Monday, September 7, 2020

Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

There's little that's more cringy than people actually saying, "hip-hip-hooray."
          
Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 1 August 2020
Date Ended: 29 August 2020
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at time of posting: 255/379 (67%)

Summary:
Matrix Cubed is a sequel to Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990). Both games are based on the Buck Rogers XXVC tabletop roleplaying game and use the "Gold Box" engine originally designed for Dungeons and Dragons games, which blends first-person exploration and axonometric, turn-based, tactical combat. The "exploration" half of the Gold Box engine was showing its age by 1992, with limited graphics and map configurations, and the combat portion is less interesting in a game that doesn't have magic. Matrix Cubed feels more rushed than Countdown, with a shorter, more linear plot and without Countdown's side-missions. Space combat is completely optional, the characters don't seem to grow very much, there's little purpose to the economy. It has some positive points, particularly at the beginning, but overall it feels like a superfluous game.
    
*****
    
How sad to see a franchise fail. Buck Rogers had a good run, from 1928 to . . . well, roughly this game. Attempts to revive the character over the last quarter-century have been mostly embarrassing, its copyright holder is in shambles, and the character seems destined to enter the public domain, if he hasn't already. The problem is a lack of interest even in a free version of the character. If you're going to make a fish-out-of-time story, why not just call the character "Chet Bolingbroke"? (I demand only 8% of the gross.) Other than being a swaggering American war hero, Buck Rogers isn't much of anything. Either is his setting. It has been updated and revised so often that besides Wilma Deering and a couple other named characters, there's barely enough information to inform a franchise. In my account, did anyone honestly find NEO, RAM, and PURGE that compelling?
    
Therein lies the problem with both Matrix and Countdown. The only thing interesting about Buck Rogers is Buck Rogers himself--the man out of time--and you don't get to play him. At best, you get to meet him a few times, and those moments aren't interesting enough to carry a franchise. Contrast this with Star Trek or Star Wars or most other franchises, where the settings themselves are compelling enough that you'd be happy to play a group of unknown soldiers who only occasionally meet the famous heroes.
          
A rare space combat.
          
My last session began with a mission to find a RAM spy on NEO's Fortuna Base, which is on an asteroid. As usual, it was difficult to find a particular asteroid amidst the constantly-rotating ring. I fought a few space battles against RAM cruisers so that I could afford to re-fuel as I searched for Fortuna. Space battles are otherwise a completely superfluous part of the game, which makes it all the more ridiculous that they have a separate economy. 
  
When I finally found it, Fortuna Base was five small levels. As usual, the developers stretched things out by requiring the party to circle the area multiple times, first collecting a variety of passes and other items needed to access the full base, the second time clearing out attacking RAM forces. The spy turned out to be someone named Zachary Cebert, which we discovered too late to be of any good, since the overwhelming RAM invasion force forced us to evacuate and destroy the base.
         
Setting the base to explode.
         
Back at Salvation base, we learned that the Stormrider scientist we freed from PURGE, Dr. Makali, had already abandoned the project to help her people with some kind of revolution. The whole issue with the Stormriders was introduced very late in the game. From what I could gather from the materials, a group of humans established a colony on Jupiter's moon Amalthea, and from there created a race of genetically-modified creatures called Stormriders, which look like muscular humans with fish heads. The Stormriders live in "spherical cities that float above the high-pressure atmosphere" of Jupiter. The Amaltheans expect the Stormriders to serve as slaves for 100,000 years "in repayment" for their creation, but the Stormriders are naturally a bit unhappy about that, and the two sides are functionally at war.
   
Since we had unwisely decided to locate the Matrix project in Jupiter's orbit, the worsening tensions between the two societies were threatening the project. (It occurs to me as I type this that I'm explaining things far more eloquently than the game does.) My team had to head for Jupiter, but without a ship with enough fuel to get us there, we had to take a long route by sailing to a "fungus asteroid" near Juno, then transferring to a living ship operated by the Stormriders.
           
A ship--a living ship--full of strange alien life forms.
           
Despite some nice graphics, the "living ship" was never very well explained. As it approached the asteroid, it was clear that something was wrong. It eventually swallowed the asteroid with us on it, and we found ourselves in its guts.
           
It turned out the ship had been invaded by pirates. We had to run around the ship's six levels fighting them, freeing Stormriders, and fixing things. I have to be honest--I had largely checked out by this point, but I feel that the situation would have been confusing even if I hadn't. There were multiple places where it appeared I could facilitate some kind of truce between the pirates and Stormriders, but although I passed some of these encounters, it never seemed to affect anything. Similarly, there were numerous places where I found the ship wounded, or some of its equipment damaged, and had to pass a medical or technological skill check. Sometimes I passed, sometimes I failed, but I have no idea what the net result was.
              
This went nowhere.
         
All I know is that I kept circling the ship, and eventually I had killed all the pirates. By now, my party was relying on explosive weapons (rocket launchers, plasma launchers, grenade launchers) almost exclusively, but I never got to the point where I could just ALT-Q the combats and put them under computer control. This is because you not only have to win the combats, but do so in a good enough state that the doctor in the party can heal the damage afterwards. This means the doctor can't get knocked unconscious himself, and it's best if none of the other characters do, either.
          
After we were victorious, the Stormriders took us to one of their cities, and we met Dr. Makali. This was the last place we could train and restock ammo for our weapons. My characters were Level 8 when we started the game, and they ended at Level 11 or 12, which isn't a lot of development. My warrior only got to pick one new weapon specialization during the game, and my characters could only learn 4 new skills.
             
On my last level-up, I could choose a new weapon.
          
Dr. Makali refused to return to the Matrix Device project because the Amaltheans were planning to attack the Stormrider colony. Naturally, they attacked shortly after we arrived. We had to run around the map (a single-level 16 x 16), defeating parties of Amaltheans, defusing bombs, rescuing hostages, and putting out fires.
           
A typical encounter in this section of the game.
           
When the invasion was over, the Stormriders revealed a plan to end the Amalthean threat by releasing genetically-modified "wasphoppers" into the Genetics Foundation headquarters where the Stormriders had been created. We volunteered for the mission and were successful.
            
"Success."
          
With the Amalthean threat handled, Dr. Makali agreed to help finish the Matrix Device. We sailed with her to a "mining rig" in Jupiter's atmosphere, where Leander was overseeing the final touches for the project.

The mining rig map was the last map (except for a small shuttle). It wasn't even a full 16 x 16, but it was annoying as hell. We had multiple rounds of RAM forces arriving in the living ship (there was no information about how they had managed to commandeer it) and rappelling to the mining rig's platforms. Each round involved one battle on the platforms and then a search of the rest of the rig for additional RAM forces to clean up. Sometimes it was human troops, sometimes robots, sometimes gennies. At one point, we were overwhelmed (this was scripted) and had to retreat to a shuttle, from which we flooded the rig with efanite and lit it to burn out an infestation of gennies.
            
A typical enemy contingent on the rig's platform.
           
Dr. Makali suggested that one of the party members fly with her by jetpack to the living ship and free it from RAM control. Despite choosing a character with a skill level of 142 in "Use Jetpack," the attempt failed and, I guess as punishment, we had to fight a few more rounds of invading RAM forces.
   
Finally, we seemed to drive them away. But there was an explosion and the rig started sinking into the atmosphere. The only thing that would save it was the Matrix Device itself, which for some reason needed to be flown through Jupiter's high-pressure atmosphere at high speeds. My pilot had to do this, and I guess the game made a skill check for "Pilot Fixed Wing," a skill that was never needed before because there were no such aircraft in the game before (or the previous game). Fortunately, I'd been putting some skill points into all the pilot skills, and Starbuck must have passed. Reviews of the time are filled with stories of people who didn't, and at this point in the game had no recourse if they had failed to invest in that skill.
         
I guess this means we passed the skill check.
           
We had to endure one last attack by Sid Refuge (I have accidentally typed "Sid Vicious" at least half a dozen times), even though it made no sense that he was there. The battle involved two back-to-back combats with no resting in between, but neither was particularly difficult using our "blow the living hell out of everything with rocket launchers" strategy.
        
I admire his spunk, but fighting him is like flogging a dead horse.
         
When we had defeated Refuge for like the fifth time, his cyborg skeleton crawled into the crucible of the Matrix Device. We locked him in there and used him as the necessary matter to fuel the device, which I admit was a fun turn of events and a genius solution to the problem, akin to Doc and Marty solving their problems by cramming Biff into the "Mr. Fusion" reactor. The rig got the power it needed to return to a stable part of the atmosphere.
   
The Living Ship appeared for what seemed like another attack, but the soldiers descending from it were NEO rather than RAM. No word on how NEO managed to take over the Living Ship from RAM in such a short time, nor indeed how they managed to get here at all when we had to go through a big rigmarole. In any event, two of the soldiers were Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering. When they found that the Matrix Device was working, Buck demanded "three cheers for these heroes!" I cringed as the assembled NPCs literally shouted, "hip-hip-hooray!" three times before the game dumped us unceremoniously to the DOS prompt. That hasn't happened in so long that it was literally startling.
             
Part of the short denouement.
         
In a GIMLET, I give Matrix Cubed:

  • 4 points for the game world. I feel like I'm being generous. I couldn't have cared less about it, but I can't say it didn't have original elements or make the party's place clear. Too many of the story turns were just arbitrary, though.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. It gets most of this for creation. The system of races and classes and skills isn't terrible, but the amount of development you get in the sequel is minimal. The number of skills should have been cut in half (at least) and made more meaningful.
            
This guy feels like he should have been able to fly a jetpack.
            
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. There are some NPCs; you get journal entries from some of them.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Humans were just humans; "gennies" just re-skinned Dungeons and Dragons monsters without even an interesting set of attacks and defenses. There were some decent non-combat encounters involving the use of skills or even a role-playing choice here and there.
  • 4 points for combat. An engine designed with magic in mind just didn't transition well to science fiction battles. I was mostly bored with combat, which is something that I never thought I'd say about the Gold Box. I want to give it extra credit for the space combat, but it isn't any more interesting.
           
The robot enemies were generally the most difficult in the game.
          
  • 3 points for equipment. The problem is that everything is standard. There's no place in this setting for unique artifact weapons and armor. Meanwhile, a few types of grenades don't make up for all of the potions, wands, scrolls, rings, and wearables that you'd find in a fantasy RPG. The developers had no imagination here.
  • 2 points for the economy. It was useful for restocking ammunition.
  • 3 points for quests. The game had one main quest, mostly linear, with no choices or alternate outcomes. It mostly lacked the side-quests and side-areas that Countdown offered, with a few small exceptions.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The best part of the game was the engine, which still works as smooth as butter. Both regular and cut scene graphics were nice. I could take or leave the sound.
            
Sid Refuge's appearance was narratively senseless but graphically okay.
            
  • 3 points for gameplay. Matrix is far more linear than its predecessor. It's a bit too hard in some places, and it has no real replayability. The best I can say is that its length was right for its content.
        
That gives us a final score of 34, a dozen points lower than Countdown, and the first time that a Gold Box game has fallen below the "recommended" threshold. It mirrors how I feel, though. I tried to be positive about the game, even thinking that it might be good during my second or third session. But it just collapsed into a nonsensical narrative with boring mechanics.
             
If I knew nothing about the game, this cover would make me think that you play as Buck Rogers.
        
I knew Scorpia would be with me on this, and she was. In the May 1992 Computer Gaming World, she levies particular criticism at the way the game handled skill checks (the "Pilot Fixed Wing" issue getting a couple of paragraphs to itself), the uselessness of space combat, and the scripted moments when the party has no equipment. She had to do the same thing I did and lower the difficulty meter. She also found the final sequence repetitious and nonsensical. But her worst invective is reserved for the "three cheers" followed by the DOS prompt, which she compares to the end of Eye of the Beholder.

It was reading Scorpia's review that I was reminded that the whole business with the Sun King and his counselor De Sade never had any resolution, nor did the Mercurians attacking us on Venus. It's a measure of the game that such things happen and the player just shrugs them off.
     
Our opinions aren't universal, though. The editors of Dragon (June 1992) quite liked it, with a 4/5 star rating praising its character development, story, and combat system. I've had commenters tell me that it was better than Countdown, and I see passionate defenders of both games all over the Internet.

In my first entry on Matrix Cubed, I called it a "corporate game." The story that I've heard--without a lot of primary source references, you understand, so don't take this as gospel--is that Lorraine Williams forced SSI to make the Buck Rogers games as a condition of their Dungeons and Dragons license. (As we've covered, the source of Williams's fortune was the rights to Buck Rogers, which she inherited from her grandfather, and by in 1985, Williams gained a controlling share of TSR, owners of Dungeons and Dragons.) This strategy wasn't just to make a few bucks off the games. Rather, Williams hoped that a few successful Buck Rogers games might re-ignite interest in a film or television series, the last attempt having fizzled in 1981 after two low-rated seasons. Unfortunately for Williams and the Dille Family Trust, the two SSI games failed to serve as kindling for anything more significant.
    
Matrix Cubed isn't technically the last Buck Rogers creation. In 1995, TSR tried again by creating something called High-Adventure Cliffhangers: Buck Rogers Adventure Game, a tabletop RPG that returned Buck Rogers to his original earthbound setting. It produced only a single module before it was discontinued. Since then, there have been a few comic books and action figures, but every attempt at something more substantial has failed. This includes a 2009 web series that was announced, then canceled, then subjected to a Kickstarter revival, then canceled again when it failed to meet its funding goals. A Frank Miller-written movie in the 2000s never went anywhere. More recently, Transformers producer Don Murphy announced plans to make a film based on the first Buck Rogers novella, which has since entered public domain, which led to a suit and counter-suit with the Dille Family Trust, which filed for bankruptcy in 2017.

The legal status of Buck Rogers remains in controversy, but I end as I began, wondering: why bother? Does Don Murphy or anyone think the name "Buck Rogers" is regarded so fondly that it's going to sell tickets on its own? If not, why not make the same type of movie and name the character something else? That's basically what Farscape did, and it did fine. I apologize to anyone who really loves Buck Rogers, but in general I'm happy that most RPGs do not feature licensed characters.

88 comments:

  1. Too bad this wasn't the last piece of Buck Rogers media, because then you could've said the Buck stops here.

    Congrats on the win. Dark Queen's up soon and then that's kind of it for Gold Box, right? Besides Spelljammer, Unlimited Adventures, and clones like Bandor. I imagine it'll be bittersweet, reaching the end of that long journey (possibly more on the bitter side if they end up with GIMLETs as so-so as Matrix Cubed).

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    1. Spelljammer isn’t a Gold Box game - it uses a different engine and doesn’t use the trade dress. There is a turn-based boarding combat engine, but having just replayed it a couple months ago, I can attest that it’s not nearly as clean, smooth, and tactically rewarding as the Gold Box one (it’s also almost entirely optional - there’s only one bit of boarding combat required to win the game - which is a godsend given how slow combat is). Character creation and advancement are also not as robust as they are in the Gold Box games.

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    2. Ah, is it not? It's listed as an edge case on Wikipedia and elsewhere. It sounds a bit more like a D&D version of Sid Meier's Pirates! though. It's a 1992 release, so I imagine the Addict will cover it sooner rather than later - I'm a bit more curious about it now.

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    3. Yeah, the Pirates! comparison is spot on - there’s a main plot, but it’s pretty low-key and doesn’t trigger until you’ve done a fair number of generic cargo-and-passenger ferrying missions. Per the rather over-detailed Wikipedia page, the game was programmed by an outside developer for SSI, who started doing a space combat game and then quickly adapted it into a Spelljammer game when the initial concept got rejected - I suspect they looked at the Gold Box games for inspiration, and the engine does handle a bunch of different options and modules, but the actual content and design are a bit thin. Also curious what Chet winds up thinking about it - as you say, it should be up soon.

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    4. I think Dark Queen of Krynn is the last actual RPG using the Gold Box engine. Unlimited Adventures is of course an editor using the same engine to let people make their own games in it, but I doubt anyone is going to go through the literal horde of modules and play each one for a blog. Though if someone does, I wonder if I'll see the one I made ages ago.

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    5. Does F.R.U.A. come with any "demonstration of capability" modules? Chet has played such games/modules before, though I'm not sure if it has to be bundled with the editor to count, or any "official" module counts even if released separately or later than the original editor.

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    6. FRUA uses the DQK engine, but in a forgotten realms setting. There is a game: Skull Crag or something like that. I played it, but got stuck. DQK is actually better than POD in some respects.

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    7. Huh, yeah, there is a built in module, Heirs to Skull Crag -- the judgment of the internet appears to be fairly negative, unfortunately. Still, might give it a try since I've played through all the other D&D Gold Box games...

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  2. Im freaked the score is right on what I guessed!

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    1. Too bad you did so for this blog, the Adventure Gamer blog gives out prizes for that.

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  3. Until reading this very entry, I had no idea that Buck Rogers was from the past. I thought he was just another infallible Mary Sue that everybody knew and loved for some reason, as is common in this kind of science fiction.

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    1. Aren't we all from the past? :)

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    2. I am from... History!

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    3. I always confuse him with Flash Gordon. But of course Flash was just a normal dude from the 25th Century - and he had interesting enemies.

      There are a zillion SF pieces where a guy from the 20th Century gets zoomed forward five centuries. Forom Planet of the Apes to Woody Allen's Sleeper to Futurama. But they rarely settled into military or corporate life quite so well as Buck.

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    4. I've read quite a bit of the old Buck Rogers comics from the past, 1930s and all. It's pretty childish and leans heavily on tropes. The stories get repetitive too, if you've read any other military adventure fiction you've read a lot of Buck Rogers too.
      Then again, the series was aimed at children of the 1930s so simple military/action plots are to be expected.
      I read the comics just to see where the cliches came from. I also read one of the Buck Rogers books that came out alongside the RPG and CRPGs and wow, they are abysmally bad. Real churn 'n burn stuff.
      BUck Rogers is OK but Flash Gordon definitely is a better story.

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    5. Buck the commenter didn't sign up just for this moment? That's creepy.

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    6. I dont think you could reasonable make this character work today, without a very big change.
      The characer was a war veteran, moved into "the future" and yes - that has been done a lot since then (and even back then it was not that an original idea).
      The implication was, that the American soldiers are not only the best of the world, but also the best ever. And that they adapt immerdiatly to new enviroments like space. And they are also known for their morale compass

      Although there is a character with a similiar backstory: Captain America. He is a superhero with special powers though. Without those - i dont think it would stick. It would be a very different story - a tragic one, instead of the heroic intendend by the makers.

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    7. @Peer I'd say even with Captain America, there's a lot of tragic elements that come up - the original comics had a ton of angsty storylines about how unfrozen Captain America no longer had any personal ties or connections to the present day and could only distract himself by continually fighting (see the panels here for an example: http://storage.ning.com/topology/rest/1.0/file/get/1801751656?profile=RESIZE_1024x1024)

      Of course, now that he's been unfrozen in the "present" for longer than he was ever alive in the "past", they've mostly dropped this element, but it still pops up here and there as brief mentions, even in the current movies.

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  4. Having only seen a few episodes of the TV show, none of which I can remember aside from a bit of the intro and that there was a robot sidekick, I guess I always assumed it was made post-Star Wars, rather than being older than Flash Gordon!

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    1. Although the property is far older, I strongly suspect the ~1981 TV series was indeed made to cash in on the post-Star Wars craze.

      The robot sidekick, Twiki (Tweekie?), was voiced by Mel 'Bugs Bunny' Blanc.

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    2. It was part of the Glen Larson universe... he also did Battlestar Galatica. They reused a number of props, including the control stick of the Vipers! Interesting history...

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  5. The game sounds like its basically spamming you with lots of nearly identical combat encounters, loosely tied together by a confusing story. Even in this condenced form, I found it hard to keep track who did what to whom and why.

    I had a similar problem with Pools of Radiance, which is certainly a far better game. It started out fun cleaning out the slums, and leveling is satisfying until you hit level 5, but eventually there was just one fight against 20 kobolds too many.

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    1. You must be very disappointed in your own game, Mr Rogers

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    2. Bee dee bee dee bee dee hiya Buck!

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    3. Hahahaha! Thanks for making me spew my coffee Dan the (probable) Man!

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    4. I had to wait 40 years to use that joke...

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  6. The last Buck Rogers Rpg was released im Spain too.. as it was a condition of ms. Lorraine herself for the spanish editor to keep the AD&D license.
    A soundly failure at both sides of the Atlantic.

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  7. Coincidentally, I just started Farscape, and I see your point. In fact, I suspect Farscape probably has a more valuable brand than Buck Rogers!

    I don’t know how much of it I’ll watch - it’s pretty medium so far. I suspect it’ll be determined by whether or not the other half says ‘No Mas’.

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    1. If you don't like Season 1 of Farscape, it doesn't get better. (I did, but your mileage may vary.)

      Season 3 takes a pretty sharp dip in quality, and its "literally nothing we won't do, get to the good stuff" style of storytelling devolves into trippy, campy confusion.

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    2. Oh, I don't agree at all. I thought Season 1 was good except for "I, E.T." and "Jeremiah Crichton," but I also thought the show got better as the Seasons went along. Season 3 had the horribly creepy "Eat Me" and the two-part "Into the Lion's Den" was epic.

      I mean, I would agree that if you're not invested in the characters by the end of Season 1, then there's no point continuing, but I wouldn't warn someone that it gets worse.

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    3. I never really looked at it, there was just too much puppet.

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    4. Farscape hits its right around the point where Scorpius shows up and takes a bit of a dive at the start of the fourth season. If you're not liking it at that point you just won't like it. The first half of season one has the awkward episodes as Chet mentions and the fourth season is a bit weird. Its not completely off the rails, wondering why this is a thing, like the fifth season of Andromeda was, but its weird.

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    5. I agree with Chet. Imo the show gets much better with season 2 on. The effects budget certainly went up.
      @Gerry Quinn the puppets was one of its strengths, although I can see why that would turn some people off.
      @Morpheus the show definitely took a turn for the weird but, again for me, that's a strength because the following miniseries, although rushed, does an adequate job wrapping up the weirdness.

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    6. I legitimately don't have any issues with Farscape myself, it ended before it could actually get bad, but the final season does start off awkwardly, which could put off people who are watching the whole thing.

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  8. I mean... it may not be the most compelling of the pulp sci-fi settings, but then again most fantasy RPGs aren't much better either, giving you the same old pseudo-medieval world populated by elves, dwarves, orcs, knights and so forth.

    A sci-fi RPG like Buck Rogers is inherently more interesting to be merely because we rarely see sci-fi RPGs. Too bad it's not a very good game and I didn't push through to the end in my own playthrough. As much as I love pulp sci-fi, Matrix Cubed is just meh.

    But that meh-ness is not the fault of the setting. If we blame bland settings, about 90% of the other games played on this blog are much blander.

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    1. I don't necessarily disagree. I don't tend to give high ratings to cookie-cutter blah fantasy worlds, either.

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    2. I mentioned this on the first or second entry of this game, but it's really disappointing how uncreative the mechanics are. Even if we just take existing AD&D mechanics, one could use healing gel for health potions, futuristic medicine for potions of haste and strength, tasers for ice wands, magazines for tasers and flamethrowers for "recharging spells"... and that's without programming in any new stuff. The rotating solar system is already a plenty impressive innovation, and could have been used for a sandworm, whirlpool, roving knights or thieves, or a cave that suddenly appears at the right time of day on Forgotten Realms maps. This game didn't come out on weaker platforms like the Apple II or Commodore 64 either. As evidenced by the VGA graphics, it has a modern-for-the-time DOS/Windows 3 processor to play with, and some Hillsfar-esque "arcade sequences" as they were termed at the time would have fit a Buck Rogers game well - especially in the wake of Star Wars.

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  9. I laughed out loud at that Farscape caption. A very underrated show IMHO.

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  10. I feel like if you make a game and the genocidal villian's goals seem somewhat reasonable, you've deeply screwed up somewhere. That goes double if you make progress dependent on skills that were completely unused up to that point.

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    1. I find somewhat reasonable villains more interesting than evil for evil's sake ones, but yeah it depends on how you pull it off.

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    2. I also like sympathetic villains, but in this case they clearly weren't going for that. They're meant to be clearly evil, yet there's not much that shows why their goals are evil considering the vast majority of the gennies you come across are both hostile and seemingly unintelligent. It makes PURGE's goals seem about as evil as a group that wanted to exterminate all mosquitos or something

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  11. "The number of skills should have been cut in half (at least) and made more meaningful."

    That's one of the nice things about the Genesis version of Countdown. It has a sane skill system with only 12 skills.

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    1. I wish I could say the same about King's Quest V for the NES. They managed to pack in most of that game's warts, and with passwords to boot.

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    2. The Gennie (ha!) version of Countdown is one of the rare cases where a home console port is substantially better than the original home computer release.

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  12. I find it amusing that despite Buck Rogers being more interesting in theory, Flash Gordon seems to have had the better media. A WWI veteran or a college football player, who's going to be the more interesting? Flash has an interesting movie, that weird Commodore 64 game that ended up having a name change. I guess if there was a Buck Rogers film with Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton in it we'd all be saying something else, wouldn't we?

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    1. I just spent the last few articles misremembering Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. I was wondering why the story was so different than I remembered. I guess it shows my very limited interest in these two stories.

      Now I want to go rewatch Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half century.

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  13. Man, I did not remember this game being such a pain. I have the sneaking suspicion that I never finished it, although I'm pretty sure that I played and finished all the gold box games.

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  14. "Other than being a swaggering American war hero, Buck Rogers isn't much of anything."

    Something similar could be said of Captain America, proving that it's not who you are that matters, but the company you keep. :)

    Licensing issues are probably the reason why this and its predecessor are not available on GOG,unlike the rest of Goldbox games, which is silly considering the near-zero factual value of the license.

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    1. Sitting on ancient, worthless copyrights so nobody else can have them is a long-favored pastime of idle rights-holders. Can't let it enter the public domain, or else somebody could earn money that could have been theirs dammit!

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    2. This is why we'll never have an Arcanum 2... *sigh*

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    3. This is more often a issue of happenstance instead of malice. Currently useless copyrights get absorbed via media mergers, or transferred in bulk, or the publication and creation rights get split.

      There was an attempt a few years ago to acquire the rights to do a sequel to Freespace 2, and the original creators were on-board. It failed because nobody even knows who has the rights in the first place.

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    4. "This is more often a issue of happenstance instead of malice" - I'm not so sure about that. I can think of more than a few stories of ridiculous copyright claims. Like, for example, the situation with Nina Paley's animated feature Sita Sings the Blues. The movie features some 1920s recordings of Annette Hanshaw, which are themselves public domain - but their lyrics somehow aren't. So the corporation that owns them argued that since Paley's animated characters lipsync to the recording, she should pay them a ton of money for the lyrics rights.

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    5. There's stuff like that, but even there it isn't always simple greed. If you don't defend your copyrights, you risk being seen as an easy mark and winding up having to spend a lot more time in court in the long run.

      So if your lawyers discover an obscure bit of intellectual property you own, and that somebody's violating it, then it is only natural that you try to enforce it even if you don't care about it that much. You don't want somebody to find out you let it slide and use it as an excuse to rip off something you DO care about.


      The key to fixing this is copyright reform. Making the rights expire 30 years after creation or 5 years after the last derivative work would pretty much eliminate it.

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    6. +1 @Gnoman, but sadly, impossible in corporate America.

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    7. I actually had a dream last night that Disney successfully lobbied for a bill to re-copyright works that were already in the public domain and had never been theirs, snapping up the rights to every Shakespeare play ever written.

      It's coming, I tell you.

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    8. Copyright definitely needs to be fixed, but 30 years is unreasonable. Almost nobody who has created something is going to be okay with that. Not everyone is Stephen King or David Bowie and have a mattress stuffed with 100$ bills. For most writers, the royalties from a novel they wrote in 1989 might just be difference in paying the rent that month.
      And its not really an argument against 1920s stuff, but I understand the decreasing copyright by a radical amount will screw over some technical fields.
      I don't see much reason in changing copyright as it stands, except length after the author's death to 50 and whatever the hell the mess going on with music. People give Disney crap, but always forget that the big guy in Congress who wanted copyright to last forever was Sonny Bono.
      I also don't think most corporations give much of a toss about ancient copyright anymore. In 2025 or whenever Mickey Mouse enters the PD nobodies going to do anything. Even if you manage to just do the character in a way that would satisfy copyright law, you're not going to use him. He'll still be trademarked. Conan the Barbarian is in the public domain, but he's trademarked. You don't see any adaptations of those stories around. Trademark's worse than copyright. Some guy who's never even met Robert E. Howard can sue you if you use the word Conan in the title of something even if its your name.
      Oh, and the only version of that Mickey Mouse cartoon, when it enters the PD, will be whatever original print somebody has in their personal collection. Which will probably be in bad shape. Any remasters will have a later copyright date.

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    9. Yeah, that would be bad. Gives me the shivers to think I would not be able to pay my rent by some work I did in 1989.

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  15. This makes me wonder why German SF-series Perry Rhodan never got a CRPG-outing. We got multiple adventure games, a space 4x, a card game, multiple plastic model sets and at least two attempts at a pen-and-paper RPG (using Midgard-rules). But never a computer RPG, kind of weird.

    (Apparently the Venn diagram of people really into reading German SF and people playing video games has not enough overlap to create interest, considering how hard the pen-and-paper RPG-attempts failed.)

    Welp, too bad. A CRPG in the Perryverse wouldn't even need creative devs, that universe is full of weird shit you could use for science magical artifacts or special weapons.

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    1. Perry Rhodan is a massive universe... as far as I know, most of it is only available in German right? That probably limits its accessibility to to poor dumb Americans... heck... we barely speak English here in the south!

      It would be a great universe for film adaptation or a series of RPGs though.

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    2. There was a recent (2007ish, I think?) book series that a got a full, professional English translation. But yeah, other than that you would have more luck if you where Japanese (they love Perry Rhodan! It's the oddest thing) or learn German.

      (There are also some old badly translated Penny Dreadfuls from the failed English runs that sometimes creep up in someone's attic.)

      We also had a movie set in the Perryverse! It was some incredibly bad, schlocky B-movie made in Italy. It bombed hard, of course.

      Recently, I've read a random review by someone who tried the Midgard-rules using PR tabletop RPG and it was bad. Apparently, it's done with as many weird mathematical formulas as you can cram into a RPG-book without accidentally turning it into a math text book, almost no setting information and all the fun races and science artifacts are forbidden.

      It was, if I read between the lines, made for and by a tiny subset of Germans who love Midgard and hate everything else, which turned out to be a too tiny demographic to support the line for longer. And with the tabletop RPG, the idea of a PR CRPG died with it. No space soldiers strangling robots for us!

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    3. There was a Perry Rhodan RPG in development at some point but it got canceled. There's footage somewhere on YouTube but I can't find it right now.

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    4. Whoa. I'd never heard of Perry Rhodan.

      300,000 pages of Perry Rhodan books with over 2 billion sold? Holy cow.

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    5. The Perry Rhodan series being available virtually only in German (even the Japanese edition is decades behind) is easily the biggest reason I'm glad it happens to be my native language (sorry, Goethe). Otherwise I would've had to learn German to read it... or never even learned of its existence. Either thought gives me nightmares.

      Because both the series and its fantastic wiki are near and dear to my heart, and I genuinely pity the ~7.6 billion people who are missing out, here's the series overview, courtesy of Google Translate:

      https://translate.google.de/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=y&prev=_t&hl=de&ie=UTF-8&u=https%3A//www.perrypedia.de/wiki/Zyklen&act=url

      Clicking on the "cycle" titles gives synopses of the various story arcs, all the way through the current era (issue #3000+). Needless to say, much is lost in machine translation, but it should give you a good idea of what it's all about.

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    6. I'd never heard of it until these comments. I ended up reading a bit on Wikipedia. I find it ironic that the hero is American but it's never been translated to English.

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    7. Wow, I'm just learning about Perry Rhodan for the first time too. It turns out some of the books are available on scribd.com . You'll have to sign up for an account but it's a good resource for OOP books and game manuals among other things.

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    8. Well, he's an American (the series starts only 10 years into the future, so its likely that the commander of a western spacecraft would be an American), but he deserts the western block in the first book. :) He's also not the central character in many of the books as far as I can remember. It's been a long time. I've read about 50-60 of the 450 page "silver books" back in my youth, pretty much everything the library had of the series. Looks like that's less than 1/5th of story as it stands today.

      I always thought the oddest thing about the story was that Rhodas is immune to age and disease, but of course Earth is a democracy and he just gets elected again and again over the course of centuries. And people complain about Merkel...

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    9. Some more fun facts about good old Perry:

      -His grandparents were Germans emigrating to the US, but by the point he's in the US-military and can visit the tiny village they're from, West German bureaucracy has folded it into a larger community and every trace of the old village has been erased.

      -In his youth he was send to a US military school and nearly died because the evil US-system tried to punch the freedom out of him (at one point he nearly freezes to death on a punishment detail)

      -He ends up in Paris during the student riots and helps the rioters beat up police after they try poisoning them with nerve gas. Perry ends up personally punching the police chief of Paris.

      -The CIA tries warning his superior that Perry is a dangerous security risk, but they get scoffed out of the general's office. When Perry gets back to the Earth after the moon landing, he rips his rank insignia off and deserts immediately.

      -While pretending to fight an alien invasion to help unify Earth's nations, a real alien invasion is discovered and stopped, almost accidentally.

      -Basically every second alien race he meets turns out to be related to Earth Humans somehow, a fact that is mostly revealed due to story arcs involving time travel, Andromeda, giant star gates, and eventually giant space battles and centaurs with guns.

      I think at this point I should stop, but I could continue for DAYS.

      Delete
    10. Ah, yes, Perry Rhodan. I tried to catch up on the first 1500 issues or so when I was 20, now over 30 years later I'm looking at a nice retirement challenge...

      Delete
  16. I'm not sure if you have started it yet, but when you do DQK be aware you can end up in a walking dead situation, particularly in a town called Hawksbluff (I think). Rotate your saves, and save a extra file before entering any new towns. Some versions of the game will not highlight characters that can train as well.

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  17. This game, and its predecessor, were played *heavily* by me and my gaming friends, when they were new.

    As others have pointed out, there was a lack of Sci-Fi RPGs available to begin with. By the time this game came out, there weren't really any released around the same time, that offered a similar experience. So, the novelty factor was a huge draw.

    From what I remember, a lot of our playtime, in both games, was spent just doing random space battle encounters. IIRC the Mercurian Officers, on the Medium or larger Mercuiran ships, dropped Plasma Throwers. You could really kit out your team by grinding those, as soon as you could reasonably cripple and board them (via save scumming, of course, because 90s teenagers.)

    Which was fun, at the time, since you’d then walk through the rest of the game afterward, after getting 2-3 plasma throwers per team member. We’d also save scum and try to disable and kill the “unkillable” Heavy RAM and Mercurian vessels. Which was reasonably possible with maxed out characters.

    I’m pretty sure we all spent substantially more time doing that, and replaying the first few planets of each game, than doing complete playthroughs.

    Since this was a Sci-fi RPG set in our factual universe, it was somewhat unique. I owned both the TTRPG core boxed set, some supplements and both computer games. Their exploration of our actual solar system was actually exciting (to me at least) at the time, as again there weren’t a lot of other products exploring that area in depth, like the XXVc TTRPG and gold box games did.

    From what I recall most TTRPGs of the time were set in very vast universes, like Battletech/Mechwarrior or Traveler. A few others that were set locally didn’t focus much on anything outside of Earth, like say the Robotech TTRPG. One like this that was wholly confined to “local space”, but was specifically not focused on Earth, had some appeal.

    Martian Dreams, Worlds of Ultima 2, did that sort of, but that was specific to Mars of course, and was slanted heavily with a Victorian era lens. As opposed to XXVc which used more of a 20/30s pulp science fiction lens.

    XXVc also blended some factual information with completely made up stuff. You could, for example, learn some factually correct things about the geography of Mars, from the TTRPG. Not sure about everyone else, but factually based sci-fi was always somewhat interesting to me and my peers, at the time.

    Lastly, for those of us that were suckered into buying the XXVc TTRPG and/or its supplements, this game series was a good example of the way the game was meant to be played, by the designers. I recall that the writing in that product wasn’t top tier, and there was a ton of areas where the GM would just have to make shit up whole cloth. These games helped reduce that workload by providing a clearer picture of what that fictional universe was supposed to function like.

    That all being said:

    1) If you’re going to play a game in the series, play the first one. It is much more coherent. Every meaningful area in the game universe is explored in the first game. Every meaningful lore character is encountered. America’s favorite Addict has, of course, already reflected this fact in his review and GIMLET score. Albeit for somewhat different reasons than I.

    2) This game, in hindsight, just wasn’t good. Flat out. It’s just a shit game. Development was clearly rushed. It was made as an obligation. Nothing new in the universe is explored. No new meaningful or memorable characters or conflicts are introduced. They were 100% scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one. Only play it if you really enjoyed the first one, and literally have no other options. Like I did, as a bored teenager in the 90s.

    Sorry for the wall of text, but I've kinda meant to comment on this series since the first game, and never got around to it.

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    Replies
    1. I really appreciate when people can comment on their experiences when the game was new. When you were younger and only had a limited number of games, you wrung all the pleasure you could get from them, and I could see how fighting random battles in the asteroid belt might be part of that.

      The "sci-fi" part doesn't do a lot for me because I don't think it's very good sci-fi. But one's mileage may vary on that.

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    3. "...I don't think it's very good sci-fi. But one's mileage may vary on that."

      I won't disagree with that statement, *especially* if you only play the CRPGs and not the TTRPG.

      I think that the extra context provided by having the table top rpg boxed set, a comic or two, and a few supplements, helped make this game feel more substantial.

      It wasn't a "OH WOW" moment, exactly, when I first encountered Killer Kane. But I did at least know who he was, and had read at least some number of pages about his exploits in the comics and rpg books. So the meeting felt somewhat substantial.

      Which, I guess, is a roundabout way of acknowledging that the multi-media blitz style tactic TSR and Lorraine Williams used to promote this franchise was at least partially successful. At the time....

      Delete
  18. "A ship--a living ship--full of strange alien life forms."

    You knew exactly what you were doing, weren't you?

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  19. "5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The best part of the game was the engine, which still works as smooth as butter. Both regular and cut scene graphics were nice. I could take or leave the sound."

    Should I take that to mean that you didn't like the interface but commented on why elsewhere, or that sound is that important to you here? It didn't seem that way previously so I guess the former.

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    Replies
    1. I'd guess it's more of "need to leave this points range open for better interfaces later".

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    2. Judging by Chet's reaction to the continued existence of a paper journal, I imagine the maximum points this game could earn for "interface" were pretty limited.

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    3. From what Chet has written about this game and other Gold Box entries, my guess is that the main thing holding things back is that the graphics. While nicer than previous iterations of the Gold Box, they don't provide any indication of what's actually happening when you explore (it's all featureless dungeon corridors with the occasional cut-scene graphic) which he's previously said is an issue for him. He's repeatedly said that he loves the Gold Box interface (which makes sense because it is great!)

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    4. 5 points is actually not bad for the games in this era that have been gimleted so far.

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    5. I didn't feel like it was necessary to go over the strengths and weaknesses of the Gold Box system again. My thought was something like 1.5/3 for the graphics, 3.5/4 for the interface, and 1/3 for the sound. Tetrapod is right that although the graphics that exist look "nice," a weakness of the Gold Box has always been that the environments are just textures and they don't show oncoming enemies or encounters.

      Delete
  20. About the paper journal bit, what storage medium was this game originally distributed on?

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    Replies
    1. Probably floppies, but I suppose there's a remote possibility it might have been on CD.

      Regardless, text doesn't take up THAT much space. Wizardry 7 probably had at least as much text, and nice animated graphics to boot. If they really needed all that text and really couldn't make it fit, they could have added another floppy. It strikes me more as a copy protection exercise or something mandated by a higher-up than true technological necessity.

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    2. Yeah, the added space was likely helpful when they released Pool of Radiance in 1988, targeting the C64 -- by the time of the DOS-only Matrix Cubed, that doesn't seem like it would have been much of a factor anymore, though, so I'd guess it was largely a combination of the copy protection benefits and the fact that the separate journal had become a Gold Box tradition. The one saving grace is that at least in earlier Gold Box games, the journal also contained the occasional entry that wasn't just text -- maps, illustrations, and so on. Not sure whether that's true for this game, though, as I haven't played it.

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    3. This was originally sold on 5.25" or 3.5" floppies.

      So it was likely cheaper to print that text, than to potentially allocate an additional floppy for it.

      As mentioned before this would have been more of an issue for the earlier games, but still would have been a factor here.

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    4. There's a more explicit copy protection system when you fire up the game. It asks you for a word from one of the journal entries. I suspect a combination of tradition and copy protection kept the journals alive. I might not even have minded in the day, when I had a physical journal. Reviewing old entries would have been a good way to occupy time during loading and some combats.

      Delete
  21. Just for fun:

    The Living Ship is a recolored ice caves from Secret.

    The Carnifern is a pretty recognizable Bit of Moander, the Jovian Dragon is a dracolisk, and the Stage 5 ECG is a modified Tanetal.

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  22. I'll go ahead and be the dissenting voice that claims while this isn't the greatest of games, I personally enjoyed it and thought it had its merits. Maybe it's just because I enjoyed Countdown as a kid and I gave this game unconscious bonus points due to the association.

    I never played this one as a kid. I played it about 8 years ago so I'm just going off those memories and some that have been jogged by reading The Addicts experience.

    While the main missions were linear, you could go around exploring the asteroids (and maybe planets?, can't remember) so there was a tinge of open worldness about it. The tactical combats stayed pretty interesting to me though the end.

    I thought the Sci Fi theme was a fun overlay on the AD&D rules, though as has been pointed out they could have done a lot more with equipment variety by adding potions (bio repair gel - healing potion, stim pack - haste potion, ect) and other such items.

    I will say that even with my rose colored glasses I could tell the ending was rushed, like the project had a budget and the project manager saw they would run out of money in a week and said "ok team, pencils down, program a quick ending and get this one out the door". So the beginning was relatively strong but the end (especially the final mission) was pretty weak.

    ReplyDelete

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