I haven't given up on Sentinel Worlds, but my work has become so busy this summer that I can only play games in windows of 10-30 minutes at a time. That's no way to play Sentinel Worlds, whose learning curve--even with all the help you offered in the comments--is steep enough to require a dedicated day just to get into it.
I itched to jump to Ultima V since I thought I could leap right into it without having to learn the interface, but I figured I'd give Star Command a shot, especially since some anonymous commenter showed up yesterday to start me off with some hints. I'm pleased to say that it's a much more accessible game, and I think I can crank out a series of postings on it while I wait for life to return to normal.
Star Command is another SSI offering, developed by the same team that gave us Phantasie I-III, all competent games. Wikipedia says that it was based on a board game. The game takes place at an unidentified point in the "far future," long after Earth has been destroyed by some "hostile aliens." Humans live in a region of space known as "The Triangle," so named because it is the shape formed by the three ports of "Star Command," the military forces of humanity who are fighting losing wars on two frontiers: the Alpha Frontier, infested with organized pirates; the Beta Frontier, ruled by hostile insect aliens bent on the destruction of humanity. There are also rumors of other races and a civilization of robots.
The player controls eight characters who engage in missions for Star Command, "from your first anti-piracy patrol all the way through the climactic final mission to save mankind." There is apparently some randomization to the assignment of missions, which the game touts as allowing extensive replays.
The interesting character creation process hearkens to Space, one of the earliest CRPGs, which I once played (briefly) on an Apple II emulator site. Each character has seven attributes--strength, speed, accuracy, courage, willpower, Esper (psychic skill, basically), and intelligence--and is assigned to one of four classes: pilot, marine, soldier, and Esper (of which you can only have one). Each character also has a rank, from private to grand admiral, each of which receives a different monthly salary.
After creating the characters, you send them to basic training for eight years, where they can achieve levels in any of 12 basic skills, depending on their class. Sometimes they fail their classes and you lose the year. Other times, they succeed and gain a level or increased attributes. When they finish training, at the age of 28, they are ready to embark on missions.
I had initially rolled what I thought was a really good party, but when I went to save the game, it asked me some copy protection questions and told me I was "WRONG!" even when I was sure I was right. It locked up after two failures, and I had to restart and recreate my characters. The second party didn't turn out quite as good as the first. I later discovered a work-around to the copy protection on a message board.
After party creation, the first step is to purchase a ship. Ships come in four varieties: scout ships, escorts, corvettes (I thought corvettes were Chevrolet models, but Wikipedia tells me that they're lightly armed warships; add another one to the list), and frigates. Each model has multiple classes. The only ones I could afford at the beginning were hornet- and wasp-class scout ships. The game manual indicated that they had the same stats but that the hornet-class ship cost a lot less, so I bought that one. I christened it the ISS "Protector."
After making the entire character- and ship-creation process a Galaxy Quest homage, I realized I was thinking of the wrong Tim Allen movie.
After the ship, I purchased a bewildering array of weapons, armor, and other equipment, both for the ship and for each crewmember. The manual had a table with the relative damage done by all the weapons--which come in multiple varieties--but I got sick of consulting it constantly and ended up buying largely random stuff.
When I was ready, I visited headquarter for my first mission, which turned out to be making a scientific survey of all the planets at a certain pair of coordinates and bringing back anything I found. I headed out of spaceport.
Exploration of the galaxy is through a tactical space map, not so far removed from either Sentinel Worlds or Starflight. There are different map levels, from entire-galaxy to individual-planet, and you move your ship throughout the region, keeping a careful eye on fuel (apparently, running out of fuel really, really sucks). You have a landing craft for descending on planets for espionage missions, scientific missions, or simple exploration.
Shortly after arriving in the exploration area, I encountered a trio of spacecraft and hailed them. Star Command doesn't give you the dialogue options of Sentinel Worlds but is closer to the "postures" that you can adopt in Pool of Radiance. You can bribe or beg your way out of a fight, ask the other ships for favors, try to intimidate them into giving you things, or "impersonate a diety" [sic]. I asked for a truce, but the other ships laughed at me and we entered combat.
Combat is blessedly turn-based rather than real-time (as in Sentinel Worlds) and it involves several movement phases followed by a fighting phase. It isn't terribly hard; you try to take on the ships one-by-one and maneuver in such a way that your weapons outgun theirs and your armor outlasts theirs. I'll post a video when I get more experienced at it. Apparently, you can also attempt to board the ships, defeat the occupants in hand-to-hand combat, and tow the ship to spaceport as salvage, but I haven't tried that yet.
Later, when I returned to a Star Command station, I was told that the ships I had defeated were civilian ships and that I would be getting no credit for that. I don't know why they attacked me in the first place, then. The manual seems to suggest that once you encounter an enemy ship, there's essentially no way to avoid combat, although I guess you could just fly away without fighting after combat begins.
I was rewarded for completing the mission--rewards are based on rank--and given some extra credits. I'll see about buying some new stuff and heading out on the next mission!
Before I go, though, it's worth pausing to note the difficulty that both sci-fi games and sci-fi films have with three-dimensional space. This is the third space-oriented CRPG I've played in which navigation takes place on a two-dimensional map with two-dimensional coordinate systems. I realize the technological limitations of the era, but Star Command compounds the era with the designation of the "triangle" and its mention of linear "frontiers."
What's even more surprising is that sci-fi films and TV shows suffer the same two-dimensional thinking. One of the most absurd moments in sci-fi, in my opinion, comes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock are talking about how they're going to defeat Khan in a crippled ship, and Spock notes that, "[Khan] is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking." Kirk has an "aha!" moment and realizes that they can out-navigate Khan and come up behind him. And what do they do? They manage to get into a position in which Khan passes over them, and then they sneak the Enterprise up behind him by descending out of the Nebula onto his plane of movement! They don't start shooting until they're perfectly lined up with him. You can see it from the starting point in this video:
For thinking, you can't get much more two-dimensional than that! How about firing at his underbelly? How about coming at him in such a way that you have a clear view of his saucer section and thus are less likely to miss?
But this, of course, is par for the course in Star Trek. Ships are always encountering each other while on the same plane. Never is one "upside-down" or "sideways" in comparison to the other. There's the absurd "Neutral Zone," which is presented on maps like this...
...as if you couldn't just, you know, fly over or under it. Star Trek VI has the "shock wave" that shoots out from the destruction of Praxis and buffets Sulu's ship when a couple of maneuvering thrusters should have put them over or under it.
Other franchises aren't immune to this. If Moff Tarkin had maneuvered the Death Star from a slightly different trajectory, they wouldn't have to "clear" Yavin before they could fire on the rebel base. I seem to recall that the "blockade" in The Phantom Menace is very planar, too. Only in Farscape and Battlestar Galactica do we start to see battles in which the creators seem to realize that space is three-dimensional. (After writing all of this, I found that TVTropes has a page about this: "Two-D Space.")
I wish I could say that I've "returned," but my postings are going to continue to be erratic for the next few weeks. Real life won't stop getting in the way. I appreciate your patience in the meantime.