|"Ladder-scumming" fails with the quick-reacting mad scientist. Time to reload.|
Captive has perhaps the highest reload count of any game I've ever played, making a hash out of my normal rules. In a less difficult game, every time one of my droids was reduced to scrap, I'd haul his pieces to the nearest shop and have him repaired. But when a game makes you do that roughly every 5 minutes, it becomes unfeasible, and death is now an occasion for reloading. Even getting whacked for more hit points than I'd like--especially if I've just finished getting repaired--is an occasion for reloading.
Captive is far more difficult than Dungeon Master, primarily because of the lack of any ability to rest and heal. In Dungeon Master, if you could get away from an active combat, you could wait for hit points and spell points to regenerate and keep making healing potions. Captive offers no such breaks. "Getting away from active combat" usually means hustling your crippled party to the dead end of a corridor where you can sit and rest as long as you like, but your bent and broken limbs won't get any better. The only time you're "safe" in Captive is when a) a store is nearby, b) a power outlet is nearby, c) you have a clear route to both, d) there are no wandering monsters in the area, and e) you have enough money to pay for repairs.
Knowing this, the game screws with these variables every chance it gets, primarily by forcing you to walk on pressure plates that seal the walls behind you. Until you find the switch that lets you back, you're in limbo, not knowing how much damage you can afford to take from each encounter. If you're unlucky enough to save when you're at 50% health and it turns out there's 10 more packs of difficult enemies between you and the switch--and none of the tricks you're normally use to survive them--you're basically walking dead.
|My characters are in really bad shape. The first two are almost dead and have all their arms disabled; the back two have plenty of health but each has one arm disabled. I really hope there's a shop behind this door somewhere.|
The beginning of each base is also quite difficult, before you've found any stores or power outlets, because there's no way to get back out. Even if there was, there wouldn't be anywhere to go. Both Bases #5 (Salstee) and Base #6 (Seavy) required me to explore for over an hour before I found my first shop, right about the time I was sure I was going to have to reload a saved game from outside the base and try again.
But of all the variables, it's the money that I worry about the most. The game has a closed economy, since enemies don't respawn. I'm so paranoid about running out of money for repairs that I haven't been purchasing potentially-useful upgrades and tools. I keep envisioning a scenario in which I load up on batteries, weapons, ammo, and better droid parts, and then I hit the famous "dungeon with no money" that everyone knows about except someone playing blind.
|Better droid parts are available, but I've been reluctant to spend the money.|
Dungeon Master offered stair-scumming, the side-step dance, and the merciless closing doors as options for beleaguered players, but in Captive, these tricks are essentially necessary. Standing face-to-face with an enemy and trading blows simply results in a quick death, unless I'm missing some tactic somewhere.
|Believe it or not, you can punch these to death, and like all other enemies, they explode into blood when killed.|
Base #5 offered up a couple of new enemies, including (nonsensically) tanks, plus demons with flaming blue swords. (Again, with no names assigned to the enemies, I have to make them up.) Base #6 had smiling computer monitors somehow capable of spitting fireballs.
|And they look so friendly, too.|
|Oh, and these trolls. I forgot where they first appeared.|
But none of the previously-encountered foes held a candle to the bastards I encountered in Base #6: deadly "hovercraft" capable of blasting my characters out of existence with one shot. Not only that, they hover so high that you have to be inverted on the ceiling to hit them. They attack in pairs of two, and I must have encountered 10 pairs throughout the base. I found only one way to effectively deal with them: ladder-scumming. If I could lead them back to a ladder, I could pop down, save, invert myself, pop up, get off one or two shots, then pop back down before they could retaliate. It didn't always work; these guys react fast. I saved after every 2 or 3 successful shots, and had to reload that save frequently when they reacted too fast. This is not my idea of a fun game.
|These guys kill me so fast that it took several tries to even capture a screenshot in time.|
Oh, and to make matters even more fun, when the hovercrafts die, they leave landmines behind! I haven't found any way to effectively disarm them yet. I can't seem to throw things at them from a distance (rarely do I have an unobstructed hallway anyway), and fiddling them from one square away causes significant damage (though not as much as walking on them). I can avoid them by walking across the ceiling, and a couple of times, I've led other enemies to them, which is always satisfying. The shops sell mines I can buy for my own use, but they're expensive and I've been hesitating to splurge.
|The hovercrafts left me a present.|
Enemies can be divided basically in two ways: movement speed, and whether they have missile weapons. If an enemy is slow, I can usually lead him to a room where I can do the two-step and hit him from the sides and rear while he struggles to turn. If the enemy has no missile weapons, I can use a shooting retreat or take potshots at him from the other side of a fire or water barrier (most enemies don't cross water; so far only hovercraft have crossed fire). But enemies that are fast and have missile weapons are nightmares.
|Shooting a pack of Go-bots across a field of fire.|
The size of the bases is also getting worse. I haven't had to map yet, but they still last bloody forever. I was in Base #6 for about 8 total hours--longer than some entire games. Every time I thought I'd explored everything, I'd find some new movable wall, ladder, or switch to open a door, leading to some vast new area. Technically, you can get out of a base as soon as you find at least one probe and the generator room, but the only way to make sure you get all the gold and experience is to to fight all the monsters. I'll be happy to end the last base prematurely; until then, I need every advantage I can get.
Late in Base #6, I did finally spend about half my gold on a battery, because I was sick of having to find my way back to the infrequent power outlets to recharge. The one I bought stores enough power to fully recharge a droid four times, which should be enough to tide me over when outlets are scarce.
|I cannot figure out what these are for.|
In terms of navigation obstacles, Base #5 introduced a "spinner" square, but it was pretty pathetic, simply rotating me once clockwise. I think there was only one. Both Base #5 and #6 had areas with fire barriers. They also had hydrants, and at first I was sure that the purpose of the hydrants was to put out the fires. Only that didn't work; the hydrants would just flood the areas but stop at the fire barriers. So I'm left not knowing what the hydrants are for. I couldn't figure out any reason why I'd want to flood the dungeon. It just makes navigation a lot harder, since droids take damage when they walk in water, and the only way to navigate the areas safely is to walk on the ceiling (again, at a huge power drain). The bases had enough water areas on their own without my contributing to the problem.
|Using a computer while upside-down to avoid the flooded floor.|
Base #6 had one small "dark" area that I needed the visor to get through.
|Making my way through the dark.|
As I mentioned, I've been slow to upgrade weapons even when I could seriously use them. My lead characters are still using melee weapons and my two rear characters are still using magnum pistols even though I found a shop selling laser pistols some time ago. The skills went through "Rifles" and "Automatics" before offering me "Lasers," but I'm not sure I ever saw any rifles or automatics for sale. I'm not sure they'd be better for me anyway, as my characters have a skill level of 24 in handguns but are only up to 3-5 with lasers so far. If I'm not mistaken, this would maybe let me use the worst laser weapon. Is the worst laser better than the best handgun?
Speaking of skills, an anonymous commenter told me that "24 is always the highest skill requirement for the best version of a given weapon," but nonetheless, "more skill still helps." That may be true, but the experience points needed to raise any skill from 24 to 25 seems to be 35,399, whereas the highest experience cost I've encountered to raise a skill below that is only around 2,200. So I probably won't be saving up for that 25th point any time soon.
In my first post, I said that the bases were "randomly-generated." After doing some more reading on the subject, I realize this was probably misleading. Procedurally-generated is probably a better term. Every numbered base will look exactly the same for every player. But Anthony Crowther didn't map them all out; that would have been functionally impossible, since there are theoretically thousands of bases. (Apparently, the maximum number is 65,535, but some bug keeps you from going past something like 25,476. I've also read that the PC version has a bug that limits the bases to 2,816. No matter what, you'd have to be simply insane to hit those limits.) Instead, Crowther designed a map generation routine that uses the base number as a seed and generates the rest of the layout based on it.
I don't deny that it's an extremely impressive bit of programming, but it has the effect of limiting the types of puzzles that the game can provide to the player. Dungeon Master fans often talk about the game's navigation puzzles as a highlight of the game, but complex navigation puzzles can really only work in a hand-crafted dungeon. A procedurally-generated dungeon will allow for a wall that closes behind you, and a switch that later opens the wall, but not much else. Certainly nothing like the puzzles in Chaos Strikes Back where you had to herd skeletons onto four pressure plates, or the one in Dungeon Master where you had to use riddles on a scroll to identify four pieces of equipment to put into four alcoves. Thus, I would think that this aspect of the game would be disappointing even for fans of the sub-genre.
|I prepare to extinguish a wall of fire with a switch. By design, any fire wall is going to have a nearby switch to disarm it.|
- It took me a while to figure out how to use the dice. If you hold them in your hand while facing a combo door and right-click, the die shows you the location of the next button in the sequence. I keep finding more dice, and as far as I can tell, you only need one of them. The shopkeepers aren't interested in the excess. They don't work on the bases' front doors, where you really need them.
|The die saves me from having to try up to 24 different combinations.|
- It turns out that if you accidentally leave your gold in the hands of shopkeepers, it's not only always there when you return, it will also be in the hands of any other shopkeepers you visit in the same base. I'm not sure if it will also appear with shopkeepers in the next base, but I'm going to leave a small amount when I escape Base #7 so I can test it.
- The "root finder" finds the front door of the base--very handy when you're trying to escape the base after planting the charges. Then, once outside the base, it guides you to your ship.
|The device indicates the way to the exit is through this door.|
According to my commenters, I still have four bases to go in the first mission; my vague understanding is that you can consider the game "won" after the first mission, since you can keep generating new ones indefinitely. At this rate, we're looking at another 30-40 hours in a game that I've sunk almost 30 into already. This is why it burns me that these Dungeon Master clones never have any kind of plot progression. All I'm asking for is a single screen at the end of each base that reveals more about why I was imprisoned, and who was behind it--a slow return of Trill's memories as the droids fight to reach him. Or maybe a dialogue option or two with the shopkeepers: something that alerts me to dangers in the next section. Anything. But none of the ones I've played--Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, Bloodwych, and Captive--can even offer the tiniest bit of story to the player. They expect players to just delight in their mechanics and let their imaginations do the rest.
This works for many players but not for me. I'm going to keep Captive on my "active" list, but I'm not going to give it more than a couple hours a week. If it takes the rest of 1990 to win, that's what will have to happen. That said, the difficulty I've been experiencing probably has a lot to do with my reluctance to spend money and try out all the weapons and tools, so I'll try to do better with that before the end.
|Moving on to yet another base.|