Monday, February 2, 2015

Hard Nova: The Neverending Quest

This joke wasn't even old in 1990.

After I finished the first quest, my handler, Gerard Kendall, told me he didn't have anything new for me. He suggested I head out and smuggle for a while. I liked this approach. With most RPGs, you have to suspend disbelief to engage in side-quests and exploration. After all, some demon is actively trying to take over the world; why are you helping some kid collect flowers for his girlfriend?

While there are occasionally lulls in the main plot of such RPGs, giving the player at least some role-playing excuse to wander the wilds, I can't think of many games in which the player is expressly encouraged, during the main plot, to head out and do a bunch of side quests or random exploration. It happened in Morrowind, when Caius Cosades kept telling the player to get some more experience in between main plot points, and in several games where achieving a certain monetary threshold is part of the plot (e.g., MegaTraveller, Baldur's Gate II, Dragon Age II; we just talked about this a few posts ago). Here's another example.

It is not, however, a great one: no sooner had I left the Starkiller base when I got a message to return immediately and get my next assignment. Since I already had plenty of money from my previous smuggling attempts, I didn't bother to delay my return.

Well, that was awfully brief.
Several things happened in my next conversation with Kendall. He gave me two quests. The first involved increased attacks by the planet Ariel on the planet Ciberan. (You may recall from the backstory that factional warfare has broken out in the Four Systems.) The mission was to stop the attacks, ultimately by assassinating the dictator of Ariel, Damien Altron, and his top general, Camede Rodgen. I was offered $40,000 for the mission, and both of Nova's potential replies drive home that we're not really role-playing a "good" character here.
Since I can make this much money in 2 smuggling missions that take 10 minutes, I think the second option is the most accurate.

The second job was on Varon, where one faction of Lantas (the lizard-like alien species inhabiting the planet) wanted me to kidnap the head of the other faction and bring him to a parley.
Kendall also gave me leads on two new NPCs for my crew. One of them, Janai, was in the next room. When I previously spoke to her, she said she was assigned to a different crew, but I guess she's mine now. She has high communications skills and at least moderate ground combat skills, so I was able to replace the useless Bremer navigator in the ground squad slot. If you'll recall from my previous post, you can have up to 6 crewmembers performing duties on the ship, but only Nova plus two others in the "ground squad." There's a third slot in the ground squad for a "recruit"--an NPC that you pick up while you already have a full squad--but that person leaves the squad the next time you return to the ship.

The second NPC was named Rogers Amaro, and Kendall gave me coordinates to his house on Holbrook. Since I was already on Holbrook, I decided to start there. I flew my hovercraft to his small house and landed. Despite what Kendall said, Amaro intimated that he wasn't interested in adventuring, as he was busy trying to finish his collection of rare fish (the house was lined with aquarium tanks) and he still didn't have a "male hanky grobbler."

Clearly, I needed to help him finish his collection. An empty fish tank on the ground was an obvious clue, so I grabbed it and headed back to the Mastass base, where I had seen fish tanks in the casino. Sure enough, the game alerted me to one of them that stood out from the others.

Grabbing a fish.
It took me a while to figure out how to grab it. It turned out that the aquarium tank needed to be in the inventory of the lead character before an option to "get exotic fish" became active. This is true of a lot of inventory-based puzzles in the game, like keycards; they have to be in the lead character's possession to use them.

I returned to Amaro with the fish and he gladly rejoined me. He was a much better fighter than Janai, so her service in the ground squad turned out to be quite brief.

Assigning new positions in the ship and on the ground squad.

Ciberan and Varon are both in the same system, but Ciberan was swarming with enemy ships and Varon wasn't, so I decided to do the Lanta quest first. Unfortunately, I bollixed it up somehow. There were two bases, one with the group I was supposed to be supporting and one with the group whose leader I was supposed to kidnap. I ended up killing everyone in both bases and never got the option to kidnap the leader. I hoped it wasn't too important and went on to Ciberan.

I really screwed up this mission. I don't know what the picture of the egg was about.

Ciberan had a bunch of enemy ships flying around the planet that attacked me every time I approached (there's an option to counterfeit your ship's signature, but I kept forgetting about it). While I could get past them by zooming right for the planet and immediately hitting (A) to orbit or (B) to visit the starbase as soon as the options came up, I eventually got sick of the ships and decided to destroy them. I accomplished this with a bit of "repair scumming." I flew around shooting at the enemies until my ship took too much damage, then immediately visited the starbase and paid for repairs. By repeating this process about 11 times, I was eventually able to destroy all of the enemies. This wouldn't have been possible, of course, if smuggling missions didn't pay so well and I thus hadn't been able to amass a small fortune early in the game.

Just a random shot of landing on a planet. I didn't know where else to put it.
At Meridian City on Ciberan, I met with Sebastian, leader of the forces resisting the Ariel invasion, and got from him a set of coordinates to a research center currently under attack.

There was also a store at Meridian City where I was able to upgrade my "advanced medical lining" (AML) to a more robust version. The AML is the inventory item that allows each character to continually regenerate health in combat; everyone comes with a standard one. The new ones promise to regenerate faster. The store also had ammo for some of the more advanced weapons I'd been picking up. Eventually, I stopped leveling Nova in firearms and started leveling her in "special weapons," which include laser guns and blasters.

I flew to the research center, cleared it of attacking Ariels, and got the coordinates to the next facility that they were striking. This process--clear out one base and get the coordinates to the next one--proceeded several times before I finally found myself in the facility where General Rodgen was directing the forces.

Getting the coordinates to yet another base.

Like all the combats in this game, those in the bases were bereft of tactics except to try to isolate enemies in groups of 3 or fewer. That was sometimes difficult, as in the case of this base, which had no doors to the rooms. I basically just waited in the starting area until the random walk routine brought one of them to me, killed him, then waited for the next one. Occasionally, I got impatient and ventured out, only to have a character die when they ganged up on me. There was a lot of reloading here.

Attacking a level swarming with anti-like foes.

I was quite literal when I said "random walk" above. Each enemy seems to move in a completely random direction every couple of seconds, regardless of whether he's currently engaged in combat, and regardless of the presence of the party. It's annoying when you get one down to 10 health, only to have him wander off the screen or into a room full of his compatriots, at which point you have no choice but to abandon him and let his health regenerate.

The other major problem is targeting enemies. I might be missing something in the interface on this, but there doesn't seem to be any way to click on an enemy to target him. Instead, the SPACE bar cycles through all visible enemies, until you finally land on the one you want to target, at which point ENTER fires at him. The problem is when there are dozens of enemies on screen, as above, and you have to cycle through them all before you land on the one closest to you. He's shooting at you in the meantime. If you accidentally press SPACE too many times, you accidentally pass him and have to cycle through everyone again. This is only a concern for Nova, since the NPCs in the party will shoot at the closest enemy no matter who's targeted, but since Nova seems to do the most damage, it's very annoying and dangerous.

I want to fight the guy in the upper-left next, but I have to hit SPACE a bunch of times before I'll target him. At least they can't shoot at me from behind the door.

Aside from these problems, the blunt nature of combat doesn't bother me as much as I would have thought. It's fast enough that even in enemy-heavy areas, it's over quickly. Leveling up is rapid (Nova is Level 22 as I write this) and the benefits associated with increasing skills are instantly noticeable.

Nova is starting to max in some of her skills.

Occasionally, a group of enemies--usually "boss" enemies--will occupy fixed positions. Such was the case with General Rodgen, who stood fixed in a small room with three warriors in fixed positions in front of her. They were tough. I couldn't survive sustained combat with them, so I adopted the tactic that I had to use against Taylor in Sentinel Worlds: run up, fire a few shots, then run away. Fortunately, enemies regenerate slightly slower than the party members, so the tactic works over a long period of time.

General Rodgen waits behind three other enemies as I try to figure out how best to approach them. She's blue, meaning she has some dialogue before I kill her.

"General Rodgen" turned out to be a white-haired woman in earrings and civilian gear. She bragged about taking over Ciberan and said that she and Damien Altron would eventually control the four systems. I killed her after a short conversation. This cleared the bases on Ciberan, so I moved on to Ariel to try to find Damien Altron himself.

At this point, I should mention that I played this section over a week ago, but I got busy with work and didn't have a chance to blog about it until now. I don't remember some of what I did. To the best of my recollection, I visited Ariel's main city, stocked up on some equipment, and talked to a few trivial NPCs. A spy or rebel gave me the coordinates to a rebel base, where I spoke to a rebel leader named Jared. He, in turn, gave me the coordinates to Damien's base and told me he'd keep Damien's forces occupied while I took on Damien himself.

The rebel leader exhibits poor trigger discipline.

In Damien's base, I spoke to him and tried to shoot him. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a hologram. In his dialogue, he indicated that "Damien Altron" was in fact a complex AI that had been created by General Rodgen. He said that his program was everywhere, and the only way to destroy him would be to destroy the entire planet. I told him I'd find another way regardless and stormed the base. I didn't want to post this until I'd finished the quest, but I'm stuck in the base, swarming with Altron's soldiers, and I keep running out of ammo and having to go back to a city to buy more.

Trading threats with the Dictator of Ariel.

Altogether, the quest to kill Altron has occupied about six hours. I hope there aren't too many of these.

A few other notes:

  • One thing I like about the game are the brief descriptions you get when entering a new area, or even among the various rooms on a larger map.

  • It's tough to find locations where you go up and down. They're not signaled iconographically. You have to wander around until you notice the "go up one level" or "go down one level" options on the screen; sometimes, they seem to appear in random rooms.
  • Many of the bases I needed to access during this mission were beneath a "drop shield," meaning I had to drop my hovercraft somewhere else and fly to them. In a couple of cases, it was difficult to do this without running out of fuel along the way. If you run out of fuel, you automatically abandon your hovercraft and have to buy a new one. This also happens if your hovercraft is destroyed in combat.
  • Earlier, I mentioned that in the robomaze, enemies respawned when I visited the "save" or "load" screens. This doesn't seem to happen elsewhere in the game, but enemies do re-set to their default starting positions when you visit these screens.
  • Based on comments I received and my own observations, the game seems to award experience based on damage inflicted rather than enemies killed. Thus, if you spent a while firing at an enemy and he successful wanders away and regenerates, it was still worthwhile, as you get experience for the shots.

Sorry for the long delays. It's another busy work period. I hope I can win this for the next post.


  1. Maybe the jewel encrusted egg is a subtle homage to Zork?

  2. Jewel encrusted egg could be a Zork reference.

  3. "No sooner had I left the Starkiller base when I got a message to return immediately and get my next assignment. Since I already had plenty of money from my previous smuggling attempts, I didn't bother to delay my return."

    This sounds like there might have been some hidden check for money total or main character's level, a threshold that you had already surpassed during your grinding. The message is probably only meant to appear once you are strong enough.

  4. Yeah, Damien...

    Not giving you the answer, but I'm almost certain you've already run across it. Hard Nova doesn't shy away from old school "take notes about every thing and every one you encounter because some day it will matter".

    1. Also, suffice it to say, it isn't in the base...

    2. Got stuck on this one for a good while myself, when played it back in time.

  5. In Damien Altron's base the enemies DO respawn when you hit F9, F10 or leave the level.

  6. One seemingly universal feature of early RPGs is a lack of quality control.

    It seems that many of the games played so far have had relatively short, simple quest lines, and the playtime has been artificially or unintentionally increased via extreme difficulty spikes, poor instructions and unintuitive controls. I get that there's a sort of raw charm to it and that the player-hostile nature of the games leads to its own kind of reward, but the experience of playing these games is fundamentally different to the experience of modern rpgs. They might as well be different products.

    1. So the original RPGs are different from modern RPGs? Thanks for that thought.

    2. Thanks for the rude and pointless oversimplification, anon.

    3. Tristan: Good point- I had never thought of that but you are correct- they may be ancestors to modern RPGs, but to the layman they aren't recognizable as RPGs :)

    4. Extra Credits did a series on what makes JRPGs and WRPGs into seperate genres: and

      I think that Western RPGs are picking up a lot of the storytelling that he associates with JRPGs (Mass Effect, KotOR, Baldur's Gate, Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2), but that he is generally right. I wonder if there is some dividing line with Old School CRPGs vs Contemporary CRPGs with players having different motivations for playing them on each side, and if so, what the line is?

  7. This game really isn't that hard. The interface is terrible but I doubt it's deliberately so. The big difference with a modern game actually is something I'd attribute to a lack of QA though, and it's the ease with which you can wedge the game in an unwinnable state. Sell a key item and it gets removed from game. Want to kill one of the main quest line NPCs? Help yourself. I actually managed to get my game stuck by saving in the wrong place at the wrong time (because that causes a reset of sorts of the level).

    1. Morrowind was the only title that really handled that cleanly. Break the plot? Okay, we'll let you know and give you a get out of jail for a bucket of health card.

    2. I personally think Fallout did it even better.

    3. Baldur's Gate was pretty good about it too.

    4. Morrowind even had a "secret" second way to win the game if you "accidentally" killed Vivec. It involved talking to the last dwarf.

    5. On the flip side, fallout was so relaxed about player actions, that I finished the game without completing the game's primary quest arc (I never replaced the water chip). It was a bit of a head-scratching experience. The overseer should have said: "Great, great, saved us from the bad guys, now when the £#€& will you save us from dying of thirst?"

    6. The Overseer's an @$$hole anyway. So, good riddance. I'd have given them a Pee Chip if I could.

    7. Here is a website showing you exactly how to tear games apart:

      Deus Ex is fun to disrupt: Killing everyone you can, going into places that are not supposed to be able to enter, climbing walls that should be impassable--there is a famous bug involving LAMs that helps with this--taking booze and drugs until you are half blind and seeing just how angry your commanders can get Ruining the game is more fun than playing it.

      Arx Fatalis is also fun to manipulate: You can kill everyone, including the king, take control of the land, get the key to the outside, leave--and confirm that the outside is at near absolute zero temperatures asyour character immediately. I like to think of that as the best ending.

      Also The Real Texas, which is an excellent game but very buggy and if you do things right, you can skip large parts of dungeons, go through locked doors and see the final screen a few dungeons before you win the game.

      Metroid is the classic example: You can experiment and figure out techniques that you are not supposed to know until later, then use them to skip fights and collect items that should be inaccessible. This versatility is one of the many things that makes it one of my favorite series.

    8. Also Metal Gear Solid: What make the Metal Gear Solid series wonderful, aside from the insane twists and strange sense of humor is that the designers have pretty much thought of everything and prepared responses.

  8. I wonder if there was a cash threshold for the next mission and you just happened to have already surpassed it by that point.

  9. starkiller is a homage to Luke Skywalker's original name
    (most people probly know this already)

  10. I think you meant "this joke wasnt even new in the 90s" for your first caption.


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