Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reboot: Star Command

A new crew is assigned, a new ship christened.

Reading over my postings on Star Command from last July, I really have no idea why I abandoned it. I seemed to be having a lot of fun. I have an active saved game and a perfectly healthy party, and I was tempted to pick up where I left off, but I decided it would be easier to re-learn the interface by starting over. However, I'm going to skip quickly past the things I already covered, so I encourage you to review my first posting and second posting on the game to catch yourselves up.

At first glance, Star Command seems a little like Sentinel Worlds but with worse graphics. Like the game I just finished, it takes place in a region of space far from Earth with three major ports. These ports form "The Triangle," in which humanity is mostly safe, albeit assailed from all sides by pirates, hostile insect aliens, and robots. You play a crew of 8 members of Star Command, and the game begins as you role a series of statistics--strength, speed, accuracy, courage, willpower, esper (psychic ability), and intelligence--and assign your crewmembers to one of three classes: pilot, soldier, and marine. You then take them through eight years of basic training in which they can improve in certain skills (hand weapons,  light weapons, heavy weapons, combat medicine, explosives, astro-gunnery, and so forth) and sometimes in rank. Every once in a while, during basic training, you fail your courses and waste that round.


The crew has around $95,000 upon graduating, which I used to buy my first ship--a hornet-class ship that I christened the ISS Corsair

There is no mosquito-class vessel.

After I loaded up on some arms for both my ship and crew, a little armor, and some special equipment like medkits (I was basically guessing here), I was ready for my first missions. These were fairly simple assignments, mostly to get me used to the interface.


 The first three missions I did were to:

  • Collect a shipment of vaccine from one planet and deliver it to another planet.
  • Destroy five freighters containing "dangerous criminals."
  • Destroy a pirate ship menacing a colony of miners and pick up their ore shipment

I noticed that these missions were different than the ones I was assigned the last time I played, so apparently there is some randomness to the quests. That's pretty neat. It's not the first for a CRPG--I think that belongs to Might & Magic--but it's still quite rare for the era.

As I said, the graphics aren't the best part of this game. As you fly through space, you don't even see your ship moving--just a rectangle going from sector to sector (identified by X and Y coordinates). Each movement costs 5 units of fuel out of a maximum of 100 units, so I can't stray too far until I get a better ship.

My originating starport is in the upper left.

At each sector, you can "upscan" or "downscan." The highest "upscan" is the entire galaxy...

The galaxy is shaped like Azura's Star.

...followed by the star cluster, then the star system, then individual planets. As you can see, the galaxy is quite large, with what must be hundreds of systems to explore--more like Starflight than Sentinel Worlds. Unlike either of those games, however, you can't land on a planet in your ATV and explore it. Planetary-level actions are limited to espionage missions, scientific missions (both of which have a chance of bringing back items or life forms), and cargo pickup and delivery (which you would do in response to a specific quest). This system of being able to do a couple of things in each area reminds me unfavorably of Wizard Wars.

Sweet! Did I mine them, or were they just laying around?
 
The SSI lineage of the game shows through in its approach to ship and ground combat; both are far more tactical than Sentinel Worlds or Starflight. Both are turn-based and consist of a communications phase, a movement phase, and a combat phase. In the communications phase, you can try to be friendly, demand surrender, or impersonate a deity (or "diety," as the game has it). In my mission to destroy the five criminal ships, my demand that they surrender worked and I didn't have to fight them.

Maneuvering around the battlefield is part of the tactical challenge, as are the specific actions that you take in combat. In space combat, you have six "stations" on which gunnery can be loaded, and you can only fire from those stations that face your enemy. In the screen below, all of my stations but #1 can fire on someone. If I was rotated one more click clockwise, I think they all could fire.


In addition to simply firing, I can choose "rapid fire," which sacrifices accuracy for volume, or "aiming," which doesn't allow you to fire that round by helps ensure a hit the next one. Ground combat offers a lot more options for both terrain and actions. I haven't really had a chance to explore it yet, though, so I'll save it for a later posting. I also haven't attempted boarding enemy ships, which is theoretically possible.

Upon completion of a mission, you return to a starport and get rewarded for the mission, any good loot you found, and your regular pay (which seems to be based on rank). This early in the game, there are plenty of different types of weapons and equipment to buy, and I'm saving up for a better ship, so the economy promises to be rewarding (at least until later; we'll see).

Every completed mission also gets you a training session, where you can increase your attributes and one of your skills. This makes "leveling" fairly quick and satisfying, although I don't like that leveling is mission-based rather than experience-based.

There are a few oddities to the game:

  • The game has a copy protection feature that asks you for keywords from the manual, but they don't seem to work. I found on another site that typing "aaaa" is the solution, but it fails once every two or three times. At that point, the game simply doesn't allow you to save until you quit and reload. Since you can only save in a starport, this has already made it a bit frustrating after coming off successful simple missions; I imagine it's going to be infuriating when I've just finished a major quest.
  • As far as I can tell, there's no way to determine how damaged an enemy ship is before it suddenly shatters into pieces. This makes it difficult to determine, as your own armor gets low, whether to flee or continue combat.
  • On every expedition, when I first start visiting planets, I find stuff readily during scientific investigations. After three or four planets, I generally stop finding anything.
  • I regularly encounter civilian ships that, for no reason I can see, engage me in combat.

I think this brings me up to where I was after I finished my first two Star Command postings, so let's see what else this game has to offer.

49 comments:

  1. PetrusOctavianusMay 17, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    "humanity is mostly safe, albeit assailed from all sides"

    Including above and below? ;-)

    If you have problems with saving you may want to try the save states version of DosBox. I played the Amiga version myself last year, but regretted it, since it was rather buggy and actually looks worse than the DOS version, which I didn't think would be possible in 1988.

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    1. I didn't think a version of DOSBox existed that had save states. What version is that?

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  2. Does Dosbox have a save-state feature? It sounds like this copy-protection system isn't wholly fair, and it would prevent some hair-pulling moments for you. I don't think it would be cheating in this case.

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  3. PetrusOctavianusMay 17, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Get your save states version of DosBox here:
    http://www.emucr.com/2012/02/ykhwongs-dosbox-074-svn-build-20022012.html

    Use at your own risk, though. It messed up Might&Magic 1 for me, but it saved my sanity when playing Knights of Legend.
    The current version is newer than the one I used, though, so it should be less chance of bugs.

    I'm surprised that Canada's alpha geek hasn't heard about it.

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    1. I didn't even know about that release. A later comment probably removed the need for save states, though.

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  4. PetrusOctavianusMay 17, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    Oops, wrong adress on that last remark. :-(

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    1. Actually I don't use DOSBOX much; I enjoy the Addicts writings, but most of the games I play are new enough not to need it. I only use it with X-COM, which doesn't need save states.

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  5. Your reason for ceasing play of Star Command was stated two posts after the last Star Command post:

    "I've hit a bit of a wall with both Sentinel Worlds and Star Command. They're too similar, for one thing. It was a huge mistake ever trying to play them both at the same time, because I forget which gameplay elements belong to which game. Anyway, I made attempts to re-start both of them several times over the last two days and found myself watching re-runs of Scrubs instead. My triumphant return was ruined."

    Just in case you're still wondering why you stopped playing it. :)

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    1. Actually, make that three posts after...

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    2. Damn, you beat me too it. *Scratches out comment I was writing in notepad++*

      Yeah, I also got the feeling that you meant to come back to them after taking a fantasy break to clear your head and just never got around to it.

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    3. Well, I think I know what I mean by hitting a wall. After some easy first missions, I keep dying every time I leave starport now. But it's just a matter of learning the tactics better, and I'm surprised I didn't have more patience back then. Must have been other stuff going on.

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    4. You don't need to write comments in notepad, if you're afraid your comment is going to disappear just ctrl-a ctrl-c copy it before you post.

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    5. Not if you have a ThinkPad like I had. On that one, they had placed an Internet Back-button right beside the up arrow on the keyboard. Quite a few comments were lost, just because I felt the need to navigate and missed the right key...

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    6. I was basically done my 2nd Magic Candle post, then tried to delete one image, and Wordpress deleted all the writing I'd done.

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  6. Each planet type only offers at most 4 items for scientific discovery. Planets without life all share the same 4 items.

    On civilian ships, you can attack and board them, but get no major reward for doing so. You can demand money or fuel from them(at various levels of intensity; I always love 'impersonate deity'. They don't seem to have much memory of previous demands, but sometimes they will open fire if you get too cheeky. Sometimes a lucky civilian ship is the only way to manage to get enough fuel to get back home safe.

    In ship combat, enemies that aren't visible can't attack or be attacked. You can use this to reduce the odds against you by keeping distance from packs of ships where only one is in range at a time.

    In addition, I normally only buy a single ship gun early on- only your Esper or Pilot can have Astro-Gunner skill to boost accuracy; everyone else has minimal chance to hit without frequent aiming. And well aimed shots do more damage than ones without aiming, especially with guns that fire multiple rounds at once. I also would not recommend either swapping the copilot down in combat to be a gunner(takes extra actions, plus need to return them back whenever you want to actually communicate and before going to a planet).

    Positions 1 and 4 have the biggest gun arcs(see the back of the manual) and are the best spots to put a gun:
    http://www.scribd.com/remow/d/21429847-Star-Command

    Also, early on I'd suggest just piling on the armor towards the max of 999 rather than focusing on shields.

    I would also consider only shielding one half of your ship, the side you plan to keep your enemies on. But I'm not 100% sure how hit location and shielding works exactly.

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    1. Oh, and that link is to the complete manual; so you can use that for your copy protection answers.



      For the early missions, there are a few variants (different wording, different target location, but same basic type) and 2 optional missions that don't always appear. But since the reward is based on the number of missions completed, it is a very nice bonus.

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    2. He posted last time that the answers from the manual didn't seem to work; I'm wondering if different versions had different answers, so that you couldn't use the C64 manual for the DOS version or something? Or if there is some damage done due to it being ripped to disk and emulated.

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    3. I don't recall the 'AAAA' trick ever not working- you are filling in every underscore with a letter right?

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    4. No, I've been filling "aaaa" in every answer regardless of the length. You're saying the trick is to simply fill all the blanks with "a" and not literally "aaaa"? If so, I feel kind of stupid.

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    5. Kellandros, I really appreciate all the tips above. I didn't even notice there was a "switch" option until I read your comments. I wondered why I'd waste astro-gunner ranks on the pilots when they can't even man gun positions.

      I did put a gun in every position, though. Perhaps that was overkill.

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    6. I don't recall for sure how the manual check works(haven't touched the game in months), but I do remember that it doesn't cheat on showing you the number of characters to type.
      --------

      Pilots really need to specialize- your main pilot's Piloting skill is supposed to improve your ship handling(I think just makes you harder to be hit). Your copilot just needs 1 level of pilot for the dropship and moderate levels of Communications(don't think need to ever max this; it might improve your chance at a beneficial result but I think that is more intimidation modifiers). I also don't recall if you need to keep your person with Communications skill in the Copilot position to talk or just to open communications. Pilots are also the only one who can learn Repair skills.

      I've never tried including a pilot in with the normal crew positions; they would be more helpful in space but limited in weapon skills and stats for ground missions. It would be interesting to try sometime.

      Espers also can learn Astro Gunner, but that takes away from pumping up their Esper skill to unlock new abilities, or hand weapons skill(the "light sword" can often be a one-hit kill on weak enemies).

      Spend some time exploring all the menu options; you can also store extra personal items on your ship(like weapon ammo and medkits and such), but you have to buy them on an individual first then go into the inventory menu when out of starport on the ship and transfer them to a new person there.

      Generally, I just followed the 'aim 2-3 times then rapid fire' approach in combat- firing randomly or with less aiming or just single attacks seemed to do so much less damage (and ammunition costs money).

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    7. Oh, and most of the goals of things I do is about conserving money- certain items(armor, sighting hardware, hand weapons) is nonrefundable; selling ship or personal items to upgrade to better ones only nets about half value; heck selling your ship to get a new one only gets about half the price back. Limiting ammunition expenditures(because of weight and cost).

      I can end up with a decent amount of spare cash at the end by ignoring certain things until the last moment, but it requires a lot of running away or picking on weak enemies.

      But in the end, I don't think I ever ended up with a lot of spare money- buying clones to bring back the dead from a single mistake gets very expensive(and pre-buying clones for everyone takes even more money).

      Notice you can buy extra training sessions for $200,000? That's half the money to buy the largest ship in the game! I don't think I managed more than 1 or 2 of those training sessions; quite a lot of the ways to get money only come up once(like espionage items- more can be discovered(for each hi-tech culture) after every few missions, but they are one-time cash prizes).

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  7. Note that if you are playing Neuromancer you should add it to your list: Also interesting that the names in 1989 start with D. Are you not doing them in alphabetical order anymore?

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    1. No. I was going to talk about this once I finished 1988, if I ever do. I looked at the games for 1989 and tried to order them by release date based on several factors, but that didn't really work. So instead I identified the ones I was most looking forward to and least looking forward to and tried to space them evenly through the year, thus preventing me from hitting a whole sequence of games that made me not want to play.

      The "anchors" of the year are NetHack, Magic Candle, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Starflight 2, and Hero's Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero.

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    2. Kinda hoping you'll get to Quest for Glory 1 (as it's now known) at the same time as Trickster over at the Adventure gamer blog!

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    3. That would be fun. I'd be up for changing my order for that. I'll try to keep an eye on his blog, but alert me if he's coming up on it quickly.

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    4. PetrusOctavianusMay 17, 2012 at 4:35 PM

      "I looked at the games for 1989 and tried to order them by release date based on several factors, but that didn't really work."

      It worked for me.

      "The "anchors" of the year are NetHack, Magic Candle, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Starflight 2, and Hero's Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero."

      When I played through 1989 the highlights were Chaos Strikes Back and Dark Heart of Uukrul. Magic Candle was also good, but it's a huge game and I got tired half way through it.
      Knights of Legend was an interesting game and I'm looking forward to your reaction to it.

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    5. Magic Candle was truly epic. Dark Heart of Uukrul is one of the most polished dungeon crawler I've ever seen. The runes on the Copy Protection Talisman was rather hard to make out though...

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    6. I'm sorry, Canageek, but I took a look at Neuromancer, and I just can't see it as an RPG, despite what one of the developers claims. I don't deny that it has some RPG-style elements, but so do many adventure games, and I can't afford to cast that wide a net. Looks like Trickster is going to get to it in the coming year.

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  8. This one is truly an old favorite, I think I have played through it 2-3 times over the years, Boarding enemy ships is key for long distance travel, and your fuel capacity increases with the bigger vessels. I remember there was wan specific mission that always comes up.. Something about searching for a specific planet in a broad area filled with 100's of planets, that one always drove me nuts. as I inevitably ended up spending hours, methodically visiting every one of the potential systems. Only to find out I was in the wrong area. And if you haven't already, outfit your ship with a (point defense system)asap, it's a huge hull saver in the later battles.
    -Cheers

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  9. This doesn't particularly belong on the Star Command entry, but I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading through the old entries in the blog up to the current entry. I've subscribed and look forward to new posts.

    I was born in 1974, and grew up with an Apple //e. I remember playing Wizardry I, mapping on graph paper, but never getting to the end legally. I also remember at a young age learning about hex editing, and started to get interested in programming that way. (I'm not a programmer by trade.) I also played Ultima II through V, Might and Magic I and II, Magic Candle, Neuromancer (I loved the books, and the CRPG didn't let me down either - I also finished this one,) Elite (loved it, not really a CRPG and I never finished it,) and Wasteland.

    Wasteland I finished a couple of times, and it was a real eye opener. I have to admit that even today I don't really know what is going on with the Bloodstaff and those guys, but I still sometimes say "Nuke 'em till they glow then shoot 'em in the dark."

    Really great work on the blog, it has been a blast reliving some of my memories of these games, and hearing about other games that I knew about but never had the money to play.

    I am amazed at how quickly you are able to blast through these games. I'm currently playing Fallout: New Vegas, and I have 150 hours logged, still one DLC to go, and probably 20% more on the main quest. I also can only get about 6-8 hours of gaming a week, but I can't believe how quickly you can get through some of these games.

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    1. Glad to have you, Fugu. The games of this era generally go faster than modern games. My blog will either slow drastically when I get to the 2000s or I'll have to take another approach.

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    2. ...I'm not going to redo my calculations on how long it will take you to get there, but I'd focus on the early 90s for now. I mean, we don't even have rules on DLC or *expansion packs* yet. Lets get to Arena and Fallout before worrying about Skyim and Fallout 3.

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  10. I thought this might interest folks here: Edge Online just posted an interview with Brian Fargo, the creator of Wasteland (and the upcoming Wasteland 2). He has some interesting things to say about the evolution of CRPGs. His Kickstarter originally asked for $900,000 and he got $2.9 million!

    Interview at: http://www.edge-online.com/features/wasteland-2-brian-fargos-kickstarter-triumph

    Those early '90s PC RPGs - Fallout, UFO, System Shock and so on - had so much promise, it felt like technology was the only thing holding them back. Now that side of things has caught up, do you think games have lived up to that promise?

    I would argue to some degree no, because it became such a console world, and there was an oversimplification of things at points. I think part of the frustration we've tapped into by doing an old-school RPG is that a lot of people feel like games have been dumbed down, that the audience has been treated like they're not intelligent. Those games had a million words, there was a literary vibe to them.

    They've become a little more shooter-oriented, and tutorials treat you are as if you've never played a game before. On console there's no keyboard, which removes a lot - being able to type in something as simple as a noun can really open up dialogue and choice. So I think they've become different, but by getting off the PC, things changed quite a bit.

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    1. Good interview. Thanks for letting us know!

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    2. It is an interesting interview. I guess I won't know if I agree with his comments until I play more modern games.

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    3. Actually, it was more than 3 mil. The amount there did not include what InXile got from Paypal.

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  11. Bleh, you lot owe me. My journey was so epic that I'm writing a blog post about it. I also found 2 pages of my Dad's notes. At least I assume it is his, it looks like a much messier version of his writing. They look pretty spoilerrific, but since they were only meant for him, veryyy cryptic.

    Trickster: Also found some stuff for you, and hating your no-text-adventure rule. Bah. BAH I SAY.

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    1. Hehehehe, this manual is hilarious.

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    2. http://canageek.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/the-quest-for-the-magic-candle-part-1/ is the first post; Second one will be the details of what I found on my hunt for the game.

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    3. You're like the ninth reader of my blog to start his own. I feel like I have progeny or something.

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    4. Actually, I've had my blog since 2009; This is just the first time I've written about computer games instead of tabletop RPGs or Chemistry.

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    5. I've also added part 2: I'm NEVER putting this many images in a post again. I had to rewrite some of it THREE TIMES due to issues, and I'm not sure I got every image from this section anyway.

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    6. Sorry, Canageek. I should have actually looked at your blog before I commented.

      I don't know how similar Wordpress is to Blogger, but I note that if I paste images into my posting, without going through Blogger's uploading routine, it tends to hose my postings.

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    7. It is very, veryyyy different. No this was...other things. Also Firefox having memory issues with how much the Wordpress interface was asking of it.

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  12. Have you noticed how many of the games you've played misspell the word "deity"? I think you've mentioned this spelling error at least 6 or 7 times on this blog.

    With the amount of comments you get, at some point or another people will start scouring your blog for bits of trivia like this :P

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    1. I suppose it's an easy word to misspell, and it's not like they had spell-check back then. But, in general, I don't think games gave a lot attention to quality and accuracy of writing in the 1980s.

      There's some great material in the comments, and I worry that some people don't read them. Perhaps I ought to have a "comments of the week" section or something.

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  13. Hmm, by looking at your screenshots, there seems to be a fourth class shown as ESP (the mentioned espers?) in the party window.

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    1. That's correct. I don't know why I said there were only three in the original post.

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