Friday, December 27, 2013

Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday: Final Rating


Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Graeme Bayless, Bret Berry (project leaders)
Released 1990 for Amiga, C64, and DOS; 1991 for Sega Genesis
Date Started: 7 December 2013
Date Ended: 24 December 2013
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 46
Ranking at Time of Posting: 102/123 (83%)

I wonder how my opinion of this game would vary had I ever watched the Buck Rogers TV shows or film serials or read the comics or books. Lacking any of this history, I didn't feel particularly invested in the setting, and I couldn't fill in the edges of the game with a solid understanding of the oeuvre.

It seems like a strange setting for a role-playing game, mostly because the franchise doesn't seem to be about the setting so much as Buck Rogers himself. The world, its factions, and its technologies have changed quite significantly from the franchise's inceptions, but the core appeal seems to be the fish-out-of-water story in which Buck, a man from our time and with our values, has to adapt to a very different world--or make it adapt to him. A role-playing game has to allow for other characters within this world--characters who aren't part of the same dynamic. For those characters, then, the setting is what really matters, and I found Buck Rogers to be a little anemic in this area. Sure, it has futuristic weapons and space travel and whatnot, but it lacks a real "core" to its mythology and technology.

It seems clear that the role-playing game only came about because Lorraine Williams ran TSR and owned the rights to the Buck Rogers franchise at the same time. When the tabletop RPG was issued in 1988, the television series had been off the air for seven years and it had featured a different universe anyway. I wonder how much of a market there really was for a generic sci-fi RPG in which the titular character was, at best, an NPC. I'm having trouble finding any information on how well the tabletop RPG was received at the time, but modern reviews are lukewarm at best. Blogger Julian Perez notes quite fairly that:

It's not like the character has a built-in fanbase the way Indiana Jones or the Marvel superheroes have. Buck Rogers is one of those characters, along with Paul Bunyan, where everybody's heard of him, but nobody really cares about him.

In short, it was an odd choice for an RPG and thus an odd choice for a computer game based on the RPG. Almost everything I liked about the game was due to the Gold Box engine rather than anything specific to Buck Rogers. Even in the few episodes in which Buck Rogers appeared, he seemed like a boring character. For this reason, I expect the GIMLET to come out a bit below the D&D Gold Box titles. (Check out my final ratings of Curse of the Azure Bonds or Champions of Krynn for comparison.)

I thought Buck Rogers was supposed to be something like a reckless cowboy. This is just embarrassing.

1. Game World. I spent most of the above paragraphs discussing this, so I won't belabor it here. I praise it for offering a thorough back story with some original elements, but I criticize it for being a somewhat boring setting without terribly interesting technologies. The one exception is the "digital personalities" who were not well-described or integrated into the game. I never even got to directly encounter the putative bad guy, Holzerhein. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. We're basically looking at the standard AD&D system with different races and classes plus the addition of various skills. The skills were not particularly well-implemented. Too many of the important-sounding ones were never used, or were used only once in the game, with success or failure dependent on a single roll, with no option to try again. I'm a bit baffled why the franchise doesn't feature more weapon-specific skills (the warrior gets some weapon proficiencies, but no one else does). Despite the game's assurance that I would find "etiquette," "sing," "fast talk," and "act" useful at various bars and such, I never encountered any use for them. Ditto "tracking," "shadowing," "repair weapon," and "mathematics." I don't doubt that there were individual occasions in which they were helpful, and perhaps I just missed them, but the point is that skills that require so much investment but come into play only once or twice in the game are somewhat useless.

In general, the lack of spellcasting or other special abilities (e.g., turn undead) makes the AD&D system poorly-suited to this setting, and the skills don't compensate for it. I also only found one place in the game (the Desert Runners' village) in which the choice of race, sex, or class made any difference. Score: 4.

3. NPC Interaction. Not bad. There are some NPCs who join you at various points in the game, including Buck Rogers himself. Some of them, like the Sun King, are memorable. There are a few locations in which you can have almost entire conversations with NPCs, with dialogue options that offer role-playing choices, and significant consequences for the party in terms of how the subsequent maps progress. Score: 5.

I rather hope he was captured in the explosion.

4. Encounters and Foes. Like many of the other Gold Box games, Buck Rogers does a reasonably good job offering frequent encounters with some light role-playing choices. Some of the choices are pretty obvious (save the children from drowning or walk away) but still better than nothing.

I didn't love the enemies offered by the game. There aren't many different types, and lacking spells and (with one or two exceptions) special attacks, they mostly appear to me as a series of faceless mooks. There aren't many ways to adjust tactics and strategy to specific enemies. On the plus side, there's a good balance between random and fixed encounters, and plenty of opportunities for grinding. Score: 5.

The Gold Box games are some of the few to offer options like this.
 
5. Magic and Combat. As I discussed extensively a few posts ago, the Gold Box engine remains a great tactical combat engine, but this game doesn't offer enough options and equipment to benefit from the engine's full capabilities. You understand that I'm not suggesting that a science-fiction RPG ought to feature spells, but rather that both the AD&D rules and the Gold Box engine are optimized for a world in which spells exist. Their absence in a sci-fi RPG is entirely sensible, but the game needed to offer something else in replacement, such as more special equipment or more options with the weapons.

The one real tactic in Buck Rogers is the ability to shape the terrain with chaff grenades and aerosol mist grenades. For 99% of the game, I didn't understand how they worked properly and missed out on those options. It makes me feel a little better about the game but not great.

Space combat is an interesting addition to the engine, and I think it works better here than in most of the other sci-fi RPGs we've seen on the blog, but it's still not a great system. The options are too few and the course of each battle is too predictable. Score: 4.

The enemies always threw the defensive grenades on themselves. I didn't know that wasn't how you were supposed to do it.

6. Equipment. Also a bit disappointing. There are a sensible variety of weapons and a small selection of armor and accessories (e.g., goggles that protect against dazzle grenades). Again, since this is a sci-fi RPG, I didn't expect scrolls, wands, potions, and whatnot--but I did expect some analogous replacements, and they just weren't there. What about force fields to protect against explosive weapons? Gravity boots to compensate for low "Maneuver in Zero-G" skills? Stims to temporarily increase attributes? Med kits? Ship upgrades? With some more thought into equipment, the game could have compensated for the otherwise-limited tactics dictated by the loss of spells. There also aren't any cool "artifact" weapons or any major equipment-related rewards for quests and tough combats. The lack of imagination in this area is a little baffling. Score: 3.

I wish every game had a table like this.

7. Economy. I hold out hope that one day the Gold Box series will get it right, but this game didn't even come close. There was absolutely no purpose to either of the dual-economies that the game offered, mostly because none of the stores sold any equipment worth buying. Every battle produced more and more credits, and they only thing I ever spent them on were some ammo reloads and an occasional drink. Salvage credits, which you get from space combat, are similarly worthless because everything they buy you can get for free on the Salvation base. Score: 2.

8. Quests. The game excels here. The main quest to destroy RAM's doomsday device is suitably epic and features enough original elements that I was always interested to see the plot unfold. There are no options for the quest's end, but there are plenty of options as to how you approach each of the key maps and the decisions you make at each stage. I liked that you could approach each of the three main stages (the Mars base, the Venus base, and the asteroid base) in any order. I particularly liked the large number of side-quests, and judging by the walkthroughs I consulted post-game, I didn't get to experience more than half of them. The SSI Gold Box games remain some of the few of the era to offer true side quests. Score: 6.

I love the juxtaposition. "You must save the children from the fire. In the meantime, have a cocktail."

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. All quite good. The cut scene graphics in the series continue to get better and more artfully composed, and the enemy and party icons were better than we typically see in the D&D games. The corridors remain bland and featureless. The sound was good enough that I didn't turn it off. The keyboard interface remains very easy and intuitive. Score: 6.

I wish the text in the game had offered as compelling an atmosphere as the images.

10. Gameplay. The game was almost the perfect length, and although I eventually found combat a little boring, I can't say I was ever bored with the game overall. Between the opening sections on Earth and the endgame on Mercury, there was a satisfying non-linearity, and the side-quests give it some additional replayability. Though I was frustrated by a few tough combats, on the whole the difficultly level was pitched just right. Score: 6.

The final score of 46 sits 14 points below Curse of the Azure Bonds and 10 points below Champions of Krynn. As I said before, most of my satisfaction with the game comes from the Gold Box engine itself, but this setting didn't make the best use of that engine, and it simply doesn't strike me as a great setting for an RPG in the first place.

I'm not the only one to think so: even SSI seems to have had some qualms. In Dungeons and Desktops, Matt Barton quotes SSI technical director Keith Brors as saying that "the company was pressured by TSR into developing their Buck Rogers computer game against their better judgment." Barton praises certain innovations in the game, like the skill system and the weapons logistics, but I found both to be good ideas that were poorly-implemented.


In 1992, we'll see the story continue in Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed, which only came out for DOS and apparently got quite poor reviews. I'll try to avoid learning anything else about it before I play.

Next, we'll check out the Hellfire Warrior adaption of the Dunjonquest engine before I have to head back to my Amiga emulator for Lords of Chaos.


41 comments:

  1. I think you would have enjoyed the game more if you had prepared better, and if you had explored more thoroughly. There are places in the Asteroid Belt where you can buy grenades and other useful items, for example.

    I think Countdown to Doomsday was one of the best CRPGs of 1990, but one of the weaker Gold Box games, with only two GB games I think are definitely weaker.

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    1. Which two do you find weaker?

      I thought this game was okay. I didn't play the second, since this was basically just a placeholder for me while I was waiting for the next GB game.

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    2. I found Gateway to the Savage Frontier (too easy and poor encounter design, with the final battles being the only highlight of the game) and Matrix Cubed to be weaker.
      I thought Countdown to Doomsday was okay too; on par with Secret of the Silver Blades.

      If I were to rank the Gold Box games, it would look like this:
      Dark Queen of Krynn
      Pools of Darkness
      Curse of the Azure Bonds
      Death Knights of Krynn
      Pool of Radiance
      Treasures of the Savage Frontier
      Champions of Krynn
      Countdown to Doomsday
      Secret of the Silver Blades
      Gateway to the Savage Frontier
      Matrix Cubed

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    3. Oh, and I visited every shop in the asteroid belt. There wasn't a single one that sold explosive weapons or grenades. If you can point me to one, I'll retract my comment and give a higher score to the category, but otherwise my statement stands: everything that's sold in shops can be found plentifully in random combats, making the economy useless.

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    4. According to the Shop List in the FAQ at http://www.gamefaqs.com/pc/564769-buck-rogers-countdown-to-doomsday/faqs/9745:

      Hygeia (Space)
      Cutlass – 200 Credits
      Grenade Launcher – 1000 Credits
      Heat Gun – 1000 Credits

      Juno (Space)
      ECM Package – 200 Credits
      Dazzle Grenade – 200 Credits
      Aerosol Mist Grenade – 200 Credits
      Stun Grenade – 200 Credits
      Chaff Grenade – 200 Credits

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    5. All of those items are available in copious numbers after combats, with perhaps the exception of the "ECM Package," which I found exactly two of in stores. The items that I really needed to buy were explosive grenades, rocket launchers, and plasma rifles.

      Delete
  2. Buck Rogers 2 has less combat, more NPC interaction. Do you consider that a good thing or a bad thing?

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    1. It has less combat? That sure was not my experience. It is the only GB game I have not completed, due to excessive random enocunter frequency, and the enemies having the same names as in the first game, but with bloated HP and improved THAC0.
      I only played until exploring the wilds of Venus, though.

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    2. I would generally consider it a good thing. I like a good balance of combat and NPC interaction in games, and few games of this era really offer that balance.

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  3. This was the first gold box game I played, so that and the turn based spaceship combat overwhelmed me.The quests and story are also good.

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  4. First, I will say that whether you had experience with Buck Rogers in the past or not, it wouldn't have mattered. The SSI version is completely different (and a much more serious take) on the story. In fact, the RPG probably works better than this game because the source books do a really good job of fleshing out the setting.

    The boxed version of the game came with a free "Buck Rogers" novel (which I never read because I owned the RPG set already), which I assume was to help acclimate people to the setting.

    Also, why wouldn't throwing the grenades on yourself be the right way to use them? Yes, you can apparently exploit the system by forcing enemies not to shoot their weaponry at you, but what happens when they move out of the cloud? Throwing it on yourself is the best way to insure that you're protected, since you're the one that controls when you move, so you can keep yourself in the cloud...you can't guarantee that your enemies will do the same.

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    1. Because that's not how people use grenades! XO

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    2. SSI's take is far from the most serious. Buck Rogers got campy in the old serials, being very ray-gun oriented, and in some of the later, colour comics, but he started quite serious in the original short story and comic adaptation.

      As a note, Canada was one of the places that still held out in the original comic.

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  5. I skipped reading up on this in case there were any spoilers for the Genesis version. I suspect it's a bit different based on screen shots, but better safe. Looking forward to the other games on the list, and coming back to this later.

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  6. Your ratings seems a bit too harsh, based on a few of your points:
    -I thought the unique creatures and ecosystems of Venus and Mars were well very done at the time, deserving of a higher game world score.
    -A few skills (Mathematics) are prerequisite only, and a few others aren't used in this game, as mentioned in the log book.
    -All other skills are used at least one or twice in the game, and I don't think you can expect more use, considering the length of the game. It really sounds like you missed too many of the side quests.
    -NPCs have never been a strong point of Gold Box games, but I thought having to rescue and protect Zane on Venus, until he could be reunited, was a good aspect added.
    -How to use the various grenades is explained in the log book ,and where grenades can be bought is hinted at in the quick reference card.
    -Tactics are even more important, because you need to know the right weapons to use against enemies. Many enemies are immune to several weapon types, so first encounters can be tougher.
    -You seem to be wanting fantasy style equipment, which wouldn't make sense in this sci-fi settings. Magnetic boots wouldn't be helpful inside, and I expect any type of stims would be illegal in this game world.
    -There are rare Lunarian weapons in the game at least, which are more powerful.
    -Salvage credits can be quite useful, because it isn't always possible to get back to Salvation base without further space battle. Although I expect the chance of space battles depends on the level chosen.

    You really need to read the manuals to get the most out of any of the Gold Box games.

    I thoroughly enjoyed playing through this game, when it was first released. And I wish SSI had released more games in the Buck Rodgers series, the sci-fi adventures were a really good change of setting.

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    1. Although the first quest in the derelict was fun, the game was a straight out mess. Warriors were the only character class of any real value, though you still want at least one rocket jock and one medic. I got through the second game with five warriors and one medic, crashing into port every time I showed up elsewhere due to my lack of a rocket jock, but taking advantage of the free repairs at NEO base. The game does not have enough skill checks to justify all the other support character classes, and combat is too prevalent to be carrying around the dead weight of an engineer or rogue who can't hit the broad side of a barn. The later parts of the Buck Rogers games fall into a question of who gets initiative first in order to wipe out the other side with rocket attacks.

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    2. That reminds me on the other thing I hated about Matrix Cubed: having to re-equip the heavy weapons every second round, and after every battle. If you forgot to re-equip after combat you had to waste one round equipping those weapons.

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    3. My point was that the Gold Box engine was created and optimized with a complex spell system in mind. If you're going to offer a non-fantasy RPG using the same engine, you need something analogous to replace the spell system, or you need to offer a different engine. A couple of defensive grenades and a couple of times where you need to change weapons simply doesn't cut it.

      OF COURSE I can ask for more use of the skill system given the length of the game. Once or twice? That's enough for you? The skill system should have been balanced to the length of the game. The reason it wasn't was because the game offers a literal adaptation of the tabletop RPG rules. I understand why SSI had to do that, but that still doesn't make a good game. I'm sick to death of the excuse that something existed in the tabletop edition of D&D or AD&D1 or AD&D2 or Buck Rogers XXVC to include a bad element in the computer version of the game. Computer games have to stand on their own.

      Three of my top 10 highest-rated games are Gold Box titles. You really need to read my blog more if you think I need a condescending lecture on how to best approach a Gold Box game.

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    4. That is the problem, you seem to be rating the game engine more than the game itself. You don't need a spell type in a sci-fi setting. You keep bring up the fantasy games from SSI in comparison, which shouldn't be relevant at all.

      Combat offers defensive and offensive options, and knowing the best weapons to use can make a difference again many creatures.

      Each of the skills used in the game, can make a difference in various locations, which is enough for me. That is better than having only a few skills available, or lots of completely unused skills.

      I expect more games were planned, which would have expanded on skills use even more, but unfortunately there was only a single sequel.

      Never played the table top RPGs, so I can't compare at all. My comments are based on the computer games only.

      Several of your points are based off not reading the manuals, so of course you are going to get criticized on those points.

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    5. I liked the game, but there are way too many dull combats where you just throw back missile weapons at each other. Granted Pool of Radiance, for example, had quite a few dull fights where you wait for each of 30 orcs or skeletons to take their turn doing nothing, but it is worth mentioning.

      For me, it's like the Gold Box game I never got to play as a teenager, and I wonder how the assault robots would do against a beholder...

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    6. I have to agree that games where one broken overpowered class (in this case, warriors) completely dominates all others deserve a downgrade in their review for lack of balance.

      Just because it can be fun to break a game with a "munchkin" setup (when I play I'm definitely going 4 warriors 1 rocket jock 1 medic - thanks Deuce Traveler!) doesn't mean we should go any easier on it when judging its combat engine.

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    7. @Kirben - IMHO, Chet had been way too lenient. No matter how great the game's idea is, being built using an incompatible engine is like trying to shove a golden cube into a triangular shit hole - even though it shines, it still stinks.

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    8. Kirben, brining up fantasy games is relevant becuase the Gold Box engine was designed FOR fantasy games, and Buck Rogers made use of it despite the limited tactics the Gold Box engine offered in the BR setting. I don't know why this point is so hard to grasp.

      We'll just have to disagree on the skill thing. Imagine if Skyrim had offered the entire lockpicking tree but only three chests to lockpick in th entire game. I think playres would be deservedly upset.

      I DID read the manuals. Was this not obvious from my summary of the back story? My numerous references to the manual in the postings? My inclusion of a screenshots from the manual? Manuals for games of this era are a) quite long, and b) mostly gibberish until you've actually played the game, which means you really need to read them more than once. What you're criticizing is not my failure to read the manual but my failure to remember every aspect of the manual. I'm glad you have an eidetic memory, but I don't.

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    9. "I'm sick to death of the excuse that something existed in the tabletop edition of D&D or AD&D1 or AD&D2 or Buck Rogers XXVC to include a bad element in the computer version of the game."

      This is an area I thought the modern Neverwinter games did a good job with. There were still some bits from the tabletop rules that didn't quite fit, and several worthless crafting skills, but overall the skills there were all useful in obvious ways.

      Delete
    10. I accidentally a word or two in that paragraph you quoted, but I guess everyone got the idea.

      Delete
  7. I own and may still have TSR tabletop game but I never actually played it. For me, the fun part was the universe. It was very detailed and contained pages and pages of history, maps, social and economic conditions, cities/planets/biology and the engineering that made it all this possible (The space elevators on each planet were just the coolest idea) not to mention it was so deliciously retro. Mind you I was in the habit of buying modules and games I would never play just for the crazy worlds they presented and BR didn't disappoint in that area. I don't think any amount of movie or TV watching would allow someone to fully appreciate the universe as there was so much more then the TV/Movies ever show. Perhaps a big Buck Rogers comic book collector would enjoy it. The crpg contains so many winks and nods and plot elements from the table top, you almost had to own TSR game to get the full experience and the setting (could that have been the plan?). Buck Rogers himself was a rather 2 dimensional hero type, Boring really, except for his back story and his .45 (the bullets were so low tech the ignored modern ECM and force fields), you think NEO would have caught on and made more of these "guns"

    Cheers

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    1. Familiarity with the tabletop RPG would definitely enhance the experience of playing the game. Most of what you describe--particularly the technology--simply doesn't come through in the game's allusions.

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  8. The game read somewhat better than this score. But then you gave the highest ratings to quests and gameplay. The game reads action-packed with an interesting setting, but then I like everything sci-fi and the idea of the explorable solar system appeals to me. I thought it would rate about 5 points higher.
    Hmm...the idea of creating a Buck Rogers RPG is like creating a $250 million movie about John Carter.

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    1. Nice.

      I actually think it would make sense now. Retro is more in and it's easier to do a low-cost video game with a niche audience. Back then it was all about shelf space in Software Etc.

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    2. Wasn't there a recent SyFy series based on Buck Rogers, come to think of it?

      Actually, if you did some rewriting to remove the horrendously blatant anti-Asian racism from the setting, the original Buck Rogers from the 1930s could be a lot of fun as an RPG. Post apoc world, superior force, gravity nullification packs that allow for hugely long jumps (These became jetpacks in later iterations, much like Superman moved from leaping tall buildings in a single bound to flying, though they seem to have been phased out as too silly), interesting weapons.

      However, I'd modify it so that Buck wasn't the only one trapped in stasis, just the first to awaken. Then you can make PCs from the 1930s, modern rebels, or people from the ruling civilization that have decided to throw their lot in with the rebels.

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    3. Canageek, the "recent Syfy" series you're likely thinking of was actually Flash Gordon, and was actually not super-recent (2007, when they were still SciFi), though compared to when the character originated, I guess it is recent.

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  9. I have only vague memories of this game when I played and completed it on the Amiga but those memories are only positive. I remember that I liked this game a lot despite the fact that I normally don´t like sci-fi environments.

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  10. I don't see where the controversy arises here. I think the rating and summary accurately reflect the author's experiences playing the game, and I don't see the point of going back and forth about whether it should be a 46 or a 47-48. It's in that area of "OK" games. I feel like this is another case where some people really liked the game, Chet didn't, and that's mostly a matter of preference... I don't see people trying to compare this favorably to the games ranked higher previously (Azure Bonds, Pool of Radiance, Champions of Krynn).

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  11. Being games with "harder" science fiction, it will be interesting to see how the two Megatraveller games will be received when their time comes. I couldn't really get into the first one, but I did enjoy the second game.

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  12. Did you give up on the 'reload count'?

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    1. I didn't give up. I just keep forgetting to keep track of it. I'll try again in the next game.

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  13. I have really fond memories of the Buck Rogers CRPGs, but I have to admit it was twenty years ago and I can't give any concrete reasons for liking them so much. I may have even played a console version rather than a PC. Still, I always appreciate non-fantasy RPGs because I've slayed enough evil wizards and dragons to last a lifetime.

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  14. The PC version is weak compared to the genesis version and way less enjoyable but still fun to play. It offers way to many skills you never use or if you do its just a few times making the skill pointless. Genesis the graphics are way better and the music is a big plus. Genesis version you cant modify the stats like the pc or change the difficulty but I'd give it an 8/10, the pc versions a 6.

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  15. Scorpia's review in the January 1991 Computer Gaming World has almost nothing but good things to say about the game. The only thing she is critical about is the ship-to-ship combat, which she finds to be "not very well implemented."

    The review concludes:

    "Countdown To Doomsday is a fun game to play. Combat is well-balanced, the use of non-combat skills is good, the villains are nasty, and the flavor of the old-time serials is maintained throughout.

    Bottom line: Good, light adventuring and a nice change of pace from the fantasy line."

    This is probably the most positive Scorpia review I have read so far!

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    1. I don't know why I didn't reference that in this post. I almost always look up CGW reviews as I close out the game. Maybe I was just in a hurry to get to the next thing.

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