Can it be a coincidence that we have two sci-fi CRPGs, released in the same year, that have an anno domini in the title? And both used wrongly, with the "A.D." coming after, not before, the year? Maybe not, but in any event Alien Fires: 2199 A.D. owes nothing to 2400 A.D. It has a very different interface and plot. Also, it doesn't make any sense.
If a "time-transportation device" threatens the universe, one wonders what the "TimeLords" actually do to earn their titles.
The game's backstory is an obvious fusion of Doctor Who and Apocalypse Now. You play a TimeLord (one of an immortal race of beings responsible for protecting the temporal balance of the universe) given a quest by your TimeLord Elders to track down the brilliant and disturbed Samuel Kurtz, who has escaped to "a small planet at the edge of known universe" with an "awesome device" that "threatens to twist the very fabric of time itself."
Character creation involves giving yourself a name and allocating 99 points among seven skills: fighting, marksmanship, diplomacy, dexterity, understanding, tracking, and quickness. The manual describes each of these skills, and they are about what you'd expect, but I love their description for "understanding," which includes: "generally, this will help your character point dangerous items like plasma rifles in the correct direction before firing them." Wow. I hope it helps with not walking into walls, too.
The game starts you off in the middle of a space station called Galaxy's End, with very little information about what to do except that you need to find an elevator to the next level. (I think the manual I've found is only a partial one, which doesn't help.) The game is in first-person view with wireframe walls (how retro) but--get this--continuously scrolling. We haven't seen this since Alternate Reality.
The other graphics in the game seem pretty decent, such as the various robots you encounter in the station.
Now, on the robots: you can talk to them, and the dialog, as far as I can tell, is completely open-ended. I don't mean just keywords here; you type entire sentences! Naturally, it must be scanning your sentences for keywords, but it still feels pretty cool. Here's a conversation I just had with what looks like a droid but might be a man. The horrible errors of grammar and syntax are the game's, not mine.
- TRISTAR: Hello. I hope you have come to help us, there is not much time - you must go to the next level and talk to angel, but beware - there are Octo agents everywhere.
- ME: Who are you?
- TRISTAR: I am Tristar, the chief and only mechanic of Galaxy's End.
- ME: What are you?
- TRISTAR: What do you mean, what am I? What are you? What is anybody? I am a sophisticated chemical composition comprised of about 76 percent water. So there.
- ME: What are Octo agents?
- TRISTAR: Octo is a scientific research company, they are very secretive. They often land here for supplies and shipments of Micalite from the mine.
- ME: Where is the elevator?
- TRISTAR: The elevator is in the elevator shaft
- ME: That was really helpful, thanks.
- TRISTAR: I don't understand what you mean.
- ME: Where is the elevator shaft?
- Tristar the mechanic leaves
It's like a combination of Starflight, when NPCs abruptly broke off conversation for no reason, presumably so you wouldn't learn everything in one sitting, and the open-ended dialog of the Origin titles.
Alien Fires chooses to sacrifice what could be a pretty awesome dialog system with stuff like this, though:
I could have happily gone my entire CRPG career without a W.K.R.P. reference. Alas, it was not to be.
I encountered these three entities within just a couple of minutes of wandering the initial corridors (by the way, if you swear at them, they attack you and you die; I know you were all wondering). So far, I've gotten that I need to talk to Whitey in the bar on Level 2.
Now let's talk about the game's problems. Aside from the story issues (and the seeming randomness of your starting point), the interface is horrible. Commands are through the function keys, which probably made sense on some keyboard but which is fairly impossible on my laptop without looking first. (Yes, I know DOSBox has a keyboard mapper. I don't know why, but I can't get it to work. Everything I do just ends up disabling the keys.) Second, even in DOSBox cranked up to some CPU speed 100 times what was available in 1987, the corridors take a few seconds to redraw each time you move. Since people and droids draw last, you usually find yourself blazing past them, and you have to keep stopping and turning around. The continual scrolling alternates between being unresponsive and way too responsive. I hit the right or left arrows and nothing happens, so I hold them down for a couple seconds and I end up spinning in place for five or six revolutions.
It may be that none of these things are the creators' faults, and just an issue with playing the game on modern platforms, but it still reduces my enthusiasm for slogging through however many hours of this.
I do have my first quest, though. I encountered this rabbit/horse thing smoking a pipe and told him I wanted a weapon.
There you have it. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance, and I'm off to find a pocket watch for the pipe-smoking rabbit-horse so I can defend all creation with a hunting knife. I'm sure you'll wait with bated breath for my next posting.