Monday, December 30, 2013

Game 128: Lords of Chaos (1990)

Lords of Chaos is a strategy/RPG hybrid that must have been torture to play as a multi-player strategy game. The basic problem, if you don't mind my getting into the details right at the outset, is that the turns are too short. Each character has a maximum of 40 "action points" per round, and with these points, he can do only a few things, like:

  • Open a door and walk six steps down a road
  • Attack an enemy three times
  • Open a cabinet and pick up two or three items

No sooner has your turn begun than it's over. If you're unlucky enough to do something accidental, like try to walk into a door before it's opened, or walk the wrong way, you can easily waste half your turn with absolutely nothing to show for it. The average turn takes about 30-45 seconds to complete, after which you have to end it and wait for your opponents to complete their turns. This isn't so bad when playing a single character against the computer, but I can't imagine what it was like with other human players. You'd have to have a TV show going in the background, at the very least.

The opening area of the first scenario. I've just searched a chest and found an axe. It'll take most of the next round to walk up to the axe and pick it up.

The game's back story relates how a once-peaceful world, ruled by Arch Mages, was shattered into pieces by a mysterious buildup of magic. Now, the universe consists of tiny chaotic worldlets occupied by various mages--the titular Lords of Chaos--battling each other for the magic power necessary to journey through portals from world to world. Each game scenario lasts a determined number of turns, after which a portal appears for a limited time. The main goal is to survive long enough to escape through the portal; a secondary goal is to amass as many "victory points" as possible in the meantime. Victory points are earned through slaying enemies and collecting treasures, and the player who enters the portal with the most victory points is declared the winner of the scenario.

The game comes with three scenarios, and the publisher released another two on mail-order disk. In scenarios 1, 2, and 4, up to four players can compete; scenarios 3 and 5 are designed specifically for a single player. The manual notes that "the one-player game is designed to be treated as a role-playing game with the ability to develop your wizard character as you progress through the scenarios." When you finish a scenario, the number of "victory points" you've earned converts to experience points, and you can spend these to increase attributes and spells.
Assigning experience points to attributes.
The process begins by creating a wizard and spending the initial 600 experience points on seven attributes--mana, action points, stamina, constitution, combat, defense, and magic resistance--and a selection of 45 spells, 25 of which are summoning spells. The manual gives precious few hints as to what spells and attributes to choose. The spells seemed like a bargain until I realized belatedly that you have to buy them multiple times if you want to cast them more than once per scenario. Spending 20 points on "summon skeleton" lets me summon exactly one skeleton. If I want to summon five, I need to spend 100 points. Some of the spells are potions which require finding the right reagents in the game and then taking the time to mix.

Selecting from the game's summoning spells. Gryphons are useful because you can fly around on them.

If you play a scenario with just one wizard, the game creates and controls a single opponent. There are also "independent creatures" that roam the scenario and serve as experience fodder for any player. The interesting thing about the game is that even though all players have identical goals, it isn't really necessary to try to kill the other wizards. You get more points if you do, but you can get plenty of victory points--and win the scenario--without ever engaging the enemy.
Chestyrre approaches a house to the south but stops to pick up an apple. The panel to the right shows the various actions possible in a round.
In each game turn, the character has a variety of actions, including casting spells (in the air or at the ground), throwing weapons, reading scrolls, mounting summoned beasts, picking up and dropping items, and eating food. Each movement expends action points and, as I said, these go pretty fast. Fortunately, every summoned creature gets its own action points each round, so summoning several creatures is a good way to draw out a turn.

Melee combat is a tactic-less affair of clicking on the enemy. It's spells that really make the combat tactics and overall map strategy, and I've only had a chance to explore a few. There are potions that buff attributes (strength, speed) or provide defense (protection, invisibility); spells to shape the landscape and both damage and slow enemies (magic fire, tangle vine, flood); spells to help with navigation and exploration (magic eye, teleport), and of course standard offensive spells like magic bolt and magic lightning.

I can't speak to all of the scenarios, but the first one, titled "The Many Coloured-Land," is quite small--maybe 50 x 50 squares--and it doubles back on itself when you reach the edges of the world. It consists of four houses (one for each potential wizard to start in), a treasure room, and a bunch of forest with apes, elephants, and other creatures. The treasure room has no outside entrance, so a key puzzle is to find a way to enter by flying over the walls, either with a flying creature or a "fly" potion. I guess if you didn't take any of these things during character creation, you're screwed. But just getting over the walls is only half the battle; you also have to find a selection of blue and gold keys scattered about the land so you can open the treasure chests.
The "world view" game map from late in the game. The portal has appeared on the road about one-third of the way from the western edge.
After a few false starts, I won the first scenario with a wizard named "Chestyrre" despite having spent far too many points on attributes and not nearly enough on spells. After exploring my starting house, I summoned a gryphon and got on his back, then summoned a skeleton to engage some elephants who were crowding the door to my house. It soon became clear that neither the skeleton nor the elephants were capable of damaging each other, so they just ended up in a standoff for the rest of the scenario.

Targeting a "lightning bolt" spell on a group of elephants. It's not going to do much damage, but fortunately my skeleton is there to block the doorway while I make my escape out the door to the south.

It also became clear that my enemy wizard, Torquemada, had not made the same mistake I did on the number of spells. My second skeleton (I was only capable of summoning two) met a veritable army of his allies on the road, including goblins, trolls, and vampires.

Poor skeleton won't be with us for much longer.

In between turns, the game tells you how many victory points you've achieved. I had just been dithering around killing independent creatures, so Torquemada was kicking my butt.
The portal appears at around Turn 18 and only stays for 10 turns.
As his forces converged on my location, the portal suddenly appeared on the road to my west. Figuring I was going to lose the scenario anyway, I hopped off my gryphon and jumped into the portal. Fortunately, the first wizard into the portal gets some extra victory points, so I won the scenario.

Torquemada didn't do the obvious thing and spend the next nine rounds collecting all the treasures with no opposition.
But the number of victory/experience points is pathetic--barely enough to get two more spells. Unfortunately, a wizard cannot play a scenario twice, so if I want to do better in the first one, I'll have to start over with a new character.
I'm playing the Amiga version of Lords from 1991, but it originally came out for the Amstrad CPC, the Commodore 64, and the ZX Spectrum in 1990. The graphics in the 1990 versions are considerably worse than the Amiga, and it appears that the early versions featured different maps (though the scenarios had the same names). I haven't sampled the sound from the early versions, but the Amiga sound is relatively good, if sparse. The game opens with a fantastically creepy bit of sci-fi music and a Zuul-ish voice whispering "lords . . . of . . . chaos."
A shot from the C64 version.
But the C64a and earlier versions featured something that the Amiga version doesn't: keyboard control (though of a limited sort). Every single action in the Amiga version must be performed with the mouse, and I just hate it. I find it far too easy to click on the wrong thing or in the wrong direction. There's also a weird mechanic for unselecting one character and selecting another, with the result that I often mean to, say, move my skeleton one square to the east by I accidentally send my gryphon zooming over to the skeleton from the other side of the map.
Lords of Chaos is the fifth game from British developer Julian Gollop who, with his brother Nick, would become famous in a few years for X-COM: UFO Defense. The game is considered a sequel to Chaos (1985), a strategy game in which up to six player-wizards battle for dominance. The earlier game featured many of the same spells as Lords but lacked the attributes and the ability to develop characters in between scenarios, both of which impart a more RPG feel. Gollop's other early games--Rebelstar (1986), Rebelstar II: Alien Encounter (1988), and Laser Squad (1988)--are all turn-based strategy games that likely imparted some lessons on the development of Lords of Chaos. In addition to X-COM, Gollop would later go on to design two other games that MobyGames lists as strategy/RPG hybrids: Magic & Mayhem (1998) and Rebelstar: Tactical Command (2005).
In February 2014, Gollop will join a growing list of early game designers now developing games independently as Kickstarter projects. In this case, he's remaking his first game, Chaos, with modern technology. You can read about it at his site.
I don't really like Lords of Chaos, but I'll probably give it until the second scenario to make up my mind for sure, so I'll put out at least one more posting on it. Fortunately, win or lose, the scenarios aren't that long.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Game 127: Hellfire Warrior (1980)


Hellfire Warrior
Automated Simulations (soon to change to Epyx) (developer and publisher)
Jeff Johnson and Jon Freeman (game designers)
Released 1980 for Apple II, 1982 for Atari 8-bit, unknown year for TRS-80
Date Started: 26 December 2013
Date Ended: 28 December 2013
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at Time of Posting: 26/123 (21%)

Let's start by recapping how cool the Dunjonquest series was for its time, and how poorly modern remembrance does it justice. In 1979, starting with Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai, Epyx delivered:
  • The first commercial computer RPG that can be indisputably called an RPG. Its only predecessors--Beneath Apple Manor, Dungeon Campaign, and Space--are best described as "proto-RPGs."
  • The first RPG series in which multiple titles used the same engine. The Datestones of Ryn and Morloc's Tower came out the same year.
  • The first RPG series available on multiple platforms. Apshai eventually had releases for the Apple II, the Commodore PET, the Commodore VIC-20, the C64, the TRS80, and DOS.
  • A well-written framing story in the "Adventures of Brian Hammerhand."
  • An excellent game manual full of professional illustrations.
  • An honest attempt to replicate the experience of a tabletop RPG, with complex statistics and detailed room descriptions (kept in a separate manual).

The Hellfire Warrior manual art exceeded what was offered by most other games of the period. There are half a dozen other equally-good illustrations in the manual. Such production values were characteristic of Epyx.

The latter point is crucial to the series. I'm not sure how much experience the creators of other RPGs and proto-RPGs of the time had with tabletop RPGs. The creators of Dunjonquest clearly had a lot of experience. The manual for the first game contains a long treatise on the joys and mechanics of tabletop role-playing and a description of how the computer version is both better (faster calculations, no need to coordinate schedules) and worse (solo player, limited mechanics, closed system). The manual explicitly encourages players to port their favorite pen-and-paper characters into Dunjonquest, adventure for a while, and then extract the character back out into the tabletop world . With 35 years of RPG history behind us after this point, it's fascinating to review the creators' original thoughts at the dawn of the genre.

The series makes up 13 games:

  1. The Temple of Apshai (1979). I covered it about a year ago. This was the original game and engine with most of the features we continue to see throughout the series. It's open-ended, with no main quest, featuring four explorable dungeon levels.
  2. Morloc's Tower (1979). Covered in the same post above. Designated by the developer as a "MicroQuest," it featured the same engine as Apshai but with a pre-determined character, a much smaller dungeon, and a specific quest.
  3. The Datestones of Ryn (1979). Another "MicroQuest," time-limited to 20 minutes.
  4. Hellfire Warrior (1980). Revised and updated the Dunjonquest engine with a new series of levels.
  5. StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (1980). A sci-fi adaptation of the engine. I covered it briefly, but it removed so many of the elements of Apshai that it basically wasn't an RPG any more.
  6. Star Warrior (1980). A sequel to Starquest: Rescue at Rigel.
  7. Sorcerer of Siva (1981). A stand-alone game with a quest to kill a wizard.
  8. Upper Reaches of Apshai (1981). An expansion to Temple of Apshai, using the original engine, adding four more levels.
  9. The Keys of Acheron (1981). An expansion to the Hellfire Warrior version of the engine.
  10. Curse of Ra (1982). Another four-level expansion to Temple of Apshai
  11. Danger in Drindisti (1982). Another expansion to Hellfire Warrior.
  12. Gateway to Apshai (1983). A "prequel" to Temple of Apshai with an updated engine.
  13. The Temple of Apshai Trilogy (1985). A re-release of Temple of Apshai and its expansions with improved graphics, sound, and controls, and all three previous games fully integrated. It was this game that I played in one of my earliest blog entries, thinking I was getting the experience of the original.

It could be argued that some of these technically aren't part of the Dunjonquest series because they don't feature that label, but they all use the same engine or are explicitly in the same family. Sword of Fargoal (1982), which I didn't list above, is also very much in the same spirit.

Though occupying its own sub-series, Hellfire Warrior is given as a sequel to The Temple of Apshai, and its first dungeon level, numbered 5, is named "The Lower Reaches of Apshai." Both this game and its expansions differ from the Apshai trilogy in offering explicit quests. In Hellfire Warrior, this quest is to rescue a warrior maid named Brynhild who's lying in an enchanted sleep on the "Plains of Hell" level of the dungeon. Technically, a player could go right to Level 8 and try to rescue her, but the experiences of the previous levels are needed to build up the requisite experience, attributes, and equipment.

Like its predecessor, the game begins by asking you to either create your own character (type in the attributes, money, and equipment) or have the game roll a character randomly. The creators honestly seemed to intend the first option as a way for a tabletop RPG player to enter the dungeon and not as a blatant mechanism for cheating, but of course it makes cheating--including the creation of a character able to win the game immediately--a possibility. Lacking any previous character, I chose the second option, which can be brutal. The game rolls every attribute from 3 to 18 with no option to re-roll or adjust values. You assign a name and can then spend your randomly-allocated pool of "gold royals" on equipment.

There's no way to visit shops individually. Instead, after creating each character--or after emerging from the dungeon--the game cycles through the available shops and asks one-by-one if you want to visit. The shops and their items are:

Weaponsmith. You select your sword from among five types (including the rarely-encountered "hand-and-a-half" sword). The more damage they do, the more fatigue they require to swing. Armor choices are leather, ring mail, chain mail, partial plate, and full plate. Similarly, the more protection they offer, the more fatigue they consume in movement and combat action. Finally, you can buy a bow (only one type offered) with an associated number of arrows up to 60.

Apothecary. This is a new feature in the game series. In addition to elixirs and salves (restore health) and nectar (restores fatigue), the apothecary offers a selection of exotic-sounding potions, such as "cobra milk," "troll blood," "white lotus," and "mandragora." The manual is mostly silent about what these elixirs do, except to say that when you buy them, you drink them right away, and some increase attributes or protection for the duration of the next dungeon trip.

Let's just mix it all together in a blender.

Malacylpse the Mage. He offers to enchant the player's weapon and armor for an escalating amount of cash per "plus." He also sells magic arrows and magic items, including an "Orichalcum amulet" of uncertain purpose. This is the first time I've seen "Orichalcum" outside of Skyrim, so I looked up the term and discovered that it's "a metal mentioned in several ancient writings, including the story of Atlantis." I thought Skyrim had invented it because it had to do with orcs.

Priest. Here, you can donate remaining cash for an uncertain purpose. I'm thinking it might affect the likelihood that an adventurer will find your body if you die in the dungeon.

After that, it's off to the dungeon level of the player's choice.

Gideon after a few successful adventures. His attributes aren't really that high; he's buffed by some potions right now.

Dungeon exploration is essentially identical to Apshai. The movement mechanic is awkward and sometimes frustrating: you use the (R)ight, (L)eft, and (V)olte-face keys to face a particular direction, then enter a number from 1-9 indicating the number of steps you want to take in that direction. The steps have an associated fatigue cost, though it's negligible when you're unencumbered and healthy.

As with most games of the era, navigating the bland corridors of the dungeon is assisted by a certain amount of imagination, but the Dunjonquest series significantly aids one's imagination with well-written room, monster, and treasure descriptions in the game's manual. Much like the later "adventurers journals" in the Gold Box series, the Dunjonquest manuals are a constant companion to the action on the screen. On Levels 5 and 7 of the Hellfire Warrior dungeon, each room (including corridors) has a number corresponding with an entry in the book. Upon entry in Room #1, we're told:

Long corridors roughly hewn from the native stone, eight feet wide and fifteen feet high. An occasional wooden door appears rusted into near immobility. In some places, the walls have crumbled and been dug away.

Some of the rooms have treasures, noted by little colored vertical bars, and the room description usually has something to say about the nature of the treasure:

This large room is also faced with tile in similar condition. Cots and foot-lockers betoken common sleeping quarters. The room is littered with broken weapons, ragged armor, and other junk. A fallen warrior still clutches a sword.

When you pick up the treasure in the room, the screen says that you've picked up treasure #8, which the manual describes as so:

You pick up a sword for closer inspection. The blade is of finely honed steel, and the weapon feels well-balanced, almost alive in your hand. Hidden in the hilt are two small diamonds.

Monsters appear randomly as you explore, and you have the option to (F)ire an arrow or a (M)agic arrow at them--if you can line yourself up properly, which can be hard. Once they get close, you hit (A)ttack for melee combat and begin trading blows until one of you is dead. It's not terribly difficult to avoid combat or flee from it, as monsters won't chase you out of the room they spawn in. But since they can spawn randomly, there's really no "safe" area of the dungeon.

Firing an arrow down a corridor at a giant bee.

Killing monsters adds to your experience pool (you start with 20,000). More experienced characters do better in combat, but in a nebulous way not really explained by the manual. The manual also suggests that attributes will slowly increase with experience, but I never noticed that happening. The game keeps a counter of monsters killed in that dungeon session.

As you explore, you have to be on the lookout for traps, revealed with the (S)earch command, as well as secret doors, revealed by facing a wall and (E)xamining it. Each command might require four or five attempts to find what you're looking for. Secret doors abound the dungeons and it's easy to miss out on entire dungeon sections if you don't carefully search every wall.

You have to be concerned with both health and fatigue. Health restores only through salves and elixirs and the very rare magic pool or fountain in the dungeon. Fatigue restores by standing still. Both combat actions and movement deplete fatigue, and it's possible to get into a never-ending cycle where you're trying to restore fatigue and a monster shows up, requiring you to expend your remaining fatigue attacking him. As he dies and you stand there trying to replenish, another monster shows up, and so forth.

If you die in the dungeon--quite easy if you overextend yourself--one of four things can happen. The first is that you get eaten by a monster. The second is that Olias the Dwarf will find you and return you to the town, but after taking all of your treasure and magic items. If Lowenthal the Wizard recovers you, he'll leave your cash but take your magic items. Benedic the Cleric will resurrect you and return you to town without taking anything, though he asks for a donation.

I got lucky this time.

The key to success in the game is to engage in a series of small expeditions, gathering treasures and returning to town when your health elixirs get low. The game is very generous with its treasure, and with only a few sorties, you can get several magic items and your sword and weapon up to +4 or +5. In between adventures, you can save both the state of the dungeon level (a feature not present in Apshai) and your character. Leaving the dungeon automatically converts your found treasure to gold. Certain special treasures--wearable magic items--never show up in your inventory but do exert permanent changes on your attributes.

Level 5, "The Lower Reaches of Apshai," is a standard dilapidated dungeon, occupied primarily with monstrous bugs, like giant mosquitoes, ants, and snails. It's a good introductory level.

Level 6, "The Labryinth," is a maze whose door closes behind you when you enter. You have to find the exit while battling creatures like "unitaurs" (minotaurs with one horn) and various types of dinosaurs. The game provides a hint as to the exit's location in case it becomes too difficult. There are no room descriptions on this level, but there are still detailed treasure descriptions.

Firing an arrow at a unitaur in the midst of the labyrinth.

Level 7, "The Vault of the Dead," is a large, spacious crypt with undead-themed creatures like ghosts, ghouls, gargoyles, and spectres. The latter are capable of draining constitution, which causes your fatigue loss to increase exponentially, and you can wind up in a situation where you simply can't move. There's one fantastic treasure on the level: The Seven-League Boots, which increase movement speed.

Fighting a gargoyle in the Vault of the Dead.

Level 8 is the "Plains of Hell," and this is where the main quest is located. It took me a long time on the other levels to build up a character able to survive here for more than a few minutes. The level consists of a very large room--the titular "plain"--with various treasures and wandering fiends, imps, firedrakes, behemoths, and pyrohounds. Off to the west side is a bridge that takes the player to the sleeping warrior maiden, after he passes through corridors of hellfire (an unavoidable trap) and several tough enemies, including a "pyrohydra" (described in the manual as "the most fearsome monster ever created") and a demon.

Fighting the pyrohydra to enter the final area.

The sleeping maiden appears as just another treasure, though well-described:

This, of course, is the warrior maid Brynhild. Although her face is fair, her form comely, and her hair like spun gold, there is nothing elfin about her; her limbs are supple but strong, and her armored body is heavy. Yet, to release her from the enchantment that holds her in the grip of sleep, you must bear her out of these flaming caverns, through the great doors by which you entered, and all the way back to sun and air. The end of your quest lies before you--if you can  make it.

About to pick up Brynhlid in her chamber.
Brynhild weighs 150 pounds (I couldn't have taken off her armor before picking her up?), greatly increasing the player's encumbrance, so getting out with her is a process of mincing your way back to the beginning. On the way, you face Death himself, apparently unkillable, but easily escaped by fleeing out of his room.

Escaping Death.

The harder part is dealing with all of the random combats while struggling with the constant fatigue loss.

Only steps from the exit, nearly out of fatigue, pursued by a spectre.

There's no victory screen when you reach the exit with Brynhild. You just get the normal "treasure" screen, and only the presence of "Treasure #10" (worth nothing) proves that you made it out with the warrior maiden.

Fifth line, second column. That's my "victory screen."

The enterprise took me about eight hours. I'm giving the game a 20 on my GIMLET scale. Its best scores are 3s in "encounters" (the monster and room descriptions add a lot of atmosphere), "equipment," "character development," and "gameplay" (I like the choice of levels and the overall nonlinearity). It does poorly in "NPCs" (there are none) and "quests" (I don't like that the game doesn't really acknowledge the quest in-game) and "graphics, sound, and interface." Combat remains disappointing in the series, which continues to exclude any magic.

The game's two expansions, The Keys of Acheron and Danger in Drindisti are both on my list, but listed as "NP" (not playable), as I can't find working versions anywhere. That I'm able to play Hellfire Warrior is thanks to reader Josh Lawrence, who pointed out that it was cataloged as an "adventure" game on Asimov, but the other two aren't in the same (or any) directory. I'm also having trouble finding Sorcerer of Siva. I can't say that I'm pulling out all the stops trying to track these games down, though, since once you've experienced one Dunjonquest title, you've pretty much experienced them all.

I'm moving on now to Lords of Chaos (1990), a strategy/RPG hybrid. My next "old" game will be Time Traveler (1980), which is given as a text/adventure hybrid. [Later edit: I've rejected Time Traveler as an RPG. It's an amateur effort in which all of the actions are dependent on random probability.]


Further Reading:
  • My original take on the Temple of Apshai Trilogy
  • My later take on The Temple of Apshai and Morloc's Tower
  • A series of four postings on Dunjonquest on Hardcore Gaming 101; Page 2 covers Hellfire Warrior
  • The Digital Antiquarian's coverage of the Dunjonquest series
  • The Hellfire Warrior manual at the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History

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.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday: Won!

The Earth is safe but Atha the Desert Runner isn't. Such are the vagaries of life.

In my last post, I announced my intention to pursue a side-quest to rescue Atha. RAM forces apparently abducted her from Mars after my successful raid on their Mars base. They threatened her with death unless my party presented itself on a RAM asteroid. Commander Turabian forbade it, but Buck Rogers encouraged me to disobey. He didn't volunteer to come or anything.

Despite the obvious trap, my party found the right asteroid and entered the RAM base. We had to fight a tough battle against a party right at the entrance. As we explored the base, a "Commander Gilbert" taunted us from a loudspeaker.

I sure hope Commander Gilbert is a woman.

It soon became clear that we were over our heads. The battles featured multiple rocket-launcher-equipped RAM bots that took multiple reloads to luckily defeat. There were also numerous traps that damaged the party while leaving no recourse for healing. There was no way back to the ship without first conquering the base.

Ultimately, I found myself in a situation where I had low health and the only explorable avenue was a corridor blocked by an unavoidable combat with four combat bots. After 12 tries I gave up. There was just no way I was going to defeat the enemy.

Unfortunately, "giving up" wasn't that easy. I have the bad habit of just using the same save game slot over and over, and the most recent time that I'd used another was way back on Mars, before I'd finished the RAM base there. I had no choice but to suck it up, repeat those sections of Mars, and get back to Salvation base. This time, I ignored Buck Rogers's advice. RAM had a doomsday laser ready to fire on Earth, after all.

I neglected to mention it in a previous post, but journal entries had indicated that the doomsday device was composed of two parts: the laser itself and an advanced lens, constructed by the Venusian lowlanders. Scot.DOS had suggested that the lens would have to be near the sun to provide enough energy to reach Earth, so it makes sense that the working weapon would be on Mercury.

The Mercury base consisted of a large "merchants' area" at the base and then a tall tower--the "Mariposa Core"--extending upward from one of its corners. The putative ruler of the area was some lunatic calling himself the "Sun King," apparently enamored with French history. I guess RAM was just leasing space for the doomsday laser from him. To even enter the base, I needed the blue passkey from Mars. Once inside the base, I needed the "retinal lockpick" from Venus to get through one of the final doors.

Wilma Deering has been a character in the franchise going back to its origins. She serves as Buck's love interest.

Shortly after entering, I was greeted by Wilma Deering, who told me that the weapon was at the top of the Core. She gave me some advice for navigating the base, but I disregarded it almost immediately and went the opposite direction from where she had instructed. In a corridor, I met a man who challenged me with the phrase "ONE IF BY LAND...." I hadn't encountered the countersign in the game, but knowing my U.S. history, I responded "TWO IF BY SEA." The old man--whose affiliation still mystifies me--suggested I get to the core by infiltrating a parade. I took his advice and made it through the rest of the map with no encounters. This was faster, but I missed mapping most of the area.

Mercury was a melange of odd themes. I wonder if the tabletop RPG makes its culture clearer.

In the lower levels of the Mariposa Core, I found three coins that were necessary to give to the Sun King for his help. An odd plot dynamic, but whatever.

The Sun King himself was a weird character, presiding over a court of followers wearing "outlandish costumes from the French and American revolutions." He greeted me in a powdered wig, waving a French tricolour and insisted that I speak French. I'm not sure how pre-Internet youths navigated this portion if they lacked high school French.

The party admitted that we weren't "the dancers," but he agreed to help us anyway. Apparently, he had grown envious of the RAM doomsday device and wanted it for himself. I took a chance and (lying) agreed to help him take control of the weapon. There was an amusing bit where the Sun King mixed up French with a bit of Spanish and Latin.

That's "trés bon," vous âne.

With one of the Sun King's lieutenants tailing me, I headed to the upper areas of the Core. Scot.DOS indicated I had limited amount of time before the laser fired.

I first shut down the power to the laser so that they couldn't fire. This bought a little time but knocked out the elevators, so I had to use a back staircase to ascend.

I made my way to the chamber housing the doomsday laser and activated its self-destruct mechanism. I'm not sure why RAM built such a mechanism into the device in the first place, but it sure came in handy.

Both in the room and on the way out of the room, I faced battles against RAM gennies and robots. They were reasonably difficult but not overly so--the arrangement of forces facilitated the use of explosive weapons. In general, the entire endgame was very combat-light, and there was no clear "final battle" with a boss-level foe.

The last battle of the game.

When I activated the self-destruct, the Sun King's servant flipped out and ordered me to deactivate it, shrieking that the Sun King "doesn't want the doomsday device to be destroyed!" When I refused, he ran off, warning that "the wrath of the Sun King is upon you!" I thought this meant I'd face his forces on the way out of the base, but I never heard anything about it again.

The self-destruct initiated a countdown, and I had just enough time to make it to the pod bay on the level below (fortunately, I had scouted it first), hack the computer to assign my party to an escape pod, and blast my way out of the base. Behind me, the doomsday weapon blew up.

Wilma Deering picked up my pod and returned me to the ship. We returned to Salvation for a series of congratulations from Wilma, Buck, and Commander Turabian. Here's the full end-game text:

Wilma embraces you all. "You've succeeded in the most important mission in NEO's history," she says. "You've saved the Earth, and crippled RAM. They've lost their allies as well as their doomsday device. No one will be fooled into trusting them again. You are all heroes to NEO, and I hope that you'll stay with us for a long time. Your mission is over."

As you exit the airlock, you are greeted by a large mob, led by the base commander. He hushes the cheering crowd and speaks: "Welcome back You have saved Earth from the evil scourge of Holzerhein and his RAM confederates..."

Buck Rogers appears from nowhere and interrupts Turabian: "I just wanted to shake your hands and thank you for saving Earth and all her people. With people like you, RAM doesn't have a chance."

The crowd cheers and you are led to a celebration party.

And that was it. The game let me continue to play, and I suppose I could have tried to clean up some of the side-quests. My party never did make it to Level 8, so it wouldn't have been wasted time (assuming I'll use the same party for the sequel).

I had fun scanning the adventurer's logbook to read the fake entries. There were a large number that would lead the player to think that Scot.DOS was actually a RAM spy, or even Holzerhein.DOS in disguise. Several others would have led the player to make poor choices with key NPCs. The journal was frankly showing its age in this game. So much text, including long passages, was presented on-screen that a separate journal seems superfluous.

After winning, I also consulted some external materials and discovered that Holzerhein.DOS isn't just a computer AI but rather the downloaded consciousness of Simund Holzerhein, who while living was a rich Martian. Because Holzerhein can be literally anywhere that there's a computer, he can direct much of RAM's operations personally, without the need for a lot of bureaucracy. The game was very vague about the nature of Holzerhein, but perhaps it fleshes him out in the sequel.

GIMLET time!

Futher Reading

  • My first, second, third, fourth, and fifth postings on this game.
  • The Wikipedia entry for the game setting. It better outlines what's going on with Holzerhein.
  • The Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History has the clue book for the game (large file size).