Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing

Over the long weekend, I took CRPG-playing way too far by spending at least 30 hours on four separate CRPGs--and I have almost nothing (blog-wise) to show for it.

The first game was, of course, Skyrim. I've take a hit on some discussion boards for praising this game, but honestly, the only reason I can think not to like it is that you deliberately want to be contrary. Sure, there are things not to like about it, but to not like it as a whole? Do you like games at all?

Running into dragons keeps cramping my style, though. I get stocked up on potions to make a run at some dungeon, and on the way there I have to drink them all fighting a dragon.

The second was Dragon Age: Origins, and playing it has entirely been against my will. My wife, Irene, went and picked up Dragon Age II a few weeks ago, but she insisted on replaying Origins, and all its expansions, this time as a female PC, so she could marry Alistair. Much of my weekend was a fight with Irene about playing Skyrim longer versus stopping it for Dragon Age. First-world problems, I know.

I've had a curious reaction to Dragon Age. On the surface, it seems to have all the things I like about CRPGs--an original game world with lots of lore, memorable NPCs, copious dialogue options, loads of side quests--and yet I find it curiously soulless. Few CRPGs are brilliantly original in their game worlds--most are derivative of Dungeons & Dragons in some way--but Dragon Age more than most feels somehow...assembled. It has that characterless feeling of "master-planned communities" in the mid-west and west, where the streets are all arranged in a grid and there's a strip mall at every major intersection.

It's interesting to compare the two modern games in respect to their approaches to role-playing. In Dragon Age (like most Interplay and Bioware titles), role-playing is almost entirely through dialogue. You decide who you are and you speak accordingly. Someone says something and you get maybe five choices:

  1. The "good" option
  2. A slightly lamer good option
  3. The selfishly-evil option
  4. The psychotically-evil option
  5. Something to kill the dialogue in case you hate dialogue

Sometimes there are fewer, but they basically boil down to good, selfish, bad.


A young girl approaches, crying. "I've lost Mr. Snuffles!" she wails. "If you can find him, I'll give you these five shiny pieces I found in my da's desk!"

  • "I'll do it! And don't worry about the gold. Use that to buy more bread for your family." [Morrigan disapproves]
  • "I'll see if I can get to it."
  • "Sure, I'll find Mr. Snuffles. But why don't you go home and see if you can find some more shiny pieces first?"
  • "I'll take those 'shiny pieces' off your corpse!"
  • "Go away, kid."

Again, this is normal in a lot of games from these developers and publishers, but it just feels so much more formulaic in Dragon Age. While I generally like dialogue, I agree that basing role-playing and quests around it forces you along a limited selection of paths. Dragon Age way overdoes it both the dialogue and romances for my tastes, anyway. The fact that I like both doesn't mean I want to spend 20 minutes reassuring Leliana that she's good in the sack.

In Skyrim, on the other hand, role-playing is based on how you interact with the game world--on what you do rather than what you say. The dialogue options, though better than in Oblivion, can't hold a candle to Dragon Age. More than once, indeed, I've found myself forced into accepting quests because I had no dialogue option to tell the quest-giver to sod off. In one city, knight asked me to accompany him into a haunted house and started me on a path where the only option to get the quest off my quest board was to beat a helpless priest to death with a rusty mace.

I care more about clearing my "to do" list than I do about role-playing!

But what happens in between the dialogue in Skyrim is priceless. In Dragon Age, no matter how you role-play, combat and exploration go the same ways. You fight the same enemies in the same places for the same results, and all that matters is your overall motivation. Skyrim offers essentially limitless possibilities in combat and exploration. I'm just outside a bandit chief's room and I need to get a key off him. I could:

  • Snipe him with a poisoned-soaked arrow
  • Sneak up behind him and try to slit his throat
  • Sneak up behind him and pickpocket the key
  • Use an invisibility potion to walk up next to him and then let him have it with lightning blasts from both hands
  • Summon a wave of skeletons
  • Send a follower to take care of him
  • Lead him outside and use a "shout" to send him spinning off a nearby cliff, then take the key from his corpse
  • Lead him to the nearest guard outpost and let them deal with him
  • Get him to chase me into a room full of his bandit friends, then use my "rage" scroll in the room, causing everyone to attack each other

The only way they could make it better is if I could talk to the bandit chief before attacking him, then try to persuade or bribe him for the key. Unfortunately, the game features two types of NPCs: those that you can talk to, and those that come charging at you, swords drawn, the moment they see you. Dragon Age usually has dialogues even when combat is inevitable.

Aside from combat, role-playing in Skyrim manifests itself in doing things like running from animals rather than killing them, ambushing every wandering Thalmor patrol you find, happily stealing from jarls' palaces but not the homes of townsfolk, and of course choosing to specialize in certain skills. The game doesn't generally acknowledge any of this, so you're essentially role-playing for yourself, which I guess some people find lame.

If you're curious about the third and fourth games I was spending time on, well, they're the ones this blog is supposed to be about. If you haven't been following, last Wednesday, I decided I couldn't get any further in Wizard Wars because of copy protection issues, only to have Skirie immediately find the information I needed. I had done a GIMLET and everything. So I spent some more time trying to win that game, and I determined that knowing the ingredients that go into certain spells means nothing if you can't find these ingredients. I visited every territory several times, ending up no further than I was on Wednesday. I'll keep trying.

I need five items to progress, but a golden potion isn't one of them.

The last game was Wizardry V, and I confess I devoted the least time to it. I got hung up a bit on the character creation process, which I will detail in the next posting, and I barely got out of the gate.

Hint: bonus points of 28 are only possible in 1 out of every 3,426 rolls.

Travel has again made both Skyrim and Dragon Age impossible this week, so I should have some more stuff on Wizardry V and maybe Wizard Wars for the next few days.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Game 67: Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom (1988)

This isn't an anthropomorphic heart with legs, as I first thought. Those are two women kneeling on either side of it.

You have to hand it to Andrew Greenberg and Sir-Tech: When they've got something that works for them, they sure stick with it. Here, by comparison, are the main castle screen shots of Wizardry (the first one, in 1981) and Wizardry V (1988):

In the intervening 7 years, they sure worked their butts off on that font, didn't they? I mean, as much work as they clearly put into that typeface, I can see where they wouldn't have had time to upgrade the interface or, you know, change the name of the tavern and trading post, even though the game takes place hundreds of years later in a different city. Clearly, Gilgamesh and Boltac were such legends at Trebor's Castle that shop- and tavern-owners around the world honor their name ever since.

Lest you think I'm too hard on the game from its opening screen shot, here's a dungeon-crawling shot:

And here's a combat screen:

You really have to admire the confidence of the developers. It's like if Peter Jackson, in remaking King Kong, had said, "Screw the special effects. Just put a guy in an ape suit. People come for the story anyway."

But you know what? Despite my sarcasm, I'm looking forward to playing Wizardry V. Sometimes you're just in the mood for a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. It's not like the first Wizardry was boring. And for all the similarity in appearance, this latest edition does promise to offer a little more in the way of encounters, plus some new features in spells and such that I'll cover next time.

The good news is that unlike Wizardry II and Wizardry III, this game doesn't require you to create characters in the first game and then import them. You can create them right in V, which means that when my party inevitably gets wiped out, I won't have to go through the whole rigmarole of creating a new one in I and importing them into V--a process that killed my enthusiasm for II and III. I imported a III party for a little initial exploration (and the screen shots above), but I'm going to create some brand new folks tomorrow.

See if you can identify the four new things on the character screen.

Short posting today. I have to take a quick detour back to Wizard Wars to finish it up. Also, it's apparently some sort of "holiday," and Irene is dragging me off to the house of some people I barely know instead of letting me stay home to play Wizardry and Skyrim. My advice is that you re-acquaint yourself with my postings for Wizardry, Wizardry II, and Wizardry III (and go easy on me; I was new to blogging). I've taken a lot of criticism for bailing on II and III as quickly as I did, so we're in this one for the long haul.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wizard Wars: Need "Defeat Copyright Protection" Spell

Note: The first comment on this posting completely rendered it moot. I'm leaving it as-is, but the GIMLET is premature given this new information. I will return to the game and finish it after Thanksgiving.

I'd really like to help.

Well, it turns out that I won't even be able to win Wizard Wars, let alone finish my comprehensive walkthrough--not unless someone reads this and comes through with the game manual. It turns out the game features an evil bit of copy protection by which the manual provides the "ingredients" you need to create the spells you need to solve the quests.

It's too bad, because I was developing a real fondness for it. Wizard Wars is the oddest little game. It's clearly intended for novices, or children, but it has a certain frivolous charm, and it's been an interesting counterpoint to Skyrim.

The first section is like a cross between a "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" book and a game of "Concentration." Amidst the 30 territories in the first dimension are a number of quests to solve using items that you find in other areas, so ultimately you end up visiting most of the territories in a precise order that you have to work out through trial and error. There's no real danger, because you can visit a territory multiple times, but figuring it out and taking notes is simplistically fun. It would prepare young CRPG players for more complicated games later on--at least, it would have in this era. Nowadays, games take all your notes for you and make your maps for you and have big arrows indicating where you're supposed to go next.

Unfortunately, it was in the first dimension that I started noticing that a lot of the encounters required spells I didn't have. I thought maybe I'd find them somewhere--I did get one spell called "Psychic Energy" as a quest reward--but after exhaustively visiting each of the territories multiple times, I'm forced to conclude that I'm supposed to create them.

The "Create Spell" screen brings up all of the different objects that you've found and asks you to combine the right ones. The manual apparently lists which items you need for which spells. I started to try them randomly, but there are something like 30 items in the game, and I don't know if the spells occur in combinations of 2, 3, 4, or more. I haven't had to calculate binomial coefficients in a long time (remember "n choose k"?), but if I did the math right, there are, out of 30 objects:

  • 435 possible combinations of 2
  • 4,060 possible combinations of 3
  • 27,405 possible combinations of 4
  • 142,506 possible combinations of 5

Now assuming there are no spells that require six objects, that's still 174,406 things to try. This still sounds like something I might have done when I was a kid; at an average of one attempt per 3 seconds, I could do it while watching all 7 seasons of The Dukes of Hazzard--60 times. But I don't think you'd all have the patience for it.

Somehow, these objects combine to create spells.

I was getting pretty far with "Lightning Bolt" and frankly beginning to question whether I needed any of the spells or objects that these quests would give me, but progress to the third dimension requires defeating a chimera guarding a unicorn in the first dimension, and neither of my existing offense spells will even touch him. Clearly, there's some trinket or spell I need from one of these unsolved quests.

I miss every time.

I did progress some distance through the second dimension, which turned out to be a 15 x 15 maze. Unlike similar 15 x 15 dungeons in, say, The Bard's Tale or Pool of Radiance, it was an actual maze, with essentially one path from beginning to end, and no special encounters anywhere else.

The game helps you out by giving you your starting position, and then updating it after you finish every combat:

There are several named monsters in the maze, and the end of it brings you face-to-face with a wizard named Kalzir, who starts the combat by summoning a random monster. When you defeat the monster, he casts a "light shield" spell that defeats your attacks for a few rounds. He's a tough customer, and I died twice before I finally was able to return and defeat him. You can't save in the maze, but you can return to the main screen by "fleeing" combat with any enemy.

After defeating him, I was rewarded with a trip to the second level of the maze, which promised more of the same. But the foes were so much harder, I realized I needed to bring a lot more loot from the first world. It was a bit of a shock, actually: the combats in the first dimension and the first level of the maze had been fairly easy, even lacking all of my available spells.

Anyway, even if I defeat the second level (I'm not sure how many levels there are), it's clear I won't be able to progress without the puzzle-solving spells that the game requires. It's pretty clear that there's nothing online. I've Googled "Wizard Wars" with "Create Spell" and gotten nothing, and I've tried Googling the specific object names and similarly returned nothing. The only way I'm missing anything is if there's a PDF manual somewhere that hasn't been OCR'd. Couldn't find a legitimate copy on eBay or Amazon. If anyone else has any suggestions, please let me know.

The GIMLET on this game (which I'll update if I do get a manual and can finish it) looks a bit horrible. The game world is thoroughly outlined in the descriptions of the territories, which sound evocative but don't allow you to do much interaction with them (3). Character development is very light, with boosts to the four attributes through combat and encounters, but you don't even get to name your character (2). There are NPCs of a sort, but you have no interaction with them except to agree to help them or not. There are some roving NPCs like dwarves which provide various clues (3). Encounters with enemies offer no role-playing except to decide to "reason" with non-evil monsters, and combat consists of blandly casting your chosen spell over and over until one of you dies, although there might have been some tactical aspects involved in choosing the right spell that I didn't get to experience (3).

The equipment part isn't bad: in addition to spell-creation items, you find a variety of potions, gems, staffs, and other "usable" objects that each serve to make you more or less effective. You have to figure out the uses through trial-and-error or through hints obtained from NPCs (4), but there is no economy (0). Not all of the little quests seemed to be necessary, so I have to conclude that the game has side-quests in addition to the main quest. These were very simplistic, with no role-playing options, but still satisfying, in a very basic way, to check off (3).

The graphics are actually reasonably good (although they take a turn for the worse in the maze), but the sound is virtually non-existent. While the keyboard controls are okay, transitioning between screens takes to long, even with the processor cranked (2). Overall gameplay is methodical, mostly linear, non-replayable, and easy--but at least reasonably fast-paced. I'm pretty sure that if I had the manual and hadn't been trying to write a walkthrough at the same time, I could have won it in 6-8 hours (unless the third dimension ends up being really huge). Still, I can't give it much more than a 2 here despite, as I said before, a certain unreasonable fondness for it.

That gives us a final score of 24, lower than all but a few games, most of which I didn't finish. I would have finished this one. Maybe I felt I needed an easy win before another Wizardry title.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skyrim: Mid-Game Review

Because I can't take images from my television, I've stolen these screenshots from The Unofficial Elder Scrolls pages. If they ask me to remove them I will, but I hope my theft is mitigated by my earnest plea that everyone visit TESP because they've done an awesome job cataloging every game, including some I never knew about.

When you're a CRPG addict, most games help you temper that addiction by having a certain limit to their duration. I could love Pool of Radiance, and want to play it from sunrise to sundown, but if I did the game would be over in about two days, and I could go back to doing other things. The Elder Scrolls games, on the other hand, go on forever. They're like single-player MMORPGs. I could see marriages ending and players losing their jobs because of Skyrim.

I'm reaching that point that I've noticed before in Morrowind and Oblivion where the game starts to exhaust me. They all have a way of dragging me in with their non-linearity, immersion, compelling plots, and constant character progression. But, ultimately, I tend to burn myself out on them. I've won both Morrowind and Oblivion, but I've started about 6 times as many games as I've won. I've only finished the Morrowind expansion packs once, and I've never finished the two major Oblivion expansions, as much as I liked the game.

All of this sounds negative, but I still maintain that Skyrim is a great game. Maybe not the best I've ever played, but certainly one of the most addictive. Today, as I was playing, I made a quick list of the things I like and don't like about the game:

Good Things in Skyrim
1. The world is dynamic and chaotic. More than any other game series I've played, The Elder Scrolls represents something of a simulation rather than a tightly-scripted game. The creators established the rules of the engine, seeded the world with objects and characters, and sat back to watch them interact. Thus, every player encounters situations that no other player does. For instance, while traversing the countryside, I came upon a dragon, who immediately engaged me in combat. I fought him for a while, but my hit points dipped dangerously low, so I decided to duck into a nearby house and see if I could recharge. As soon as I got through the front door, the owner--some mage--took exception and started throwing ice shards at me. I ran back outside, pursued by the mage, and ran headlong into the side of the dragon. The mage and dragon apparently decided that I was the least of the threats and started attacking each other. I watched from a distance, cast "heal" until my hit points were restored, and watched as the mage got stomped to death. I then finished off the dragon, whose hit points had been satisfyingly reduced, with a poison-soaked arrow.

It works against you too, unfortunately. I had just left a pleasant farmstead, having promised to deliver a letter from the owner to his son in another town. I suddenly got a message that I had "failed" in the quest. Returning to the farm, I found the owner and his wife dead in their field with a sabre-toothed tiger standing over them.

How many other games allow this kind of randomness in gameplay? NetHack comes to mind, but that's about it.

2. There is a satisfyingly complicated political situation that gives lots of opportunities for role-playing. None of the factions come across as "good" or "evil." You might want to support the empire, but why do they allow bands of Thalmer to roam the kingdom persecuting Talos worshippers? You decide that the Forsworn are barbarian throwbacks, but then hear about all the atrocities the local Nords have been committing on them. Thus, you can pick a side and be lawful neutral, you can adopt a chaotic stance and refuse to pick sides, or you can craftily use the situation to your financial advantage.

3. You have to read to really get a handle on what's happening. Characters tell you about the Stormcloaks, the Thalmer, the Forsworn, and other factions, but you only really understand them if you take time to read the associated books. Like many Elder Scrolls players, I usually start the game determined to read every book--a resolve that collapses the first time I encounter a substantial bookshelf. But I make sure to at least skim everything and make sure I'm not missing some key element of politics or intrigue.

My wife: "You just spent two hours reading books in a game?"

4. Combat is realistic and brutal. I'm not saying it's like real melee combat; otherwise, we'd spend most of the game crying. But it's about as real as you can get and still have fun. Swords connect in sprays of blood. If you get too close to enemies, you end up hammering at them with your pommel instead of swinging. Shields can bash as well as defend. Two-handed weapons do more damage but are much harder to wield and aim, as you would expect.

5. I never get sick of fighting dragons. Some seem to have fixed posts, but others roam randomly, much like the Oblivion gates in the previous game.. Realistically, they sometimes ignore you and go flying off as you stand beneath them howling in frustration.

6. When I first read about smithing, I thought it sounded stupid. And now I'm addicted. The game offers a set of complicated, interrelated processes by which you can tan leather, smelt ore, improve weapons and armor, and create weapons and armor from scratch. Part of why I like it is related to the economy (below); it's very satisfying to turn two pieces of ore and an amethyst worth 40 gold pieces into a silver ring worth 200. There are also very tangible benefits to improving weapons and armor.

7. As far as I can tell, they finally got the economy right. I blogged about game economies early in my career, and it remains a major category in my GIMLET. In Morrowind and Oblivion (as well as countless non-Elder Scrolls games), I find it too easy to get rich too quickly. Skyrim offers so many ways to spend money that 20-30 hours into the game, I'm basically dead broke. (Although I did buy a house in Whiterun.)

8. The alchemy system is cool, but it doesn't break the game. I've liked mixing potions in all the Elder Scrolls games, but Skyrim is the first one to get the balance right. You can't do it anywhere: you have to find an alchemist's lab. The potions aren't quite as strong as the ones in previous games, reagents aren't quite as plentiful, and you don't level up quite as fast. This means that you rarely have a stock of 100 healing potions waiting to bail you out of any battle. I also like that you have to "catch" some of your reagents, like butterflies, fireflies, and fish.

"And now you're spending a half hour making potions? What kind of game is this?"

9. The monsters are monstrous. I've mentioned dragons, but there are also giants, sabre-toothed tigers, giant spiders, mammoths, bears, and trolls that are suitably intimidating in their size and prowess. I've played plenty of CRPGs in which I buffed myself before dangerous combats; I don't think I've ever played one in which a foe actually made me turn around and run. My character is level 23, and these creatures still crush me--crush me to goo.

Skyrim's giant spiders are suitably giant and terrifying.

10. If you commit murder, you can avoid a bounty by killing all the witnesses. You might wonder who would do this, but if you're roleplaying an imperial loyalist or a Stormcloak separatist, you have plenty of opportunities to ambush and slay roving bands of guardsmen or rebels on the road, which would otherwise count as assault and murder.

11. Although they're nowhere near the level of the Interplay/Bioware titles, NPCs are a lot more interesting than in previous Elder Scrolls games. You have some real dialogue options, not just "topics," with them, and they have very realistic conversations with each other as you walk by--not just a bunch of nonsense about seeing mudcrabs the other day.

12. The world is full of animals, including snowshoe hares, elk, moose, foxes, chickens, cows, fish, dogs, and bats. (Though, strangely, no cats that I've seen.) None of them are threatening, although you can kill them for food. I find that they give the world a lot of ambiance. I've also heard you can create chaos by casting "frenzy" on them in the middle of town, but I haven't tried it yet.

Jury's Still Out

1. Occasionally, as you strike the final blow, the game cuts to a brief killing animation, showing you slashing the enemy's throat, or driving your sword through his chest or something. It happens about 1 out of every 10 kills, which is enough to still be fun and not routine. However, my character is often teetering on the edge of death himself by the end of combat, and it's easy, when the game suddenly takes control, to assume for a second that I've been killed. My wife keeps hearing me yell, "OH GODDAMN--oh, wait. Cool."

YouTube user SlickyDave has made a compilation of these animations.

2. You find a lot of food in the game, and if you have a mind you can find a cookpot and whip up stews, roasts, and apple pie. Cooked meals grant more hit points than their raw materials, but it still seems silly.

3. I realize the lockpicking system is much more realistic in this game, but I don't like it.

4. In Oblivion, you could set one active quest at a time and you'd see a marker pointing your way to it. In Skyrim, you can set any quest as "active," and you see multiple markers. It's not that I don't like the ability to have multiple active quests, but I think quest markers are lame. What's the fun of sneaking into a house to search for some juicy bit of evidence if there's a big arrow pointing you to its exact location? I turn them off and set a custom marker when I want to go to a specific place.

5. The game world is huge, but it's dominated by mountains, which you can't easily scale. Going from one town to another often takes a long time as you try to find passes and climbable slopes. I realize it's more realistic this way, but I still find it annoying.

6. I still haven't quite reconciled myself to the loss of attributes, particularly speed.

Could Do Without Them

1. Almost every dungeon wears out its welcome before I've finished. I find them way too big. I don't mind tough combats, but don't make me wander through two hours' of corridors to find an amulet.

2. The speed and pathfinding of followers in Morrowind was atrocious. You'd get a quest to lead some Argonian to Ebonheart, and it would take hours of slowly--oh, so slowly--walking there, all the while protecting him from Nix hounds, which he was likely to charge, unarmored, with a dagger. Oblivion greatly improved upon followers, making it so that you literally couldn't lose them; if you got ahead of them, they'd appear by your side when you entered a new location. One of them, the infamous Adoring Fan, not even death would shake. Skyrim has reverted to Morrowind's level of pathfinding. While it's nice to be able to swap inventories with a follower, it doesn't do me any good if I have to carefully lead him around every rock and bush. And just like Morrowind and Oblivion, followers have a way of lunging in front of your sword thrusts.

3. In Oblivion, you could hotkey various items and quickly switch among them in combat. In Skyrim, this has been replaced with a "favorites" menu that, while functional, breaks the immersion a bit.

4. Skyrim makes a distinction between alchemical "ingredients" and food, the latter of which can't be used in potions but can be eaten for minor gains in hit points (between 1-5, usually). If you have a lot of food, you can stop in the middle of combat to wolf it down and heal. I'm not sure what's more absurd: the idea that my stomach could hold 26 heads of cabbage, or that an enemy would stop and wait for me to finish gorging myself on them.

5. While I appreciate the dialogue in the game, the voice acting isn't very good and, like Oblivion, depends on too many of the same voices. Claudia Christian, who played Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, seems to have voiced all the females in the game. It's nice that they got celebrity voice talent, but if you're going to rely on one actress for so many voices, it ought to be someone capable of sounding like different characters.

20-30 hours into the game, and I've barely done anything on the main quest. I've yet to visit the capital, Solitude, nor to find the Imperial Legion, the Blades, the mage's college, the bard's college, or the Thieves' Guild. Haven't encountered a Daedra yet, but I know they're out there. I know there's vampirism and lycanthropy, but they remain in my future. This is a huge game.

I apologize for those of you who think I should stick to my chronology and only look at historical games, but I promise I won't play new releases that often. I may give you one more posting--perhaps with a GIMLET--once I've won, but until then, let's finish up Wizard Wars and get on to Wizardry. I was just about to note the coincidence in names, and then I realized it's because I was playing in alphabetical order. Duh.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wizard Wars: Walking Through

The game is easy enough that the death screen is rare.

As a long time connoisseur of CRPG walkthroughs (see my September 2010 posting), I've always been interested in creating one. (Before I started this blog, I used to use them liberally during gameplay, and I still like to read them after I've finished.) But every time I thought to create one for a game I particularly liked, I would find out that someone like Andrew Schultz had already beaten me to it. Now, at last, I've reached a game--Wizard Wars--that has nothing online. No walkthroughs, no let's plays, not even a significant user review. The best we have is an old 1989 article from QuestBusters that Xyzzy Magic linked me to. And while it seems to have a lot of spoilers (I stopped reading), it's still not a proper walkthrough.

So I fired up Notepad and began my text file as I played Wizard Wars. Here's what I've discovered: writing a walkthrough is hard, even for an absurdly simple game like this.

A good walkthrough is exhaustive, which means that I have to do everything there is to do in the game. I've got to visit each of the 30 territories in the first dimension multiple times, making sure I don't miss anything. (It's hard, but not impossible, to miss something when your only options are "Search for Item" and "Search for Inhabitants.") Then I have to catalog each monster, noting both the statistics that are on the surface (hit points and armor points) as well as those on which I have to perform measures of central tendency and dispersion (average damage, average hit rate). After the monsters, I have to try to figure out what all these items do. I've got a bunch of stuff--brass cup, broken sword, platinum bracelet, rocksalt--that seems to serve no purpose. At least not yet.

My mysterious inventory.

Just when I start to feel like I'm developing a solid list of territories and encounters, something hits me: What if the game randomizes some of its encounters on every new game? Now I've got to play it at least one more time to makes sure I encounter the same things in the same places on the second go. Bloody hell.

"Chet," I can hear you all sighing. "Why are you wasting time on this game? Wizardry V is next, and we know you're sneaking off to spend time with Skyrim." And you would be correct. But Wizard Wars is too easy to give up on. When I say "too easy," I mean first that the encounters (at least so far) have been very one-sided, with my wizard blasting his way through every sort of foe, but I also mean that it's too easy in terms of knowing precisely what to do next. Twenty feet to the left of where I'm typing this is a nice long couch upon which currently rests a dormant Xbox controller that, if I press the power button, will launch Skyrim. Yet if I were to abandon Wizard Wars for Skyrim, I'd have to bring up my enormous quest list and figure out which of 49 active quests to embark on next. In modern CRPGs, you're almost paralyzed with indecision. Thus, there's something refreshingly rote about Wizard Wars, at least in the first dimension. You visit each territory one-by-one, search for...you know what? This is easier as a flow chart.

Click to expand.

This isn't to say there were no special encounters in the first dimension. I found a few, but they took multiple visits and only revealed themselves after defeating several random enemies, so it's going to be a long process of searching five or six times before I'm confident I picked up everything. For instance, in territory #30, Raknor, I found some cat people who needed help opening a chest:

The full encounter reads:

Aimex has been the ruler of a cat-like people who have existed since Mazeus created the dimensions. In their keeping is a large iron-bound chest containing a sacred book. In this book lies all the knowledge of this race and its entire history. Long ago, a magical enchantment was cast upon the chest's lock to safeguard the book. Since then, no one has been able to unlock the chest. Worse, no one knows what happened to the mage who enchanted the lock. There is only one way in which the chest may be unlocked and that is with the help of Agien's Magical Lockpick. Aimex says that in return for opening the chest, he will give you an item that has been in his possession for quite some time.

At the time, I didn't have such a lockpick, but I later discovered it while searching for items on another map:

When I took it back to the cat people, they were suitably grateful and gave me a scroll with the "Fear" spell--the second spell I've obtained. (There's an option to "create spells" on the main screen, but I haven't been able to figure out how to get it to work.)

Some of the other territories featured encounters with unique enemies, or bits of advice from sages. Here are a few related screen shots:

Ultimately, I'm not sure what it all adds up to. The main purpose of the first dimension seems to be to develop your character sufficiently so he can survive the second dimension. When Temeres hit 200 wisdom points (he starts with 100), the game gave the second dimension to me as an option. It turns out to be wholly unlike the first, featuring a 3-D maze full of random encounters.

Unless they've done something extraordinarily creative here, I can't imagine an old mapping pro like me having a lot of trouble here.

Unless Wizard Wars offers anything groundbreaking between now and its end, I won't waste your time with more drivel on this game; I'll just give you the "won!" posting at the end. In the meantime, I might take one more diversion into Skyrim since several of my readers said they wouldn't mind another take on it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Game 66: Wizard Wars (1988)

It's important not to mix up Wizard Wars, a 1988 game from Paragon, with Wizard Warz, that horrible 1987 quasi-RPG that I played in January. It's also important not to confuse it with the browser-based Wizard Wars (2002). As far as I can tell, the Wizard Wars we're dealing with here has virtually no love online: no walkthroughs, no MobyGames reviews, no fan sites--and, unfortunately, no manual. So, if I can figure things out, my blog can be the authoritative online presence for Wizard Wars.

The game was produced by the same company that made the completely bizarre Alien Fires: 2199 A.D. (1987), which I played just over a year ago, only to scram as soon as my six-hour minimum was up. They later went on to make MegaTraveller, so not all of their games were doomed to obscurity.

As I said, I can't find a manual for Wizard Wars, so I don't know whether the opening sections are representative of the entire game, or if a more interesting world opens up later. It's rather hard to believe that a commercial publisher released a putative CRPG with such limited gameplay as I've been experiencing.

First off, there's no character creation. You play as Temeres the Wizard, on a quest to defeat the evil wizard Aldorin and do something regarding a white unicorn and a black unicorn. You begin with 100 points each of wisdom, health, and "s.c.e.," which I'm guessing is "spell casting energy" or something. Its maximum goes up as I defeat enemies but depletes as I cast spells in combat.

The limited character screen.
It appears that the realm of Wizard Wars consists of three "dimensions," only one of which is explorable at the outset. Each dimension consists of a number of geographic "territories" (the first has 30). You tell the game which territory you want to visit, and it gives you a bit of a description of what you might expect to find there.

Deciding where to take my next trip.

URBANIA: The ruins of a once-proud ancient civilization dominate Urbania, located in the center of the first dimension. The crumbling remnants of a once-sprawling ancient metropolis litter the Urbanian landscape. A tribe of nomadic elves inhabit the ruins. Impervious to magic, the elves can be extremely loyal allies or deadly enemies, so be wise in your dealing with them.

Sounds good so far, and I rather expected that upon arriving in a place like Urbania, the game would open up and I could explore it. Alas, this is not the case. Upon arrival in each territory, you have five options: Search for an item (which always takes you to a cave), search for inhabitants (which always takes you to a castle), use an item, return an item, and return to the map. It appears that both searches occasionally produce random results.

Sometimes I will find nothing; other times I will find treasure or inhabitants, even when revisiting the same territory. Treasures have included potions (the only other way to heal is a slow one hit point per combat round) and a gemstone that absorbs damage.

At last, the sidewalks of my kingdom will be safe to traverse in winter.

When you encounter another creature, you sometimes have the option to "reason" with it, which hasn't worked for me yet...

...but presumably leads to dialogue in some encounters. Otherwise, you attack. The attack screen offers the options to flee, cast a spell, use an item, or drink a potion.

Temeres starts off with no items or potions, and only one spell--lightning bolt--so options at the outset are fairly limited. The process of attacking and watching the enemy attack (there's no animation, just screen messages) is slow and boring. So far, the combat hasn't been very difficult; sometimes the enemies just stop attacking. This is going to be a short posting, so to compensate, here are a whole slew of enemies attacking me and missing:

As you can see, the graphics aren't awful, although the game does use the same monster graphics for multiple monsters.

The vivid descriptions of each territory prior to the visit are intriguing, which makes it all the more disappointing when you arrive and find the same two screens, with no encounters that have anything to do with the story. And there aren't many CRPGs that don't allow you to move. I can think of a couple others--Beyond Zork, Braminar--but both of those were fundamentally text games with CRPG elements.

There's not much else to tell about it. My plan is to work methodically through the territories, searching for items and inhabitants, until I win the game, reach my six hours, or encounter something more interesting. If anyone has any insight into this game--like why it was made--I'd love to hear it. I don't expect any particular appreciation or anything, but I could be playing Skyrim instead of this.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wasteland: Final Rating

Failing to escape the base in an hour still ends the game on a satisfactory note.

A lot of people seemed upset that I didn't enter Project Darwin and encounter Finster, so I took my winning party there to see if he'd still be around, and he was. First, I had to leave Darwin Village through a special avenue that just looked like a normal way out of town before:

I had read minimal spoilers--just enough to note the base's existence--so I found it a legitimate challenge. First, I encountered Finster, a cyborg, who fell quite quickly to my energy weapons.

Then, I took his head and attached it to some android body, and one of my characters--Stetson--was pulled into his mind like in Inception or something. There were numeric puzzles, which I love, although I only got the first two. See if you can get these:

  • 2, 4, 8, 16, ___
  • 4, 2, 8, 4, 32, 16,___
  • 4, 6, 8, 12, ___

The answers to the first two are 32 (it keeps doubling) and 512 (it alternates between half the previous number and a product of the previous two numbers), which I got. The last, I guessed 16 and was told no, it was 20. If it had gone 5, 6, 8, 12, I would have guessed 20, but I don't see the sequence in this one.

I had to face a creature called a "night terror" that had thousands and thousands of hit points. It barely did a lick of damage to me, but it took me about 200 rounds to kill. At the end, I got 64,000 experience points, so I guess I shouldn't complain.

This was followed by a bunch of puzzles that involved the use of particular skills and attributes. I confess I cheated at this point; it would have taken me a long time otherwise: many of the skill and attribute uses seemed nonsensical, and I just wanted to get it done. At the end, I killed Finster a final time and got a security pass that was probably what I needed to avoid RPG-ing all those gates. Finster had one last rant and then died.

The puzzles in the dungeon were interesting--some of the first truly challenging puzzles in CRPGs--but it didn't add a lot more to the game's lore.

Let's move on to the rating.

I've been doing this for almost two years, but I don't think people really understand the nature and purpose of my rating system, which I dubbed the GIMLET. The purpose of the scoring system is not to rank how good a CRPG was for its time, nor to assess it's value in the history of CRPGs. It is, rather, to assess how enjoyable it is to play the game today. The "historical value" stuff is hard to quantify, so I don't even try. I do my best to cover it in the text. But the score is supposed to allow you to rank games against each other regardless of the era. If I give Pool of Radiance a score of 65 and Fable II a score of 55, it means I think you will honestly enjoy Pool of Radiance more, even though it's more than 20 years older. I'm sick of people complaining that my scores don't take into account "how important the game was in the history of CRPGs." That's not the purpose of the score. Got it?

On the historical relevance, there is no question that Wasteland is a landmark. Matt Barton notes:

Wasteland remains remains the favorite CRPG of many gamers who played it back in the late 1980s, and for good reason--it's a captivating and highly innovative game that deserves its place beside The Bard's Tale. It's a testament to the game's enduring legacy that the best-selling Fallout, released in 1997, is in many ways little more than a graphical revamp of the older engine.

No argument. It is the first game that I have played since starting this blog that I felt was truly "replayable," in that different party a skill choices would result in a fundamentally different game. (Demon's Winter is perhaps the closest I've felt before this.) I don't want to replay it immediately, but I certainly wouldn't mind revisiting it at some point in the future. This is game that, I'm sure, improves with second playings, when confusion over basic gameplay elements has been conquered and you can just focus on the story and tactics. It had the first inclusion of skills that advance through usage, the first true splitting of party members so they could act independently, and the first romance (such as it was).

My first major problem with the game was that I feel stories set in the real world ought to be somewhat realistic. It was Aristotle, writing about dramatic structures, who said that "probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities." There are a lot of interpretations of this quote, but I basically interpret it to mean that if you establish at the outset that your novel, film, game, or whatever takes place in a fanciful world in which different laws apply, but remain internally consistent within that world, then you have a better story that if you relate an entirely improbable series of events in a real or familiar world.

Hence, we give a pass to Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Morrowind because, even though their worlds are impossible, they establish the ground rules at the outset and remain faithful to them (generally). On the other hand, I simply didn't find Inception remotely plausible (as good as it was) because the implications of technology that allows you to enter someone else's dream would have so many reverberations that it would fundamentally change the nature of human society. If Inception had been about psychics, on the other hand, it would have been probably impossible but not improbably possible. I probably would have enjoyed it more.

Wasteland establishes at the outset that it's set in a post-Cold War, post-apocalyptic United States. As much as I'm turned off by the overall scenario, I can accept that as probable. What I have trouble accepting is the subsequent revelations of undead, artificial intelligence, cloning, energy weapons, cures for diseases that we don't have cures for now, mind linking, and entire cities built in the aftermath by starving, scavenging hordes. Entire scenarios, like the Temple of Blood, were just goofy.

I'm not saying it was a game-killer, though. I would have liked a grittier, more honest setting, but I mostly got past it and enjoyed the game.

1. Game World. The game establishes itself in the real world, following a nuclear holocaust, and slowly reveals the back story that constitutes a threat against the current inhabitants of the American southwest. Post-apocalyptic fiction was fairly common at the time, and the game seems to borrow liberally from The Terminator and similar films and books, so I can't quite call it "original," although the specific factions (the Rangers, the Temple of Blood, the Guardians) are somewhat original. Although the main quest isn't clear at the outset, it's not supposed to be, and I admit enjoying the slow revelation of the game's mysteries (even though I didn't really like the revelations). My biggest complaint in this area is the lack of change in the game world. It's not as bad as, say, Might & Magic, where you encounter the same people and quests every time the map resets. But neither is it as good as Pool of Radiance, where the game world fundamentally shifts as you solve quests. For instance, Finster made no acknowledgement that I had destroyed Cochise, and Faran Brygon never wanted to see me again after I finished his mission to find Max. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. The game is particularly strong here. I mentioned the skill system repeatedly in my postings, and I like it a lot. It is legitimately difficult to determine what skills to choose, but awfully fun to watch them develop through use and additional training. I never found uses for forgery, sleight of hand, confidence, bureaucracy, or several other skills, but that doesn't mean there were no uses in the game. This is also one of the games to allow you to directly use both skills and attributes to try to solve puzzles and get out of problems. This is probably the best aspect of the game. Skills are not just handy add-ons, as in Might & Magic II, but an absolutely essential part of the game. On the other hand, I don't think the character's sex or nationality ever had any affect on gameplay.

Stetson's final character sheet.

Leveling is a fairly satisfying process by which you not only increase in rank, but you can assign points directly to your attributes (including intelligence, which then gives yo more skill points). One thing I can't complain about is level caps. My highest-ranked character at the end of the game was a cadet, or Level 22 (which I guess is the first officer rank; below that are sergeant argent and master sergeant). But the game has up to 183 ranks, progressing through a series of somewhat silly-sounding positions that exist in no military: fireteam colonel (81-84), lance commander (93-96), technical general (125-128), imperial scarscalp (139), 1st class Fargo (150), photon stud (161), and, at last, supreme jerk (183). The idea of someone grinding this long is simply staggering, although I suppose you could get pretty high in a normal game if you just played one character. Finally, the ability to clone characters was an interesting (if nonsensical) touch. Score: 7.

3. NPC Interaction. The game has several types of NPCs, and most of them are somewhat interesting. There are those you can talk to in free text, much like Ultima IV, those that give you special encounters in the form of paragraphs, and those that will join your party. I always appreciate free-text chats, but someone please tell me where I was supposed to find out that CHAT was the keyword that prompts so much dialogue! It's not in the manual, as far as I can tell.

This would have been helpful.

NPCs that join you behave much as in The Bard's Tale or even Pool of Radiance: they'll fight for you but won't allow you to direct their specific actions. As far as I could tell, their presence in your party had no bearing on your quests; for instance, Ace asks you to go to Vegas with him to investigate the robot attacks, but having him in your party accomplishes nothing special once you get to Vegas.

I do have to give the game a bonus point for the first NPC sex. We're not yet in the era of truly memorable NPCs, but it's not far away. Score: 5.

4. Encounters and Foes. For foes, there wasn't a lot that excited me. Enemies come in several classes--animal, human, robotic--but within each class, they didn't really distinguish themselves from each other. Harder enemies were harder because they did more damage, but none of them really had special attacks that caused me to adjust my tactics, and even by the end of the game, I couldn't tell you the difference between a steel reaver and a silver strangler, or between a gunman or a desert dweller. I was surprised to find there were hundreds of different foes; I would have guessed less than 30. The one saving grace about enemies is that they respawn and give you plenty of opportunities for grinding.

Encounters are another matter. There are several scripted encounters with bosses in which you have to use various skills and wits to survive (or at least come out on top): deciding whether to kill Ugly John (and risk the booby-trapped Mayor Pedros's wife) or let him go; flirting with the barmaid; choosing between Faran Brygo or Fat Freddie; dealing with the priestess in the Temple of the Mushroom Cloud; deciding whether to kill the brats that mock you in Highpool. There were several ways to role-play these scenarios, and none of your choices seem to hamstring you for the rest of the game. Score: 5.

Incidentally, killing the youths turns Highpool into a ghost town.

5. Magic and Combat. As I covered a couple of days ago, I just didn't like it. It was boring, repetitive, mostly too easy, and not very tactical. I didn't like it in The Bard's Tale II-III, either, of which this was largely a copy. Score: 3.

6. Equipment. I have to give it props for this. There were a huge variety of items to find, test, and carry, including weapons of various types, armor, radiation suits, gas masks (which I never used), canteens, ropes, fruit, machine parts, shovels, keys and passes, and other quest items. It was so difficult to tell what would be useful (I carried a clay pot to the end of the game and never found a use for it) that I had to carry a bunch of stuff around, or at least be prepared to re-buy it from a shop. A lot of the items served as alternate puzzle solutions; you can get through a door by forcing it with strength, picking it with the picklock sill, blowing it up with TNT, or smashing it with a sledgehammer. Some of them are in fixed locations but a lot seemed random. I wouldn't have minded some more armor choices, but it seemed like every area gave me some improvement to a character's offense or defense, which I like. Score: 5.

7. Economy. The dollar-based economy, aside from being a bit unrealistic, never really did much for me. You start off with only a little cash, but you accumulate it fairly quickly. There was one brief period of the game where I worried I would run out, but only because I was using a shop as storage and buying back items for twice the selling price. I ended the game with almost $70,000, which is a sign of a poor economy; on the other hand, I was a bit too conservative with my ammo and demolitions, and I probably could have stood to spend more on rockets. Score: 4.

8. Quests. There is a fairly good main quest with a reasonably satisfying ending. Technically, there are two possibilities to the ending--your party lives or dies--but no real "role-playing" choices that go into it, and you can't decide to join Finster's faction. This is one of the few games of the era to feature side-quests; you don't have to do any of the stuff in Highpool or the Agricultural Station, for instance, and one of the things I love about the game is that you don't have to help anyone--you could just march through every area, guns blazing, killing everyone, taking quest items off their corpses. (This isn't universally true, but generally so.) These side quests offer role-playing opportunities that few games in the era do: witness how I destroyed Savage Village instead of bargaining with its leader. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I thought the graphics were good enough. Ultima V was better on the iconographic display, but the monster portraits and end-game cut scenes were good here. Sound effects were very limited and not very good, as is par for the course in the era. I honestly can't think of a game with good sound effects yet except Dungeon Master. I thought the controls were intuitive enough. One element I neglected to cover during my gameplay was the ability to create macros. When I realized the battle with the Night Terror was going to take a while, for instance, I recorded a macro in which my lead character simply (a)ttacked with his proton axe and then said (y)es when the game asked if I wanted to execute that command. I did this about 10 times in a row, assigned the macro to F2, and just blogged while the battle was happening. You can assign similar macros to waiting between combats or trying to use skills multiple times. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. The game world is fairly small, with a limited number of places to explore, but it's mostly non-linear. If you go out of a specific order, you have to backtrack a bit, but this isn't too annoying, and if I played it again, I might hustle to Las Vegas sooner and rack up my skills and experience against the robots. As I said above, I think it's a very replayable game. I'd like to try it with a single character, or with different skill combinations. It also doesn't wear out its welcome. I know it seems like I was playing it forever, but I had a month-long break in which I didn't play anything at all. Overall, I found it to be fairly fast-paced. One walkthrough I consulted after winning suggests that, if you really know the game, you could win it in less than an hour. That might be worth trying.

The game's use of puzzles is worth discussing in this section, because it was really the best part of the game. There were number puzzles, word puzzles (UQTU), skill puzzles, inventory puzzles, riddles, and passcodes and clues to find. The journal was a nice touch, too, fleshing out the game world and giving hints about the main quest.

Finally, the game allows you to split up your party in ways not available even in modern games. As far as I can tell, you can create as many groups as you have full party members (not NPCs), and those groups can go anywhere. You could have one character exploring each of the major cities simultaneously. This is something I mentioned in my "wish list" posting and didn't imagine was available in 1988.

Aside from the limited size of the world, I only dock points for one thing: I thought it was too easy. I only suffered full-party deaths a couple of times, when I deliberately wandered into areas well outside my level. I only suffered one character death, too, and that was very early on when I didn't know what I was doing. Score: 7.

This gives us a final score of 53. It ties with Ultima IV, Starflight, and Omega for my fifth-highest rated game so far. But I maintain that the two Might & Magics, Ultima V, and Pool of Radiance are better games. You can find pitchforks and torches at your local Home Depot.

Before we go, I want to talk briefly about the adventurer's journal, because it's a lot of fun. Much like Pool of Radiance, it has a bunch of fake entries to lead you astray if you read the journal when you're not told to--in fact, the very first entry is:

You creep up to the window and, in the soft, muted lights, you see a tall woman with long, blond hair. She sits before a mirror and brushes her hair, then stands and walks over to the sunken tub off to her left. She kneels and her blue, silken robe drops to the floor. She turns the water on and steam slowly fills the air. You watch in fascination as she reaches down into the tub, whirls, and points an Uzi in your direction. "Stop reading paragraphs you're not supposed to read, creeps." She sighs deeply. "Next time I'm going to demand they put me in a Bard's Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous."

There are also a lot of fake paragraphs that give you phony passwords to real locations. But the best part of the fake entries is that there's a whole series suggesting that the main quest of the game involves an alien invasion. The fake entry for the encounter with Finster reads:

The Director, a slender, handsome man, stands as you enter the room. "Rangers, thank the heavens." He follows your gaze as you stare out the window behind his desk and study the alien landscape below. The Director smiles. "As you can see, that lurid, red landscape is the closest approximation we have to the surface of Mars. We have Martian raiders coming to our world here and stealing animals and slaves. We hope, by breeding hunter-killer animals we can take the Martian starships and mount a counter offensive against the extra-terrestrial raiders." He nods. "Will you Rangers join our effort?"

Altogether, there are , I think, more fake entries than real ones, including about 34 fake entries from the "alien" storyline. The creators really put a lot of effort into this.

I understand there was a sort-of sequel to Wasteland in 1990: Fountain of Dreams. It's on my list, as is another 1990 game called Escape from Hell that uses the Wasteland engine. But of course the most famous sequel is the game's spiritual descendants, the Fallout series, none of which I have ever played except one attempt to play the first game before I found it too buggy. I look forward to giving it another try, but I hope it does away with the sentient robots.

On to Wizard Wars!

Shantih shantih shantih