Friday, September 30, 2011

Game 64: Visions of the Aftermath: The Boomtown (1988)

As a CRPG...what?...connoisseur?...I have learned to be wary of games whose manuals oversell themselves. Visions of the Aftermath: The Boomtown promises a game that presents "the laws of nature in an inter-active environment without seeming arbitrary or trite." The game, it goes on, "is designed to model life," with the map "designed to seem like places instead of squares." Through repeated deaths, it promises, "you are mastering skills which give you unprecedented control of such a reality."

Moving past the author's self-accolades, we find that Visions is a passable post-apocalyptic simulator, not light years removed from Scavengers of the Mutant World. When you start the game, you set its parameters and difficulty level and then try to achieve your goal while the game concertedly tries to kill you. In most scenarios, the goal is simply to survive a certain number of years.

Looks rather homey.

The game takes place in 1995, some unspecified time after the bombs fell, and the player begin his life in a bomb shelter with random amounts of food and goods. If playing a game in which all you have to do is survive, there's really no reason to leave the shelter except that the food eventually runs out. Outside the shelter, you have to contend with erratic weather, radiation, scavengers, mutants, dwindling food supplies, and other trappings of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

Lost in the desert.

After a few deaths, I won the game rather easily by setting all the parameters to their easiest level and establishing the "win" condition as lasting only two years. I was able to spend about 14 months in my initial shelter. Ultimately, I had to leave to find more food, but I just found another shelter close by and spent the next 10 months there. It was something of a hollow victory:

Look at the bottom for the "win" message. It's all you get from the game.

The game is not a CRPG; its inclusion here is another MobyGames errata. It is, nonetheless, mildly interesting, and I can see how things like the health meter and the inventory could confuse someone as to its CRPG creds. Turn-based, it is meant to be played with other players against whom you can compete for the longest life and the highest score.

The settings for one Boomtown scenario.

In harder games than the one I won on, you have to engage in a wide spectrum of statistics-studying and planning to survive. You watch the messages carefully so as to avoid going outside during storms. You stock up on fertilizer to grow your own food. You chop down forests for fuel and lumber. You scavenge for car parts so you don't have to walk around and get caught during meteor showers. You build generators to supply electricity. You meet other people and learn their skills. Or kill them and take their stuff. You find books and spend cold winter months reading them in your shelter to gain knowledge.

And you can fish!

Combat is rather lame, consisting of simply exhausting your supply of arrows at your enemy and hoping that's enough. If not, the game lets you sheepishly trade with your enemies shortly after trying to kill them.

Dealing with a horde.

Ultimately, it doesn't add up to much. The best way to win--if not get the highest score--is to keep a low profile, remember shelter locations, cache resources, and use the environment. This might make it an interesting simulator, but it doesn't do much for a CRPG addict. So, having won at least one scenario, I'm giving it a ranking of 26 and moving on.

I realize that it wasn't much of a return posting after a two-week absence. But I trust you'll enjoy what's coming next: Wasteland!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ultima IV, Part 2: What Happend in Between

I sometimes don't like parodies, but this one wasn't half bad.

Reader Eugene Hung told me recently about Ultima IV, Part II: Dude, Where's My Avatar? and I admit to approaching it with some trepidation. Let it not be said that the CRPG Addict doesn't have a sense of humor, but I sometimes don't like parodies. I have never been much of a Monty Python fan, for instance, and I loathe The Holy Grail. Parodies only work for me when the creator clearly knows and loves the original.

I downloaded it and played it without really reading much about it first. It was made with a designing tool called the Adventure Creation Kit, which I originally took to be an early or mid-1990s tool, much like the Adventure Construction Set that I blogged about last year. In fact, to be honest, I originally thought that UIVPII was created with the Adventure Construction Set, and I was prepared to praise it's original and detailed use--I couldn't even get Bourbon Street finished.

But it turns out, I now see, that developer Chris Hopkins only released the latest version of the Adventure Creation Kit in 2008, and Ultima IV, Part II--its only full game so far--came out in 2009. He purposely designed the Kit to mimic the look of two-dimensional, old-school, tile-based games. In the case of this game, it copies Ultima V textures and icons to tell a story that happens between Ultima IV and Ultima V.

My reaction to the story itself, and its humor, is pretty positive--there is no question that Mr. Hopkins knows the Ultima series inside and out--but my reaction to the Adventure Creation Kit is even better. I'd like to see many, many more games using this construction set. It makes attractive maps, supports excellent dialogue and inventory systems, and is very intuitive. Aside from the joke parts of the game, I had a lot of fun exploring the dungeons, fighting monsters, and collecting loot and treasure. Mr. Hopkins really has something here.

Note: Since this is a fairly new game, I should note that major spoilers follow!

I won the game, and spent enough time doing so for three postings, but I don't want to take that much time for a diversion, so I'll try to describe it all here. My Avatar begins sitting around his house, contemplating Britannia while staring at an odd poster of a pole-dancing centaur.

Turning on the television, I find my answer: Mondain, Minax, and Exodus are all on Jerry Springer, complaining about their family problems. The show descends into a brawl, and the three of them end up escaping back to Britannia.

You might not see it, but Minax is "played" by Tammy Faye Bakker.

Shortly after, I get a phone call from the old gypsy, who walks me through the Ultima IV questions--or, at least, a variant thereof (one of the responses is "whatever lets me use a sword")--before shipping me to Britannia.


I find Lord British hiding within his throne room, having blocked the entrance with a chair. He explains that Mondain, Minax, and Exodus have taken over the Lycaeum, Empath Abbey, and Serpent's Hold, and they have corrupted the virtues. He also seems to share some of my disbelief at Ultima II.

After getting him to return me to Level 8--which he never does in any other game--and give me his "Orb of Cheating," which despite its name isn't so much different from the Orb of Moons you get in Ultima VI, I head out to solve the quest.

From visiting the towns, it soon transpires that the evil trio have replaced the principles of truth, love, and courage with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. The "virtues" are now derivatives of these principles: intoxication, promiscuity, rhythm, virility, dancing, heavy metal, and partying. "Rehab" replaces humility as standing outside the virtues.

Mariah is now running a pizza parlor.

Here, it's easier to see on a chart:

To combat the problem and win the game, I had to:

  • Gather the eight "sigils" of each new virtue and deliver them to Hawkwind at Lord British's castle.
  • Learn the mantras of each virtue (promiscuity is HO, partying is WOO, and rehab is, of course, NO) and mediate on them at the shrines, getting from them the location to which to send the...Dukes of Hazzard...look, you had to be there.
  • Raise the Codex from the Abyss and learn how to defeat Mondain, Minax, and Exodus.
  • Do a few errands for people who had the items I needed
  • Travel to each of the keeps and defeat the triumvirate.

Of course, there was plenty of humor along the way. And loads and loads of 1980s pop culture references. I'm sure I missed a lot, but I caught references to Impossible Mission, Knight Rider, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, King's Quest, Magnum P.I., Night Court, People's Court, E.T., Tunnels of Doom, Deliverance, the Beastie Boys, The Bard's Tale, Pac-Man, the Artist Formerly and Apparently Again Known as Prince, The Dukes of Hazzard, Adventure (the old Atari game), Akalabeth, Rogue, Questron, Wheel of Fortune, Father Knows Best, whatever game sparked the "all your base are belong to us" meme, Pirates!, and Army of Darkness.

Some of them were simply ingenious. When I visited Buccaneer's Den to buy some maps from the bartender, instead of taking me into a typical Ultima V town, the game brought up the town screen from Pirates!

I still didn't get anywhere with the governor's daughter.

I also got a flashback to a game that I hadn't thought about in years: The Impossible Mission. I had it for my C64 and never won it--I couldn't figure out how to put the maps together. Anyway, a character who looked like the PC icon in IM gave me a quest to get a computer code (it turned out to be "123456") from Professor Atombender, who had set up shop in the Dungeon Destard. As soon as I walked into the room with his robots, I was hit with the familiar recording from the beginning of that game: "Ah! Another visitor! Stay a while. Stay FOREVER!"

Here's a whole mess of other references that had me laughing and show the creator's encyclopedic knowledge of the era:

The quests to get the sigils were generally creative and funny. Perhaps the most memorable was the Toga of Partying. Shamino was wearing it (all of my Ultima IV companions had been thoroughly corrupted) and refused to take it off until I gave him several bottles of ale, at which point he doffed it and went streaking.

Yes, that is Shamino's penis. I am no longer sorry about what happened to him in Ultima V.

The longest quest to solve was Julia's. She had become a pole dancer in Minoc to pay her way through college. I had to drum up 1,500 gold pieces to pay her tuition so she could give me the pole--the Sigil of Dancing--which required a lot of dungeon-delving. The dungeons were mostly non-parodies and actually very interesting to explore, with lots of pressure plates, triggers, and secret doors. I got a real thrill when I solved a series of them and found a magic axe.

A dungeon room at least as interesting as anything in Ultima V.

The Sigil of Virility turned out to be a bottle of Viagra, which Jaana immediately wanted me to put to use. Fortunately, Katrina showed up at her window and...blocked me. In fact, she did that twice.

"Justice is truth, tempered by love! I'm sorry, I couldn't keep a straight face. Honestly, hast thou ever sat in a courtroom and thought, 'yes, this is the worldly manifestation of truth and love'? Neither have I." - Jaana

New Magincia--which still had some skeletons hanging around from Ultima IV--had been turned into a giant rehab clinic, and to get the Sigil of Rehab, I had to help Katrina (looking like an old woman--I had always pictured her young and virile) figure out which patient was ready to be released.

As I said, the Kit itself makes a pretty good game. Yes, it only supports a single character, but the interface is very intuitive. It has an easy but satisfying leveling and attribute system. It allows a wide variety of weapons and armor, including swamp boots--which protect you from poison just as in Ultima VI--and the inventory screen very clearly shows which is better. On the inventory, incidentally, the game had me bring a shotgun from home. I didn't realize it had a limited number of rounds, and I wasted them on low-level monsters. I really could have used it at the end.

Note the Army of Darkness reference. Later, the game has me telling Lord British to send me home, "like in the deal."

Dialogue is both presented with Ultima IV/V keywords (as you've seen in other shots) and one-liners from minor characters, as in Ultima II/III.

The college in Moonglow, under the influence of Intoxication, became a party school.

There were a lot of monsters in the game, some using Ultima V icons, some with original ones. Almost all of them had original names. Among the more memorable were demented crows, voyeurs (gazers), evil butterflies, capybaras, evil supermodels and meth addicts (both using the skeleton icon), cheese golems and Dorito golems, forum trolls, and flushed goldfish. Their names were silly, but combat against them was legitimately difficult, especially at the end in Exodus's castle. The combat system is less advanced than Ultima V, but it supports targeting with both ranged and missile weapons, and the magic system--while not using all the reagents (you bought them all pureed together in a blender), supports a lot of different spells. I didn't get to cast them all.

The game had fun explaining why certain things happened between Ultima IV and Ultima V. Namely:

  • Vesper is gone because I helped Sin'Vraal destroy the lake, leaving the town to dry up with only Sin'Vraal's house remaining.
  • I raised the Codex myself--using a magic fishing pole that Julia made. "Deep below," the game notes, "You hear screaming, yelling, and the flapping of wings. You're sure it's nothing to worry about, though."
  • The Shadowlords invade Britannia because they make use of a bong I dropped into a whirlpool, get the munchies, and chase a rumor that Britannia has a White Castle.

  • Magic reagents cause blindness, which is why all the herb sellers are blind.
  • Blackthorn became reagent because when Lord British asked who would rule while he was off exploring, I said it didn't matter and pointed to some random guy in the corner.
  • I sealed the dungeons myself, on a quest for the Great Council, whose member summed up the attitude of most Britannians perfectly:

  • The Guardian, a friendly bloke, was created by Hawkwind to guard the eight corrupted Sigils in some alternate dimension. Hawkwind assured me that nothing could go wrong.

If you die in the game, as I did twice, you find yourself on a tropic island with a beautiful woman--just before Lord British resurrects you and yanks you back into the real world again. Shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 6!

It would have been funnier if he'd made it Sarah Michelle Gellar.

The final quests to destroy the triumvirate were fun, especially Minax's. She had taken over Empath Abbey, and upon entry I was thrust back into a world of graphics and textures from Ultima II.

I had to take the old rocket to Planet X to get Father Antos to annul her marriage, and the game had me encounter Richard Garriott--who has, of course, famously traveled into space himself.

Now, I did win the game, but somehow after I won, the game (or some other corruption) ended up clearing my DOSBox capture folder and the saved games, so I don't have any ending screen shots. The ending was rather amusing, in which I take Lord British to task for not doing anything himself, and he vows to solve the next problem on his own. I leave Britannia saying to myself that the old coot will likely get himself into trouble and I'll have to rescue him again.

The Orb of Cheating made the game go pretty quickly.

All in all, it was a satisfying and amusing day's diversion. It probably would have taken longer without the Orb of Cheating, but there's only a limited amount of time I want to spend on a parody. I recommend that you play it yourself, and keep me appraised if you see any new games being released with the Adventure Creation Kit. It's Addict-Approved!

The Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, according to this game.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ultima V: Final Rating

If you don't have Lord British's sandalwood box, your characters end up just wandering around his chamber. Forever. Thankfully, we have plenty of food, and the male/female ratio is about equal.

Looking through several walkthroughs for Ultima V, I realized there were a few things that I missed. First, some of the surlier characters in the game, including a mage named Flain in Skara Brae (who was a pain in the neck to get to), the characters at Windmere (which I talked about a few postings ago), and the corrupt Judge Dryden in Yew, were members of "The Oppression," a society dedicated to helping Blackthorn. This didn't provide an alternate ending to the game, but I could have tried to infiltrate them and obtain their "black badge," which apparently would have made Blackthorn and his guards friendly. An interesting side quest.

The second thing was that I completely overlooked mystics! I guess I could have gotten both mystic swords and mystic armor from a volcano in the underworld. I do vaguely remember a clue of that nature, but I neglected to follow up on it. It didn't hurt me any, but this makes the second game in a row in which I ignored the fabled mystics. The third overlooked item were the plans for the HMS Cape, which were hidden in the shipwright's in Britain. I remember an NPC telling me that the master had lost them, but it didn't occur to me to just search his house. The plans would have made my frigates faster and probably cut down on some of the sea battles.

If I had to not be paying attention to something, I suppose it was a good thing it was this and not the sandalwood box.

In looking over these spoilers, I learned a little about Ultima V: Lazarus, a 2005 remake using the Dungeon Siege engine. Apparently, it greatly expands the dialogue and back stories, and includes extra quests, including more on the Oppression. I had told one commenter that I would check it out while playing Ultima V, but it seems like a game worthy of its own entries, so I've added it to my game list for that year.

On to my GIMLET. I would note, incidentally, that my blog is the third entry if you search for "gimlet" on Google. The second entry, a Wikipedia page, notes that the term, in addition to the drink, describes a tool, an unincorporated town in Kentucky, a surface-to-air missile, a rocket, a fantasy character, a tree, and a Transformers character. It's a diverse term. Oh, and it was director Ed Wood's favorite cocktail.

1. Game World. Large, open, and interesting. The back story of the game is compelling and well-narrated, and the world itself is full of interesting terrain, cities, towns, keeps, lighthouses, dungeons, and other places to explore. Origin's manuals continue to top the competition in their history and description of the land and its people. It's one of the few games of any era in which the entire world--rather than just discrete pieces of it--is explorable from the outset. I went into this thinking that I needed to exceed my score for Ultima IV by at least one, but I think I rated Ultima IV too high (8). Ultima V's world is fantastic, to be sure, but the game lacks one of my key elements here: "decisions and actions measurably affect the game world." I was a bit disappointed that no one--not even Blackthorn--bothered to notice when I killed the Shadowlords. I have to save perfect scores for games like Morrowind that not only have a large, interesting world but lots of little diversions and a sense of adaptation to my actions. Score: 8.

The Book of Lore is well-written and sets the back story nicely.

2. Character creation and development. The character creation process is essentially the same as Ultima IV, but the consequences are less noticeable, since no matter what virtues you choose, you end up in the "Avatar" class (which is an adaptation of only three classes: bard, fighter, and mage) and you start the game in the same location. While basing characters on virtue is an interesting concept, the rest of the character development system is a bit of a let down. You can progress through eight levels, but you really have to grind to get past six. You only have three ability scores, and a few limited means to raise them. Tying spell levels to character levels does make development a bit more necessary, and the "karma" system is unique for the era. Overall, though, I would have liked to see more options here. Score: 4.

The paltry selection of character attributes.

3. NPC Interaction. The Ultima series continues to blow its rivals out of the water with the number of NPCs and the depth of interaction with them. The dialogue system is almost unique to the series, and talking with NPCs is absolutely essential for both advancing the plot and proving your virtue. The game goes beyond Ultima IV in offering more than just dialogue options during NPC interaction--you follow around suspicious characters, avoid guards, free prisoners from jail, among other things. Certain NPCs join you--Origin was the first for this in IV, I think, and in this game they have another first in that there are more NPCs who will join than you can accomodate, allowing you to choose based on value to the party. Finally, the daily activity cycle kept by the NPCs is a first in this game, and doesn't recur even in a lot of modern games. The only thing it lacks is true "dialogue options." Score: 8.

4. Encounters and foes. There are a handful of memorable encounters in the game, with Blackthorn, the daemon guarding Stonegate, and a few others in which you have some role-playing options. Your enemies in the game are well-described in the manual, and they all distinguished by their methods of attack: wisps possess you, daemons summon comrades, squids shoot poison, reapers try to put you to sleep, orcs just charge. I like that they flee when they get to "critical" levels, too. Each type of foe carries a different volume of treasure, and I got a real tingle when I found myself facing reapers or dragons (if I knew I could beat them!). Monsters respawn constantly in the world, leaving plenty of opportunities for grinding. But the most original thing about this game is the different types of dungeon rooms, each of which requires a different strategy to defeat and navigate. Score: 7.

5. Magic and combat. The Ultima series, while never perfect in either aspect, continues to get better. I covered both magic and combat extensively in related postings. The game added a lot of variety to combat, with multiple attacks, attacks that go astray, the ability to target anywhere on the screen, lots of items to use, and weapons that attack at varying ranges. There were a lot of tactics associated with different terrains and party formation. I still never found it really fun in the way that Pool of Radiance was, but I can't say that it bored me like Ultima IV did, and it was a lot more dangerous. The magic system, with its requirements to mix reagents and its syllable-based spells, is, as I covered, very original and yet almost wholly unnecessary. I wish there had been more mass effect spells at lower levels and buffing spells to increase characters' ability scores. Score: 6.

Another member of the Oppression falls.

6. Equipment. A huge leap over IV. Instead of just a few weapons and armor, you have a large variety of ranged and missile weapons, helms, armor, shields, boots, rings, amulets, potions, and scrolls. Described well by the merchants, they are ordered in your inventory according to power, so you never doubt which is the best. In addition to the standard combat items, gems, keys, and torches are important for exploration, and there are a host of special items--grapple, sextant, spyglass, pocketwatch, amulet, crown, and scepter--each of which has a special purpose. I also liked that you could find equipment on slain foes; it wasn't just a matter of purchasing it. When every other combat seems to provide something new to don, wield, or use, I have a lot of fun with the game. My only quibble is that every character could wield every weapon and armor; I think some class restrictions would have made it more interesting. Score: 7.

Regrettably, I went right to magic axes.

7. Economy. For about 8/10 of the game, the economy is perfect. You almost always have an economic goal: buy a skiff, buy a frigate, outfit the party with magic axes, buy magic shields, stock up on reagents, max out on gems, and so on. The game also offers other ways to spend money by donating at shrines (if you need the karma), paying for information from some NPCs, donating to beggars, and purchasing healing. The only downside is that towards the end of the game, you have far too much money, but this does tend to happen very late. All in all, one of the best systems of the era. Score: 8.

8. Quests. Like IV before it, Ultima V has a very compelling main quest that, again, does not involve the traditional "slay the wizard" trope. Instead, you have to assemble some items and proceed through various challenges to rescue Lord British from the Underworld. It isn't quite as groundbreaking as the Quest of the Avatar, but it's up there. There are some quasi-side-quests, such as joining the Oppression and finding the hidden reagents, but these barely qualify. Score: 7.

9. Graphics, sound, and inputs. I loved the graphics in this game: the way the dungeon walls had their own textures, the furnishings and decorations in the buildings, the animated icons for the enemies. There were cute little touches, like the way you were reflected in mirrors and could "sit down" on chairs and harpsichord benches. I'm not claiming the graphics stand up to modern games, but all they have to be is "good enough" to get the maximum score, and these are definitely good enough. On the sound...well, Origin is trying. They were just a bit above painful, and it was cute how they made the clocks chime and the waterfalls ripple and the harpsichords actually play--even if the sound quality, on DOS machines of the era, is a bit poor (and, yes, I know it was probably better on other platforms; I have to rate what I played). The controls are near-perfect: Mastery is almost instantaneous, with each letter standing for a sensible action, and inventories simply controlled by the arrows. The best controls are the ones you never have to think about, and Ultima V exemplifies that. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. V continues IV's tradition of nonlinearity. Yes, you have to achieve certain things to win the game, but you can achieve them in almost any order, and the sense of openness is very satisfying--witness the way I decided to follow Lord British into the Underworld when my characters were still low levels. The difficulty and pacing are both almost pitch-perfect. I thought it was a little too easy in the final dungeon, but beyond that, it was both challenging (as the number of full-party deaths I experienced can attest) and continually enjoyable. I wouldn't have minded a couple more dungeons, even. It is, alas, not very replayable, unless you want to try different challenges, like completing the game with a single PC. Score: 8.

I confess that my final rating of 69 is a bit of a surprise. This makes Ultima V the highest-rated game in my blog so far, beating Pool of Radiance by 4 points and its predecessor by 14 points. Truth be told, I think I enjoyed Pool of Radiance slightly more, but the difference isn't notable enough to revise the GIMLET, and I might have mentally ranked Ultima V higher if I didn't have to take such a long time-out in August. I might also have mentally ranked it higher if it had a better ending--I almost want to subtract points for that. Why do I keep helping Lord British if he's just going to boot me out of Britannia the moment he's done with me?

I have seen Ultima V described as the best CRPG of all time. I think you could make a strong argument that it is, at least, the best CRPG of the 1980s. I still like the plot of IV better, but the gameplay experience is far better in V. This makes it all the more surprising that Scorpia gave the game such a lukewarm review in the May 1988 issue of Computer Gaming World [large file]. While noting the graphics and object-interaction innovations, she bemoans the fewer characters found in V--I didn't notice this and don't actually believe it--and the lack of new monster types, which I also disagree with. She calls the combat system "irritating" and a "long drawn-out affair," and she spends a long time complaining about trivial omissions from the manual. Nonetheless, her "bottom line" is that the game is "not to be missed!" so I guess there's that.

Moving on, I think I'm going to take a quick "special topics" diversion on a little parody called Ultima IV Part 2 before checking out Visions of the Aftermath.