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
Date Ended: 24 December 2013
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 46
Ranking at Time of Posting: 102/123 (83%)
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.
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.