Thursday, March 29, 2012


To probably no one's surprise, Frenchmen Street has proved more alluring than Sentinel Worlds, so I haven't gotten any playing done this week. But I did want to respond, while the idea was fresh in my mind, to an e-mail I got from someone whose anonymity I'll preserve unless he wants to post a comment to this entry.

The writer of this e-mail was so angry at my coverage of The Bard's Tale II and The Bard's Tale III that I wonder if he married one of the developers. 

"You excoriated two excellent games," he begins, "and for no other reason than your own ignorance." He goes on to note that my professed reason for abandoning II was that I didn't realize I had to hit "save" to save my progress, rather than just returning to the Adventurer's Guild, as in the first game. "The only reason you stopped playing was that you didn't want to do the first two dungeons over again."

But his real venom is for III. I repeatedly blogged about having to wait forever for spell points to recharge, and indeed cited it as the primary reason for leaving the game. What I failed to note, however, "is that EVERY dungeon has magic squares that recharge your spell points. You could have just stood in the dungeon for a few minutes, and you would have been back at full strength."

"Thousands of people [ed: Really? Awesome!]," he concludes, "are going to read your blog and conclude that these games have no merit, all because you couldn't be bothered to RTFM."

Challenge accepted! I thought, and immediately opened up the manual for The Bard's Tale III, fully prepared to point out haughtily that there's nothing about spell-recharging squares in it. Except that there is. Bollocks. And having to hit "save" in II? That's in the manual, too. So as much as the e-mail seemed a little strong in its reaction to my write-ups of 30-year-old video games, the author is 100% correct, and I have no leg to stand on. I still didn't like the games, but might I have suffered them long enough to find their better points if I'd been armed with more facts? Probably.

The Bard's Tale sequels are not the only games to have suffered from my overlooking a game play element. Sometimes the effects are only somewhat annoying, as when I didn't realize I could adjust the color in Might & Magic or the horrible game font in Demon's Winter. Other times, they've caused me to prematurely leave the game, as when I thought sleep led inevitably to permanent death in Swords of Glass. There have been times that you've saved me from my ignorance: I might have lambasted Dungeon Master for not offering a "pause" option if commenter Menetekel hadn't set me straight.

I wish I'd had commenters the first time I played Baldur's Gate II and didn't realize that one of the keys (ALT maybe?) highlighted containers that you could open and search. I was hovering my mouse over every likely container on the screen, and I often missed unconventional ones like refuse piles and tree hollows. I believe I didn't discover the "FIX" command until halfway through Curse of the Azure Bonds. And I was several hours into Skyrim before I realized what "favoriting" an item did.

So to the anonymous ranter, I apologize. The Bard's Tales II and III might suck, but clearly not as bad as I originally reviewed them. I shall resolve to read manuals more thoroughly from now on. 

While you're waiting for me to get sick of vodka gimlets and jazz, what are your stories about major gameplay elements you missed until late in the game?

Monday, March 26, 2012

I Dream of Muffulettas at Noon...

Just a quick note: The CRPG Addict is in New Orleans this week, with no particular evening plans, giving all of my NOLA readers (I know I have at least one) a chance to fulfill your ethical obligation to buy me a gimlet. E-mail me at if you want to hook up somewhere in the area of the Vieux Carre.

There's a small window tomorrow between the time I wake up (c. 14:00) and the time I head out to the city (c. 17:00) that I might get out a Sentinel Worlds posting.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

BattleTech: Final Rating

BattleTech somehow makes owning a giant, missile-wielding robot uncool.

BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception
United States
Westwood (Developer); Infocom (publisher)
Released 1988 for Amiga, Apple II, Atari ST, and DOS; 1989 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 11 March 2012
Date Ended: 19 March 2012
Total Hours: 8
Final Rating: 37
Difficulty: Easy
Final Score: 37
Ranking at Time of Posting: 52/71 (73%)
Raking at Game #454: 361/454 (80%)

Look, even though I came into BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception with a little bias, I was ready to give a game about giant anthropomorphic tanks a chance. I even overlooked the misplaced apostrophe in the game's title (hint: there are multiple Crescent Hawks). But the game managed to undermine its entire purpose. You could get through the entire game without fighting a single combat, and the last third of it doesn't even give you a chance to engage in combat. I was fooled by a promising beginning and utterly taken aback by a sudden, pointless ending.

I've never tried a speedrun before, so I gave it a shot tonight, and the results are in the YouTube clip below. In about 37 minutes, I made it from the beginning of the game to the Star League Cache.

After reaching the Star League Cache, I declined to go through that ridiculous keycard/door puzzle again, but I'm guessing it would have taken me, at most, another 40 minutes. So this is a game that could easily be won in 1:15. In order to win the game, all you need is: a) to view your dad's hologram; b) to get a pilot, medic, and tech with advanced enough skills to answer Dr. Tellham's questions; c) go to Dr. Tellham's house and then the cache. Technically, I don't know if the NPCs need to have "excellent" skills, but I got them there by simply investing all of the cash I made in school and withdrawing it to pay for their training. If you'll watch the video, you'll also note that I had to repeat one training mission in school, that I backtracked quite a bit, and that I forgot I could change the movement rate until late in the game. This was only my second time playing it. I bet if I tried again, I could get from the beginning to the StarLeague cache in 25 minutes.

You'll also note that I evaded every single combat except one. I probably could eventually have gotten out of that one, too, but it failed several times so I figured I'd better fight before I got killed. In the 37 minutes, I saved a couple of times but I never died once.

Some readers might be puzzled by Matt Barton's review of the game in Dungeons & Desktops. He says, "Jason's only hope is to unite with the mysterious Crescent Hawks and organize a guerrilla army to retake the Pacifica." Actually, no, you don't get to retake the colony. That would have been a good game. He also says, "The game also features an enormous gameworld, which even has Jason traveling to other planets." Ha! I can only assume he was fooled by the planetary map that came with the game--which is necessary to solve the last puzzle--into thinking you could actually go to those places. But if Barton was fooled, it's not his fault. I mean, I didn't expect him to play every game to conclusion for his book. The game actually presents itself as something worth playing.

Here's the GIMLET:

1. Game World. As with Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, I have to judge this category partly on the overall franchise and partly on what's presented in this game. I find them both rather silly, but at least they exist and you can get involved in them if you feel like it. The game is only a small piece of the universe, of course, but as you start out, you have a pretty good sense of your overall place in the grand scheme of things. The world (island) itself is fairly bland, with a bunch of nondescript towns that basically have the same buildings. Your actions don't do much to affect the world, but otherwise this one category isn't bad. Score: 5.

I was about to call this the one nod to my actions in the game, but I realized that the "Mech Stolen" isn't the one I stole from the jail but someone else's theft. Maybe this was supposed to give me an idea to do the same thing, but I didn't need another mech.
2. Character Creation and Development. Unsatisfying on several levels. First, you don't get to "create" your character; you're just told who he is. The characteristics of body, dexterity, and charisma are immutable throughout (I'm not even sure what charisma does). The various skills (piloting, gunnery, technical, medical, and the various weapons) could have been cool, but bafflingly, with the exception of technical and medical (which you can raise one level each through training), you can only improve these skills while you're in the academy. Once the Kuritans invade, you're locked with whatever you have. That means that the game actually rewards dithering around the school and failing missions so you can purchase training in small arms and so you can keep piloting the mechs in failed missions over and over. So it's hard to really see any of this as "development." Your other NPCs can't develop at all; you take them as you find them. Score: 2.

Russ is essentially good for absolutely nothing. He can pilot a mech but he can't shoot.

3. NPC Interaction. Again, going around and finding the members of the Crescent Hawks, and adding them to your party, could have been interesting, but it was bungled. Much like Ultima IV, they cease to have individual personalities once they join you. There is no dialogue with them (or any other NPC). There are some bizarre text "cut-scenes" with other NPCs that ultimately don't make much sense. Having one of the Hawks turn out to be a traitor is one nice twist, as is the way your fellow cadets make fun of you if you bollix the training missions. But ultimately most of those little icons wandering around have nothing useful for you. Score: 3.

The townsfolk scurry when the mechs come to town.

4. Encounters & Foes. There are no encounters in the game that force you to make any kind of role-playing choices (or any choices at all). Your foes are faceless humans and mechs that are thrown at you with alarming frequency, but from whom it is very easy to flee. There's plenty of re-spawning, if you want to grind, but there's no reason to do so--as we just saw, it's possible to win the game without any kind of combat. Worst of all, there is only one scripted encounter (when the enemy attacks the training academy), and you're left at the end without the satisfaction of dishing any sort of revenge. I give it points for original foes (there aren't armored robots in many other CRPGs) and the randomness to the encounters. Score: 3.

Isn't that just like a Pacifican? Brings a longbow to a mech fight.

5. Magic and Combat. No magic, of course, but it's a sci-fi game so it doesn't lose any points there. The combat system in BattleTech is fairly original and could have been a strong point to the game. The tactical combat grid recalls the best SSI games (Pool of Radiance, Demon's Winter) in its complexity, it has some amusing animations, and I like that you can give things over to computer control if you get bored. Balancing logistics like terrain and weapons and overheating could have been fun and rewarding. But the game managed to mess it up by a) giving you too few choices in your mechs (there are only three types) and the weapons you can outfit them with; and b) making combat too easy to avoid. Still, I rate this reasonably high for what could have been. Score: 5.

6. Equipment. You get a weapon and a suit of armor, and each character can carry only one at a time. There are entire classes of weapons (melee and pistol) that are pointless to own because anti-mech weapons work fine against ground troops and never run out of ammunition. Weapons and armor have limited utility anyway, because you'd have to screw up pretty badly to end up fighting on foot (at least, after you reach Starport the first time). There are a couple of other bits of equipment to buy, including advanced medical kits, but they're nothing to sing about. Mechs come soldered with specific weapons already in place, and you have to keep repairing them and replenishing the ammo. You can "upgrade" them for a hefty fee, but you'd have to do far more grinding than it would be worth to make that kind of money. I suppose your mileage may vary on this one, depending on whether you think it's worthwhile to micromanage your mech fleet when combat isn't even necessary. Score: 4.

I never made enough money to indulge in this, but it would have been pointless.

7. Economy. The stock market is an interesting and original element. It allows you to have some fun with your finances without breaking the game. Two of the stocks seem to grow very slowly, and the third seems to have a 50/50 chance of gaining or losing 50% of its value every round. Because mechs cost a lot of money to repair and replenish with ammo, and because the upgrades are so much money, cash never really loses its value. I have to give a high score on this one: 8.

This game offers the ultimate day-trading experience.

8. Quests. The game has a main quest, but it might be the least inspiring main quest of any game I've ever played. Your world has just been invaded by a faceless horde, and the main quest revolves around finding a cache of mech parts. Wow. Call the screenwriters. There isn't even a "villain," really--just a villainous faction. Given that there's only one way to win, and no side quests, I have to give this one a low score of 2.

Victory smells like motor oil.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. As you can see, the graphics are good, and the little battle animations are fun. (Note how I managed to avoid saying anything, until now, about the obviously anime-inspired portraits. I'm working on my issues there.) The sound isn't painful--unlike with many games of the era, I didn't turn it off--but also nothing to praise. The controls and inputs are intuitive and easy to grasp, with the possible exception of combat movement, which seemed needlessly clunky. The automap and the ability to adjust the movement rate were nice features. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. I almost wish I could give a negative score on this one. The game is completely linear, non-replayable, too easy, too short, and it ends with the worst puzzle inclusion I've ever seen in a CRPG: a completely rote, bang-your-head-against-the-wall slog through a twisty maze, involving no intelligence and no tactics. I just finished giving The Bard's Tale III a score of 1 in this category, and I can't do any better for BattleTech.

Imagine doing this roughly 300 times.

This game could have been redeemed easily. If the developers had ditched the puzzle maze at the end in favor of a series of increasingly difficult, unavoidable combats (perhaps culminating in Jason finding his father's old super-mech and being able to use it in the final battle), for which you really needed to get a good army of upgraded mechs (requiring some grinding and financial wizardry), it would have been twice as good. Add an actual villain (who you'd defeat at the end), reduce the frequency of the encounters but make them less avoidable, and you'd have a legitimately good game. As it is, I give it a final rating of 37. The scores add up to 39, but I'm using my "bonus" category to take away two points for having such a dumb ending and for essentially betraying its name through some staggeringly awful gameplay decisions. It started out with such promise, too.

Computer Gaming World reviewed BattleTech in January 1989 (Page 36) in a rare CRPG review not written by Scorpia, but by Vince DeNardo. He praises the combat but doesn't seem to acknowledge that none of it is really necessary. He quotes Infocom as saying that the game was designed for younger players and at "beginning to low intermediate" levels. His final conclusion is similar to mine: good framework, questionable execution.

More laughable is a review that appeared in the October 1989 Compute! in which the author concludes, "As you'll discover, when you complete your Mech Warrior training and begin venturing away from the training center, the world of BattleTech is huge and it can take weeks, perhaps even months, to explore all of it." Between this author and Barton, I'm wondering if I really played the same game.

My next trip will take me back to Sentinel Worlds, a game that I didn't give quite enough of a chance last summer. We're getting close to the end of 1988. I'll explain my game order for 1989 in a later posting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

BattleTech: Won.

This game, on the other hand, achieved far less than I had a right to hope for.
BattleTech started off promising, but boy did it turn stupid real fast. When it ended, it was a complete surprise. I thought the game was just beginning, and at most, I was ending the second chapter, not the entire game. I won it in about eight hours. It's a good thing it ended when it did, though, because by that time it had pissed me off so much that I was thinking about quitting.

Let me try to summarize what happened. After fleeing the ruins of the training citadel to the Starport, I explored for a little while, bought some clothes to replace my Lyran Commonwealth uniform, repaired my armor, got healed in a hospital, fought a couple of battles in the arena, and attended a medical seminar to boost my doctoring skills. I then attended this "inauguration ceremony" to welcome the new Kuritan overlords to the planet. At the ceremony, I was roughly accosted by Rex Pearce, one of my father's associates who told me he was a member of the Crescent Hawks, a mercenary band run by Archon Katrina to which my father belonged. (I thought this game was supposed to be about the Crescent Hawks' inception!)
One by one, the Crescent Hawks joined me.
Rex told me that my father had found a stockpile of a bunch of mech parts and Katrina wanted me to help find the cache. This depended on a password that my father had left me on a holodisk plus a retinal scan of Rex, who joined my party. He suggested we find the other members of the Crescent Hawks, who must have scattered when the Kuritans attacked.

The next phase of the game consisted of my wandering around to the different cities on the island and picking up the other members of the Hawks. Rex came with his own mech. I salvaged another one after winning a combat, and picked up a third when I rescued a Hawks member from jail. During the rest of the game, two of the original three mechs were destroyed, but I was able to replace them by salvaging new ones and paying beaucoup bucks to have them repaired at the Mech-It Lube.
I never found out what this was about. Despite having a "damaged engine," the mech still ran fine.
I ultimately ended up with five party members, including a technician (Edward) and a doctor (Zeke) who couldn't pilot mechs but were instrumental in their roles. As we roamed the land and fought, I adopted the general expedient of attacking when I outnumbered the enemy and retreating when I didn't. Although I won most of the combats handily, it generally cost more to repair and re-arm my mechs than I made from the kills.

This is after firing about $600 in rockets.
Thankfully, my investments continued to perform well and netted me most of the cash that I needed.

One of the guys that tried to join my party, "Rick," turned out to be a spy. The game told me I was suspicious of him immediately, and he tried to betray me in the next combat.

Fortunately, I was able to kill him without any problem:
None of my skills increased from use--I guess they only do that during training--but I was able to pay to get various members skilled in medicine and repair.

Anyway, a holodisc reader cost something like $7,000, which I never had. I happened to return to the barracks at the training academy, where I found one and used it to read the holodisk. In it, my father told me about the cache of parts but the disc was damaged. Rex suggested we take it to a Dr. Edward Tellham, one of my father's associates, to get it fixed.

Interspersed with this were weird little episodes in the various towns. In one, I broke into the mayor's house to try to use his holodisc reader and ended up with some slapstick nonsense when he came home unexpectedly and I had to try to hide and distract him to escape. This wasn't anything I played; it was just text the game gave me. In another town, I went to a movie theater and watched a ridiculous film (shown in animated cut scenes) about MechWarriors. Neither was important to the game's plot.
None of this is making me feel that my previous disdain for the BattleTech franchise was wrong.
At length, through my explorations, I found Dr. Tellham's house and went through this weird extended episode in which he tried to intimidate my party and Jason turned all emo on him. This followed a series of questions about medicine, technology, and mech piloting that my various characters were able to answer. I'm just going to type this part out so you can see how goofy and verbose the game got here, plus how bad the writing is:

You bravely hold your ground as the face comes so close that you could use the pupil of its eye as a full-height mirror. The face stares at you for a while and then hisses out its question: "Jason Youngblood. Tell me where your father is!"

You say you don't know. The face repeats the question.

"I don't know!"

It demands an answer.

"He's dead!"

The face grows more angry.

"He's dead, he's dead." The emotion is taking you over. The face bellows "TELL ME!"

"Tell you? I'll show you!" With that declaration, you unholster a machine gun and fire round after round at the horrible face. A look of genuine surprise shows on the face and it vanishes. You continue firing, tired of these games, tired from exhaustion, and fueled by frustration. As soon as your ammo clip runs out, a side door pops open, and the face reappears. This time, it's human-sized and attached to the rest of the body.

Still running on adrenaline, you heft the machine gun and demand an explanation from him regarding the questions about your father. Dr. Tellham explains that Jeremiah still owes him some C-bills and some Xantarian ribeye steaks for the lock he created, and he just wanted to collect. You then demand the meaning of this gauntlet you were forced to run. He explains that it is meant to scare off peddlers and salesmen. The questions will screen out anybody who is too unintelligent to waste time talking to. He then expresses sorrow over your father's death, because Jeremiah was a good man.

This brings you back to the real reason you are here. You show him the holodisk and ask if he can repair it for you. He says that it would be the least he can do, after what he put you through. He rubs some complex goo on the disk, then runs it through some sort of buffing machine. When that is done, he hands it back to you. You examine the surface of the disk and are impressed with the excellence of the repair. There is no evidence it was ever damaged. Then you ask if there is a private room you could retire to, so that you may view the rest of the message. He leads you to a small room with a viewer on it. You watch the rest of the message and learn the password. There is also quite a bit of mushy stuff, and it takes you several minutes to regain your composure before you can return to the others.

You offer to pay off your father's debt, but the eccentric old inventor waves it away, and instead asks what he can do for you. You ask for directions to the nearest Star League Cache, and are shocked when he tells you that it is hidden in a cave just southeast of here. You thank him, and leave his hut.

That was as painful to read as it was long. Anyway, I found the entrance on an island and entered.
At this point, the game turned into the most ridiculous B.S. I've ever experienced in a CRPG. The cave was a maddeningly long and pointless affair in which I had to open a series of 10 doors. Each door required a combination of three "imprints" on a keycard. Machines that made these imprints were found at various places in the maze. When you walked up to a door, it didn't tell you what codes you needed, only whether your key card had the wrong codes. If none of this makes any sense, the point is I had to wander around the maze for about an hour, trying different combinations of imprints, until I finally got the doors open. There was no skill to it, only rote repetition. And there were no encounters or anything in the caves. By the time I was done, I was steamed.
You had to try this multiple times per door, and it's not like the terminals were close to each other. This may be the dumbest game puzzle I've ever seen.
At last I found the cache of parts, at which point I had to send a message to Katrina to tell her. This required solving a puzzle in a map room by which I bumped into planets and changed them into squares. It wasn't so much a puzzle as a copy-protection exercise; the chosen planets had to match indicated ones on a map that came with the game.
 When I saw this map in the game materials, I allowed myself the fantasy that I would actually be traveling to other planets.
Once I had the code entered, I was able to fire up the "Hyper-Pulse Generator" and call Katrina. I fully expected her to assign me some new quest, but instead this was the end of the game! She offered me a commission in the Lyran Commonwealth, but I declined in favor of pursuing my belief that my father was still alive, so she made me the new head of the Crescent Hawks instead. Joy.

What makes this particularly ridiculous is that I really didn't have to fight any battles! The game is called BattleTech, for god's sake, and it goes on about the different tactics and mechs and weapons, but when it came down to it, I only needed to know how to fight to get past the random encounters, and frankly I could have evaded or fled most of these. The last third of the game had no combats at all, and there was no final battle needed to win. All the encounters were random--nothing scripted, no major villain. I never even fully upgraded all my mechs. I really have no idea what this game was supposed to be about.

This is too bad, because the battles had some promise. Most of the time, I let the computer fight them, but every time things looked evenly matched, or worse, I manually controlled my mechs. Successful combat, I found, required concentrating fire on individual enemies, killing them one at a time. There were terrain considerations; hiding in trees made it more likely that enemies would miss, but increased the odds of the trees catching on fire and overheating my mechs. (Overheating is a big part of the game, and it depends on how fast you move and how many weapons you're firing.) I was just starting to get good at it when suddenly the game ended.

The video below shows some manual combat followed by a computer-run combat. In the latter one, I lose one of my mechs but am able to salvage a new one from the detritus of the battle. The first battle begins with me thinking the enemies are south of me instead of northeast, so I end up walking the wrong way for a few minutes.

And this video shows the end of the game, setting up for the sequel: BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge. It's not a CRPG, though, and after this game I wouldn't play it even if it was.

I'll save the GIMLET for next time, but it's not going to be pretty.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

BattleTech: Graduation Was Ruined

Jason looks appropriately outraged.

I promise you that my updates have not permanently regressed to a weekly thing. Unfortunately, my triumphant return to blogging was not accompanied by an equally triumphant cleansing of my task list, and the last couple weeks have been a bit overwhelming.

One of the many combat missions at the beginning of the game.

BattleTech has grown on me a bit, even though there's a host of things about it that I don't understand--and even though I seem to suck at it. It took me forever to get out of the training academy. I managed to screw up each mission at least twice, and a couple of them took me six or seven re-tries. But it wasn't so bad because I had time to mess around, make money, develop my skills, and figure out the game mechanics. A few notes:

  • I found that I could talk to my fellow students if I saw them walking to a building ahead of me. Then they'd be there when I looked around. Otherwise, it said, "nobody here seems interested in talking to you." They didn't really have much to say anyway.

  • I enjoyed the stock market investments a lot. I wish this was a feature of more games. I made so much money that it felt like cheating a bit; eventually, I was able to purchase all the training the game would let me buy, and whatever weapons I wanted.

I may never live up to my father's reputation as a MechWarrior, but I'll at least be richer than him.
  • I never did figure out the rules of when I got paid. As I wandered around, I'd see my money go up in $15 increments, but it seemed to be completely random. Sometimes, an hour would go by with no money. Other times, I'd go out to the kitchen to whip up some pasta, come back to my computer, and find myself with over $150.
  • The game has tiresome copy protection that has you naming mech parts before every training mission.

  • I'll save a combat tactics posting for when I understand it more, but it seems very tactical. The way you maneuver and use the terrain recalls Pool of Radiance even if the weapons and graphics are more reminiscent of Wasteland. You have the option to have little graphics show up for key combat events. I like the way Jason gets enraged and bangs on the console every time the mech overheats.

  • When you engage in combat, you have the option to fight yourself or have the computer fight for you. Either way, you have the option to see graphics or not, and different levels of text from "verbose" to "none." If you set control to the computer, say no to graphics, and no to text, you still have to wait as the computer does all the calculations behind the scenes and ultimately tells you the results.

Manual combat against another mech. I like to walk right up and kick them. That might explain my gunnery score problem.

  • From my repeated missions, my piloting skill reached "excellent" very quickly, but nothing I could do would get my gunnery skill off anything but "unskilled" until the final mission, when I finally made it to "amateur."

  • I continue to enjoy the scripted dialogue in the game from shopkeepers and mechanics.

I won't think of not buying it after that.

As I said, most of the training missions left my mech destroyed and had my little icon limping sheepishly back to the training center. Once I finally beat the fifth scenario, a fellow cadet named Rick Atlas asked to see me in the lounge. While we were talking, a drunk tech spilled a drink on me and Atlas stopped me from giving him a good thrashing (which was probably a good thing, the way the game has been going; I likely would have just embarrassed myself). The little scene ended with Atlas asking if I'd ever been to Starport and giving me some kind of electronic device when I said no. I think this came in handy later.

But I have been to the Tosche Station to pick up power converters.

The training missions started pitting me against multiple mechs, and on the seventh mission, I got an ominous message that the training opponents were "like nothing you've ever faced before." It soon became clear that they weren't training; the academy had been invaded by the enemy. As I tried to battle the mechs, I got an increasingly alarming series of messages that the citadel and its army were destroyed and my father probably killed.

I'm basically a complete coward.

The enemy mechs destroyed mine, leaving me to flee on foot. Sure enough, the training academy was in ruins.

My money was in there!

I was soon slain by a group of 5 humans who laughed off my pathetic attacks with a sword.

This is the "death" message.

Reloading, I decided to use my funds to stock up on a variety of weapons and armor. Little did I realize that I was completely wasting money and every time I made a purchase, it just replaced my old weapon or armor with the new one. Without meaning to, I ended up wearing a flak suit and wielding a short-range missile launcher as my weapon. When I reloaded and went through the invasion again, my short-range missile launcher proved quite effective against the enemies on foot (I haven't tried to battle mechs on foot yet), which makes me wonder why anyone would bother with a sword or pistol or lesser weapons.

Oddly, it doesn't seem to run out of ammunition.

The game suggested that I flee to Starport. I had no idea where it was, so I staked out in a random direction, but soon I noticed that the overland map had an arrow on it pointing me the way; I assume this is a consequence of Atlas's electronic device.

I encountered legions of enemies along the way, and by the time I reached Starport, I had virtually no health left. As I close the game for the night, I've just discovered that Starport is no safe haven, and enemies roam the streets, still looking for blood.

Notice my "body" or health meter at its minimum.

I really do like the combat in this game, even if I suspect I'll be letting the computer fight a lot of it. What I don't understand is how I got to "excellent" so fast in so many skills. It doesn't seem there would be a lot more categories to go ("stupendous"?), and the game's just beginning.

While you were all waiting for this posting, you had the dorkiest discussion ever on the thread to the last posting, but it got a little out of hand. I confess that I fall on the side of mecha skeptics: I don't see how they'd ever be efficient or effective combat vehicles. But I'm not personally invested in the opinion. And since they're clearly important to this game, I hope there's some way I can acquire one in Starport.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Game 70: BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception (1988)

BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception
United States
West wood Associates (developer); Infocom (publisher)
Released 1988 for Atari ST and DOS; 1989 for Amiga, Commodore 64, and Apple II
Date Started: 11 March 2012

This morning, all I knew about the BattleTech franchise is that when I was in junior high, it was popular among kids that I hated. This is also true of professional wrestling, Doctor Who, and the novels of Frank Herbert. I've avoided all of these things for the last quarter century. Even downloading this game is a process of suppressing my knee-jerk loathing for Chris Lonergan and his band of troglodytes.

But I prevailed and learned something about the history of the universe from the Wikipedia page. The game takes place about 1,000 years in the future. Humanity has colonized the stars, but constant warfare has caused politics and society to regress into a state of feudalism, with hereditary lords and "Great Houses" ruling various star systems, clashing for control of the galaxy. For a while, the houses were united in something called the Star League, but when the First Lord was assassinated, order collapsed in a series of Succession Wars that have lasted more than 200 years.

Warfare is conducted by elite pilots of armored, weaponized robots called BattleMechs. The pilots are called MechWarriors. In the game, I play a young MechWarrior called "Jason Youngblood," scion of a line of famous MechWarriors who fight for something called the Lyran Commonwealth. And that's about as far as I'm willing to go before I determine whether the game is going to hold my interest or not.

The iconographic display is attractive enough, except I keep losing track of where Jason is.

The game starts off in the Pacifica Training School, a walled compound,where Jason is still learning to be a MechWarrior. Actually, I should say "just started learning," because I begin "unskilled" at everything and have only 50 gold pieces. Or "c-bills." Whatever. The game is iconographic, with Jason represented by a tiny little icon who moves around between buildings, some of which don't seem to be enter-able. So far, I've discovered:

  • The Citadel, where Jason trains and can learn a little about the backstory by talking to other MechWarriors and visiting the "Hall of Legends." The "security" chief of the compound is named Jeremiah Youngblood, apparently my father.

I suppose I have to learn what all of these terms mean.

  • The Barracks, where I can sleep.
  • The Lounge, where there's entertainment and other people, none of whom seem interested in talking to me. I get this message a lot, in fact. You'd think as the son of the security chief, I might command a little more respect.
  • The Mech-It Lube, where BattleMechs get repaired and, for 500 c-bills, I can take a course on repair. The game has some fun with the fact that I don't have a Mech yet.

I was just checking out the options. Jeez.

  • The Armor Shop, where I can buy or repair personal armor. ("The shopkeeper, trying not to offend you, carefully points out that you are not currently wearing any armor.")
  • The Weapons Shop, where I can buy personal weapons, such as bows, swords, guns, and anti-Mech weapons.

Isn't the "vibroblade" from Star Wars?

  • The ComStar Station, where I can use a computer to check out my financial record and make investments in different companies. This is definitely a first for a CRPG. Just for fun, I made a risky investment in a pharmaceutical company.

This doubtlessly means that the stock is about to tank.

The centerpiece of the school, surrounded by a series of pylons generating an electrical field, is the Training Center. The ostensible purpose of this stage of the game is to go on a series of training missions that teach you how to use BattleMechs. After a copy protection screen in which I had to identify various Mech parts...

It does this with every damned visit.

 ...I was able to engage in the first mission. The game asked me to choose between Mechs titled Locust, Wasp, or Chameleon, and I went with the Locust as the fastest. The first mission was nothing more onerous than guiding the Mech from the Training Center to the southeast corner of the fencing and back. I managed to fail the first two times anyway, by taking too long. The game then made me wander around for a while before I could take the mission again, but ultimately I succeeded. ("Considering that you chose to use a Locust," the trainer harrumphed. "The results are hardly surprising.")

When I went to bed that night, the game walked me through a vivid dream in which enemy agents infiltrated the compound and I single-handedly saved the Archon Katrina in true action hero form:


In my second mission, I had to go pick up a piece of rubble in the training field, but I managed to choose a Mech that doesn't have hands.

I am a disgrace to my family.

The third mission had me using weapons for the first time to shoot at an empty shell. I had the option to let the computer fight for me, but I didn't take it. Combat takes place on the same screen as regular navigation, but with different options for movement and engagement, not unlike Pool of Radiance or other SSI games. You can move by walking or running, jump (if you have jump jets), kick an enemy unit, scan a unit, fire weapons, and flee. You line up your actions and then "Begin Fight" to execute them.

Despite facing an unarmed opponent, I still managed to accidentally hit the "Flee" command, forcing me to sheepishly return to base. I won against the unarmed, unarmored opponent on my second attempt.

"It was scary-looking and....look, I never wanted this life! All right?!"

So here's the interesting thing: I've noticed that my money increases as time passes (though not consistently), and my skills increase during every training mission, whether I pass or not. I wonder what the downside is to waiting around indefinitely and failing repeatedly. In any event, I used the time and funds in between Mech lessons to enroll in some classes and boost my ratings in various weapons. My investment in Baker Pharmaceuticals did quite well and allowed me to take the $500 mechanic training. I haven't bought any weapons or armor yet.

As I close for the evening, I've completed four training missions. I'm not sure how many there are to go, but I do hope my poor performance so far isn't screwing up my character for the rest of the game.

The original BattleTech game.

The BattleTech franchise started as board games but soon boasted a series of more than 100 novels, this game and a non-CRPG sequel, BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge. There was also a tabletop RPG game called MechWarrior which spawned a series of action computer games. This appears to be the only CRPG that's part of the franchise. I can't say that I'm disappointed. Aside from the visceral reaction prompted by the game's title, I've just never been interested in machines. Never went through a truck or robot phase as a kid. Never built stuff with erector sets. Was bored by the Air and Space Museum. Never played with Transformers. I'm not sure why BattleTech feels like "kid's stuff" in a way that fantasy sword-and-sorcery games don't, but it does. I'll try to ignore the subject matter and see what the gameplay itself has to offer. So far, I'm enjoying the witty dialogue and the way that the game slowly eases you into its story and interface.