Sunday, July 31, 2011

The CRPG Addict Will Return...

...on or about Saturday, August 6. I appreciate your patience during what has been an extremely difficult past month.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Star Command: Making the Galaxy Safe for Democracy

And I will not be burning it for fuel.

Star Command is a fun, fast-paced, uncomplicated, and delightful little game that came along just when I needed it. I'm spending the week in one of my least favorite cities--let's just say it's in the southeastern U.S. to avoid upsetting any of my readers--where it's 100+ every day this week. I've been returning to my hotel room at night after hours of teaching, exhausted, with less than an hour to devote to fun things, and if I had to face Sentinel Worlds during that hour...well, I wouldn't. I'd just watch TV, and you'd all be waiting until next week for the next posting.

Star Command is apparently not big on "due process."

After my triumph in my first mission yesterday, I immediately headed to headquarters and got another one, to defeat five transports of criminals circling a planet within the Triangle. I decided to postpone this and just explore a little of the galaxy outside the Triangle first. So after upgrading some of my ship's weapons and buying more armor, I headed out. This turned out to be a mistake. First of all, fuel decreases fast as you explore the galaxy, and until I get a bigger ship, I can't go very far from a starport. Second, there's some mean, mean stuff in the area outside the Triangle.

The pre-combat screen tells you a little about the terrain you're fighting on and what you're facing.

I had some luck exploring planets and retrieving artifacts and biospecimens for later sale (although it turns out you don't really get much money for either). But in the midst of my explorations, I was attacked on a planet by hordes of "insect hatchlings." This was my first experience in squad-based combat (as opposed to space combat), and it was fairly interesting. You begin each combat with a "communications phase" in which your codebreaker or psychic tries to speak to the enemy. If this fails, you go into a tactical combat screen. The game tells you what squares represent good offensive positions, which ones represent good defensive positions, and how many squads of enemies you face. You maneuver around this combat screen, engaging with heavy or light weapons (some neat animation associated with this), until one of you is dead.

This is the best depiction of a flamethrower yet seen in a CRPG.

Unfortunately, it was me. I faced far too many enemies to even hope to win, even though I enjoyed watching my characters mow them down with flamethrowers. Lesson learned: stay in the Triangle until I'm stronger. There are other combat variables associated with gravity and atmosphere that I still have to learn.

So far, lots of armor has saved my ship from serious damage in combat.

Reloading, I went out to perform the mission. I found the group of five transports after exploring several planets in the system, and I defeated them all in a very satisfying round of space combat. I had trained a couple of my characters in astro-gunnery, and I had spent money outfitting every angle of my ship with one weapon or another. This allowed me to shoot at enemies no matter what direction they came at me from.

And when you defeat ships, they don't disappear, but rather disperse into chunks.

After my victory, I returned to the starport for more rewards, promotions, and training. Training and leveling are quite satisfying in the game. You gain one training session for every mission that you complete, and you can purchase additional sessions for 200,000 gold, meaning--and this is a big thing for me--you never run out of reasons to make money. Each training session raises one chosen statistic by 1-10 points, and it also raises a skill by a half or whole point. There seems to be some randomness associated with this, but it's partly based on the character's intelligence score. I don't know if this is a good strategy or not, but I've decided to have each character specialize in one or two skills instead of trying to create "well-rounded" characters that have lots of skills.

I've been saving my money for a new ship, so I didn't buy much in the way of upgrades. My third mission asked me to visit a planet just outside the Triangle where some miners were being hassled by pirates. When I encountered the pirates, they were in just one ship, so I took the opportunity to close with it and board:

The shipboard combat screen was just like the planet-based squad combat, only with tables and chairs instead of rocks and trees. This time, I won handily and towed the defeated ship back to base for some nice salvage.

There are three things that I really like about this game so far:

1. "The Triangle" helps define a fairly small section of the galaxy, from which you can explore in relative safety. This makes it easy to ease in to the game. Contrast with Sentinel Worlds, where you start in the middle of combat.

2. There seems to be a lot of freedom of movement. You can take missions or just start exploring. If you do go exploring, there are lots of things to do, from fighting pirates and aliens to exploring planets. The exploration isn't as detailed or nuanced as Sentinel Worlds (or even Starflight), but it's still fun.

To the hypotenuse...and beyond!

3. The missions are really well-constructed to introduce you each gameplay element in turn. I know there's a lot more to come because I can buy espionage equipment and environmental suits and such. I haven't even experimented with chemical weapons or explosives or my "Esper" abilities. But the game eases you into its complexities instead of throwing them all at you at once.

4. Completing missions (at least so far) is fairly fast-paced and immediately rewarding with money (I keep writing "gold" and having to delete it) and training.

Again, a perfect game to play for short bursts of time. To the extent that I post any more this week, it'll probably be about Star Command exclusively.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Game 61: Star Command (1988)

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.

Private Nesmith's character sheet.

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.

A character wastes a year.

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.

Called a "hornet," but looks kind of like a skeleton of a fat guy.

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.

I have no idea what the differences between all these things are.

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.

Sounds like the stuff legends are made of.

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.

The crew of the ISS Protector opens a pawn shop.

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.

"Aliens! I am Richard Simmons! Bow before me!"

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.

Enemy counters with Ritalin missile.

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.

At least I didn't get court-martialed.

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... 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.

Don't let Gary Larson get any ideas from this screen. (Very obscure joke.)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Game 60: Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic

Okay...I get The Terminator and Star Wars. The one on the right with the two people in space suits looks familiar, but I can't place it.

You may have read about Solomon Asch's series of conformity experiments in the 1950s. Basically, he sat a bunch of people around a table and told them he was going to give them a vision test. In reality, all but one (the subject) of the participants were his confederates. Asch might show two lines, A and B, and ask the participants which one was longer. If everyone else at the table (at Asch's direction) said that Line B was longer than Line A, the subject was also very likely to say so, even if it was patently absurd. The experiment illustrated the enormous pressure to conform with prevailing opinion. However, if even one of the other participants disagreed with the group's consensus, then the subject was also much more likely to disagree and give the correct response. This same phenomenon is illustrated fictionally in Twelve Angry Men, where the dissent of a single juror causes other jurors who had been wrestling internally to voice their doubts.

What I would like, right now, is for one person who has played Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic to post a comment opining that the game sucks.

I got into this blog for myself, and yet I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a certain obligation to my readers. Your comments keep me going. Many of you are very funny, or knowledgeable, or insightful, or all three. I don't want to let you down. So when I get comment after comment, for weeks, telling me how great an upcoming game is, I feel particularly compelled to like it--compelled to conform. Thus, just one of you, confirming my opinion that this game blows goats, would make me feel ever so much better.

Oh, I admit that on the surface, Sentinel Worlds seems to have all the elements of a great game. First, it is a spiritual descendant of Starflight, which I loved. Both were by Electronic Arts, although Worlds is clearly set in a different universe. Many of the gameplay elements from the earlier game are here: space exploration and combat, planetside ATV landings, mining for minerals, dialogue options. The game adds a lot of new features to this mix, including Pool of Radiance-style adventurer's journal entries, ground exploration and hand-to-hand combat, and character-based statistics and inventories that make each of the PCs seem like individuals rather than (in Starflight) just parts of the ship.

My complaint isn't with the gameplay elements, but rather with the interface. I don't know how anyone stood it long enough to get through an entire game. Let's start with the space navigation screen:

You do your flying around in the upper-left-hand corner. See how narrow it is, top to bottom? When you're moving at a decent clip, you're off that screen in a half second. The other ships, which are suspiciously far more maneuverable than you, fly circles around you while you cumbersomely turn and try to see where they're going as they blip off the screen.

Ship-to-ship combat is just as bad as Starflight (it was the worst part of that game). Instead of having to face the enemy and shoot, you simply arm lasers and the computer shoots for you--from any angle. That doesn't sound so bad except that you get about three shots before the enemy has sailed off the edge of the screen and you lose the laser lock. Then you have to go hunt him down, hit SPACE to lock on, hit ENTER to arm the lasers, and--whoops! He's off the screen again!

Now, when the enemy leaves the screen, you should be able to use the little long-range navigation box to find him. Of course, you have to pick him out from a bunch of other ships that might be in the area. Fortunately, the game helpfully distinguishes enemy ships from friendly ships by color. Red ships are enemies, purple ships are other (friendly) interceptors, and maroon ships are cargo transports. That doesn't pose any problem at all for a color-blind person, especially when each ship is about one pixel in size.

Fun with color doesn't stop with ships. You also have to use it to identify the type of terrain in the orbit maps. Irene tells me there are like eight colors represented on this map, and I can see three, maybe four if I squint.

Okay, fine, so Electronic Arts couldn't anticipate the needs of colorblind people. This was before computers got all touchy-feely with accessibility. But that still doesn't excuse the indoor navigation maps, which try to combine 3D wireframes and top-down navigation on the same screen and end up making me seasick.

Nor does it excuse the hand-to-hand combat system, by which you hit ENTER and watch your crewmembers fight, unable to pause or engage in any specific tactics.

Add to this an inability to find mineral deposits on any of the planets I visit, a lack of any direction on the main quest, and a game opening that tosses you in the thick of battle with raiders before you've even had a chance to investigate the interface, and you've got a relatively unpleasant introductory posting to get out of the way. My absence over the last week has primarily been because of work, but it has also been because I was hoping that if I kept playing, I would start to like the game enough that I wouldn't write a posting like this.

All right. Let me back up and cover the basics.

The plot isn't bad. Set in 2995, the back story is that a trade route between a group of merchant planets has been beset by mysterious raiders who simply destroy ships without attempting to contact or loot them. My crew of five...

...has recently completed a training program and has been sent to the troubled area to learn what we can about the raiders and destroy them.

Much like Starflight, the crew consists of a pilot, a navigator, a communications officer, an engineer, and a medic. Each has scores for srength, stamina, dexterity, comprehension, and charisma; and each starts with 3 of 12 skills: contact (blunt) weapons, edged weapons, projectile weapons, blasters, tactics, reconnaissance, gunnery, ATV repair, mining, athletics, observation, and bribery. Unlike Starflight, PCs have individual inventories, including weapons and armor. Regrettably, "budget cuts" have meant that the federation depending on the success of my mission could not afford to outfit my crew with basic weapons or anything.

I began the game, as I said, in the middle of combat with raiders. At first, I trusted the game's mercy on a new player and assumed I would be able to defeat them.

I was wrong.

After several restarts, I decided discretion was the better part of valor, and I fled the opening fight, only to return and pick off one of the raiders on the fringes of the battle. I can't emphasize enough how tedious space combat is, as you circle around the enemy, desperately trying to keep him on the screen, as the computer fires your lasers at him. Theoretically, you can target certain parts of the ship (e.g., knock out the engines) and try to board it, engaging with the crew in hand-to-hand combat, but I haven't attempted that yet.

It appears that you can get quests from the Federation--ships that need to be escorted, ships that are under attack, and so on.

I tried a few of these, but by the time I got to the coordinates, the ships were gone or the attack was over. So instead, I went to the nearby Norjaenn Spaceport (this involves flying over the planet and activating the navigation menu) and got a mission from the Science Foundation to deliver some equipment to another planet.

There are only four planets in the area of the galaxy I'm in (I'm unclear whether this is the only area of the game or not), so it didn't take long to find the planet, at which point I simply set down at the indicated coordinates, dropped off the equipment, and made a cool 700 gold pieces.

ATV navigation is from a top-down perspective, and is very much like Starflight but with better graphics. You run into animals all over the planet, although you cannot collect them as specimens. The game manual suggests that killing them is bad and healing them (assuming they need it) is good. The ATV breaks down periodically for no reason that I can see except to make you wait while one of your crewmembers fixes it.

Some of the planets have "beacons" which alert you to the presence of towns. One such planet had a sort of western theme going, with farms and a saloon. Conversation with the patrons in the saloon (you can talk to individuals on the surface as well as other ships) suggested there was some tension between farmers and ranchers.

Finding a saloon on a planet gives me a Firefly-ish tingle.

Conversations usually offer two or three dialogue options. Unlike modern games, these options aren't so much about role-playing as prioritizing the information you want to collect. The other person eventually cuts off dialogue after a few questions (the same thing happened in Starflight) so you don't want to waste time asking about the weather.

o far, most people have been yelling at me to go fight the raiders instead of asking questions about them. My conversations haven't produced any useful intelligence yet, but I've only been to one planet.

Thanks, Tasha. Is everyone here as bright as you?

I eventually made my way to the planet of Caldorre, where I found three towers of dungeon-crawling fun, each with multiple levels. I really can't see why anyone thought this interface was a good idea.

So that's about the thick of it. I took a peek at Baron's review in Dungeons and Desktops, and he says that the game has a "steep learning curve." I really hope that's all it is. I want to like the game, and I've yet to get one of the adventurer's journal entries, so I'm assuming there's a lot of stuff I've yet to explore. Perhaps by the end of my initial six hours, the game and I will have come to some kind of agreement.