Monday, May 21, 2012

Star Command: Disease and Danger Wrapped in Darkness and Silence

This was the most staggering moment of the game. My entire party died because the tow link was destroyed?!

After my last posting, the game got so difficult for me so swiftly that I suspected I was doing something wrong. For every successful sortie from starport--and when I say "successful," I don't mean finishing missions; I just mean returning alive--there were five or six in which my ship was destroyed or my party was wiped out.

These deaths happened more often in melee combat than in ship combat, so I put some effort into upgrading my weapons and armor. Key to the difficulty eventually stabilizing (it hasn't by any means gotten "easy" yet) was purchasing better armor and targeting equipment to improve my characters' accuracy. Kellandros's tips on melee combat also helped quite a bit.

Cash remains exceedingly precious, however. As I've discussed repeatedly, I dislike games in which you pile up cash with no place to spend it. This is definitely not the case with Star Command. Most trips, after I resupply my ammunition, fix my broken equipment (some personal weapon breaks in every damned melee combat), and repair my ship's armor, I'm lucky if I have as much as when I left starport in the first place. I don't know if I'll ever save up enough for a new ship, or to explore some of the more costly options in the game, such as cloning my characters in case they die, or paying for extra training levels.

I desperately need a new ship, though. My current one is doing all right in ship combat, but its cargo capacity is awful. If I mount three guns on her, stock up with a decent supply of ammunition, protect her with a few missile-killers and such, she's too heavy to maneuver in combat. As soon as I have $150,000, I'm buying a dagger-class escort, which can accommodate twice the weight. I have $71,617 right now, but that's mostly because I got $50,000 from Blackbeard the Pirate's hoard, so it's going to take a while.

This was a gratifying moment.

Watching my personal weight was important in helping to win melee combats, too. Yesterday, I said, "I learned the hard way that I want to keep a couple of backup weapons with me, because they have an annoying habit of breaking in the middle of combat." Well, this turned out to be stupid. Carrying more than one weapon encumbered some of my characters so much that they were too exhausted to fight. Even one weapon with a decent number of reloads tends to exceed my maximum capacity, especially if the character has a couple other bits of equipment on him, too.

Gelt couldn't carry another thing.

I thought I'd talk a little about personal equipment in this game today, because I mostly understand it. My next postings will probably cover ship equipment and combat and then melee combat, in that order. I hope that by then, I'll be close to the end.

There is quite a bit to buy and use in this game. In this category, it is in the top echelon of games so far, around the range of Might & Magic and NetHack. First, we have weapons, which come in five categories: hand, light, heavy, chemical, and explosive. Hand weapons seem interesting--they include a "lightsword"--but I feel like I've done something wrong if my characters actually get in hand-weapon range of enemies. I haven't invested much money or skill points in these.

Purchasing weapons.

I gave my two soldiers skills in chemical and explosive weapons, and they've been using these exclusively. My three marines are are built up in heavy weapons; I couldn't see a lot of reason to go with light weapons, which do less damage, although I probably could have taken backups of those without overweighting myself. Anyway, as you can see from the above, there are multiple sub-categories of each type of weapon and about 4 or 5 individual items. I count 60 total weapons, which--like the long list that included every pole arm in Pool of Radiance--seems like little overkill. Among the choices I have to make on the list are, for instance, between a 9mm MAC-10 submachine gun and a 11mm "Lead Hose" submachine gun (the difference is 2 damage points and 1 pound) and 20mm flame thrower and a 25mm flame thrower. For chemical weapons, the two options are a nerve gas canister and a caustic mist bomb; the latter does 5 points more than the former but otherwise they're practically identical.

Figuring what weapon to use is a long process--although I'm not arguing that it's bad--of studying the large table that accompanies the Star Command manual:

Damage isn't the only consideration: you also have to consider the number of rounds it can hold, the weight, the range, the weight of the ammunition, the weapon's accuracy rating, and of course the cost. 

Armor is a little easier. There are 16 types in the game, and the only considerations are protection, weight, and cost. When I could finally afford it, I outfitted everyone in something called "scout exo" which has an excellent protection/weight ratio, exceeded only by "electroactive armor," which costs $34,488 each; I won't be seeing this for a while. Like in Sentinel Worlds, buying a new set of armor simply replaces the old set.

Beyond weapons, ammunition, and armor, there are two other categories of things to buy: sighting hardware and "miscellaneous." For sighting hardware, which increases accuracy in melee combat, I waited until I had enough money to buy the best ("compusight aiming assistant") and just bought it for everyone. It greatly increased my effectiveness in melee combat.

Essentially, these options modify my accuracy. I almost wish there were similar categories of equipment that modified other attributes.

But miscellaneous items are exceedingly important. They include medkits for healing, repair kits for fixing weapons and ships, a "helmet scanner" (not sure what that does), motion detectors to get some warning while exploring areas, sonic and chemical torches for breaking through locked doors, and radiation detectors--I learned the hard way that I really needed to have one of those active at all times while exploring indoor areas. There are also oxygen masks, oxygen cylinders, and environment suits; I figure I'll need these eventually to explore space or atmosphere-less planets, but it hasn't come up yet.

In total, there's a host of stuff to keep track of, and to save money for. This is all keeping with SSI's emphasis on strategy and tactics in its games. You have to carefully manage your inventory, carefully manage your ship, and carefully negotiate your way through combat. It's a far cry from the relative simplicity of Sentinel Worlds.

Finding Blackbeard's base.
In plot terms, I haven't advanced much since the last posting. On Sunday, I had received a quest to go to Blackbeard's base and destroy him. This took me about 20 successful sorties; I died lots, lots more. I died so many times in Blackbeard's base that I got to the point where if I even mapped a new room, I would leave and return to base to save. Part of the reason that it took so long is that by the time I reached Blackbeard's base each excursion, my fuel was almost gone. I had to fight and capture a ship orbiting his planet each time so I could refuel.

There were several interesting encounters in the pirate base. I noted last time that exploring indoor areas is a bit like Phantasie, as a top-down map slowly reveals itself:

It's also like Phantasie in the nature of the special encounters you face. In the fortress, I encountered a kid who wanted to challenge me at a video game, a bar with several tables, a slot machine, an information kiosk, and a mechanical drill. Each of these encounters offered a set of default options like "demand information," "attack and destroy," "take," as well as sets of encounter-specific options and the ability to enter a custom command.

The game has a lot of  interesting special encounters in "dungeons."
While playing, I lost so much money to the slot machine (it seemed to pay back $3 for every $4 bet), I blew it up, revealing a secret passage behind it. This led me to a series of five titanium doors guarding Blackbeard's chambers. I had no hope of getting through them. But in another part of the base, I found a rock drill with no fuel. It took a while, but I solved this puzzle, which was to buy the most potent alcohol in the bar and use it to fuel the drill.

Only in a game would this be necessary, instead of, you know, bringing fuel from my ship.
I drilled through the rock on the back side of Blackbeard's headquarters, entered, and killed him and his minions--after about 7 attempts in which I died.

Blackbeard could stand to teach his information kiosks to be a little less forthcoming.
My next quest was to visit one planet, retrieve some antitoxin, and deliver it to another planet. This sounded easy, but the coordinates were very distant from any starport--much further than I could hope to make on 100 units of fuel, which is all my ship can carry. I knew right away that I would have to take advantage of two other fueling options: planets that sell it, and the ability to steal it from other ships. I found a couple refueling depots on planets near Blackbeard's place, but so far they seem few and far between, and I had to carefully explore to find them and make my way to the distant sectors.

The manual notes that pirates are only one of several threats against humanity; another big one is a race of insect aliens. As the missions have progressed, I've been encountering insect scout ships in greater numbers. They haven't been very difficult so far--much easier than the pirates, in fact.
Melee combat with insects after boarding their scout ship.
As I sign off, let me say that I'm not sure what good my "esper" is. Granted, he's the only character. His psychic attacks rarely do anything, and I feel like his slot would have been better spent on another marine. I'll have more on that in my melee combat posting.

I think perhaps the difficulty of the game was a calculated decision on the parts of the developers. If it wasn't difficult, each of the missions would take about 10 minutes, and you'd win the game in a couple of hours. It might be that they intended the player to successfully complete each quest only after multiple tries. On the other hand, no one else seems to be corroborating my assessment of the difficulty, so maybe I'm just a bad player.


  1. Or maybe you have just been unlucky with the random assignments?

    I played the Amiga version and felt that the game had just the right difficulty. But I thought the game had too many "stupid adventure elements", like using booze to power the drill, for example.

    I suspect you may be doing something wrong with your characters; their skills and/or thier equipment. Some weapons are definitely more cost effective than others, and in space combat one "BFG" is better than several small ones.
    But it's been a while since I played it, so I don't remember the details. I think the Panzerjägers were the best firearms, though. Grenades were also effective, and the esper (Jedi Knight) was quite good with the lightsword. Having characters with medkits and repair kits also helped.

    1. Funny. I decided the Panzerjagers were the best heavy weapon and I upgraded all of my marines to them. Things did get a little easier at that point.

    2. I think there's a bit of randomness to a few missions, but I think the core quest locations, as Kellandros says later, are about the same.

  2. Helmet Scanner- weaker motion detector.

    Oxygen mask, cylinder, etc: if you are visiting a planet that says unbreathable, you will have a huge fatigue penalty in any combat there without all 3.

    Can you show us the current state of your squad?

    I'm curious what their stats, skills, and equipment is now. I'm wondering where your skill points ended up.

    I see you found my old standby the Panzerjager- that weapon can tear through enemy groups. It is ridiculously cheap for reloads, but they weigh almost 4 kg apiece.

    I've used grenades as backup weapons- they are light enough to carry one or two, and even without skill a little aiming gives them a decent chance to hit.

    It looks like you've switched primarily over to heavy/explosive weapons, that can hit entire groups- which is quite helpful in combat. Sometimes you end up killing 2 out of the 3 of the enemies in a group- that is a good time to just walk up and let your Esper whack them with the light sword.
    When you are facing insect workers/hatchlings, try hand to hand weapons to save ammunition- stasis blades for most of your party for the hit bonus, and in ~3 hits kill them. The lightsword can do it in one shot. Just remember the insects have long arms and can strike you from one square further away than you can melee them.

    The esper is less directly powerful in combat, especially in the middle (no heavy weapons, primary focus on the esp stat instead of boosting a more combat oriented one). Unless you have a pilot with Communications in your squad, he is the only way you can potentially communicate in combat.

    Look at the chart of esper abilities- as you raise his skill he gets the new things. The detect life/mind scan would help you with mapping and give you some hints about what is up ahead. Mind shock can be used to pick off solitary enemies that survive your guns- 20+ damage with no miss potential, but limited number of times per combat(based on esp stat, rates listed in the charts). Healing is useful as an emergency in combat- I don't think you can use medkits there. Psychic scream is pretty far off, and has a high failure rate.

    For ground combat- again, there is almost no penalty for running away from combat. The number of squares you can move (max 6) is based on the Max Movement stat in your screenshot(number divided by 4 I think, it says in manual) of your slowest party member. If everyone has over 20, I think you can move 5 squares per combat round; generally that is enough to reach the bottom edge(flee zone for combat in special environments) or any edge(planet exploration).

    Second, notice your enemy never bothers to aim? You may be better off staying always on defensive terrain to be hit less often and take an extra turn to aim to make up for it. Remember max hit chance caps at 95%, so add up the various bonuses(5% per point of correct weapon skill, aiming hardware, plus I think about 20-30% bonus for each turn spent aiming).

    Don't forget to take out the wounded- a hurt enemy still can attack at full effectiveness; pick off the wounded to cut down the number of attacks you take in a round. Find a balance in the amount of firepower to kill an enemy group without excessive overkill.

    On all kinds of combat:
    Rapid fire halves your accuracy, but doubles the potential damage in a single attack(armor/shields only subtract once for the whole attack). Generally rapid fire is overkill in squad/ground/melee combat, but can be needed ship to ship to penetrate shields.

    In most cases, your enemy will spend a few turns not doing anything but moving- generally more on planet visits than in bases, but often on ship boarding or ship to ship combat. If you don't provoke them early(like demanding surrender or blasting away) you should get a turn or two to go ahead and aim.
    BTW- as you start exploring past the pirate sector, make sure to keep quite a bit of reserve fuel for hyperspace jumps to run away from combat- there are other things out there that are even more dangerous.

  3. Looked in the manual to confirm what I was saying:

    Oh, movement divided by 5, not 4.
    So 20-25 range only gets you 4 squares per round.

    And the aiming bonuses from the manual:

    1st aim: 50% hit bonus
    2nd aim: 30% additional
    3rd aim(Best Aim): 20% additional

    So 1 turn spent aiming provides almost double the expected accuracy(and damage output- it seems high ROF weapons roll multiple times and do less when some shots miss). And overwhelms the 25% penalty from defensive terrain.

    And the chance to hit caps at 10% minimum and 90% max, not 95% like I thought. 3 turns of aiming should give you maximum accuracy even without any other bonuses; before enemy penalties.

    1. Kellandros, you continue to be a bonanza of assistance. Thank you. I'll compile some info on the characters next time I play.

    2. I'm starting to worry myself actually on the amount of things I remember about this game.

      Didn't think I was quite that obsessive.

    3. I have observed a correlation between CRPG playing and obsessive tendencies. I think it's a control thing related to enjoyment of problem solving in a "world" with more strictly defined, black & white parameters than the real world has. In a CRPG world it is possible to actually know ALL the rules, whereas in the real world it's just not feasible.

    4. Part of it is also probably age- it was one of the first games I had to play for the PC, and was probably a bit young to understand it initially. But since I was introduced to its interface early, it was easy to learn(it would be seriously annoying nowadays to pick up an alphabetic menu system where the same command moves depending on context).

      I could keep coming back to it even into high school, when I didn't have a lot of new things to try playing(maybe 2-3 new games a year most of the time, with the occasional multi-pack that had quite a lot of crap in it).

      I've seen an argument that there is a sweet-spot age-wise for complication and learning rule systems; generally applied to RPG systems and increasing complication(kids with fewer responsibilities can enjoy the extra detail of in depth grappling rules, stating out entire armies, and long discussions of who would win in a fight between random characters).

      Go back about 30 years earlier, and it probably would have been baseball cards and their statistics.

  4. As there was mentioning about random assignments, is the game itself built on set world or do the sectors fill up randomly?

  5. The world is pre-defined and set- all the stars are identical in every play through with the same planets with the same goods and populations.

    The missions are semi-random: there are a few variations of the same basic missions that run in the exact same order; with a few optional missions that may or may not appear.

  6. Hi, I tried to play this game, but every time I wanted to make a scientific exploration of a planet, I get the message:
    "Dropship or pilot is not ready?"
    What does this mean?

  7. Your co-pilot needs one level of piloting skill- he is supposed to fly the dropship down while the pilot stays with the ship.

  8. I am once again astounded how patient you are when playing. I hope that it won't turn into a grindfest for money for the rest of the game.

  9. This game is so resoundingly, testicle-kickingly, gut you like a troutly, f*ck a honey badgerly HARD. I'm just READING about it and it hurts me. Had I purchased the game I would have been pissed at the waste of money. Any game this hard is not worth the money. Everyone else here that is not Chet- is it this hard for everyone?? I'd like to play a good early SF game but f*ck me with a chainsaw if I try this one, the way it sounds.


    1. The funny thing is, it's hard but I'm not frustrated by it. For all its difficulty, the game is fairly small. As frustrating as it might be to visit the same base 20 times before clearing it, it only takes about 45 seconds to get there. I think if the game wasn't this hard, it would be over too quickly.

    2. Okay, I guess it doesn't sound THAT bad for what it is then. Might give it a shot anyways. If it makes me bleed from my eyes, however, I blame you.

      BTW, apropos of nothing, there seems to be an ASchultz of Andrew Schultz fame, blogging for Have you been able to find Andrew yet? See if this is him. LOOKS like him.

    3. I was just going to say the same thing. There also seems to be a more up-to-date email address in this FAQ:
      (the real domain seems to be

    4. Never saw that one. Thanks! E-mail just went off.

    5. Pig's bollocks. Came bouncing on back.

    6. William- I think this game ends up greatly encouraging min-maxing.

      For me, every character's training focuses on exactly 2 skills apiece(generally the out of combat one over the combat one even) and on only 2 base stats.

      In the earliest portion of the game, I generally ignore my ship except for armor and a moderate defensive hardware(no guns or shields even), and run away from almost every ship combat. I would focus mainly on maneuvering groups of enemies out of the combat area leaving only a single small ship to board and capture at a time.

      I think my best and shortest advice(note to self- ha ha, should have boiled this down sooner) is:
      1) Specialize- most things outside of weapon skills you only need once in the party.
      2) Focus on defense and armor early, firepower later.
      3) Run away unless you have an overwhelming advantage; generally you only take 1-2 rounds of fire before escaping max. Only a few special rooms have fixed encounters where you have to kill enemies. Remember, no combat XP in this game.
      4) Aim twice, fire once; don't spray and pray. Stack those bonuses, every turn you miss or do only a few points of damage is less useful than putting a turn into aiming.
      5) Timing- don't buy a lot of things before you need them; having to sell and upgrade to a slightly better model gets expensive.

    7. Chet, if you are still on a quest to track down Andrew Schultz, this may be helpful:

      As you can see he even made a post (one only; I guess he's easily scared) on the RPG Codex.

    8. Not so much a "quest," though I would like to hear from him next time I cite his material.

      I knew I had tried the sbcglobal address before, but now that I look in my sent mail, I see that I had a typo in this address. Dumb reason not to have connected with him before.

  10. That guy seems to go through a lot of email addresses. Maybe you could leave a comment at the blog william linked, because according to his GameFAQs profile that definitely seems to be him.

  11. Buy an Enviro suite, mask and oxy cylinder for each character as soon as you can afford it, when the time comes that you need them (it will be too late), and are needed to explore some of the more exotic planets/alien vessels.
    Cash is only hard early in the game and tho you'll never reach a point of it being useless you should be able to get "the best stuff" by the end of the game without too much grinding. I remember, at some you get a HUGE winfall of cash (10's of thousands) for finding a treasure room or something later on. Board and tow every ship you can. When fighting multiple enemy space craft it's a simple technique is to move so you only have to fight 1 ship at a time (others off screen/out of range.

    Espers are somewhat usefull but not the jedi fighting machine one thinks of. Kind of like that semi-usefull thief that people are often forced to add to the party in other rpg's, you can finish the game w/o one but wth.

  12. Just wanted to say I have no idea what the title of the post has to do with anything. Please explain and blow our minds.

    Also, I downloaded that Save State DosBox, and at first I didn't know how to get a game running through making a short-cut for it before realizing I don't have to because there is a quicklaunch option. I very much appreciated having a menu bar at the top of the Dos window rather than true full screen. Honestly, CA, just keep limiting your saves like you have been and this version feels a lot more comfy (at least when I tested out Dragon Wars, which is actually kind of fun; I don't think I'm much of a manual person, but DWs' manual probably won't seem that thick once I get me a good chunk of time).

    Also, could you include a general plot summary somewhere in your next post (that is if you are understanding how the events connect any better than the time I am having of it). Other than that seems pretty neat so far if a little harsh in combat.

    1. I don't think he has skipped over much actually- the only real story takes place in the mission briefings(a few paragraphs long) or things discovered exploring the pirate bases.

      But a quick wrap-up from memory(story only, ignoring game-play reasons/actions):
      Your squad is made up of new recruits; before they throw you into the thick of the action you get some basic low priority missions they had been putting off- delivering supplies, picking up research specimens, special cargo runs.

      Eventually you get sent out to deal with a group of 5 freighters that had been taken over by hostile forces and have been causing trouble.

      After that, your group is seen as 'ready' to help deal with the epidemic of piracy outside of the civilized triangle. This starts with some investigations of attacks, leading up to locating a hidden starport the pirates have been using to launch their raids from. There you discover information on the main leader of the pirates, calling himself Blackbeard like the pirates of old.

      There was some fallout after the boarding of the starport- a pirate crew tried to follow you back for revenge. After they lost track of your ship, they ended up diverting to their normal planetary raiding; so your team was sent to defeat them. During the battle some extra information was leaked out about a larger pirate base, hidden further away.

      The next mission was to find that base, locate the pirate leader, and kill him. This would leave the pirates without leadership, breaking them down to just scattered raiders without the numbers or organization to be a large scale threat.

      Now that the main threat from the pirates has been reduced, its back to catching up on more ordinary concerns- like a special shipment of anti-toxin from a far off science station hidden outside of the triangle.

      From there, what new challenges will emerge? Stay tuned for the continuing voyages of the intrepid ISS Corsair, in the next episode!

    2. its from the latest Star Trek movie, its bones opinion on space.

    3. Chunkations: I didn't see that movie all that long ago, and I can't believe I don't remember Bones saying that (all I can remember now is that he really, really disliked the idea of going into space).

      Kellandros: Very nicely done. I'll see if I can continue my reading of CA in the episodic sci-fi TV show format for Star Command (what with Killer Croc, that storm/clone trooper, and the hot-water heater and maybe a cameo by Buzz Lightyear... yeah, see the original posting with the title screen, they're there).

    4. Y'know when the new recruits are lifting off into space in the shuttle? He kind of mumbles it then.

    5. Giauz- I think I'm just glad the ship wasn't the ISS Minnow or ISS Penafore; I don't think I could have done that in verse.


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