Thursday, August 24, 2017

MegaTraveller 2: Summary and Rating

       
MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients
United States
Paragon (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga, possibly Atari ST
Date Started:  29 July 2017
Date Ended: 16 August 2017
Total Hours: 42
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 41
Ranking at Time of Posting: 214/260 (82%)

Unfortunately the "evil path" I mentioned last time didn't amount to anything. Grazer gives you $50,000 for killing Trow Backett and then asks you to kill another Ancients expert going by the name "Cocoa" for another $50,000. I wasn't able to do the second part because I'd already spoken to Cocoa as part of the main quest, and the game had decided he was no longer a "green" NPC and thus wouldn't let me into his building. But I read online that you just get the money and that's the end of the thread. You still have to save Rhylanor if you want to "complete" the game.
      
It's a poor trade-off, since Backett buys things from you for well over $50,000.
      
It occurs to me, though, that this is one of the few games so far in the chronology that you could play 99% evil. You can make your fortune through piracy, taking the "evil" quest options (e.g., helping vile dictators suppress rebellions), and killing other NPCs for their stuff. You still have to save Rhylanor at the end, but you could argue that you're just doing that for the money.

I messed around a little more before wrapping up. It is possible to kill the Duke--he dies in just a couple of blows, in fact--but it has no effect on the game and he still shows up at the end to give his speech.
      
The Duke lies dead on the floor. But that doesn't mean we lose!
      
In the first entry, I noted that the predictions the slime would take "7 years" meant that you probably have 2,555 days to win. In fact, the slime finally hits Rhylanor Startown at 2,710 days. It swallows Rhylanor's other cities along the way. After about day 1,200, you can no longer travel to other cities.
     
The goo closes in on the planet's capital.
     
Once it covers Rhylanor Startown, you get a special "game over" screen.
     
I could technically still zap the planet with the terraforming device.
      
I know my last couple of entries have been fairly positive, so I feel that I have to clarify: MegaTraveller 2 is not a good RPG. It fails in every aspect of RPG mechanics, including character development, combat, and equipment. The story isn't even really that good. Its world-building is minimal. Although you encounter about a dozen races in the game, there's no real characterization attached to them. And yet this bad sequel to a bad game manages to offer something that no other RPG has offered in the chronology: a truly open world with nonlinear gameplay and dozens of side quests. I would really like to know who on the team insisted on that. He should have been working for a better company.

What's particularly disappointing about both games in the MegaTraveller series is the skill system. It's certainly an original approach to an RPG: Have most of the character development occur during the character creation stage. Instead of starting with a young Level 1 peasant who slowly becomes a hero, start with the hero, and role-play whatever selection of skills and experiences brought him to that stage in life. 

I suspect, however, that tabletop Traveller gives its characters many more occasions to use their skills. The computer RPG didn't even try. The manual for the game lists about 125 "skills that can be used to complete the game." A lot are weapons skills, but they also include "Bribery," "Disguise," "Admin," "Forgery," "Carousing," "History," and "Forensics." If these came into play anywhere in the game, it was so subtle that it might as well not have been included at all. 
     
Why couldn't I use "Admin" or "Bribery" or "Forgery" at a time like this?
     
The hintbook lists a more realistic 19 skills that are "used most frequently." Even this list seems too long. "Broker" and "Trader" are useful to get the best prices, but the economy is such that a character with no skill in these areas can still make plenty of money. The weapons skills are nice, of course, but success in combat seems to depend more on the quality of the equipment than the skill of the user. "Recruiting" is only useful if you accept your characters' deaths. "ATV" and "Grav Vehicle" are both on the list, and both can be used by anyone regardless of skill.

As far as I can tell, the only absolutely essential skill to get through the game was "Medic." "Interrogation" helped with the main plot, but its utility is duplicated with the truth serum. Maybe I would have made more of "Engineering" and "Turret Weapons" if I'd insisted on piracy early in the game.

In general, we have an RPG that both minimizes any skill development during the game (I've commented enough about how rare and erratic that is) and barely uses the skills that make up your characters' backstories. I can't believe no one realized how bad this was during the development of the game. With so many planets, so many side quests (the hint book lists at least triple the number that I explored), there were a thousand opportunities to employ each skill set, to use skills as alternatives to combat, to use skills as an alternative to having certain items in the inventory, but they missed every one. Did none of them play Wasteland?

I expect some extremes in the GIMLET. Let's see.

1. Game World. You can feel them really trying in this category, going so far as to commission the creator of the RPG to write the story. They designed all of these races and created 117 planets with double that number of cities, each with a unique profile in terms of technology, law, and government. It almost makes this effort relevant during gameplay but doesn't quite. The story itself is only "adequate." Frankly, I found the history of "Grandfather" and his offspring to be goofy, and the whole "Ancients" thing is getting old by now. "A" for effort; "B-" for execution. Score: 5.
       
The developers programmed new tiles indicating a "lusher" Rhylanor after you win.
      
2. Character Creation and Development. The creation engine is so good that it was designed to support tabletop RPG creation. There are so many potential careers, so many things that can happen during those careers, and so many skills, that the possibilities for the final character are essentially infinite. It's just too bad that, as above, the game does essentially nothing with the characters after that. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. The actual mechanics of chasing down green dots wasn't fun, but NPCs are a vital part of the game. Just as in the Ultima series, you wouldn't be able to complete the quest without their clues. They impart lore, quests, and hints. There are no dialogue options, but there are a handful of role-playing choices. Score: 6.
      
NPCs are crucial to understanding the world and making your way through it.
      
4. Encounters and Foes. Your only enemy in the game is other people, and in combat they differ only by equipment. There are a variety of non-combat encounters that blend with the quest system, but these do not offer meaningful role-playing choices. Score: 2.

5. Magic and Combat. Horrible. Target and attack. That's it. No tactics, no strategies, no input, even, for 4/5 of your party. You get no feedback on the health or even names of your opponents, and the tiny interface keeps you too far from the action to really see what's happening.

I don't expect magic in a science fiction RPG, but I do expect something that substitutes for magic. Stims, chems, tasers, psionics, special futuristic technology devices that paralyze and stuff, active use of skills--any of these would have sufficed. Score: 1.
    
Space combat is so equally boring that it doesn't even qualify the game for an extra point.
      
6. Equipment. There are a lot of weapon types in the game, but even at the end, I don't know how to figure out which is likely to do the most damage, including the role that skill level plays in the formula. Laser rifles for everyone seemed to work fine. There are a couple of suits of armor, but most everything else is quest items. I'm annoyed that there wasn't a single place in the game to use my forensics kit or hand-held computer.

The one saving grace: MegaTraveller 2 is one of the few games of the era to offer detailed item descriptions. Click "Examine" on any item and you get a well-written paragraph or two. Score: 4.
       
This doesn't really tell you anything about the suit, but I like the text for the text alone.
     
7. Economy. The economy is really the driving force of the game--the only reason to engage in the many side quests. I admire its complexity: lots of ways to earn money, and lots of ways to spend it. It just needed better balance. Rewards should have been more commensurate with their effort, and costs more commensurate with their utility. By the game's midpoint, you have so much money that it would be silly to waste time making more. Score: 5.
     
Money is used almost entirely for travel in this universe.
      
8. Quests. A strength of the game. In addition to a couple of intertwined main quests, there are hundreds of side quests--more than a single player is likely to experience--and some of them even offer some basic role-playing choices. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I don't have any particular praise for the main interface graphics, but the cut scenes occasionally offer a nice image. The dits and boops and occasional explosions that make up the sound effects are fine, nothing special.

Worst was the interface. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you have less than 26 commands, there is no excuse for not just mapping them each to a key. Sure, offer the mouse interface too, but not exclusively. Running after NPCs and trying to click on the "Converse" button and then "Hail" when I should have just been able to hit "H" was infuriating. Even the mouse interface had problems: with the menu selections often small and close together, it was too easy to click on the wrong one. Score: 3.
       
The description and graphics of the Ancients sites are particularly well done. It's too bad there isn't more to do in them.
       
10. Gameplay. The nonlinearity is of course a huge asset. I also have to give it points for replayability, given the numerous ways characters can make money to pursue the main quest, plus the sheer number of side quests. (Alas, it would be even more replayable if the skills mattered more.) On the negative side, it falls on the "too easy" side except for a few unnecessary combats. While 40 hours is a respectfully modest time, the game often feels unnecessarily large and empty, particularly when you're running through empty corridors and streets looking for one small item or NPC. Score: 6.

That gives us a final score of 41. That feels right. 35 is usually my threshold for whether I'd recommend the game at all, and above 50 I'd say definitely play it. Between those two scores is an area that says "the game has strengths you'll enjoy, but it sabotages those strengths with as many weaknesses." It also compares well to the first MegaTraveller, which I gave a 34.

I find my opinion echoed by Scorpia's November 1991 Computer Gaming World review, which bemoans the wasted skill system and "worthless" training halls, and the disappointingly purposeless Ancients sites. Like me, she liked the nonlinearity. However, she liked the combat system, considering it improved from MegaTraveller, with which I 100% disagree. The first game's combat system was hard to figure out, true, but it actually offered tactical considerations. And you had grenades. Scorpia also complained about "too many side threads that have nothing to do with the main plot," which of course is the whole point of side quests, but I forgive her because side quests weren't really a "thing" in RPGs in 1991. It probably took a few games to build up a taste for them. Overall, I can't disagree with her conclusions: "An improvement over the previous game, [but] it hasn't improved quite enough. Skills have to be more fully integrated into the game."

Of course, I had to find out whether Dragon praised the game with 5/5 stars or slammed it with 4/5 stars, but it doesn't appear that they reviewed it--which is odd given its tabletop lineage. I would have thought they'd prioritize this one. I was also curious if our old Amiga Computing friend, Stuart Campbell, had written a review. His assessment of the first game remains my all-time favorite hyperbolic review quote: "If you took the Pacific Ocean, stacked another Pacific Ocean on top of it, and then attached two more Pacific Oceans to either end, it wouldn't be quite as deep as MegaTraveller 1." Alas, despite his praise, he seems to have missed the sequel. In general, Amiga magazines rated it poorly. I'd like to make fun of them like I usually do and say their primary complaint was the graphics, but only a few mention graphics. Most of them just thought it was boring.

Although both this game and its predecessor were products of Paragon Software, the specific teams don't share many of the same names. In particular, Paragon co-founder F. J. Lennon, credited with the manual in MegaTraveller 1, moves up to "writer" and "co-designer" here. In my MegaTraveller 1 review, I remarked that the manual was the best thing about the game, and you can see the quality of Lennon's writing in both the documentation for MegaTraveller 2 and the solid in-game text. Lennon isn't credited on Twilight 2000 (coming up soon), and I suspect the game will suffer accordingly. We'll see his work again on Challenge of the Five Realms (1992).
      
     
Paragon wouldn't last another year. Although it released 13 titles between 1989 and 1991, most under either its GDW or Marvel licenses, none of them got good reviews. MicroProse bought the company in 1992 and either didn't acquire their GDW and Marvel contracts or didn't care to develop more games based on them. GDW, its attempts to translate its properties to the computer having been bungled thrice by Paragon, itself went out of business in 1996. Traveller, despite all its acclaim as a tabletop game, never saw another computer edition. Or hasn't seen one yet, perhaps I should say.

[Edit: Long after originally posting this entry, I found the ad below for both Twilight: 2001 and MegaTraveller 3: The Unknown Worlds. The games are promised by Microplay, a division of MicroProse, suggesting that MicroProse got the rights to the GDW licenses. But despite this full-page ad in the August 1992 Computer Gaming World, nothing was ever heard of these games again.]
               
Two games that never were.
            
Let's remember this one for its strengths. Paragon Software, a company whose previous RPG offerings gave it no reason to be ambitious, suddenly got ambitious in a way that no previous developer had. MegaTraveller 2 is such a minor title that it's hard to believe it influenced later open-world, multi-quest RPGs, but it sure did anticipate them. If only they'd taken a page from SSI or Origin or literally any other RPG developer on character development and combat, we might remember this one as one of the greats.

****

Further reading: MegaTraveller wasn't the first implementation of the Traveller rules; that was the copyright violator called Space (1978). You may also want to check out my coverage of MegaTraveller 1 (1990), plus Paragon's other GDW titles, including Space: 1889 (1990).

31 comments:

  1. We'll see his work again on Challenge of the Five Realms (1992). - It just dawned on me how similar the two games are. Challenge has a similar time limit mechanics (only not having other planets, the open-worldness goes to waste because of that), and tons of skills that never get used (only unlike MT it doesn't have an excuse of being tabletop adaptation). It's funny, because I liked Challenge the first time I played it in early 2000s, but a couple of years ago I tried going back to it, and quickly realized what a hot mess it is.

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    1. I'm really looking forward to Challenge of th 5 realms, I remember it being very well written in spite of its generic framing story (defeat evil wizard by going to earth, air, fire and water realms for some macguffins). I think it could be one of the sleeper hits of 1992 as it addresses lots of Chet's issues with this game, I remember combat and magic being quite good after a slow start. Of course my teenage self might be remembering things wrong and it's rubbish, but that's why I love this blog, crushing nostalgia since 2010!

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    2. I played that one recently and while I had a decent time with the exploration, I fear you may be misremembering the combat portion. I found the combat in it it to be pretty infrequent, chaotic, and poorly implemented compared to other titles. Overall, however, it felt a bit like a simplified Ultima 6 and as such, I am also looking forward to the addict to play that one as very few seem to have done so.

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    3. Yeah I never thought about it either, but Challenge of the Five Realms is somewhat similar to the MegaTraveller games. At the very least it continues advancing a number of the design decisions (good and bad) made in those games so playing it chronologically he'll probably be able to look at them the same way we look at how the Gold Box games changed over time.

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  2. I wonder how much of the descriptions was really written for the game, and how much was just taken from the tabletop game. The game sticks very closely to the Traveller RPG and its Third Imperium setting.

    I think how Traveller handles skill development is pretty realistic (by RPG standards). You're a 3x-year old in a second career as an adventurer. You're not going to become a skilled surgeon if you weren't one before. And you certainly won't go from wimp to demi-god within a year. For tabletop that works fine, since there is much more focus on role-playing/character interaction. But it doesn't translate that well to computer RPGs, where one thing that keeps you going is character improvement. Sticking less closely to tabletop Traveller would have made the game better.

    Shadowrun is another tabletop RPG where your characters start rather strong. For the computer games, the mechanics were reworked completely, and it worked pretty well.

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  3. On the one end of the scale, you have dungeon crawlers with very limited scope, very detailed combat tactics and statistics, and relatively limited mechanics that the gmae makes the most out of - and on the other end of the scale you have this here.

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  4. Of course, I had to find out whether Dragon praised the game with 5/5 stars or slammed it with 4/5 stars, but it doesn't appear that they reviewed it--which is odd given its tabletop lineage.

    I suspect that Dragon's game reviewers were primarily interested specifically in that subset of tabletop-RPG-to-video-game conversions that drew on licensed TSR properties... in which case, a clear and easy 5/5 every time! Many, many other magazines were quite a bit more likely to extend reviews to your game if you had bought an advertisement for it in their pages.

    The most interesting part of the Paragon story is its epilogue: as Wikipedia tells it, "Soon after [being bought by Microprose], many of the former Paragon principals moved on to co-found or work for Take-Two Interactive." (click) "Notable game series published by Take-Two include Grand Theft Auto, Civilization, NBA 2K, BioShock and Borderlands. As owner of 2K Games, Take-Two publishes its 2K Sports titles ... As of 2016, it is the third largest publicly-traded game company (after Activision Blizzard and EA) in the Americas and Europe."

    Step 1: underutilize GDW and Marvel licenses.
    Step 2: ???
    Step 3: $PROFIT!$

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  5. MT 1 and 2 manuals are 10/10.

    I had a lot more fun imagining the game after reading the manual then actually playing the game.

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  6. Re: this game's problems, I suspect nobody on the team ever played it from start to finish (a surprisingly common occurrence). They bit off way more than they could chew and then just had to complete something that mostly worked and get it out the door.

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  7. There was Megatraveller 3 coming up, referenced in some locations, here's one of them:

    http://www.travellerrpg.com/CotI/Discuss/showthread.php?t=30156

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  8. I never played MegaTraveller, but I was impressed by character creation in Twilight 2000 (which follows the same pattern with selecting service branches etc.). I really wish some modern RPGs would employ this approach (only Planeshift MMO comes to mind), although I must admit the results tend to be a bit too unpredictable for modern game-design.

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    1. Darklands uses a similar system as well. But more than two or three lifestyle choices results in physical stat drops, and increasing skills in game is methodical and regular. To me, those sorts of choices make excellent role play foils, especially if they are referred to in game.

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  9. I can't help seeing Minecraft in the last screenshot and I haven't played that game in years.

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  10. The 90s was still boom time for rpg´s. So I suspect this job was rushed to market. Such a shame, it had potential to be really great. I wonder if any amateur will make a semi-legal sequel.

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  11. Ahem. Might and Magic III is coming.

    And my popcorn is reeadddyyyy. :)

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    1. And after first post about mm3 Chet will write: "dear all ... september ... work ... frequent travels ... orleans ... jazz ... postponed till november."

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    2. I bet people would notice a lot faster if that mysteriously disappeared from the upcoming list.

      Might and Magic III is going to be great, I'm sure, but I'm still looking forward to the titles I've never heard about more than that.

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    3. Now that I think about it, the first MM game that I played was 4+5 and it was not on my own computer because I did not own one. I should probably install my gog copy of 3 and play it too...

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    4. True. If it's a game we all know about, there wouldn't be time for popcorn because we'd be busy typing out our comments.

      It's the underdogs that lets us go "huh" and continue reading.

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  12. Paragon co-founder F. J. Lennon

    AHA! I noticed that Jayef Nonnel was obviously a reference to somebody - I just wasn't sure who. Case closed!

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  13. Here are some scores from German reviewers: http://www.kultboy.com/testbericht-uebersicht/3379/
    I dont know why the same reviewer gave the PC version 73% and the Amiga versoion 55%, but overall the scores reflect your judgement.
    One reviewer for Powerplay actually mirrors your judgment, when he sais "Its hard to unbderstand how you can use a fantastic system and a good story to make a boring game" and apns the automatic space battles.

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  14. So I have to ask... What's with the fox guy on the cover? Is that even an option? That's a little confusing.

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    1. He's a dog-guy. A Vargr--one of the possible races. Earlier, I mentioned that I didn't choose one for my party because I don't think dogs should walk and talk.

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    2. Huh.
      That is NOT what I imagined based on that description. Okay.

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    3. Well... then avoid RPGs involving Inugami and Inuyasha. XD

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  15. Question: How do you increase skills in the Pen and Paper Megatraveller? Does anyone have the pen and paper rules?

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    1. I only have Mongoose traveller, where raising a skill takes a number of weeks of training equal to the total number of all skill points plus the new level of the skill to be raised. So it usually means a couple of months downtime for the character.

      About ten lines of text, and that's all there is on character development in the core rulebook. I think in the original Traveller it was even worse.

      MegaTraveller definately has a rule that the number of skill points is limited by your INT + EDU.

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    2. In the version of traveller I have (Revised, I think?) there is almost nothing on raising skills during play. I think you can pay to do it, but it is pretty expensive. That said, I've not read the book in years.

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    3. This question came up elsewhere. I want to emphasize that while it may be interesting for curiosity's sake to check the PnP rules of a game, the fact that a rule existed in the PnP version never excuses poor gameplay in the computer version. CRPGs must be designed to play well AS CRPGs.

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    4. Oh sure. But it would be interesting to know WHY the game has its flaws, doubly so as other people reported more skill gains then you. For example, if in the PnP rules it said that skill level ups should be common, we can guess a bug, or someone broke something cracking the game. However, it sounds like they are very rare in the tabletop version, possibly even MORE rare then the CRPG, so they might have even tried to depart from tabletop but not done so well, or just blindly implemented tabletop.

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  16. As Dariel notes, MegaTraveller 3 was actually advertised by MicroProse. In the inside cover of the Darklands manual (a game I can't wait for you to get to) there's this nugget:

    "MegaTraveller 3: The Unknown Worlds -- The popular MegaTraveller series continues with three awesome adventures packed into one game. Each adventure emphasizes different gaming styles. And no game plays the same twice thanks to a revolutionary random world generator that makes your universe different from anyone else's!"

    I wonder why that never got released... It surely couldn't be that absurdly ambitious concept. It's also pretty hilarious that advertising claimed that MegaTraveller 2, "...adds enhanced, streamlined combat," as well as "advanced character creation," but not advancement.

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