Thursday, May 24, 2012

Star Command: Upgrading

Meet the new ISS Bolingbroke. I've already managed to overload her.

In a comment a couple of days ago, Giauz suggested that maybe I hadn't done such a great job summarizing the plot of Star Command, so even though Kellandros replied with a good summary, I thought I'd recap. My group of federation officers and noncoms is part of Star Command, the last defense of humanity, whose denizens are confined to a "triangle" drawn among three starports. The frontiers of the triangle (and I talked about the silliness of these two-dimensional terms in my first Star Command posting) are being assailed by three hostile groups: pirates, insect aliens, and robots.

I haven't heard anything about the pirates since I killed their leader, Bluebeard, on a previous mission, nor have I encountered any more of their ships, so I'm assuming I dealt with them. I started to encounter the insect aliens late in the pirate missions, and my latest batch of missions has dealt with them exclusively. Then, towards the end of that batch, I started to encounter robot ships, so I assume the game will progress to this more serious threat.

Shortly after my last posting, I recorded a narrated video to highlight the various gameplay elements. In it, you can see me explore some planets, fight some ships, engage in melee combat, and ultimately sell my old ship and buy an upgraded one. The rest of this posting takes place, in narrative terms, after the video, so watch it if that's your thing. If not, I've put most of this information into my postings already.

The antitoxin mission that I mentioned at the end of my last posting was a bit of a milk run, but I did encounter my first two robot ships at the end of it. It was a good thing that I upgraded my vessel, as they were extremely difficult. More on that in a minute when I get to ship combat. The next mission after that involved the rescue of a princess (Really? Humanity still hasn't progressed beyond monarchy?) who had crash-landed after her ship was beset by aliens.

Sergeant Cowboy developed a bit of a crush for her, but she just called him a "scruffy nerf-herder" and walked off.

The game didn't give me any idea where she was; just that she had recently gone through a black hole. At first, I thought I was going to have to explore every system, but it turns out that the black holes really stand out:

I had no idea that "black holes" were so colorful. And visible.

I explored three of them before I finally found her.

Women get treated like objects even when they're princesses.

The next mission had me investigating reports that the insect aliens were trading with some other ships. These turned out to be more robots, and I destroyed them only after getting killed twice myself. There were a couple of fetch-and-carries after that, but ultimately I got to infiltrate the insects' main base. The game kindly alerted me to the unbreathable atmosphere in the base before I entered.

Ultima just would have killed me.

The base was guarded by a locked door. I've given one of my characters, Gelt, a lot of recon skill, but he never seems to be able to pick any locks. I had to make a couple trips back to starport to get enough chemical torches to finally cut through.

The base turned out to house a bunch of computers. Trying the different options, I was able to get out of them that the insect aliens think humanity is a plague and the insects are the cure. Also, they seem really interested in some psychic energy coming from a particular planet.

My next mission was to investigate that planet. The game tried to screw with me by giving  me the wrong coordinates in my mission. Compare the screenshot above to the one below.

I don't know if that was a bug or if the game just wanted to see if I was paying attention, but in any event I found the base where the energy was coming from. At this point, the game tossed a dungeon at me that I really don't think I'm going to like.

Who would build something like this?!

In the upper-left corner is the "Space Hermit," who has some information for me if I bring him the gems in the other three corners. Passage through the maze is interrupted by robot warriors (bad enough) and radiation traps (even worse). I have a radiation detector, but all it does is help me find the traps. I still have to disarm them at that point, and my scouting character only has a 50/50 success rate. Irradiated characters slowly die until you get them back to the medical bay at a starport, so setting off a trap is an immediate exploration-killer. Why does every damned CRPG have to have poison?

The maze remains where I'm stuck now, so let's talk about ship combat. As I mentioned, I upgraded my ship to a dagger-class escort. There are nine ships in the game, ranging in price from $57,600 to $516,000, and the dagger-class escort is about in the middle. Like everything in this game, however, bigger isn't always better. The most expensive ship, the warrior frigate, carries the most weight and fuel, but pays for it in a lower movement rate and defense bonus.

There are five classes of equipment to buy for the ship: weapons, shields, missile killers, defense systems, and armor. Weapons come in three types: missile weapons, torpedoes, and beam weapons. Beam weapons consume fuel, so I'm not sure if they're ever a good option. I've outfitted the Bolingbroke with three SS-28 "rogue" missile stations, which I think balance damage, weight, and cost. It fires two missiles per round from each weapon, each doing a maximum of 200 damage points. I probably won't get better weapons until I upgrade my ship again, as the ammunition for the better weapons weighs a lot. Some of the better weapons only fire once per round and require more frequent reloads.

For defense, I've got four shield stations, each of which can accommodate one of five types of shields, again increasing in protection and weight along with cost. I filled up the stations with cheap, light shields.

There are three types of missile killers which, as their name suggests, have a chance of blasting incoming missiles. The best only has a 50% chance, though. Armor is the last bit of defense, and it's measured in points. I try to keep the ship at the maximum of 1000. When it goes below 0, you're basically dead in the next couple of shots. Finally, there are five types of "defense systems" that increase your defense and movement bonuses; I was able to buy the most expensive.

All of this new gear has come in handy, because space combat became much more difficult when the robots showed up. Here's me facing one of them after destroying one:

Two things make them difficult: First, they have excellent defense bonuses, meaning that in order to hit them, I have to spend two or three rounds "aiming" at them to increase my attack bonus. That's what Nanelia is doing above. Second, their movement rate matches mine, so there's no hope of fleeing (without jumping to hyperspace, which uses 30 units of fuel) or even maneuvering so that you're fighting only one ship at a time.

Such is my normal strategy. Faced with these four insect ships, for instance...

...I would fly in the direction that my ship is pointing, until I'm away from the enemies. Then I'd turn around and engage the top ship, killing it before his friends could join in. I'd then dance around the edges of the other three ships, taking them one at a time. This isn't possible with the robot ships unless I downgrade to a faster ship, and I can't do that if I want to keep my guns and defensive equipment.

If you didn't already know that this game was made by SSI, you'd probably know from my description of the weapons and combat. I'm hard-pressed to think of any game that I've played on this blog that a) was truly tactical in its combat; and b) was not made by SSI. Wizardry comes closest, but its tactics are mostly about choosing the right spell. Considerations of weight, balancing accuracy and hits, movement rate, offense and defense...SSI has been working to master this since Wizard's Crown. They dumbed it down a bit in Shard of Spring and Demon's Winter, but found almost the perfect balance in complexity with the "Gold Box" series. The tactics in Star Command aren't on par with Pool of Radiance, but they're still quite good--a hell of a lot better than the brute mashing of keys that was Sentinel Worlds.

In the next posting, I'll talk about melee combat (and also about my characters and their skills). I really have no idea how far into this game I am. My highest-ranked character is a commander, which is 6th out of 13 ranks, so perhaps I'm about half way done?


  1. Ugh, that maze looks like hell!

    1. Yeah, I gotta say, the moment I looked at that -thing- on my screen my first reaction would be "NOPE." and a quick alt-F4.

    2. It wasn't as bad as it looked. I got through it in about 40 minutes.

    3. Think about how long it would've taken in first person view. (shudder)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. "Women get treated like objects even when they're princesses."

      Not really when this particular princess has 4 arms, 12 tentacles (instead of legs) for movement, 18 eyes, sustains on a diet of space debris, reproduces multi-sexually and weighs 4 metric tonnes.

    2. HEY. What is wrong with constitutional monarchies? *Glares at Chet, points to Canada's governmental system*

    3. Well, if, say, Princess Beatrice of York decided she was going to try to negotiate with the Taliban personally and managed to get herself stranded in Afghanistan, and a team of Canadian soldiers had to risk their lives to extract her, how would you feel about constitutional monarchy then?

    4. Depends; If she is actually a trained negotiator, sure, why not? Most of the royals have jobs these days, and one of them is actually in the military and served in Afghanistan. If she was just being random, then no, I don't think she should get special consideration over a normal civilian.

    5. I understand the Canadian SAS are pretty badass (former US Army)...I keep reading your comment above
      HEY. What is wrong with constitutional monarchies? *Glares at Chet, points to Canada's governmental system*
      and I keep giggling...

    6. SAS are British, and yes they are badass. Canada has JTF2, who are also badass. However, they are 100% Canadian. They cross-train with the US, but actually got a reputations for showing the US up when working together in Afghanistan, as I understand it.

  3. Well, SSI does stand for Strategic Simulations, Inc.

    I must say, this is the type of game that I think could really benefit from a modern UI and larger screen. Lots of hotkeys, configurable windows, more diverse terrign when attacking ships...
    You hear people say that only graphics have improved, but am I the only one seeing what potential this style of game has?

    1. I'd like to see more games like this; of course, then I'd need more time to play them as well.

    2. Troll-bait accepted!

      Yes, you are. =p

    3. Why was that a troll? Canageek is right; graphics have improved, but so has usability and just general information display.

      Some of these old games were just brutal in the number of random keys you have to memorize and the difficulty in getting at information that you need to make decisions.

      Easily compared does not mean simplistic. You could be trading off weight, speed, offense, defense, etc but have the different options displayed side-by-side, or you could have to jump through multiple layers of menu to hop between the two number lists and end up just writing it down on a piece of paper.

    4. For a great example compare the interfaces of X-COM and UFO: Alien Invasion, the open source remake.

      X-COM is clunky; You can't see things easily, inventory is a pain, and you have to reassign weapons all the freaking time.

      UFO:AI isn't great, but it is a lot better. You get lines between what you are shooting at and the character, can manage your base's inventory much more easily, assign gear to troops more easily, etc.

      Another example: Civilization. Look at the interface for Civ I and II. You needed a giant book by your side to look up what each tech did, and what it would unlock. Later ones simply show you a tree, and you can click on any tech and it shows you what it does.

      Also; things like Goto City, Improve this city (And other worker-automation features), the ability to order groups of units to move to a location all at once (Vs. manually moving each unit) and the fact it has a built in alarm clock to tell you to stop and go to bed....

  4. Yeah, I did try tot hint about that maze. it is slightly less bad than it looks- there is only one path through the thing and you get a complete overhead view at least.

    I doubt you need the hint at this point, but your route goes from NW to the SE corner first, then from there you have separate paths N and W to the other corners.

    Quick minor points: Blackbeard not Bluebeard for the pirate leader; and 40 units of fuel to hyperspace not 30(just want to make sure you don't get accidentally stranded).

    On the coordinates- it is trying to see if you were paying attention; on at least one more mission will it fudge the coordinates to force you to explore.

    Increases in rank are entirely random in my experience, the only benefit is more money(but hey that is a nice benefit in this game).

    You are probably approaching 2/3 of the way through the game, but space combat is going to get tougher as time goes on now. Sorry.

    Just to make sure- you are 'U'sing the Motion Detector and Radiation Detector? And you have a medkits in the possession of the character with Medical skill to at least offset the damage taken?

    On the robots- I'm pretty sure it is impossible to out-move them- your current ship should be at maximum movement rate(especially with the defensive hardware you picked; it gives bonus move to make up for slower larger ships) which caps out at 6 movement rounds max. I wonder if it is even possible to board them. And there are bigger and nastier robot ships out there too.

    Strange as it sounds, it is possible to 'trick' fast/equally fast ships on movement- they keep reacting to what you do, so if you mix in a turn of movement in the opposite direction you can occasionally get a one square difference. But they tend to get back to their preferred distance pretty quick. At the very least moving sideways can help get them on one side of your ship.

    There are roughly 3 classes of ship out there that are impossible to out move and run away from; hyperspace or a fight to the death are the only options.

    There is also one more species out there, but they are generally more trouble than they are worth(their ships are absurdly heavy and tough, but don't give you the full destroy/capture bounty pirates/insects do).

    Don't forget to look for the planets with Machine life for espionage missions for more cash.
    One more piece of future advice- if possible you want your Esper to Rank 7 skill soon for the mapping ability- it helps you find your way through bases easier and see what is ahead, plus one other secondary reason that saves quite a bit of guesswork.

    1. As always, I appreciate the hints that avoid spoilers.

      Yes, I think I've already encountered the faster, tougher robot ships. Clearly, I need another ship upgrade, but I can't imagine I'll have the money any time soon.

      By the other species, I assume you mean the lizards. They've been a bit of a pain.

      Yes, I have motion detectors and radiation detectors active. I always FIND the traps, but my marine doesn't always disarm them.

      I just solved a puzzle using the Esper's VIEW ability that involved a password hidden in the walls. That was kind of dumb.

    2. Didn't want to spell out that puzzle directly.

      I think you are reaching what I consider the tipping point on space combat- the enemy out-guns you, is tougher, and is faster.

      The amount of firepower to kill a robot fighter is pretty high, and they can tear your ship up badly while trying to do so. Generally at that point I just run away unless you have to fight for a mission or the enemy is smaller than you.

      The lizard ships weigh 700 tons- well over the size of anything else you see. The amount of armor they carry is absurd, trying to blow one up with guns takes forever- and for some reason is only worth 2,800 credits(by the manual it should be 28,000).

      BTW- how is your galaxy mapping going on? I was thinking this morning about sending you my list of refueling planets(but its on my home not work computer). Going south through the right-most screen of insect territory, I was finding a planet selling fuel in almost every other sector.

      Secondly, I really need to re-download this game and install it fresh- I keep forgetting about those difficulties in bases(if you were to start over with a fresh party without reinstalling, everything you have explored would be mapped, traps disarmed and doors unlocked, fixed encounters mostly killed). From laziness of avoiding reinstalling, I've gotten used to a game world with most of the challenges pre-cleared.

    3. For mapping or ease of travel, a collection of coordinates of planets that sell fuel. Most are on a route through insect territory towards the unknown reaches.

      23,25 s6 p1
      23,25 s5 p1
      19,25 s1 p5
      21,25 s2 p4
      22,24 s6 p1
      23,23 s1 p1
      23,21 s2 p1
      22,19 s3 p4, p5
      24,19 s1 p4; s5 p1; s3 p6

      18,25 s1 p3
      18,24 s4 p6, p2
      17,22 s2 p6; s5 p4
      19,21 s6,p2

      19,26 s1,p2
      18,25 s1,p3
      15,26 s6,p2; p1

      17,19 s9,p2

  5. I used to make mazes like this for fun and then solve them myself later on. One summer vacation I made a whole notebook full of stuff like that.

    I had fun solving this, but it's a bit simple. Are there any other interesting areas, or just the corners?

    Path in Green:,N7kED#0
    Path in Brown:,N7kED#1

    It seems the color palette was a little weird with these images. I could only color in brown, white, black, and green.

    1. Better links


    2. That's awesome, Zenic! I'll try to remember to link to these from my main post next time, so other players can benefit (if they don't read the comments).

  6. "Ultima just would have killed me."

    Obviously, Britannia's (or are we talking about Ultima 1's version, Sosaria?) magic was not "sufficiently advanced" enough to do something as specific as tell you your party will die in the next few seconds after proceeding from your "ship" (depending on which Ultima this could be the literal or the space version, of course).

    Also, CA, I hope you understand that although only a few things have transpired so far (from what I gather from your and Kellandro's summaries), all the smaller segments of these events and supplementary stuff like science missions spread out over the last few postings I did get a little lost.

    The recaps are greatly appreciated, and I am hopeful there is some over-arching plot going on versus something like Alternate Reality, where you eventually run out of new things to do.

    Whether or not there is a "big picture" at game's end, I have to say I am enjoying the ride, especially the detail that has been put into the terms of combat.

    1. I agree: Plot recaps are great. I never really figured out what was going on in Wasteland.

    2. I've completed Wasteland three times, and I'm not really clear about what is going on in Wasteland. Just that Christina loves ripping clips, and I was surprised at the lack of robot killers when I went to Las Vegas a few years back.

      I've been enjoying this series too, and the recaps help a lot.

  7. It looked like my kind of game. So I tried it.

    Unfortunately the tactical approach is too much dumbed-down for my taste.
    The fact that enemy react to your move, mean you cant flank them or attack them where they have no weapon, or shield. Plus you dont know if they have any shield or weapon on which side.

    And the money grinding is awfully long and boring. And having no reward (no xp, no scavenge , no weapon or ammo, no credit) from land combat is sad for a rpg. Especially considering how deadly that can be.

    I was pretty happy with laser ship weapon: you spend fuel instead of ammo which I think can save you money and weight. And more useful: you dont have to reload.

    It seems you didnt read the manual, some of the question you're asking in the video are in the manual.

    1. I had warned him off the energy weapons initially- in the early game your ship has limited fuel to barely make the round trips to destinations outside the triangle. Unless you realize alternate ways to get fuel, it potentially can leave you stranded.

      In the middle game with a bigger ship, energy weapons are probably great. Towards the end, I'm used to having to try multiple times to hyperspace out of a combat against an overwhelming enemy(burning 40 fuel each time), so I tend to prioritize saving every bit of fuel possible.

      There is a small amount of reward from land/ground combat- there is a summary screen that flashes up after the enemy is defeated, but disappears almost too fast to read(unless you really want to crank down the time delay factor and then have the game run way too slowly). I think I've seen rewards of a few thousand credits- not much, but not completely nothing.

      But in general you are correct that ground combat is almost entirely risk and attrition with little reward.

      There is a little tactical maneuvering you can do(mainly terrain type bonuses or using impassable terrain to avoid melee attacks), but nowhere near the options in many other games of this era.

      On money grinding- all you should have to do is find about 5-10 weak ships to board and capture on the first few missions. That gives a nice starting supply of cash in order to skip incremental upgrades(which really drain your money supply).

      But on your first time playing the game you are probably just going to follow the actual missions the game gives you- which ends up cutting down your income(because getting done faster pays you fewer month's salary, not to mention the capture bonuses). And as you progress through the missions, you'll slowly see the size and number of your enemies increase, making combat more costly.

  8. I laughed out loud at "Will you accept a shipment of Princess Versilda?"

  9. Seems like a game.

    Ive got a shipment of princesses for a C.Warner. Where do you want them?

    1. The castle tower would be fine. I hear they're good for breaking sages' seals, and I could use a vacation in The Dark World.

  10. Any word on the whole Andrew Schultz biz? Or are you waiting for another post to tell us all what happened?

  11. Finally had a full break to watch your video.

    In the space combat, you ended up rapid firing when his gun only had the ammunition for normal firing- I think you noticed afterward. But in that case you got all of the downside(half accuracy) and no upside(no extra shots could be fired).

    Quick suggestion is to by default aim instead of waiting- if for some reason they didn't die then your next guy in line gets a better shot next round.

    The mindshock failure thing bugs me too; it seems to happen when the majority of the enemies have already been killed. There isn't a range limit on mindshock.

    If you just have one guy left to kill, I would have suggested walking up and having your Esper just attack with a hand-to-hand weapon and save your ammunition at that point. Plus another communication phase, and them watching your party slowly amble towards them, might have made him surrender on a second try.

    Also, after the 2nd ship boarding 3 of your squad's weapons were out of ammo. If you use the 'Load'/'Reload' command on the ship(or map screen), it will reload those personal weapons as well so they are ready for next combat; in addition to your ships weapons. At the very least it saves you a round of combat.

    The 3rd ship encounter(Insect Patrol Ships): because your ship lost so much armor, it is now lighter and less overloaded. When you buy armor, it will list how many points of armor make up a ton of weight(bigger ships will be higher). So you had less movement penalty. You can use the C- 'Scan' option to see positions of ships that are out of visual range.

    Armor removal- doesn't give you any money back unfortunately. When you sell your ship, it will actually give you money back for any equipment left on the ship(the middle row of the sell ship results screen); I don't recall if the money back is any worse than selling each part individually.

    1. Huh. I just watched that again. You're right; that rapid fire thing was pretty stupid.

      I had this idea that "reload" in space only worked on the ship's weapons. I didn't realize they also reloaded the melee weapons.

      I've done a poor job playing this game, where my blogging has been lagging behind my playing. Unfortunately, I'd won before I read this last round of tips, but I hope they help people who read the blog later.

  12. Just thought I'd point out some RPGs on Kickstarter I'm backing, in case anyone else wanted to join in:

    Lodestar: Stygian Skies - Tactical Science Fiction RPG:
    It seems to be a graphics light, polygon based hard SF RPG. It mentions OGL (D20/D&D) rules, and is tactically based similar to X-COM or Final Fantasy Tactics. Minimum cost to get the game is $16, has 20 days left in the Kickstarter, and needs more people if it is going to succeed. Linux, then Windows. Mac as a stretch goal.

    Xenonauts: Basically X-Com, but modern. This game has been around a while, attempting to do Kickstarter before Kickstarter was around by selling access to the dev builds and offering a very low price. The price is a little higher now, I believe, but still a good deal ($20). The game is fully funded, and unlike a lot of the other games you can be certain this one will get made, as there are dev versions out, it is getting close to the finish and they've been working on it for years. They've hit the first strech goal and are $3000 short of the second, which is indoor missions. 15 days left.

    Ok, this isn't an RPG, but given how much crossover there is between here and Trickster's blog...
    Portal (1986) Reborn. Portal was an interactive, experimental fiction "game". I played a port of the C64 version for windows, and it is an amazing bit of fiction dealing with things such as singularity, AI and what it means to be human years before such things were common in science fiction. Now they want to make a 3d adventure game out of it. Sadly, due to the obscurity of the original funding isn't going well, so chances are I'm not going to get to play it unless a bunch of people join up suddenly (Trending is 11% of the goal, down from 20% when I joined, so I'm hoping a few of you are really rich and hard science fiction fans).
    Would it help if I've said I've now pledged more to this project then any other Kickstarter? The original was that awesome.

    1. While we're talking Kickstarter projects, I suggest checking out Storybricks. I mentioned it in my blog, but here gets more traffic. Hope you don't mind Chet. I'm in no way affliated with this project:

  13. 6,19 vs 5,20? Both are off by one, which could be a math error in a random generation algorithm. Off by one errors are one of the most common problems when programming (Flip a plus to a minus, loose track of how many times a loop happens...). Now, the fact they are off in different directions makes this less likely, but who knows how they get the number.
    This does assume that the game uses randomly generated coordinates.

    Also the lizard ships worth 10x less then the manual? I'm betting on a mistyped 0; Easy to do, and hard to notice on a long string of 0s like that, since you can't put in spaces or commas.

  14. Canageek- pretty sure it was intentional; there are several times where you get coordinates inside a base or event(Blackbeard's base, early mention of another location that will come up soon, the space hermit's maze). The mission afterwards won't always give exact coordinates down to the planet.

    There are a few versions of each mission and mission text, but the placements of special locations are not randomized.


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