Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Game 374: Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed (1992)

Wouldn't it make more sense for the second game to be "Matrix Squared"?
            
Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 1 August 2020
              
I have to be up front with you: Matrix Cubed is going to have a tough time overcoming the bias that I have unintentionally built up against it. This is a bias based on my own experience with its predecessor, my general preference for fantasy over science fiction, my ambivalence towards the setting and characters, and my understanding of the history of the brief series as covered by Jimmy Maher in 2017. Matrix Cubed comes across as the ultimate "corporate game"--a sequel that no one wanted to a predecessor that no one wanted based on a franchise that no one cared about. If Lorraine Williams hadn't happened to own TSR and the rights to the Buck Rogers franchise at the same time, it never would have existed.

Nonetheless, it's a Gold Box game, and no Gold Box game is ever terrible. The key problem I had with its predecessor is that the Gold Box combat system was built with magic in mind, and Buck Rogers, being a sci-fi game, doesn't have any magic. Nor did the developers create very much to take the place of magic except for a few grenades with varying properties. But it still GIMLETed in the 40s, so I suppose it won't be a horrible experience. I'll try to approach it with an open mind.
          
I don't think Jupiter even appears in the game.
        
Buck Rogers, in the set of canon used by the tabletop RPG, is a Cold War-era military pilot, lost in space after he blows up a Soviet space weapons platform. He is recovered and revived 500 years later, only to find that little has changed except the technology. Humanity has managed to colonize the solar system, terraforming some planets and setting up colonies on moons and asteroids. The Earth is under the control of the fascist Russo-American Mercantile (RAM). Rogers falls in with the New Earth Organization (NEO) to oppose them. NEO manages to wrest control of Earth from RAM, but their hold on the planet is tenuous. This is where the first game began. The party was a group of NEO recruits who foiled a RAM counter-attack, which would have used a giant laser to scorch Earth.
    
As the sequel begins, NEO is still fighting skirmishes with RAM throughout the solar system. The party, which I imported successfully from the first game, is on a mission from Buck Rogers to protect the new king of Mercury, Lord Berkeley. Berkeley is a proponent of a unified solar system, and thus an assassination target.
           
The standard Gold Box start menu.
           
I spend some time reviewing my characters and re-familiarize myself with the game's mechanics. For attributes, Rogers uses the standard Dungeons and Dragons set (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma) with the addition of technical ability. Races are Terrans, Martians, Venusians, Mercurians, Tinkers, and Desert Runners. The first four are just varieties of humans, with small (+/-1) attribute modifiers to account for different cultures and gravity levels. Terrans are hardy, tempered by a life of struggle under RAM. Martians are the elites of the system, the nobles (basically elves). Venusians are the working class, miners and herders (dwarves). Mercurians are a weird lot who live under the rule of "Sun Kings" and stylize themselves like 18th-century French aristocrats. 

Tinkers and Desert Runners are both bio-engineered races, the former created to be small and nimble (think intelligent lemurs). They have high dexterity and technical skill. Desert Runners were bred from dogs and cats to herd animals on the Martian surface; they are strong, hardy, and fast.
           
The game begins. Tony has received a promotion, it seems.
         
Classes are rocket jocks, warriors, engineers, rogues, and medics, with associated minimum attribute requirements. The games' primary addition to the standard Gold Box rules is a selection of more than 50 skills, such as piloting rockets, climbing, picking pockets, demolitions, treating diseases, programming, singing, and different types of repairing. Some skills are specific to certain classes; others can be learned by anyone.

My imported party has double the experience as freshly-created characters (about 80,000 points versus 40,000), which only translates to one extra level. I think I named the party after characters in other 1980s science fiction franchises. They are:
      
  • Austin, a male Terran warrior. With high strength, dexterity, and constitution, he specializes in leadership, battle tactics, and 0-gravity maneuvering.
  • Starbuck a male Desert Runner rocket jock. Strong, smart, and fast, he specializes in 0-g maneuvering, jetpack use, and rocket piloting.
  • Dale, a female Venusian engineer. Smart and technically skilled, she can repair anything but life support and also has demolitions skills.
  • Bonnie, a female Tinker engineer. Her "repair" hole is in nuclear engines, but otherwise she has engineering skills redundant with Dale. She also has high skills in commo operations and sensor operations. I think my thinking was there were so many tech-oriented skills, I should probably divide them among two engineers.
  • Elias, a male Martian rogue. He's quick and charismatic. His skills are concentrated in thieving-related areas like searching, bypassing security, opening locks, sneaking, and tracking.
  • Theta Sigma, a male Mercurian medic. His skills are spread among different types of diagnosis and treatment, although I left him at 0 with "Life Suspension Tech"; maybe the skill didn't exist in the first game. I also trained him in library searching.
      
My characters' backpacks are overflowing with weapons, armor, grenades, and other bits of equipment, and as the game begins, we're immediately invited to take from a pool of items. Like its predecessor, Matrix Cubed features a variety of melee and ranged weapons, with ammunition oddly hard-coded into the weapon rather than a separate item. The logbook has a table at the back with relative ranges and damage of each weapon, but I can't remember what's special about the "Mercurian," "Venusian," and "Martian" varieties of the weapons. Anything explosive is to be prized, as it's the only way to cause mass damage.
           
We get our first orders.
        
Matrix Cubed begins in the space port of the Mercurian city of Caloris, as the party emerges from its ship, the Maelstrom Rider. The spaceport is the standard Gold Box 16 x 16, but Countdown to Doomsday experimented with maps of different sizes and shapes, and I expect we'll encounter the same later in this game. Lord Berkeley's chancellor approached as we disembarked, saying that the coronation would begin shortly. He offered no directions, so we began to explore systematically.

Only a few steps into the spaceport, we were grabbed by a Dr. Romney, who begged our assistance in getting an audience with the Sun King. Mercenaries appeared in pursuit, and Romney shoved some papers into our hands as the thugs grabbed him and shoved him into a car. Elias, apparently passing a perception check, noted that the mercenary leader was wearing a distinctive ring with the letters "P-U-R-G-E" displayed prominently.
         
It's hard to believe we're still using a separate paper journal in 1992.
          
Matrix Cubed is the penultimate Gold Box game. One thing that has always bothered me about the evolution of the series is that it never grew to actually depict things in the environments. As you explore, you don't see NPCs, enemies, anything--just textures. You don't generally even get any warning of impending encounters right in front of you--you just get whisked to a dialogue or combat screen when you walk into the appropriate square. This was somewhat forgivable in 1988; Wizardry and The Bard's Tale had been doing the same thing for years, and alternatives like Dungeon Master were only a year old. It is less so in 1992. Even today, the Gold Box is nearly unmatched among combat engines, but its approach to exploration needed an overhaul.

Speaking of combat, it wasn't long before I was in it, first with the remaining P.U.R.G.E. thugs, and soon afterwards with waves and waves of RAM soldiers wandering the base. Apparently, Mercury is neutral to both RAM and the NEO, and its own security forces aren't interested in keeping the two factions from killing each other in their own base. Combat hasn't really changed since Countdown to Doomsday, and barring new weapons or abilities in this game (which I don't see in the manual), it seems unlikely that it will change. However, it does seem to have increased in difficulty. Nearly every soldier that I faced had grenades or other explosives, and I had to learn early to spread out my party to avoid getting several members caught in the same explosion. RAM soldiers were also pretty good about using chaff grenades to block explosives thrown or fired into their own areas. After battle, my party had to keep scurrying to the base's free clinic.
        
This combat isn't going well for the party.
       
I'll discuss the Buck Rogers approach to Gold Box combat in more detail later, but one of its oddities is that aside from life-saving bandages, medical treatment can only be applied immediately after combat. This is done automatically, with the medic character using as much skill as she possesses to heal as much damage as the party suffered. If she can't quite heal everyone--or if the medic herself is knocked out--there are no inventory items to compensate. You have to find your way to a clinic or, paradoxically, another combat, hoping that things go easier this time and the medic has a chance to get to the new and old injuries in the one post-combat healing round. It's very weird. It would make more sense if you could camp every 12 hours or so and try another healing round then.
      
This post-combat screen is the only time you can get healed outside of a clinic.
      
We ultimately found our way to the coronation chambers and watched as the new Sun King accepted his crown. Elias, again passing a perception check, noted some Martian delegates furtively reaching for weapons, so we jumped into action and tackled the new king to the ground just as the Martians fired. A large combat with RAM assassins ensued, at which I took the opportunity to liberally use the explosive and stun grenades I'd been picking up from the miscellaneous battles on the base.
           
This coronation has an interesting mix of styles.

Aiming a grenade at the attackers.
         
The Sun King thanked us after the battle and told us to see his chancellor for a reward. The chancellor gave us some money but wouldn't commit to an alliance with NEO. The chancellor was up to something, because later some Mercurians attacked us, muttering something about the chancellor's orders.
           
Who would have thought we couldn't trust someone named "De Sade"?
         
As we continued scouting the unexplored areas of the base, we learned more about Dr. Romney. He was apparently recently accused of terrorism and was scheduled for deportation. Our ship's AI, SCOT.DOS, told us that he'd learned the deportation was taking place at Berth A. Then Buck Rogers contacted us with the intelligence that Dr. Romney had invented something called Matrix that could transform matter. The entire solar system wants it.

We hustled to Berth A and were attacked again by P.U.R.G.E., which whatever it stands for is apparently anti-alien, since the leader was spouting rhetoric about "sub-human slag" when we arrived. The battle delayed us long enough for a rocket to blast off with Romney on board; ominously, it headed for Earth.
           
Are the Tinkers and Desert Runners that much of a problem?
        
We boarded our own ship and flew to the space station Salvation, the secret headquarters of NEO. There, Rogers took Romney's papers and said he'd have the scientists look at them. In the meantime, he said, we have a more pressing problem: someone is trying to build another doomsday laser on an old RAM base near Ceres. (I thought the point of the doomsday laser in the original game is that it had to be close to the sun.) He asked us to check it out.
          
Is this one even more powerful than the first dreaded doomsday laser?
             
We spent a little time on the base first, which has a medical facility, a training facility, and a shop. We were all due for a level-up at this point. After I finished, we blasted off for Ceres--and then sat motionless in space, realizing that we have no idea where Ceres is. The game doesn't seem to have come with a map. I assumed that it was one of the asteroids in the outer ring and thus headed "north" to intercept one and explore them clockwise.
          
Adding to the confusion, the entire solar system periodically shifts around its center.
           
On my first trip, we ran into a RAM heavy cruiser, which attacked. I vaguely remembered space combat from the first game, and I consulted my own entries to remind myself of the details. It's also turn-based. The pilot is the one who fires the most serious weapons, doing the vast majority of the damage, while the rest of the crew can do small amounts of damage with lasers while the engineers try to repair or jury rig systems damaged by the enemy. Anyway, the RAM cruiser was way out of my league--2000 hull strength compared to my 600--and it wasn't long before it killed us. The funny thing is, I don't remember the ship ever getting any better in the previous game, so I'm not sure how you improve your chances in combat.

On a reload, I made it to the first asteroid, which I think was Thule, and then began circling them, looking for Ceres. I found it on the second or third. As we approached, the RAM occupants apparently thought we were a delayed RAM ship carrying a "Dr. Williams," and we were able to bluff our way aboard. The base tasked Elias's abilities in lockpicking and sneak.

We killed a security patrol and took their uniforms, but that only lasted a short time before some sneaking-related check failed and the entire base was onto us. RAM soldiers started attacking periodically in groups of 3 and 4. Their weapons hit a lot harder than I remember from the first game, and it's not uncommon for one of my characters to be taken out of the action in a single round. To defeat them, we relied heavily on stun grenades and a "sonic stunner" carried by one of my engineers.
          
This didn't last long.
          
Fortunately, the base wasn't very big. We made our way to the rear of the base, where we found a miniature version of the doomsday laser destroyed in the first game. Along the way, we raided an armory for some explosives, which we then planted around the laser. The game warned us that we had only half an hour to escape. On the way out, we had the options to fiddle with the laser's control panel and use it to shoot down a RAM heavy cruiser which had entered orbit during our visit. I must have messed something up because the cruiser was still there when we blasted off.
          
So . . . the size was believable.
         
I took too long a route to the airlock the first time, and the crew got caught in their own explosion. That would have been a good place to end: a noble death while accomplishing the same thing that the first game took a couple dozen hours to accomplish.
        
It was a Pyrrhic victory, but at least we won.
       
But I reloaded and found a shorter route. We sailed off with the base exploding behind us.
          
Of course we didn't "watch." No one cool ever "watches."
        
The RAM heavy cruiser was too much for us, but we simply evaded it. I didn't have enough fuel to make it back to Salvation, so we stopped at Thule for refueling. As with the first game, refueling, restocking ship's ammunition, and ship repairs use a different economy than buying weapons and gear. This economy depends on defeating ships in space battles, but fortunately NEO starts you with a small stipend.
       
You bet I'm retreating. Look at his statistics compared to mine!
          
Upon return to base, Buck Rogers congratulated us while expressing pessimism that RAM was done with its laser project. Fortunately, he had a way that NEO could win the war for good: Dr. Romney's papers describe a method of transmuting matter. NEO is going to build this "Matrix Device," except it needs some cutting-edge technology that hasn't quite been invented yet, including "faster computers, better fusion containers, more powerful gravity fields, and higher heat sources." It appears that our missions for the rest of the game will involve seeking scientists on the verge of breakthroughs in these areas.
         
SCOT.DOS could have been played by the late Wilford Brimley.
          
SCOT.DOS, who had been searching for leads, gave us two missions to start: a fusion specialist named Dr. Chade on Earth, whose jetcar was recently shot down by RAM over the "Losangelorg Sprawls," and someone recently conducting gravity experiments in the Venus lowlands. From context, I gather that "Losangelorg" is the 25th Century name for the Los Angeles metroplex, and the "Sprawls" are the bad part of town.
            
Convince him, or "convince" him?
        
I wrapped up the session visiting the depot and carefully sorting through my equipment and comparing it to the data tables at the end of the adventurers' log. Armor is slightly easier to understand than weapons. The manual lists only five types: space suits, smart suits, heavy body armor, battle armor, and battle armor with fields. Each has Martian, Venusian, Mercurian, and Lunarian varieties, which improve in that order, such that Mercurian and Lunarian varieties of a lower armor type are better than the next-level "standard" armor type. There are no restrictions by race or class, and since proximity doesn't matter in combat (i.e., enemies will target anyone they can see), it makes sense to give the best armor to the characters with the least hit points. My characters had collectively:

  • Standard battle armor with fields (AC -2)
  • Venusian heavy body armor (AC 0)
  • 2 Standard heavy body armor (AC 2)
  • Martian smartsuit (AC 3)
  • Lunarian smartsuit (AC 0)

The depot didn't sell anything better than that, so I simply shuffled things around as above. It will probably make a difference. For some reason, I had the best armor on my strongest character and the weakest armor on the weakest.

I then took a scan through other bits of armor. Breathing masks protect against gas and protective goggles against light flashes; fortunately, all characters had both except Theta Sigma lacked protective goggles. The depot didn't sell these, so I made a note to look for them in enemy equipment drops. Everyone had a jetpack but Bonnie, and I was able to buy one here. There's something called an "ECM package" that attaches to armor and protects against bullets. Maddeningly, almost all my characters had one but didn't have it equipped. I must have thought it was a demolition or something.

For weapons, you have to consider both the damage and the rate of fire, plus bonuses that characters with high strength get with melee weapons and those with high dexterity get with ranged weapons. Most combats occur quite close to the enemies despite using ranged weapons, and you can move, so the range is a lesser consideration. Bonuses aside, the best regular weapon by damage alone is the rocket rifle at 2d8, but it only fires twice per round, as opposed to the rocket pistol which does 1d10 up to 4 times per round. The best melee weapon does 1d10 twice per round and thus should be discarded in favor of a ranged weapon for a character of average strength, but characters of exceptional strength get both damage and hit bonuses per round. It gets more complicated when you factor in the "to hit" ratings, though. Martian, Venusian, Mercurian, and Lunarian varieties increase the chance to hit but not the damage.
 
I spent a lot of time putting the variables into Excel and testing scenarios with different attributes. For the average character, with no strength or dexterity bonuses, a microwave gun or rocket pistol is the best weapon in its class, although a Mercurian rocket rifle is better than a standard rocket pistol and a Lunarian rocket rifle would be better than a standard or Martian rocket pistol. The highest average damage per round against AC0 is the Lunarian microwave gun or Lunarian rocket pistol at 9.9. If you factor in dexterity bonuses, the average damage increases (to a maximum average of 14.3 per round) but the weapons scale the same.
        
Starbuck has a lot more weapons than he needs.
        
A character has to achieve 19 strength and get no dexterity bonuses before melee weapons outperform ranged weapons in the same class. For a character with a strength of 22, the Lunarian mono sword or polearm would do the most damage, at an average of 20.15 per round. Unfortunately, my characters mostly have high dexterity and average strength. No one has a dexterity lower than 17 or a strength higher than 18. Thus, my Excel work was mostly a waste of time. If Austin, who has 18 strength and 18 dexterity, ever finds a Lunarian mono sword or polearm, that will be better than a standard rocket pistol. Otherwise, any class of rocket pistol or microwave gun will outperform any melee weapon.

There are a few other considerations, however. Almost any armor protects against microwave guns and chaff grenades and ECM systems can thwart rocket rifles and rocket pistols. It would thus make the most sense to carry some of each and switch between them depending on the foe. Anyway, my data analysis didn't result in any major changes in the context of the weapons I already had, but it did help me prioritize what to sell.

Explosives are a different weapon category. To prevail against robots and large parties, you need plasma rifles, rocket launchers, and grenade launchers, none of which I currently have. I remember saying that the lack of such items for sale hurt the equipment, combat, and economy categories of the last game. I hope they're more plentiful here.

When we return, I'll pick up with the next stages. At least taking the time to better understand the equipment system makes me feel that I'm giving the game a fair chance and not simply approaching the sessions in a perfunctory manner.

Time so far: 5 hours

65 comments:

  1. I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy, however I make an exception for "pulp" sci-fi, or whatever the proper term is. Series like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon always seem to use incredibly creative, out-there settings to tell really boring and perfunctory stories. A Princess of Mars envisions Mars as rebuilding after an apocalypse and features a race of six-armed orcs that shoot exploding bullets... yet the story itself is incredibly dull, with entire books in the series that can be summarized as "John Carter effortlessly saves the day again."

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    1. I feel the other way around, preferring fantasy over scifi, but I like a good scifi novel now and then. And I have a soft spot for pulp and trash. I like the classic Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers exactly because of what you perceive as incredibly dull. To me it comes across as the inherent naiveté (for the lack of a better word) in the times when they were created. I mean they sure were "state-of-the-art" back then and I'm always curious about people's imagination and creativity especially in the fields of scifi and fantasy from times long ago. Not curious enough to watch every cardboard show produced in the 20s or 30s, but I read and liked the original comic strips and even the 70s and 80s renditions. That over-the-top 1980's Flash Gordon Movie nails it IMHO.

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    2. I like both fantasy and sci-fi (but prefer sci-fi in gaming due to fantasy fatigue... almost every RPG has a mostly generic fantasy setting and I'm getting tired of it), but pulpy sci-fantasy has to be my favorite. Stuff like Flash Gordon is right up my alley. The combination of sci fi and fantasy is really fun to me. I love it in the Might and Magics and later Wizardries, too. Using blaster rifles against orcs? A fantasy world being invaded by spacefaring races? Yeah!! Gimme more of that good stuff!!!

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    3. I like genre-mixing too. There was a big boom of multi-genre stuff in the 70s, from what I remember (Star Wars is a science fantasy after all), and you see those influences in early D&D (the original rulebooks suggest robots and aliens as potential enemies). There was a famous module called 'Expedition to the Barrier Peaks' where your characters find a crashed spaceship and find power armor and grenades and ray guns as treasure and fight androids and plant monsters.

      From Wolves of the Calla, book 5 of Stephen King's sci-fi-fantasy-western-horror epic:

      “In our world you got your mystery and suspense stories . . . your science fiction stories . . . your Westerns . . . your fairy tales. Get it?” “Yes,” Roland said. “Do people in your world always want only one story-flavor at a time? Only one taste in their mouths?” “I guess that’s close enough,” Susannah said. “Does no one eat stew?” Roland asked.”

      I suspect the thing nowadays is that with the new rules about cultural appropriation, you can't use another culture unless you have that ethnic background, but everyone's allowed to use fantasy Europe, so everyone winds up using fantasy Europe. I could be wrong though. I'm sure there are financial reasons as well--big-name games are too pricey to make these days so you're stuck playing it safe or something.

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    4. Jack Vance wrote _The Dying Earth_ while serving as a sailor in WW2. It was published around 1950, and its setting is a far-future Earth where the Sun is on the point of flickering out, haunted by the products of ancient, long-forgotten technologies and magicks. There are demons. There are decaying radioactive batteries. It's been a huge influence on SF. and probably even more on RPGs.

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  2. ECM = electronic countermeasures. It's a real-world term, usually referring to technology which scrambles, tricks or otherwise defeats homing or auto-aiming weapon technologies.

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    1. ECM, however, is useless against dumbfire projectiles such as bullets fired by an ordinary human.

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    2. Yeah using ECM to block bullets is weird. In most other sci-fi RPG stuff like Battletech it blocks sensors/electronics. Maybe all the guns are using some sort of auto-aim in Buck Rogers that the ECM is blocking?

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    3. "The projectiles incorporate a microscopic integrated guidance system, and they are actually able to veer up to 20 degrees from their original course. These so called "smart bullets" can, however, be thwarted by chaff and Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) systems"

      It's in the manual. There are also weapons that fire dumb projectiles and the ECM and chaff don't work on them.

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    4. If I recall correctly, ECM doesn't stop needle guns. In fact, I've used the mess out of needle guns quite successfully.

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  3. I remember this being really underwhelming, even in comparison to the first Rogers game they made. Maybe you'll get something out of it, but I wouldn't bet on that.

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    1. You know what's weird, the Sega Genesis port of the first one is actually pretty good. You would expect any 16 bit console port of a computer RPG to be terrible but it's actually a lot better than the original. Moving the main interface to an overhead view makes everything 100% better because while all the rooms and corridors are still identical, they become distinguishable by their spatial relationships with each other instead of, constantly being in the "ok, so what room is this?" situation.

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    2. Yes, my memory of the Mega Drive port is also that it's quite good.

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    3. I had a decent second session. I thought the Los Angeles map was well done. You'll see my entry on it soon.

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  4. If it's worth anything, Home of the Underdogs claims it is "a superior sequel" and "many of the complaints for Countdown to Doomsday have been addressed".

    (I mean, *someone* has got to like it, but I figure it's depressing going into a game only knowing about the negative reviews.)

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    1. I've not yet been let down by a HoTU review. They're generally pretty spot-on. Man, I remember when that site was actually online and updating. Those were the days...

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    2. Truly one of the great historical sites.

      patches-scrolls.de was another one.

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    3. Absolutely! I was a contributor and massive forum regular there; it was an absolutely awesome site. It’s a real pity what happened: the owner shifted from updating the site to concentrate on the protests in Thailand (where she was from). Eventually she just seemingly vanished and the site started to crumble. A lot of the regulars then slowly spun out of its orbit as life did its thing. It was also the place where Yahtzee met the girl that he then went to Australia to be with (before that all broke up). Ahhh, classic abandonware drama.

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    4. HotU is what got me into abandonware and made me discover dozens of old DOS games I hadn't played back in the day. The mid 00s were such a wonderful time, discovering all that cool stuff on the internet... long before Web 2.0 ruined it.

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    5. I disagree :D Some of the Hotu hall of fame games are not really justified and, as much as it popularised digging forgotten games, it also pushed for the idea of games as part of a bargain bin. The best thing were the forums. And some people I knew from there. But I cannot avoid thinking about it critically.

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  5. Both the Sun King's assassination attempt and the explosion that obliterated after sabotaging the mini-doomsday laser are described as a 'shower of sparks'. I bet he's feeling pretty relieved he got saved by you - it sounds like it would've gotten kind of messy if you hadn't.

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  6. Theta Sigma! A beautiful and geeky deep cut. Big Finish really should make some audio adventures featuring the college antics of Drax and "Thete". ΘΣ!

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    1. Sadly, Theta Sigma, being Mercurian, probably lacks proficiency in any Venusian martial arts.

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    2. I would disappoint you. I don't have any idea what the name references. I only know that it is listed on some site I looked at as an alternate name used by The Doctor. Irene loves Doctor Who, but every time I try to watch it with her, I just can't get past how absurd it is--and not in a good way absurd.

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    3. I always thought the Psi Phi fraternity shirts were funny.

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  7. A major factor in the min-maxing calculus for these games is that damage bonuses from equipment and weapon specialization scale upwards with higher rates of fire. The seemingly humble needle gun is thus more appealing than its 1d3 base damage may have it appear.

    Max damage for a non-Warrior with a stock laser pistol: 24
    Max damage for a non-Warrior with a stock needle gun: 18

    Max damage for a fully specialized Warrior with a +3 laser pistol: 42
    Max damage for a fully specialized Warrior with a +3 needle gun: 54

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    1. I remember having needle guns for all my guys simply because they worked against anything.

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    2. Ditto! Needle guns were amazing especially when you got up to the Mercurian variety. Got work done!

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    3. They're pretty much the long sword of the Buck Rogers universe.

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    4. I don't know how weapon specializations are assigned. Did I have to pick them in character creation?

      I might switch to all-needle guns because after the second session, I'm sick of having to swap in the middle of combat every time an enemy uses a chaff grenade.

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    5. Weapon Specialization kicks in on every even (2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th...) Warrior level, and they can specialize up to +3 to hit/damage with a particular weapon.

      Find a Mercurian needle gun and three ranks of Weapon Specialization (Needle Guns)? 1d3+6 damage six times per burst is nothing to laugh at! (Plus, needle guns aren't fouled by chaff grenades, aren't fouled by aerosol grenades, and nothing in the XXVc franchise is immune to getting shot with hair-thin ferrous needles!)

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    6. From what I can tell, ECM packages (built into battle armor with fields BTW) and chaff grenades stop rocket pistols and rocket rifles, and aerosol grenades and reflective surfaces (on shiny robots) stop laser pistols and laser rifles. I do remember there were a couple of robots that weren't taking damage from my needle gun, but I used something else (maybe a bolt gun?). Monoswords and polearms wind up being helpful due to the strength bonus.

      I think the idea is to compensate for the lack of spells by transposing the 'immune to fire and electricity, let me cast Cone of Cold' dynamic to the weapons domain. As you can see already, the whole 'do I want a Martian Battle Armor with Fields or a Mercurian Battle Armor' thing fits the 'Leather Armor +4 versus Chain Mail +1' dynamic from D&D.

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  8. "Buck Rogers, being a sci-fi game, doesn't have any magic. Nor did the developers create very much to take the place of magic except for a few grenades with varying properties."

    This is too easy. One could simply change spells to elementally-themed firearms. Have the "resting" serve to refill its ammo. It's unbelievable how tazers, lighters, leaf blowers, and all sorts of other magical objects exist today yet a game set 500 years later can hardly think of anything. Appealing to neither sci-fi's philosophical or carnal strengths, it's no wonder Loretta Long hardly made any money with the brand despite having it fall into her lap, and it's a good reminder that even in the DOS era RPGs live or die on the strength of their writing.

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    1. Medics could be used as re-skinned Clerics casting all kinds of buff spells by way of administering combat drugs. Engineers could do similar stuff with installing one-shot personal deflectors, deploying robodrones to catch bullets or give accuracy bonuses etc. Why not have some equipment or abilites with debuff effects, too? There's really no excuse for the limited combat in a sci-fi setting!

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    2. Agreed. They could have done so much more to fill in the "magic" gaps of the system with a little more creativity.

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    3. I think it's important to avoid re-skinning fantasy in sci-fi games though. I don't want medics to be clerics by another name. I want a sci-fi universe with a well-thought out class system that makes in-universe sense.

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    4. I don't think Gold Box could fit a sci-fi setting very well without some pretty major modifications. Sci-fi games in general tend to emphasize individual skills more than one "class" having inherent abilities. You would think that between an entire squad of soldiers, more than one of them would know how to perform first aid.

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    5. "Quail before my leaf-blower, Plant Men!"

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    6. I'm not a fan of translating fantasy into sci-fi either. It's a different setting, give it different gameplay elements.

      That said, there are plenty of different weapons you can put into a sci-fi game that do more than just deal damage. Stun guns that can deal 1d3 rounds of stun effect on a hit enemy. Anti-materiel lasers that ignore the enemy's armor when rolling for attack. Machine guns that can fire in a cone and hit multiple enemies standing close to each other. You could even have deployable drones you can spawn by using an inventory item (a drone kit). Plenty of stuff is possible.

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    7. "I think it's important to avoid re-skinning fantasy in sci-fi games though. I don't want medics to be clerics by another name. I want a sci-fi universe with a well-thought out class system that makes in-universe sense."

      That's fine, but Buck Rogers' issue is that it removes the complex fantasy combat and replaces it with... hardly anything. At this point, a banal reskin of Forgotten Realms would have at least been better. And like I said before, Buck Rogers most certainly did not have a good story that would have smoothed over the dull gameplay. I'm not trying to belittle anyone who worked on the game if they can see this, but if my eyes are glazing over just reading Chet's highlights of the tactics and story... how bored can HE be?

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    8. P-Tux7: That wasn't meant as a defense of Buck Rogers. I haven't played the game, but the combat sounds pretty simplistic so far. I'm sure even a reskin would improve it.

      JarlFrank: Even what you describe seems too dependent on fantasy standards. What's a stun gun but Hold Person? What's a drone but a summoned monster? I don't necessarily think I have great ideas here, but I'm sure there's space in sci-fi to design a truly unique combat system.

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    9. I think part of the issue here was due to the licensing agreement between TSR and SSI for the Gold Box games. Lorraine Williams, the president of TSR at the time, owned the rights to Buck Rogers, which was why TSR pushed this property so much at the time.

      TSR published a pen & paper Buck Rogers RPG in 1990 which was heavily based on D&D. I never read it, but I assume that these Buck Rogers Gold Box games adopt those RPG rules just like the other Gold Box games adopted the D&D rules. As such, SSI probably didn't have a lot of leeway in terms of sci-fi mechanics as their hands were likely tied by having to stick closely to the pen & paper RPG.

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    10. I agree with Vonotar--they were limited by their licensing agreement. The games actually did make heavy use of the skill system, but the actual Buck Rogers combat system was way too based on D&D. A lot of Paul and JarlFrank's suggestions make a lot more sense--what they really should have done was move to a pure skill system a la Wasteland (a sci-fi game of the era well-liked enough to inspire the Fallout series), but that would have gone too far from the IP. Everyone wanted to play D&D on their computer--nobody wanted to play Buck Rogers XXVc on their computer.

      Also, they probably didn't want to stray too far from the well-liked and popular Gold Box combat engine. Technical limitations were a much bigger deal in that era.

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  9. In the screenshot showing the P.U.R.G.E. leader saying that "All the sub-human slag will be wiped out", the image of the leader seems clearly based in a Han Solo promotional shot.

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    1. It's his chubby, boozy brother Hank Solo.

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  10. This is the only Gold Box game I never completed.
    It was funny reading my old comments about it:

    "after the fourth random encounter with five Purge troops before I have even found a training hall, Matrix Cubed is already starting to bore like no Gold Box game has bored me before."

    "A chancellor named De Sade? Gee, I wonder if he's trustworthy? o_O

    And the frrrrench Sun King has been replaced by a mix of Martin Luther King and Jimi Hendrix. :-)"

    "he second area of Matrix Cubed (the RAM base on Ceres) was much easier and had less encounters, but they were all the same enemies: either patrols of 3 RAM Warriors, a barracks or security station with 4 RAM Warriors and the "boss fight" with 8-10 RAM Warriors. Even the imposing figure of the commander of the base - General Mavroudis - is just a generic RAM Warrior in the fight.

    Next stop was Venus, where the map from Doomsday is re-used. And of course the ship lands in the NW corner of Venus since the target is in the SE corner. And Venus is obviously a very small place since we ran into Zane, the little Lowlander kid, again.

    There doesn't seem to be anything new in Matrix Cubed, just fighting the same enemies as in the first game, but at a much higher frequency. And the enemies' THAC0 has been significantly improved. Now Lowlander Warriors with Polearms hit your characters wearing Battle Armor nearly every time, while your own Laser and Rocket weapons are mostly useless. Plasma Throwers and Rocket Launchers (cheap Wands of Fireball and Ice Storm, as Mondblut called them) rule for the non-warrior classes, while a skilled warrior can do significant damage with Needle Guns.
    Backstabbing also works well if you have decent Move Silently skill, meaning any class can potentially do it.

    I read Scorpia's review of the game in an old issue of Computer Gaming World and that review also confirms that the game doesn't get any better.

    This game is a step backward compared to Pools of Darkness, which was brimming with good encounters (although a bit too many random ones in some areas), and had improved enemy AI compared to earlier games.
    Fortunately this was not the last Gold Box game. Dark Queen of Krynn (and FRUA) was a worthy finale to the GB games.

    I might have slogged through Matrix Cubed if it wasn't for one thing: the need to re-equip your heavy weapons manually after each fight. With so many fights, and most of them requiring heavy firepower, this really felt like work. "

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    1. I can't disagree with anything you wrote so far, and yet my overall impressions have been a little more favorable. I think the biggest problem I have with the game is that I don't care anything about the setting, so none of the plot developments mean anything to me.

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    2. I played through both games and never knew you could backstab. Good info!

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  11. "Dr. Chade on Earth, whose jetcar was recently shot down by RAM over the "Losangelorg Sprawls"

    Did anyone else get images of Snake Plissken here?

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  12. You're all making me feel bad :P I liked XXVc. I've still got all the supplements and novels. Chester if you have any questions at all about this material, don't hesitate to email.

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    1. Hey, I'm still making FRUA mods 28 years later. ;) You like what you like. I never got these holy wars over entertainment. OK, someone doesn't like a video game you like. Who cares?

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  13. Martian, venusian, mercurian and lunar are literally just renamed +1/2/3/4 in that order (iirc), adding that to hit and damage per hit. Needle guns were ideal for warriors due to both the spec bonus and weapon quality bonus adding per hit with their 6 attacks; everyone else is generally better off using heavy weapons (carrying extras for the reloads), though iirc rocket weapons were useful early because they got a bonus to hit against targets without ecm.

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  14. The Earth is under the control of the fascist Russo-American Mercantile (RAM).

    Do the names of the leaders of RAM by any chance rhyme with Lootin and Stump? Because the story of the game is beginning to sound Nostradamus-ian.

    Also, it's a shame about magic not being present. Weapons like Napalm (fireball), Tasers (stun) and Lasers (lightning) could easily be fired by drones controlled by scientists who would be (and are!) the wizards of the science based world that is so abhorred by the our equivalent of the RAM and it's followers...

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    1. There ARE stun rifles. I think the developers clearly understood that they needed SOME substitute for magic. They just didn't go quite far enough.

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    2. They made these at the end of the Cold War. My best guess is they were aiming to be neutral and have both the Americans (us) and Russians (the enemy until a few years ago) be involved in the evil dictatorship half a millennium on, against which Buck and his friends fight like good plucky American underdogs. As with all scifi, it winds up reflecting its era--where's China?

      The actual fluff (I was doing research for a potential FRUA mod) is actually fairly well-developed with multiple cultures on each planet (there are three on Mercury, for instance, with miners and 'dancers' following the rim between the light and dark sides of Mercury, in addition to the decadent pseudo-French nobility) and a developed Martian caste system (executives, managers, and workers) that nonetheless seems very 1950s America. (RAM is a megacorporation and all its minions are paid through dividends-- what's the last time a big company paid a good dividend?) There are even charts of the RAM power structure with outlines of which rich families want to push out Simund Holzerhein, the head of RAM, who gets a one-line mention near the end of Countdown.

      There's also a lot about genetically engineered organisms, but biopunk was still 10-20 years away. Part of it was to allow for 'monsters' reminiscent of D&D monsters (some of the enemies will seem familiar to you ;) ), with special defenses like 'takes half damage from plasma', but there were larger themes about slavery, etc. that could have been developed further. Overall I think they had an interesting world there that just didn't hit at the right time--the later retro-scifi nostalgia boom hadn't hit, it seemed too much like Star Wars and nobody really cared about Buck Rogers anymore, and didn't play up the cyberpunk angle enough to ride that wave.

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  15. Quick comment: You mentioned that you weren't sure what different planet names did for equipment:

    Martian: +1 to hit/damage for weapons, -1 AC for armor
    Venusian: +2 to hit/damage for weapons, -2 AC for armor
    Mercurian: +3 to hit/damage for weapons, -3 AC for armor
    Lunarian: +4 to hit/damage for weapons, -4 AC for armor

    Basically they're the magic weapons +X and armor +X of the 25th century. =p

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    1. Yep! I'm guessing with the 640K limitation they had to reuse as much code as possible. It doesn't really make sense to have Mars, the Big Bad, have the second-worst weapons after the non-named ones from Earth, but it was the second place you visit in Countdown (the pluses track pretty well with the order of the planets visited in that game.)

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  16. There is a way to defeat the heavy cruisers though it takes a bit of patience. The key is to keep them at maximum range (6-9). This will keep out of the range of most heavy cruisers' weapons, whereas your beam lasers will still be effective.

    Heavy cruisers will close in constantly at a speed of 1 range unit per turn. The Maelstrom Rider can move at around 3 range units per turn. Starting range is 8. At range >9, sensor contact is lost and the engagement ends.

    When engaged with a heavy cruiser, remain stationary, withdrawing only when it closes to range 6. Hit its 'control' subsystem repeatedly with beam lasers. This will take some time, given the weak damage that lasers do. Like you, the enemy crew will be able to jury-rig a damaged subsystem once during the engagement. Once its controls are out, close in quickly, then board the enemy.

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    1. I appreciate the hints, but it sounds like a lot of work for something that isn't even necessary to the game.

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    2. I seem to remember being able to board them without having to dance around like that. Maybe I was willing to just charge in blasting at the enemy's controls with my heavy guns and reloading if I didn't make it.

      There was some definite satisfaction in taking out a heavy cruiser.

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    3. Yeah, taking out the heavy cruiser was also an accomplishment. Good way to gear up and make money. Of course, you left a lot behind. The boarding battles were always fun for me.

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  17. Count me as one of the ones who enjoyed both games in the series. Maybe it's because I was 10 when Countdown to Doomsday came out and it was one of the first games I had with VGA graphics. My dad and I also managed to play it to completion back then which I was pretty proud of. We didn't beat Matrix back then but about 10 years ago I started an "unfinished business" tour of all my old computer games and did manage to complete Matrix Cubed.

    I think the sci-fi setting and weapons are a cool change of pace and the games are challenging without being unfair. The space exploration and combat was a nice feature. The skills also added some flavor and though not all of them came into play, most of them did and it was cool when you got to use them (the ones that were never used they at least warned you about in the manual). I think those additions did enough to push it beyond "D&D with no magic".

    I do have one quibble with Matrix Cubed, but I'll save it until you complete the game and get your opinion before I offer mine.

    As for bolting the Buck Rogers stuff into the Gold Box / D&D engine, well the Gold Box engine was great so why reinvent the wheel? Heck I wish they kept making games using the engine to this day, in many ways it was never surpassed. Same with the Infinity engine.

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  18. Despite being a Gold Box fan, I never found the Buck Rogers' games interesting. I grew up in the 70s and all I could remember from the franchise was Twiki. I suppose though having Lorraine Williams shoe horn her franchise was the price to pay for getting Pool of Radiance etc in a format that was easy to use back in the day. I mean if Joan Crawford had been putting up the money at TSR, there would have been a CRPG about Pepsi. As with all intersections of capitalism, you take the good, the bad, and the mediocre. Maybe if they could have crossed Buck Rogers with Expedition to Barrier Peaks, it might have been an interesting crossover. It would be nice to see a dragon attack Twiki after all.

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    1. The Gold Box Buck Rogers are Twiki-free, so you're safe if you want to give it a shot ;-)

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    2. Thanks! I appreciate letting me know.

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