Saturday, December 14, 2013

Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday: 5


I'm curious if any game has successfully modeled zero-gravity combat. I'm not enough of a physics buff to know exactly what it would look like--not having to arc grenades, flying backwards every time you shoot a weapon, blood droplets zooming through the air--but I know it would be a little different than the Buck Rogers approach, where you're simply told that you're in zero-gravity, but the movement and combat engines otherwise proceed normally. Characters who don't have the "Maneuver in 0G" skill, or who do not successfully make the roll at the beginning of combat, suffer significant penalties.

Technically a role-playing choice, though if you "return to base," you're ordered to go back out and search the ship.

My first exposure to zero-gravity combat came aboard a derelict ship that I found while on my first mission for the New Earth Organization (NEO), scavenging ships for parts and valuables. The ship was organized in to ten 6x6 levels infested with defense robots and "gennies," or genetically-engineered alien life forms. Apparently, the ship's crew had been breeding them but they got out of control.

Note that despite being on a spaceship in the middle of space, I'm somehow facing "north."

The gennies infected my characters with some sort of parasite, causing them to slowly develop a rash, go insane, attack the party, and then fall into a coma. I had to find my way to the sick bay and use clues left by the previous crew to create a cure and a vaccine.


On the top level of the ship, I encountered a sentient hologram calling itself "Scot.DOS" (that would make a good name for a hip-hop artist) who told me the chilling news that RAM had a plot to sterilize Earth and flood it with gennies. Scot.DOS was so appalled by this plan that he decided to defect to NEO, but he was trapped in his console. It was apparently he who released the gennies that destroyed the RAM crew. 


After I repaired his system, things got busy. He directed me all over the ship in an effort to stop the gennies, first by finding canisters of argon gas on the bottom level so I could feed it into the air pumps and kill the creatures, then to fix the life support system when the creatures turned off the air pumps, then a mad rush to a top-level control panel to abort a self-destruct countdown initiated by one of the creatures.


There were several combats along the way, but none terribly difficult, and I'm forced to admit that even in this early stage of the game, I'm relying on "quick combat" (computer control of characters) quite often. When characters only have the ability to shoot at enemies and not much else, the computer does just as well as I do. The one problem is that it seems to target enemies indiscriminately instead of targeting the most dangerous or concentrating firepower on one enemy at a time. I just take over when the foes require that level of logistical effort.

One oddity of the game is that there's no way to treat injuries outside of combat. There's a round of healing at the end of every battle, but if the medic fails to heal everyone then, injured characters will remain injured until perhaps at the end of the next battle, or until returning to the clinic at starport. This has been a problem a couple of times when characters were rendered unconscious and I had no way to revive them except to find another enemy to fight. It's a weird dynamic that makes me wonder if I'm missing something, but there really aren't that many menu options to investigate.

Anyway, after I disarmed the self-destruct, the level came to a scripted end, and I don't think I had time to explore every part of the ship. I suspect I missed out on some encounters, items, and experience. In any event, NEO assigned the ship to me permanently.


The game had been fairly linear up until now, but then it opened up a little. The Commander gave me three pieces of intelligence to check out next: a secret RAM base "near Ceres in the asteroid belt"; a RAM base on Mars that has been seeing high levels of activity lately; and a "manufacturing base" in the "Venusian lowlands." He recommended that I start with the asteroid base, since that's where the ship was programmed to go next.

Leaving spaceport, I found I could now fly just about anywhere in the inner solar system. A map in the game manual gave basic clues as to the location of the asteroid belts and other features, but of course everything is constantly orbiting.


The space atlas (above) and the navigation window (below). I've just encountered an enemy ship.

Your travel is limited by the amount of fuel held by the ship, but a quick return to base provides free fuel, repairs, and medical supplies.

Not long after I began to explore space, I was introduced to the game's ship-to-ship combat system, which so far has been tactical and fun despite occurring on a static screen. At this stage of the game, I like it a bit better than the regular combat system because there are more substantial choices, and it draws directly upon the various skills of the crewmembers--skills in which I clearly haven't invested enough points.

I'll save a detailed review for later, when I better understand everything, but it begins a little like a combination of Pirates! and Pool of Radiance, with the crew encountering enemy RAM vessels randomly in space. (You don't see them on the map). You have the option to hail, attack, and flee. If you hail, you can bluff, intimidate, or ask for help. So far, everything I've done has ended inevitably in combat.

Deep into combat with an enemy raider.

On the combat screen, you see your ship's and the enemy's ships statistics in terms of the hull, sensors, control, life support, fuel, and engines. One character takes "command" of the vessel; I assume that it's best to make that person the rocket jock. Each round, each character has a chance to perform different actions depending on the distance to the enemy, the character's profession, and what's happened in previous rounds. For instance, pilots can close the gap, attempt to ram the enemy vessel, and fire a barrage of weapons. Other characters can fire weapons as well, or load them if they've run out of ammo. Engineers can attempt to "jury rig" (repair) systems, boost engines, or activate the ship's sensors to evaluate the enemy vessel. It's in these areas that my engineers most often fail; I need to allocate a lot more points to "jury rig" as well as "nuclear engine repair" (which boosts engines).

Operating sensors to assess an enemy ship.

Characters who operate weapons can simply fire, doing random damage to any part of the enemy, or target specific systems. Targeting has a lower chance to hit than simply firing, but if you can knock out the engines, you can close and board the enemy ship. I haven't attempted this yet.

The enemy has all the same options, including repairing systems that you've damaged. Their attacks damage your systems and often cause injury to crewmembers. There are fun messages during enemy attacks, like "Starbuck leaps clear of an explosion!" that recall the cheesy bridge scenes on Star Trek and other sci-fi shows.

At the end of combat--at least when you simply blow up the ship--you get a status report, the medic heals injured crew, engineers fix (at least partly) damaged systems, and you can plunder fuel or other goods from the ships. Experience rewards have ranged from 50 to 500 so far (balanced against an average of 50-100 for regular combats).

Repairs and restocking of ammunition, fuel, and medical supplies are free at the Salvation base but cost money at any of the outlying bases on planets and asteroids. So far I haven't found much use for money, so I don't mind having to pay, but it's such a quick jaunt back to the center of the solar system that I'm not sure, if I was trying to be economical, why I would. Bases also offer various bars and restaurants. Owing to the various skills you can develop that have to do with conversation, I thought I'd meet people in these bars and get something akin to the "tavern tales" of the D&D games, but so far they've just taken my money and tossed me out when I'm full.

One of the many asteroid bases, which operate like the "menu towns" of the D&D games.

As I close, I'm in the midst of exploring what appears to be an absolutely enormous base on an asteroid. It's mostly bereft of encounters, so it's turning out to be boring to painstakingly map. I'll have more on that in a bit. My lack of posts in the last week has been due to travel, work, yadda yadda, and not the game, which so far I'm enjoying.
It occurs to me that, for obvious reasons, it would have been awesome if I had been playing a game of this title exactly one year ago. I could have had a lot of fun with the theme. Ah, missed opportunities.


33 comments:

  1. According to the book, there's no skill that will heal during combat. If a character goes unconscious, though, those with healing skills should get an option to apply "Aid," which is similar to "Bandage" from the other Gold-Box games and will keep that character from bleeding to death.

    I don't remember if there were any "med-kits" or anything that get used in this game (I might be remembering my own "Buck Rogers" Unlimited Adventures modules, where I created "med-kits" so that players had the option to heal...but I can't remember if I pulled that option from the games themselves or if I recognized that something was missing from the original games).

    So, it might be important to be tactical in some combats, else you could end up losing. Once the characters start falling, you could see where the tide might turn rather quickly.

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    1. I may have worded it badly. Perhaps what I should have said is that there's no way to manually treat injuries at all (with the exception of using "aid" to prevent someone from dying). The only healing that occurs happens in a single screen at the conclusion of a combat. This means that if you have an unconscious character, the only way to get him back on his feet is to fight another combat and hope he gets healed at the end.

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  2. Well, Chet, you may have made it through a post without a typo. It seems that my services are no longer required.

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    1. Make a typo, someone has to comment. Don't make any typos, someone has to comment.

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    2. Sure, troll the blog owner. That's a great idea.

      Hey, curious, CRPG addict: I thought I saw a Coptic mark on your hand in the Gimlet picture. How much do you think having a connection to a piece of the real ancient world (the Coptic church goes back to Jesus, being led by one of the original five patriarchs) plays a role in your interest in medieval, etc. RPGs?

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    3. Sorry Chet, was trying to celebrate, not be rude.

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    4. Pretty sure "vessle" would count as a typo.

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    5. VERY FAIR. DRUNK SKEEEZIX APPROVES OF ANONYMOUS

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    6. SFG, I think my interest in CRPGs is entirely due to that. Being born with the mark on my hand naturally predisposed me to find Ultima IV attractive when I saw the same symbol on the cover. I have to correct you on one point, though: the ankh doesn't go back as far as the Coptic church. It was, rather, created by an obscure Christian sect called the Millerites in the 1800s.

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    7. Eh? I thought it was an Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet that goes back thousands of years?

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  3. You could heal by going back to the med bay aboard the Maelstrom Rider. In the upcoming parts where you're on a planet, returning to the ship'll heal you as well.

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    1. Very well. But there is still no way to manually heal. This is very odd for a game. Games that don't feature magic usually have medkits or some kind of manually-employable healing ability.

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  4. I actually quite like the healing system. Clerics weren't great as combat healers due to short ranges, casting times, and spell interruption, and the post fight patch ups involved blundering through SSI's menu labyrinth.

    It sucks if you're a man down (which is why some people use dual medics), but it keeps things rolling along nicely 90% of the time.

    It's bound to have been pointed out by now; but space combat is a pain on the PC\HC versions because 90% of your damage output (Kcannons&Missiles) is tied up with one potentially boss-eyed pilot. The PC version over complicates a lot of things for the sake of an illusion of depth.

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  5. I can't speak for *every* game, but as a physicist and an avid gamer (though not as thorough as you or some other gamers) I would venture to guess that there haven't been any *RPGs* that have modeled zero gravity environments in a physically accurate sense.

    Heck, I'd settle for not insisting space vehicles appear to be aerodynamic.... (what exactly is the benefit of an X-wing design when not in an atmosphere again?)

    I've come to grips with having to strongly decouple physics with movies/games to benefit from the entertainment purpose. It's kinda like my borderline-blasphemous realization after taking Russian classes that, despite really liking the character Chekhov (and others) in Star Trek, they did get something quite wrong liguistically...Russian doesn't have an equivalent for the letter "w", and uses the "v" sound all of the time (ironically, including in Chekhov's own name). It is Germans who can sometimes mix up "w" and "v", since they use the opposite symbols for each sound...and the Russians and Germans aren't exactly bosom buddies!

    My point is, sometimes it is best to just ignore some of that "insider knowledge" so I can still get maximal enjoyment, because otherwise I would be missing out on something that is so much more than the details that I realize aren't technically accurate. That said, I think it would be interesting to have an RPG in zero-g that was a bit more realistic...at least throw in inertia, where you spend movement points to make any *change* in movement, otherwise you move exactly as you did last round :)

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    1. What exactly is the benefit of an X-Wing design when _in_ an atmosphere then? =)

      Not caring about aerodynamics frees you up to use the rule of cool, and the X-wing layout with blasters at the ends could have some utility over the form with wings together, you get a bit more spread to the guns while still aiming mostly in the same direction, and may make hitting stuff slightly easier. Plus a long and narrow vehicle could be slightly harder to hit than a short wide one when in a dogfight. =)

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    2. Heck, there's not many space sims that even have realistic physics. Independence War comes to mind with it as an advanced control option (with a big warning sign that it will take a lot of learning), but most of the time space is just air where you don't have to worry about stalling.

      There's a multiplayer-only FPS called Shattered Horizon that does a good job of combat in zero-G, but to do so they include a few things: your suit has thrusters for maneuvering (so you don't accidentally start drifting to eternity) and they use those to compensate when you fire. There's also a grip to surface system to assist with orientation; you can still choose any surface, such as treating the ceiling as the floor. And the whole thing is much harder than any other FPS's I've played because of all the differences from the traditional experiences.

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    3. Fair enough, if you compare X-wing spacecraft to other-wing spacecraft...but my point was to pick a popular winged spacecraft though, and wings definitely are meant to work in an atmosphere only.

      If we could have one that only complied with Newton's Laws, that would be a great start! I'll even settle for the 1st and 3rd laws, since the 2nd law is a lot more general, which could lead to difficulties. Give us inertia and equal & opposite reactions! It could be done abstractly...all under a movement point system. Spend movement points to change how you move, not to implement moves...firing weapons spend a small amount of movement points to compensate for recoil...things like that.

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    4. From what I read in the Star Wars source book, X-Wings were the convertibles of Star Wars universe. The Alliance can only build so many fighters, so, why not have 2-in-1 (star-fighters + fighter jets)?

      The Empire, on the other hand, have way too much resources to bother about these to care. So, they have TIE-Fighters and AT-AT Walkers (and many other stupid useless designs that came from the feverish drug-addled nightmares of some DARPA-like researcher whose family was held hostage if he doesn't come up with terrible shit soon).

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    5. Sounds like you must be a former DARPA employee, Kenny! LOL :)

      It is disheartening to me when I fire up what is otherwise a very good space game like, say, Galactic Civilizations 2, and it gives me a certain number of movement points per turn, which have to be spent even if my ship is moving with the same velocity (speed AND direction) as before. That should actually be "free"...only changes should cost movement points...but I guess that would make the "Go-To" algorithms tougher to implement :)

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    6. I think it's because all these sci-fi games have ships that are travelling at speeds that no longer applies to the physics that we know of. At sub-light speed, yes, there is no change. But at speeds that goes beyond FTL (Faster-Than-Light)? Who knows?

      If I recall a theory on warping, a large amount of energy is required to twist the space-time fabric. So, probably those points that you have to use are not in the sense of travelling how many miles but how many times you have to engage the warp drive to jump from one warp point to another.

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  6. Being a 14 year old nerd, the spaceship combat appealed to me greatly.

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    1. I was never really into sci-fi much as a kid. Most of the time, I'd be watching Red Sonja, Conan The Barbarian, The Beastmaster... anything that gave me the excuse to legitimately say that I'm a fantasy fan and not... y'know... looking at scantily-clad women.

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    2. I wonder what Tanya Roberts is up to these days.

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    3. Being all philanthropist-like with the shit-loads of money that men were throwing at her for the last 30 years.

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  7. Am I correct in thinking that you will only have four more blog entries for this game?

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    1. Won't I have egg on my face if it doesn't work out that way.

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    2. I guess you'll just have to fit as much as you can into each post! I'm sure people don't mind reading a few very long posts for this game...

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    3. And I thought five. As in, zero is the last one.

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    4. No, that would be Doomsday. Meaning Chet failed in his quest and we're all gonna die.

      Unless the Final Rating Post is considered as the last one.

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  8. Loving this one. Thanks for your hard work

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  9. You may have missed out on the deadly plant monster in hydroponics. It was no big deal, but points out some slightly grotesque comedy.

    This part of the game is about being trapped on a deathship.
    You're greeted by a hologram of a mauled man. Your team is infested with brain parasites, the crew is dead, venomous xenomorphs roam the halls, there's a human trap on the plant deck, the xenos can turn into hostile hyperintelligent humanoids who in turn can IIRC take over the ship or destroy it, and you have to join up with a defecting AI to survive.

    And then, when you survive all that, the NEO gives you the ship.

    At this point, the only reason I wouldn't laugh like a maniac and throw it into the sun would be the fear that something might happen to the sun.

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    1. Reminds me of Project Firestart, a pants-crappingly great C64 game.

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    2. I rather missed the forest-instead-of-the-trees view of this map, so I appreciate your summary, Kizor.

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