Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rivers of Light: Western Civ Redux

I pity early players of this game, who didn't have Wikipedia.

Pull up your chairs, kids, and join me for a lesson in the history and mythology of Mesopotamia.

In my last posting, I was just getting acclimated to "Rivers of Light" and had solved my first series of quests. With the proceeds, I was able to buy my first armor, a "billowy shirt." I found a cache of bee honeycombs that each sold for 20 sacks of barley (the unit of currency in this game), with the drawback that I can only carry one at a time and have to fight a bear every time. Nonetheless, I collected and sold enough to outfit myself with a proper sword.

One of the game's several stores.

My swimming skill enabled me to cross the Tigris river to the city-state of Great Assur (which you may remember from high school as the capital of ancient Assyria).

I'm not sure trolls were part of Assyrian mythology.

A woodsman told me of several regional problems, including a statue of a winged bull that recently came to life, and a fearful beast called Humbaba. It's nice when all of your side-quests in a given area are announced at the outset. Other plaques and people nearby fleshed out the backstories of these three threats.

The winged bull statue turns out to have been a representation of Shedu, a Babylonian deity. Shamash, the God of Justice in Babylonia, brought it to life, and it flew off with the doorman to the Royal Library, along with the doorman's key. Shedu proved to be a bit difficult. It killed me a bunch of times before I decided to retire to the original area and boost my skills a bit before attempting it again. In the midst of this, I discovered that some "red clay clods" I had previously found actually boost your health significantly before battle. Using one of these, Shedu became a bit easier. Oddly, it respawned after I killed it, but I didn't need to fight it again since I had found on the first corpse the Royal Key.

Humbaba is mentioned in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh as a giant guarding the Cedar Forest who is slain by the hero. The first few times I approached him, he killed me with a spell, but after I received a sun amulet from the god Shamesh by leaving some bee honey on his altar, I was able to kill him, and I got a cedar pole in return. No idea what this is about.

The dragon is called Yam, a Canaanite god of river and sea. According to Wikipedia, he is associated with storms and storm-related disasters. Although not specifically described as a dragon in Canaanite mythology, Wikipedia says his analog in Babylonian mythology is Tiamat, who of course becomes a dragon in Dungeons & Dragons mythology. A plaque in the game told me he could only be defeated through a "weapon of Sir Adroit and Cunning's." Having no idea where to find this, I was forced to move on.

In the library--which turned out to be none other than Assyrian King Assurbanipal's Great Library of Knowledge (which still survives today as a ruin in Nineveh)--I exchanged the Royal Key for a spell called "Shabrir Begone" and some of my grain for a broken tablet, which read: "To pass the first gate, one must take a regal key to the glyph room. There one must... [the rest garbled]." More important, I read a series of tapestries recording messages from the great god Ea that heretics have stolen "three great shapes" and used them "as profane keys of passage through a mysterious trio of gates." There's also a note about Gilgamesh, who was seeking the secret of immortality himself to heal his friend Enkidu; and also one about Utnapishtim, who saved humanity from the Great Flood and now lives forever. Sounds like I'm getting closer to my quest!

In the Arabian Desert, I killed a bandit and took his camel, which allowed me to cross the Sinai peninsula into Egypt. Crossing the Sinai Desert meant staying constantly hydrated, which was tough because the water along the way was possessed by Shabriri demons; fortunately, I had the "Shabriri Begone" spell from the library and was able to force them to take physical form and kill them.

On the other side of the Sinai, I found the great pyramid at Gizeh, rife with thieves who stole everything not nailed down, including my camel.

The pyramid held so many references to different mythologies (including a pre-Mummy shout-out to Imhotep) that even I got sick of looking them up on Wikipedia. This is where I left the game for the night.

Two notes on gameplay, though, that I missed to tell you in my first posting on Adventure Construction Set: first, there are two types of weapons, melee and missile. For melee weapons, I've gone through a large bone, a flint knife, a sword, and now an iron sword. For missile weapons, I've found rocks and bows. You have an associated skill with each that increases as you score hits.

Second, this is the first game I know (although I'm probably just forgetting one) to attach a weight to the items in your inventory. There's a little "movement" bar on the left-hand side of the screen that gets shorter as you carry more stuff. Eventually, you can't move unless you drop some of it. Unfortunately, it counts your barley (the game's currency) as weight, so you can't get too rich.

My melee skill has already maxed out at 100, which is a good sign that the game isn't going to last that much longer. If the next post is a "Won!" you'll know I was right.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Game 29: Adventure Construction Set (1984)

It turns out I'm about three years off on this one. My general rule is to play games in order of their original publication, not in order of their DOS release. In this case, I mis-coded the game in my master spreadsheet. It probably worked out for the best because it's not on Wikipedia's list, meaning I would have missed it on the first pass and probably would have relegated it to one of my July "backtracking" posts. Now I can give it the proper attention.

The primary purpose of Adventure Construction Set is to allow prospective dungeon masters to create their own CRPGs and offer them up to their friends. According to Wikipedia's entry on the software, it was inspired by the Pinball Construction Set from 1983. ACS was first released for the Commodore 64 in 1984; the DOS version (which I'm playing) came out in 1987. Its age shows after three years, unfortunately, as the interface is a bit clumsy and the commands and graphics not nearly as robust as some of the other 1987 CRPG offerings.

We have yet to see a spy/mystery CRPG in this blog.

I wouldn't normally play Adventure Construction Set as part of this blog except that it came pre-packaged with at least one pre-made adventure called "Rivers of Light." I say "at least one" because all of the other write-ups mention only "Rivers of Light," while the main menu seems to offer a second one called "Land of Aventuria." I'll check that out after I finish "Rivers of Light."

You press INS to continue a lot in this game.

"Rivers of Light" involves nothing less than the quest for eternal life--no pretense about making the world a better place for this PC. The character creation process is a bit odd: you can select your character's icon from a large variety of different warriors, wizards, monsters, and objects, but you don't get to customize anything about his or her attributes; the game rolls these automatically for you.

Some of the available character icons.

You begin with no equipment in the middle of a colorful landscape in what I suppose is the Fertile Crescent. (Those must be the Tigris and Euphrates rivers running by the cities of...Baghdad The annoying aspect to the interface is that you have to keep hitting the INSERT key where you would normally expect to type ENTER. I'm sure this was optimized for some early IBM keyboard, but it doesn't work well with my laptop. One would think I could edit the DOSBox keyboard mapper to help me with this problem, but I seem to be having issues with it. I'm sure I'll figure it out.

The game is organized into a series of screens. You transition between screens via little "cave" icons. Fairly quickly in my adventures, a series of related quests became clear: a hunter has lost his statue of the Mother Goddess and needs a replacement; an old woman in a cave will fashion a likeness of the Mother Goddess if I drop an animal bone on her altar; a nearby troll wields an animal bone as a weapon.

Putting all of this together yields the acquisition of "swimming skill" from the hunter, allowing me to swim across rivers. Oddly, this skill appears in your inventory as an "object" that you "use."

As you kill creatures, move about, and solve quests, your various skills increase. I was recently lauding 2400 A.D. for offering the first skills-based character progression that I'd seen, but I guess Adventure Construction Set beat it by a few years. Your life force (hit points) regenerates as you move around.

In the first hour of gameplay, I haven't died, and my dress-clad female PC, armed with a flint knife, has managed to do her share of ass-kicking, but a comment a reader left on a previous game leads me to expect an increase in difficulty soon. So far, the best I can say about the game is that it's "inoffensive." I don't expect a title marketed primarily as an adventure-builder to yield major rewards in the single-player campaign department, but who knows? Maybe it'll turn out to be a spiritual ancestor to Neverwinter Nights.

Here's a question for you: if I take the time to develop a little adventure using the Adventure Construction Set, will any of you download the game and play it? Or would it just be a waste of time?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

2400 A.D.: Final Ranking

The most honest NPC ever encountered.
2400 A.D.
United States
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II and DOS
Date Started: 14 October 2010
Date Ended: 22 October 2010
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 16/28 (57%)
Ranking at Game #453: 325/453 (72%) 
Again, I find myself in conflict with Dungeons & Desktops author Matt Barton, who says, "2400 A.D. is a very creative game that should have been a great deal more successful" (p. 122).

I'll give him that the game is creative. There aren't many sci-fi RPGs out there, and this one creates a relatively interesting story, a different landscape full of things you generally don't see in CRPGs: moving walkways, subways, transport tubes. The weapons and equipment are unique, and the method of attribute development is rare for the era. Reading a walkthrough later, I realized I barely used half of the equipment available, which included holograph generators that confuse robots and various weapons that stun them.

But I can guess why it's not successful: it's a bit boring. While I love the Ultima IV-style dialog, and I like games that make you rely on NPCs for clues, there are too many NPCs in too tight an area with too few things to say. As for the variety of equipment, most is unnecessary, since the robots fall quite willingly to a few basic weapons. Once you have the plasma rifle, the game is basically over.

Let's break it down on the GIMLET scale:

1. Game world. We have to give 2400 A.D. credit for a unique game world and a somewhat interesting back story covered in the type of thickly-written manual that only Origin could produce. The thing I noticed is the back story could have been written a bunch of different ways without changing the gameplay. For instance, instead of an alien race called the "Tzorg" taking over the colony and staffing it with robots, it could have been a robot revolution against human rule. The Tzorg, after all, are oddly absent from things. (By the way, Barton has a mistake here, calling the enemies as "alien robots called the Tzorg"; the robots are creations of the Tzorg, not Tzorg themselves.) Anyway, your character and quest are quite clear. Nothing you do changes the game world much, though, until the end. Final score: 6.
If there's one thing Origin excels at, it's game manuals.
2. Character creation and development. I give the game credit for its use-based attribute development. Your energy (strength) goes up by repeatedly running and climbing, and your IQ by fixing your broken equipment, and so on. I can't think of an earlier game that builds your skills this way, a system that will be seen again in the Quest for Glory series and will reach full potential in The Elder Scrolls games. Everything else about character development is fairly basic. There are no choices in character type, alignment, and so on. Treating strength and hit points as the same thing is a bit odd. Final score: 4.

3. NPC interaction. As I said, I have a weakness for the handful of games, almost all Origin Systems titles, where you speak to NPCs by typing keywords. And 2400 A.D. is full of NPCs, most of whom are necessary to find your way along the main quest. They have very little to say, unfortunately, and your dialog with them doesn't offer real choices or opportunities for role-playing. Final score: 5.

4. Encounters & foes. There are a bunch of different types of robots, basically distinguishable only by icons and how much damage they do. They die too easily and offer little challenge. Most of the encounters are random, though, and foes do respawn. Final score: 3.

5. Magic & combat. There's no magic system in the game, and combat is a rote matter of hitting (a)ttack and pressing a direction. Except in a few cases, where it's good to use obstacles and corridors to limit how many enemies can attack you, there are really no tactics in combat. Final score: 2.

6. Equipment. There are a handful of weapons, three armor choices, and some other equipment in the game. Some of the items are unusual and fun, like time bombs and holograph projectors. I didn't see any need for pass cards and zone access cards; you can just sneak around zones and bash robots. Other than that, nothing terribly special. Final score: 4.
Donovan uses his jetpack for no other reason than he can.
7. Economy. You need about 7000 credits to get the equipment necessary to win the game, obtained 0-99 at a time from each robot slain. After that, money builds up for no reason. Final score: 3.

8. Quests. There is but one main quest with no twists. No side-quests. The main quest has one outcome and no role-playing opportunities. Final score: 2.

9. Graphics, sound, inputs. The game features basic keyboard controls. The graphics are good enough for the gameplay, although the grey boxes around the sprites are distracting. Sound is still in the better-to-play-it-silent era. Final score: 3.

10. Gameplay. Within the world, gameplay is fairly non-linear, allowing you to go wherever from the start. But the world is small and confining, so it's not as if you can use the non-linearity to really wander and explore. Overall, it is too easy (you cannot die!), too quick, and not in any way replayable. Final score: 2.

This gives us a total score for 2400 A.D. of: 34. That puts it in the range of Shard of Spring, which I once described as "meh." That's pretty much how I feel about 2400 A.D.

The next game is an interesting one: a construction set that comes with a playable single-player module. I'm ready for something new.

Friday, October 22, 2010

2400 A.D.: Won!

You have to wonder what kind of security system allows all the robots to be destroyed by entering three words.

Well, that was a bit anticlimactic. At the end of my last 2400 A.D. posting, I suggested that I thought the game would be a quick one. I was right. I continued wandering through the streets of Metropolis, killing robots, building my statistics, and making money. I visited each building and got all the available clues from the denizens. The picture that emerged was that to win, I would need to:

  • Visit several computer consoles under the administration building, enter a code, and get each of three "deactivation codes."
  • Sneak in to the Authority Complex through a maze that began in the junk yard, fighting robots and solving puzzles along the way.
  • Find my way to the top level of the Authority Complex and enter the three deactivation codes.

To accomplish all of this, I needed several pieces of equipment:

  • A field disperser, the best armor in the game, which also allows the wearer to pass through force fields
  • A plasma rifle, the best weapon in the game (I'm not sure if it has a 40-watt range).
  • A transporter guidance device to make my way through a transporter maze
  • A jetpack, to get over some obstacles

One by one, I collected the clues and visited the locations to find these items. The plasma rifle was most difficult. I wasn't sure where to get it, but I sort-of lucked into it after I bought several lesser weapons from Wes the weapons dealer.

He ended up just giving me the plasma rifle, but it was broken. I took it to Hugo in the repair shop, and he outlined what I needed.

These spare parts came from a couple of electronics dealers. Once I had it, I was unstoppable, to both robots and doors. I broke in to the Social Rehabilitation Center just to slaughter the robot guards and speak to the prisoners.

The field disperser was a bit easier, requiring only that I find a set of blueprints and pay an absurd amount of money to a guy named "Les" to make the armor.

I picked up the other items along the way, too, but didn't take screen shots. It wasn't all that exciting. The game was far too easy by this point--no robot could really damage me, and they all died in just a couple of shots.

A random pop culture reference. Origin likes these.

Perhaps knowing that robots were no longer a challenge, the game threw some different puzzles at me as I explored the depths of the Administration Center, looking for the deactivation codes.

First there was a moving sidewalk maze. I didn't bother with it; I just fired up my jetpack and flew over it.

Then we had a maze that required me to shove crates around until I found the path to the computer terminal. It took a little time, but we're not talking Wizardry IV-level difficulty, here.

Once I had the codes, it was a simple matter to sneak into the Authority Complex, work my way to the top, and enter the deactivation codes into the main console. I took a video of the last five minutes, starting with the end of a battle with some reasonably difficult robots.

The greatest disappointment? I never got to see what a Tzorg looked like! I guess they're saving that for the sequel.

Alas, according to Wikipedia, the sequel--2500 A.D. (guess it took the Tzorg a while to get there)--was canceled in development.

If this whole post seems a little lackluster, that reflects my feelings about the game. Maybe it was what I needed after Wizardry IV, but it was horribly easy and quick. I'll do a quick summary posting next and then hopefully head on to something more challenging.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

2400 A.D.: Die Hard

Soy-278 is robots!

I've gotten the hang of 2400 A.D., and it isn't too hard, particularly given that (as far as I can tell) you cannot die. If robots shoot you enough, you fall unconscious and you wake up in the Social Rehab Center. As some of my readers pointed out in my last posting, this isn't so bad. If you search around, you find a secret door that lets you escape into the underground, at which point you can find your way to the surface.

Now, you don't have any of your equipment, but a helpful hint from a guy named Guido...

...clued me in to where I could go and find it. There's no security on it or anything:

So "dying" and going to rehab actually becomes useful at some points. It certainly isn't any detriment that I can see--you don't lose any statistics, and you even have your check-in timer reset--so the only drawback is that it's a slight pain in the neck wandering out of jail.

This is a good thing, because I was shot unconscious about 20 times tonight as I explored the city of Metropolis. First of all, the quest advanced as I returned to Spider with the password, was given some equipment (including a better blaster), and advised to find out about the underground.

On my way to the underground, I was pursued by another Follower. I got sick of him shadowing me, and I shot him dead. This turned out to be an extraordinary bit of luck because I haven't been able to kill another Follower since.

When a robot "dies," nothing in the game tells you it's dead; it just stops moving. I didn't realize this the first time, so I kept shooting and shooting it until my weapon broke. Then I realized he wasn't shooting back, and I searched him for a cool 8 credits.

As you fight, run, climb, talk to people, and repair weapons in this game, your energy (strength), agility, IQ, and affinity increase. This is the first game I can think of in which your ability scores increase through use instead of through magical means or allocating experience points to them.

In the Underground.

In the Underground (literally an area beneath the city you access via ladders), I was recruited into the Rebellion by someone named "Pinkie" and given a list of individuals to consult. As I did in Ultima IV, I've been taking careful notes of character locations and clues. The game is similar to Ultima IV in that you speak to characters by typing keywords, and often you get a clue from one character to mention something in particular to another. It is dissimilar to Ultima IV in that the characters don't have as much to say, and they don't respond to standard keywords like NAME, JOB, and HEALTH.

My growing clues file.

The clues are telling me a little about a secret entrance to the Authority Complex, and code words I'll need to shut down the robot servers--the game's main quest.

As I explore and talk to people, I've also been finding out about different modes of transportation in the City of Metropolis. First, you can walk anywhere, obviously. But there's also a conveyor belt that reaches most of the parts of the town, and a subway that runs underneath it. Finally, there are occasional transporters that you need a code word to use, but I just got it: LETSGO.

"Now, did he ever return? No, he never returned..."

My main goal now is to make some money and upgrade my weapons, armor, and equipment, and the only way I've found to make money is by killing robots. After numerous attempts and subsequent sojourns in the Rehab Center, I thought to consult the book, and I realized there are different "levels" of robots. Right now, I can basically only take on Level 1:

If I limit myself to "police" robots and "sentry" robots, I've actually been doing pretty well. Here's a shot of me looting the bodies of two police robots:


I'm up to about 500 credits, but good weapons and armor cost in the thousands, so I have a long way to go. My plan right now is to keep exploring, talking, and killing, and see where it gets me. Somehow the game doesn't feel like it's going to take very long, but perhaps I'm deceiving myself.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

2400 A.D.: Feeling My Way Around the Future

They do not, after all, call it the "Permissiveness Complex."

I spent a little time this evening just wandering around Nova Athens, as a way to learn a bit more about 2400 A.D. and get myself back into the swing of CRPG playing. I'm just going to share a few discoveries and promise a longer post tomorrow.

1. The "T" value is a countdown timer that tells you how long you have to check in with the "Registration." If you let it get to 0 all the robots turn hostile and attack you. In the world of 2400 A.D., you're like a sex offender: you have to keep registering with the authorities to be legal.

Am I Level 2 or 3?

2. There are little power cells on corners (they look a bit like round mirrors), at which you can charge your weapons and devices. But apparently this is illegal, because if the robots see you they will attack you.

I shot something. It didn't do me much good.

3. You are restricted to certain "Zones" of the city. If you stray outside your zone, and a robot catches you, you get a "social demerit." Collect enough social demerits and the robots attack you.

4. There are really annoying robots called "followers" that, you guessed it, mercilessly follow you around. One of them trapped me in a corner and I had to re-load.

Try being a leader.

5. It doesn't appear that you can die in this game--at least, not through regular robot attacks. Instead, you fall unconscious and wake up in "the Social Rehabilitation Center." There's a locked door here, which I managed to bash open, only to immediately encounter a robot that shot me unconscious, and I woke up in...the Social Rehabilitation Center.

Vicious cycle, that.

But among the discoveries, I found a couple pieces of wisdom. First, thanks to the surface map that we decided last week I was allowed to have, I found Johnny's Bar and talked to Reggie, who gave me the Resistance password.

Apparently, he'll give it to anyone who walks up to him and says "password."

The second bit of information I got from a guy in a house that I entered to escape the Follower robot. He found some reference to a device that would protect people from force fields.

And that, unfortunately, is it for the evening. Again, a longer post tomorrow after I've had a chance to explore for a solid 3-4 hours. Oh, here's that surface map. It doesn't look like a very big game, but then some of these houses have multiple levels. I guess I'll just try a systematic pattern of movement until I get specific clues.