Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sentinel Worlds: Magic?

This is what happens when no one gives me the advice I seek.

I've been mulling over the subtitle of Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic, trying to figure what it is intended to  mean. I have three hypotheses:

  1. It's going to somehow play a role in the game; as in, the game will take a turn towards fantasy the way that Might & Magic takes a turn towards science fiction.
  2. It's a play on Arthur C. Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
  3. It's essentially meaningless and I'm an idiot to spend any serious time thinking about it.

#2 seems like the most obvious answer, but #1 became more plausible during gameplay today. I'll cover that in a minute.

I've written before about how I have less of an affinity for science fiction than fantasy. In a comment on BattleTech, I wrote:

It probably goes back to the whole probable impossibility vs. improbable possibility thing. Sci-fi is often manifestly set in the "real" world, but in the future, so that you're supposed to accept the technology as probable. To me, things like teleporters and food replicators and giant robots create too many problems for me to accept them. Fantasy, on the other hand, is explicitly set in worlds where "magic" exists, and you just go with it as part of the world.

But this doesn't quite explain my ability to accept fantasy RPGs on the surface. Even in worlds full of magic, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief that your characters are able to navigate an unlit dungeon; that the monsters sealed in there are somehow able to survive in plentiful bands despite the lack of any kind of ecosystem; that indeed a 10-story dungeon built into the earth exists in the first place. And yet I happily ignore these problems and descend into the Proving Grounds. When playing Sentinel Worlds, on the other hand, I'm constantly thinking thinks like: Why don't my characters have to stockpile food? Is it really that easy to drop an ATV from orbit and get it back up there again? Would a society so advanced that it's capable of interstellar space travel still be raising cattle on ranches? I've killed almost 30 of these raiders--do they just have an unlimited number of ships?

In the midst of all of this, I visit a planet where I find an alien race intent on discovering a source of "evil" in the planet, and suddenly my mind does a 180. "Ah!" I say. "It's not hard sci-fi! It's space fantasy, like Star Wars or Babylon 5." Then, suddenly, based on this very scant evidence, I'm suddenly cool with the game. I don't claim to get it.

As you can see from the screen shot at the top of this entry, my attempts to board a raider didn't go so well. They slaughtered three of my characters in melee combat, and just as my surviving two party members were contemplating the recruitment of a new pilot, communications officer, and navigator, the raider ship self-destructed. Upon reload, I decided I'd spend a little more time making sure I'd mastered ship-to-ship combat, and raising my levels first.

Neither hand-to-hand nor ship-to-ship combat (there's no hand-to-ship combat, but I'd love to see it) is particularly good in Sentinel Worlds. I'm a relatively new player, and I've managed to take on packs of 6 raiders at a time (messing around with the DOSBox CPU speed and game frame rate were key, by the way; thanks to everyone who contributed there) with hardly any damage to my ship. The raiders don't really coordinate their attacks, so it's easy to pick them off on the fringes of the pack. The combat is not at all tactical: You wait for the ship to get into view, hit SPACE to target it, hit ENTER to arm your lasers, and then just keep close to the ship while the computer fires for you. You even have the option to "(S)hadow" the enemy automatically, so you barely have to do anything. You do have the option to program your lasers to target only specific parts of the enemy (shields, lasers, hull), but as far as I can tell this is only necessary when you're trying to board.

My lead character fights a bear with a mace. It's like I'm still playing Skyrim.

Melee combat similarly suffers from a lack of tactics. As you move down hallways in caves and buildings, red-dotted enemies come charging at you. You only control the lead party member; everyone else starts attacking automatically. Your control of the lead is limited  to movement, targeting (again with the SPACE bar), and hitting ENTER to fire or swing when the weapon is "ready."
Both types of combat are affected by the skills that you've assigned to your characters: the pilot's gunnery skill for ship combat and the various characters' skills in contact weapons, edged weapons, projectile weapons, blasters, and "tactics," the latter of which affects all weapons. I find the process of leveling up (you get fixed experience for ship and melee opponents) satisfying, although I'm not sure whether I'm choosing the right ones. I've yet to see any obvious effects of observation, bribery, or recon, among other things.

I've put a lot into "edged" weapons for Romom, but the best melee weapon I've been able to find is a sonic mace.

Some developments occurred on the plot and perhaps side quests (like some other games, I'm not sure if some of the things I've done are side-quests or steps on the main quest). First, I re-read the game manual and noted that William Grager, the yacht owner I mentioned last time, is prominent in the backstory. The manual notes that he's a shipping magnate who has been given trade rights in the Caldorre System and has suffered significantly at the hands of the raiders. It was on his urging, in fact, that this fleet of interceptors (including mine) was dispatched to the system. So it makes sense that he upgraded my weapons.

Is this a side-quest? Or my first sign that something deeper is at work in the Caldorre System?

I went to the planet Caldorre, which gives its name to the system, and saw a beacon from orbit that I hadn't noticed before. This took me to a small village where some technologically-stunted natives asked for help dealing with some "monsters" who had taken over some of their land and were uprooting trees. I went to the coordinates provided and found a bunch of non-hostile gorillas. I nearly slaughtered them, assuming that they were the "monsters," but I explored a bit and found the entrance to a network of caves. Battling my way past bears, I found aliens--not  just aliens, but Aliens aliens...

...involved in a big excavation project. The leader told me that he'd had a "vision" that there was evil in the planet, and they were trying to get to it. He promised they wouldn't encroach on any more surface territory, which satisfied the leader of the natives. I didn't really get anything for all of this, but it made me wonder if this "evil" is going to have something to do with the main quest.

"Sensed" how, exactly? Are we talking...magic?

As I write this posting, I'm in the midst of exploring the three towers of Caldorre to see what clues I can pick up. There are some places here where I can boost my attributes, which might make melee combat against the raiders a bit simpler.
Some other miscellaneous notes:

  • My ATV occasionally breaks down on the planet. As far as I can tell, this serves no purpose except to make me wait a few rounds while my character with the "ATV repair" skill fixes it. I haven't been investing a lot into this skill because even at the current level, he fixes it within a few seconds.
  • I finally found minerals! I don't know if this is because I raised my "mining" skill to a certain level or because I just started visiting the right planets. Anyway, I've discovered belatedly that this game isn't Starflight: you gain much more money from killing raiders than from mining metals, making mining a dubious use of time.

And yet still addicting.
  • Related, I was wondering why my income kept going up until I realized that I get paid for every raider I kill.
  • The engineer repairs damage taken to the ship automatically. Although the spaceport on Caldorre offers a "dry dock" where you can pay for repairs, they happen so swiftly in the background that I can't imagine needing it.

It is cheap, though.
  • I've been "hacking" my ship's systems to try to improve them. Generally, it's been successful, but I did have one failure that made my navigation system worse.

  • The trick to navigation is not to look at the wireframe part of the map but just the top-down part. Even then, it's still a bit annoying. Rather than just being able to move east and west, north and south, the map rotates when you turn; you always move "forward." It adds unnecessary seconds to each step.
  • In the alien caves, I found a "hyperuzi." It sounds pretty cool, although I don't think regular uzis are exactly lethargic.

To help you get a sense of the gameplay elements, I recorded a video. Unlike my previous recordings, this is a proper narrated video, something I've only done once before, with Ultima III. I don't know if this going to be a regular thing on my blog; I don't find it easy to narrate a sensible audio track while simultaneously playing the game.

I feel like I've turned a corner with the game, and I'm starting to enjoy the plot a bit. I don't know how long it normally takes to win, but I hope to do it this week.


  1. In thanks for you taking the time to make and narrate the video I'm going to take the time to listen to it, which is something I normally don't do, being more fond of reading.

    Glad to see you are enjoying it more.

    Yeah, it always bugs me when they send thousands and thousands of men after you. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (which I just got my Brother as a gift) they send HUNDREDS of mercenaries after you. The total cost of hiring all those guys HAS to outweigh the few million dollars this statue could potentially be worth!

    Skyrim is usually pretty good at this, since opponents group into small bands of 10-15. It does raise the question as to who all these bandits are raiding as all the guards comment there hasn't been a good bandit raid in a while. There should be a huge number of caravans walking around to support that many bandits.

  2. Yeah, I couldn't see any red raiders on the recording. It isn't just you. In the scene with the raiders and combat the dots on the right screen are TECHNICALLY red, but it is really faint. I found the difference in brightness was easier to tell them apart; The raiders dots were about half as bright as the other dots. This could just be your recording though.

  3. I also liked the narrated video format. Thanks for taking the time to make it!

    Regarding the sonar-style waves on the hand-to-hand view, maybe they are a homage to the motion-detectors in the Aliens movie?

    1. Possibly. There are a lot of other homages to Aliens in this game, including some graffiti on a wall that said, "Game over, man!"

  4. I really liked the narrated video as well, hope that becomes a regular feature. Your criticism of the combat systems and party movement system/display all seem well-founded, especially after watching that video, but I am glad you're warming up to the game despite that -- it's just fun to see a sci-fi CRPG being explored, since they're much rarer that fantasy ones.

    1. I don't know. My opinion might be taking a turn for the worse again. Some really silly stuff happened since I posted this.

    2. "silly stuff" - Maybe it's paying homage to some obscure parody.

  5. Set your DOSBox to use Tandy music like Amy suggested earlier (I think), it sounds pretty good. I had no idea about Tandy sound before! Of course, as you don't seem to care much for video game music, it might not be worth the bother. But I thought it was pretty good stuff for the time, on DOS.

    Great to see you back on the game, and enjoying it! Good posts, and the video was illustrative of how the game plays and looks. The narration was also very good, definitely worth the watch!


    1. Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me about that.

  6. Good solid balance of narrative, analysis, and humor. Welcome back.

  7. Wonderful entry and very informative video. Please consider keeping the videos narrated in the future if you don't find it too much extra work.

    1. Thanks! I'll think about it. I suppose it's mildly easier than typing the "highlights" of each video, like I usually do.

    2. Dont forget those of us who prefer to read rather than watch your blog! In fact that's one of the things I've always liked about your posts, if there is a video I don't get the feeling I'm missing out on something due to the detailed text that follows. Also just as an aside, I get the impression that you enjoy the odd Vodka Gimlet (I wonder how I got that idea), what proportion of vodka to roses do you generally go for? On the rocks? Garnish? Sorry for being so nosey, I'm a bit of a drink obsessive.

    3. Now you're speaking my language. Let me answer with a little story about how I first got into gimlets: they're mentioned in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Terry Lennox tells Philip Marlowe that a proper gimlet is "half gin and half Rose's lime juice and nothing else."

      I hate to criticize Raymond Chandler, but have you ever tried drinking a gimlet that was HALF Rose's lime juice? You might as well drink grenadine straight from the bottle. But when I first started drinking them, I did favor around 3/4 gin or vodka and 1/4 lime juice. As the years passed, however, I've gradually decreased the proportion of lime juice until now it's pretty much just straight vodka with a little splash of lime--enough that I can pretend I'm drinking a cocktail instead of straight vodka like a full-blown alcoholic.

      Also, I'm favoring fresh lime juice rather than Rose's these days. Most bars don't carry it, but when you just need a splash, you can just squeeze a couple of wedges.

      Yes, on the rocks. Otherwise you get it in a fancy little martini glass. I like a lime wedge garnish on it but it's not a dealbreaker.

      On the video, I'll try to strike the right balance if I continue to narrate them.

    4. Gin and lime juice? Wow, I'm more than halfway there. My favorite drink is Tanquerey gin and tonic. That brand of gin (don't make me type it twice!) already has some kind of lime flavoring to it. I'll have to give this Gimlet (gin version) a try.

    5. I know what you mean, considering roses is basically an undiluted cordial a 50/50 mix would be quite confronting.
      I cant say I've ever had a properly mixed gimlet, I have some terrible memories of a very cheap premixed gimlet which was the only thing we could afford as teenagers. The closest drink I can think of is a caprioska which is generally a lime muddled with sugar and a couple of shots of vodka searved over roughly crushed ice (essentially the vodka equivalent of a caipirinha which is also beautiful). Looks like we've highjacked the CRPG discussion a little, maybe you could start a cocktail blog in your spare time? ;)

    6. I agree Amy, Tanquerey (thanks copy and paste!) gin is great stuff, have you tried Tanquerey 10? Beautiful in a Negroni (the king of gin based drinks I'd say).

    7. I've never heard of either drink, Steerpike, sorry.

    8. Your comment about your Gimlet made me chuckle, and remember the Martini (Gin+Vermouth) recipe according to Wiston Churcill, for which it was "drinking a glass full of gin while looking at a bottle of Vermouth

      Also, I learned what a gimlet was from "The Long Goodbye" :)

    9. I think I've heard that before. Noel Coward also said that he preferred to make his martinis by "filling a glass of gin and waving it in the general direction of Italy."

    10. Since I wrote the above 5 years ago, I've graduated to "fill a glass with Ketel One and toss in a lime wedge and we'll call it a gimlet." But I'm more likely to order Moscow Mules.

  8. "It's not hard sci-fi! It's space fantasy, like Star Wars or Babylon 5."

    This is why I think Star Wars is cooler than Star Trek or, uh, Mass Effect (which is very Star Trek-like).

    I guess I like Space Fantasy and odd-box Fantasy RPGs most but magic in Fantasy games almost always looks too much like Deus-Ex-Machina to me (which is bad)!

    1. Regarding your last sentence, I thought Brandon Sanderson had some really good thoughts about that:


      He's applying it to books, but I think it applies equally well to films and games.

  9. It's nice to see Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg show up for this game. Also, that looks like Bubbles from 'Trailer Park Boys'.

    1. I'm pretty sure that "Whoopi Goldberg" is a male Warhaka leader.

    2. Haha, well, I immediately assumed the Warhaka leader was female (although after reading this and looking at the screenshot again, I'm not so sure anymore), but I certainly didn't think of Whoopi Goldberg. :)

  10. As far as your question of magic: Yes, there is magic in the game. However, you can complete the game with using hardly any of it.

    Yes, the "aliens" digging is a part of the main storyline.

    The ATV Repair skill is broken, IMO.

    As far as the Hyperuzi, the rounds fired actually go into hyperspace, then back to normal space. The result is ammunition with a much higher velocity. ...Nah, I'm just kidding. I have no idea. It sounds cool though. ;P

    1. Very clever idea though! In theory, the projectiles from such a weapon could actually "phase out" while traveling to the target, thus passing through intervening matter and rematerializing in or just before the target. That's a nasty weapon.

    2. Yeah, no friction or windshear! I wonder who could develop such a weapon? The Minbari perhaps? ;)

    3. ATV: broken in that I don't need to worry about it, or broken in that it doesn't actually work and I'll end up with no ATV?

      Your explanation did sound pretty cool. But the gun would have to have some kind of setting where you specified the range so the bullets would "know" when to come back into normal space.

    4. That type of range-finding could occur even through solid matter with some form of advanced wave-echo technology. (I know that's an extremely vague answer, but this is science fiction. It's certainly less vague than reconfiguring the deflector array to emit an inverse tachyon pulse, which was invariably the way that problems were solved on Star Trek:TNG)

    5. Broken in that the skill is pretty much useless, and putting ranks in it won't make any difference.

      I would assume that if a race was sufficiently advanced to make an object go into hyperspace and back out again, that they could have a weapon target a lifeform that it was pointed at, and automatically make the necessary adjustments. It would be like scanning for lifeforms on Star Trek, but with the intent on making them former lifeforms. ;)

      Inverse tachyon pulse FTW!

    6. Aaaand, to reply to yet another years-old comment, because why not:
      Incidentally, the absurdly long-running pulp novel space opera Perry Rhodan (issue #2800 released this week, with one each week since september '61!) that, sadly, hardly anyone outside of Germany knows about or will ever read, features spaceship weapons that send not mere bullets but fusion bombs with the power of several thousand gigatons of TNT through hyperspace and directly into the target (or, if sufficiently good, its shields).
      Due to technical limitations in that universe, such weapons require enormous machinery and whole power plants worth of energy to operate, so unfortunately, people still have to shoot each other with old-fashioned thermo-beam guns and the like.
      But then, given the tendency of the series to invent new tech and bend existing rules whenever it seems like a good idea, I wouldn't be surprised to see "hyperuzis" or something similar at some point...

  11. For some reason when I read this blog I imagine that you, Chet, are reading it in Billy Mays's voice. Well, you don't quite sound like him (or at all... whatever), but I just wanted to say keep up with the narrated videos if you like (my preference is for the highlights to let me know quickly if there is something I really want to see in the video). I'm happy to read that you are finally getting some enjoyment out of this long-awaited playthrough (though, you might have to force-suspend your disbelief for whater silly stuff you just found).

    Finally, I want to ask you where to send your DnD Anthology. I have toyed around with it (PS:T did intrigue me for a time), but nothing is biting. None of my younger siblings seem to take to it either I am disappointed to admit. If you still have one of my old e-mails, tell me where to have it delivered (otherwise I will just send you a new email if you so request) because I would feel better if it was safe in your possession (ready for when you get to them or 'SEGUE! into them-cough').

    Wish you the best,

  12. I'm not saying Babylon 5 is proper "hard" sci-fi, because it isn't really, but it's about as close as American TV has gotten. They took pains to think through a lot of the technology, and made sure to include, for example, bathrooms. Something a lot of SF shows tended to neglect.

    Of course, then they had the essentially magical Vorlons and Shadows, so. Eh.

    1. No, I wouldn't have called it hard sci-fi at all. There was all kinds of traditional fantasy stuff with deities and the afterlife and prophecies and such.

    2. The Vorlons and The Shadows aren't magical. They're just so technologically advanced (even when we were still using horses and carriages) that the only easy way to explain their appearance and actions would be to just throw up our hands and go, "`Tis magic!"

      No, I wouldn't call it "Hard SF" either, but when you stop to consider that the Vorlons apparently showed up as angels on Earth, Droshalla on Drazi (or whatever they call their planet), and so forth... what's happening there is a de-mystifying almost all the religions in, potentially, an entire galaxy of beings that were less technologically advanced as the Vorlons. God? Buddha? G'Quon? Nope, Vorlons. (Or Chuck Testa!)

      As far as prophecy, it has appeared on some occasions that the Vorlons can glean information from the future to some extent. Somehow Kosh knew that he was going to die, and he would be gone during the time of B5's greatest need. "If you go to Z'Ha'Dum, you will die." And Sheridan did. Sort of.

    3. I know they're not actually explained as being magic. I'm just saying, there is no attempt to couch their technology or abilities in terms of the science we understand. They are arbitrary according to the needs of the plot, and thus may as well be magic as far as they fit into a hard SF framework.

    4. Well, that makes sense. Things in hard SF should always be explained. (Reading this back, it kind of sounds sarcastic. Be assured, I am agreeing with you here.)

  13. Okay, I've got issues with these points which a totally plausible reason is given:
    "Even in worlds full of magic, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief that your characters are able to navigate an unlit dungeon;"

    There are games that disallows it and games that have grues which will eat you up if you the dungeon is unlit. All others assume that you are smart enough to enter a dungeon with ample torches.

    "that the monsters sealed in there are somehow able to survive in plentiful bands despite the lack of any kind of ecosystem; "

    There IS an ecosystem. The food chain is as such: Overlord -> Henchmen -> Large Monsters -> Small Monsters -> Adventurers

    "that indeed a 10-story dungeon built into the earth exists in the first place."


  14. Right now, while I'm writing this comment, 3 of the 13 best-rated games are sci-fi RPGs, so I don't even think that you discriminate against them. And there is the special case of the Might & Magic series, certainly Part II, if you have already experienced the twist of Part I, Part II basically counts as sci-fi in your mind. So with 4 to 4-and-a-half sci-fi RPGs among the top 13, these games are doing pretty well I think. I guess it reflects their share of CRPGs overall, maybe even a bit more than that.

  15. I'm certanly looking forward to more narrated gameplay footage from you as I catch up. This video certainly was a good one.

    1. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I haven't done it very often. It's now late January 2014, and I haven't posted a narrated video since September. It's just too much of a pain in the neck. I have to have a good block of time, in some place with my headset, and the freedom to speak freely. Those things don't converge in my life as often as I'd like.

  16. It's no wonder that you were mulling about this "Future Magic" stuff, considering the devs apparently thought it was good UI practice to have the game title appear in every single screen in the game...

    So very 80s; I cannot think of an even remotely recent game doing that.


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