide" skill to avoid being seen. Then it was back to Aragorn.
           
The game does an awful lot of telling rather than showing.
               
Rather than head directly for Helm's Deep, I had them thoroughly explore the area, fighting a number of orc parties along the way. We found a mountain pass north of the fortress that led into some caves occupied by Rohan citizens. We were unable to fully explore the caves because guards kept blocking certain passages. This becomes important later.
            
What is this place?
           
Eventually, we left and went to Helm's Deep itself. When we arrived, the first thing the gate guard suggested is that we go check out the secret exit at the "Glittering Caves" and make sure that Saruman's forces hadn't already found it. We went back to the caves but found nothing new.

Helm's Deep in the game consists of a central keep with about four rooms surrounded by an inner wall with one opening. Outside the inner wall is an outer wall with two openings. A moat surrounds the whole thing but is crossed by two bridges.
           
A satellite view.
          
None of the famous faces of Rohan--Theoden, Eomer, Eowen, etc.--were anywhere to be seen since I left Edoras in the last session. No sooner had I poked my head into the inner keep than I received a message that "an immense force of orcs has come," and I had to rush back outside.
          
I was hoping to have an unproductive shouting match with Theoden first.
         
Let's take a moment to go back in time to 2002, when the second Peter Jackson film hit theaters. I'm sure I have some readers who can't even remember 2002, but to a near 50-year-old man, this is "recent." I still think of Sleepless in Seattle as "recent." To me, Renée Zellweger is a fresh young face who's clearly going places. The other day, when Irene remarked that "Murphy Brown" had been canceled, I said, "Well, they had a good run. It must have been on for--what--15 years?" She had to explain to me that it had actually been off the air for 20 years and what was canceled was a brief revival series. I'm just adding some perspective.
          
I know that the way the film depicts the Battle of Helm's Deep violates some aspects of canon, which for some people is like violating a religion, but sitting there in the theater, looking across the field of 10,000 orcs, I realized we had reached a point in cinematic history where a movie could show us anything the director wanted to show us--that there was no more limit to what could be accomplished with special effects. It was one of the most thrilling sequences I'd ever seen. They technically topped it in the last film, but by then I was expecting it. Helm's Deep came out of nowhere.
       
I also couldn't help thinking how the battle illustrates the difference between the mentality of an RPG player and . . . well, real life, I guess. I'm sitting there thinking, "They're just orcs!" They don't have any mages or clerics, no trolls or ogres. My Might and Magic VI party would descend from the heavens and slaughter them all with a single "Armageddon" spell. If it was a Gold Box game, the battle would be over after six "Fireballs." These days, my character from Shadow of Mordor would scoff at 10,000 orcs. He'd dance through their ranks, exploding heads, and have half the army converted to his side within 10 minutes.
          
What do you mean "too many?" That's just more experience points for me. Plus, do you know how many wands, potions, and scrolls I have to get rid of?
         
In other words, some part of me had been waiting to fight Helm's Deep in an RPG for a long time, and the experience was . . . underwhelming. Aragon and friends rushed out of the Hornburg and encountered six orcs and two Dunlendings immediately outside the entrance. We killed them. Then a message told us more orcs were crossing the bridge, and we killed half a dozen more there. Then the message said that some Dunlendings had come through the south wall, and the game took us directly there so we could kill them.

Now, I guess we were supposed to have the sense that we were only seeing our part of the battle, and that the Rohirrim were fighting other battles all around us. In any event, we got a message that things were hopeless and we should retreat to the Hornburg. We did, then got another message that the absolute final battle--we mean it this time--was beginning. Outside we rushed again and fought three consecutive battles against orcs and Dunlendings right outside the gate. It occurred to me that it might be useful to blow Helm's Horn at several points during this sequence, and every time I tried, nothing happened. I mention this because after I won, I looked at a hint guide that said I could use Helm's Horn to make the battle easier. I have no idea where or when.
            
The Battle of Helm's Deep was basically six screens of this.
        
Gandalf showed up, as did an army of Ents, and the whole thing was over. Gandalf suggested that we "find any of our comrades who were scattered in the battle" and then go confront Saruman. I looked around and saw that we had Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas, so I didn't really need to gather anyone. We thus headed up the road towards Isengard.

On the way, we ran into a party of Dunlendings, led by Prince Burlag, who said that it was their custom that, when they were defeated in honorable battle, the victor should give them a "gift that honors our skill." My version of Aragorn explained that it was his custom that when he defeated enemies in battle, he tracked down any who were left over and killed them, too.
             
            
I mean, talk about gumption. They'd just allied with an evil force to utterly destroy the people of Rohan, and they want a gift?! (The hint guide later told me I should have given them any sword.) Unfortunately, we lost Gimli in the ensuing battle. Figuring the game was almost over anyway, I didn't reload.

We arrived at Isenguard to find Merry smoking pipeweed at the front gate. The game didn't give me any option to talk to him or invite him into the party, so we pressed on to the main keep. We saw Saruman up at the top of Orthanc and entered the keep. The tower consisted of four levels, with one or two battles with human allies of Saruman. In a library, way too late to be useful, we found books that would teach us various skills.
           
Why would they introduce this now?
        
At one point, we discovered two "corrupted eagles" and one regular eagle behind a locked door. When we killed the corrupted eagles and freed the regular one, he gave us a word of power called MANWE, which we never used. The only word of power we ever used in this game is a single use of some elf word to open a locked door.
             
Can we just speak it, or do we have to whisper it into the ears of a little moth?
            
We continued up to the top of the tower, where the game gave us a paragraph indicating that we were now stuck on the top of Orthanc. Hint guides later told me that I should have used MANWE here to get the Eagles to give us a ride, or use the "Climb" skill to get down, but the stairs still worked just fine for me, so I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, exploring more carefully, we found Saruman in a corner of the third level. We fought him, and he fled just before he would have died. He left the palantir behind. Picking it up ended the game for this party.
          
Our last shot of Aragorn and his part of the Fellowship.
        
Action returned to Frodo and Sam. After an instant-death scene when I blundered into Minas Morgul . . .
           
       
. . . we continued around the mountain range--I think we fought one battle against spiders--until we found the mountain pass to Cirith Ungol to the north. It was a long pass, but nothing assailed us, and we just had to use "Climb" at one point to keep going. 
            
Note that, with Gollum out of the picture, Sam is still with Frodo and we both have plenty of lembas bread.
          
The pass took us into the caverns of Shelob. I guess Gollum would have attacked us there if we hadn't killed him earlier, but I spared us that. We used the Star Ruby to burn our way through Shelob's webs, and Galandriel's phial to drive off Shelob herself when she attacked.
            
Alas, we get no image of Shelob during this sequence. That reminds me: Lord of the Rings fans, how do you feel about Shadow of War's revelation that Shelob is really a hot woman in disguise? Cool? Or . . .
          
And then, with no final battle or puzzle or anything, the game limped to its inevitable end:
           
You have been wounded with spider venom. You hear the approach of iron-shod boots. Orcs! But you collapse, and feel your consciousness fade. The last thing you remember is the Ring falling from its chain.

With the presence of his enemies revealed to him by the Palantir of Orthanc, Sauron decides to move his forces against the city of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. Saruman is beaten, but a far greater threat remains. 
          
I love how, in the film, it was treated as a big revelation that "Sauron moves to strike the city of Minas Tirith." Was there really anywhere else for him to strike?
           
And so ends the second part of "The Lord of the Rings," not in triumph and glory, but in uncertainty and deadly peril. Can Gandalf, Aragorn, and the other members of the Fellowship save Gondor from the armies of Sauron? The Ringbearer is trapped in the dreaded tower of Cirith Ungol. Can he be saved?
            
Someone's wedding is ruined.
          
You have done well indeed to bring the Ring this far, but the quest is not over yet. The Ring must be taken to Mount Doom and destroyed for all to be set right. To be continued in . . . "The Return of the King" coming soon from Interplay.
         
Not so hasty.
         
We've still got a bit to talk about, including the GIMLET, false journal entries, missed material, and why Volume III was never made, so I'll wrap things up in another entry. For now, let's analyze what happens in the darker world I've created. Gimli is dead--does it matter? (I mean, what did he really contribute?) Is Aragorn's decision to execute the Dunlending prince going to have any consequences? Most important, what changes with Gollum out of the picture?

Final time: 18 hours