Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reboot: Wizardry V

I decided to go with a "good" party this time.

Wizardry V is fresher in my mind than either Sentinel Worlds or Star Command was when I "rebooted" them, but it's still been over three months, and I really couldn't remember what was going on in the game when I last left. I'll keep my maps, but I'm going to start over with a new party.

This new party, incidentally, is my permanent party. I'm done with this swapping-out characters nonsense. It takes too long. From now on, if any of my characters dies and the resurrection turns him to ash, I'm re-loading. I'm also re-loading if I suffer a full-party death. Even typing that, I cringe. Somewhere, I can hear Andrew Greenberg laughing at me. "You may win the game," he's saying, "But you won't have truly beaten me! Bwu-hah-hah-hah!" Screw you, Greenberg. 1980 called; they're looking for their graphics.

My party comprises three fighters, a thief, a priest, and a mage. I spent a lot of time rolling and re-rolling until everyone started with a bonus score of at least 20. That wasn't enough to make the first two characters a lord and a samurai, which is what I wanted, but their stats were just on the cusp of what they need for those two classes, and I planned to switch them after a few level-ups increased their stats.

Jack basically needs one more of everything to be a samurai.
If you don't remember the plot, it takes place beneath the Kingdom of Llylgamyn. A rogue sorceress named The Sorn has created an "unnatural, magical vortex" deep within the dungeon called Maelstrom, and she has imprisoned the Gatekeeper, a demi-god who is our only hope of stopping her. I have to make my way down to her level and find some way to free him.
Advice from a priest whose god is named "La-La."
Unlike the first few games, which were fairly straightforward dungeon crawls with the occasional inventory puzzle, Wizardry V relishes multi-level puzzles involving goofy characters. For instance, I had to buy a rubber duck from some giant called the "Mad Stomper" on Level 3 so I could return it to a character named the Duck of Sparks on Level 2 in exchange for a wand that I need...somewhere, I guess.
Sigh. Could you at least pretend you're an entry in a seminal CRPG series?
The puzzles chain together. In a long day of playing yesterday, I:

  • Visited a tavern on Level 2 and got a clue that I needed to search a room for a hacksaw; found the hacksaw.
  • Got a recipe for a "Spirit-Be-Gone" potion from the Duck of Sparks.
  • Used the hacksaw to cut the chains off a door leading to a lab.
  • Mixed the potion in the lab.
  • Used the potion to scare away a ghost guarding a chest.
  • Found a jeweled scepter in the chest.
  • Used the scepter to enter a temple on Level 3.
  • Fought and killed the temple's guardian, winning a blue candle as my prize.
  • Used the blue candle in front of a dead-end wall to find a secret door leading to a set of stairs.
  • Descended the stairs to find myself at a place called the "Jigsaw Bank & Trust," where I now have to manipulate some disks something to open the vault, maybe.

My current puzzle.
I don't yet have any clues about the right disk order, but I'm sure I'll find something in some unexplored part of the dungeon.

Unlike the linear progression through the levels of the first Wizardry, this focus on puzzles requires you to frequently backtrack, often finding new sections of previously-explored levels. As I indicated in my December postings on the game, the levels are quite large. Level 1 alone took up 30 x 39 coordinates, although the game doesn't use every space. At least, I don't think it does. Some of the secret doors have taken multiple searches, and I don't have time to search every blank wall multiple times.

I think I'm done with Level 1, but you never know when a new staircase or portal is going to make use of some of this filled-in space.

Blackadder and Jack Burton eventually got their lord and samurai class changes, although I didn't realize the game resets all your attributes to 8 when you change classes. That seems a little unfair. But the two prestige classes get spells (priest and mage, respectively), which makes it worth it.

Changing from a fighter to a lord.

I elected not to adventure with a bishop (a combined priest/mage) this time. The major advantage to this class, other than the spells, is the ability to identify unknown gear. Identifying items costs as much as their sale value, which gets into the tens of thousands of gold pieces for some magic items. Fortunately, reader Jonesy, who commented on my original Wizardry postings a few months ago during his own replay, gave me an idea: create the bishop, but have him just sit in the tavern. Swap him in when I need to identify something, and then boot him out when I'm done.

"Identifier" prepares to get to work on a load of unknown items.

This has worked out fairly well, but items have a chance of instilling fear in the bishop trying to identify them, a condition that prevents any further identification until cured. In some ways, his services have been more of a hassle than they're worth.

At this point, my characters are a couple levels below the last party I played in my December-February bout, but I've explored more of the map and solved more of the puzzles. I'll pick up from here with more detailed descriptions of the gameplay.

As I prepare to finish exploring Level 4, I have one mystery: On Levels 3 and 4, I encountered several pools of water that gave me the option to swim in them, and at multiple levels each.

In a comment in December, Delmoko tried to explain these pools to me, but I'm not getting anywhere with them. My characters keep drowning in the pools, which is a huge pain in the neck, because I have to haul them up to the temple for healing. Delmoko suggested that there were stats increases in some of the pools, but all I've managed to find are damage, poison, stat reductions, and encounters with monsters. Do these pools really serve any useful purpose? Can I just ignore them?

Finally, I think we might have a new entry in the "Most Annoying CRPG Enemies" list. Their name says all you need to know about them:

Nothing like watching a $6,000 platemail +1 disappear in one bite.

Despite my barely-disguised disdain for the silly NPCs and plot elements, I had a reasonably good time building up my characters and re-exploring the first four levels of the dungeon. Things go a lot faster when you're not continually rolling and building new characters, nor dealing with full-party deaths. I want to try to bang this out in a week. I have big plans for NetHack.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Star Command: Final Rating

Star Command has no more use for a group of seasoned, decorated veterans.

Star Command
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (1988)
Winston Douglas Wood, Eric Liebenauer
Date Started: 10 July 2011
Date Ended: 25 May 2012
Total Hours: 12
Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 43
Ranking at Time of Posting:  48/61 (79%)
Ranking at Game #454: 399/454 (88%)

I felt that Star Command was a fairly good game, especially in the opening stages. Although the plot veered into nonsense towards the end, it held together better than Sentinel Worlds. The game offered lousier graphics than Worlds but a more challenging, tactical gameplay. It led me on a roller-coaster ride of difficulty, alternating easy milk-run missions with multi-stage ordeals involving dungeon exploration (with adventure game-style puzzles) and massive ship combats.

It appears largely overlooked in the history of CRPGs. After I completed the game, I could only find one walkthrough. Barton doesn't cover it in Dungeons & Desktops. The Wikipedia entry is barely a stub. On the latter, the entry indicates that it was based on a board game by Avalon Hill, but I don't know about that; I can't find anything in the copyright or credits in the game manual, and the one contemporary review I was able to find (Computer Gaming World seems to have ignored it) doesn't mention anything about it. If anyone has information about that board game, I'd be interested in hearing what it's like.

Nothing about Avalon Hill, though I am vaguely interested in which portions are copyrighted by Microsoft.
On to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. The game takes place in a densely-populated sector of the galaxy, in which humanity huddles in a "triangle" anchored by three starports. The world is fairly open but not terribly memorable as science fiction RPGs go. The races you encounter (insects, lizards, robots) are somewhat derivative of Starflight, and the political situation calls to mind both Sentinel Worlds and Star Trek. The game responded minimally to my actions. For instance, although pirate ships disappeared once I defeated Blackbeard (and frankly, this might have just been because I stopped visiting their sector), the insects didn't stop attacking after I destroyed their queen. The overall setup was easy to understand, if fairly cliched by this point in the genre. Score: 4.

The galaxy is large and full of planets. If only there had been more on them.
2. Character Creation and Development. The game begins with an original character creation process. After defining your character's class (pilot, soldier, marine,  or esper), you send him through the academy for eight years, choosing what skills you want to develop during this time. Certain skills are restricted to certain classes, and you have to choose your areas of focus carefully. You can train in skills or send your characters to "officer school" to increase ranks (and therefore pay) or "survival school" to increase attributes. There's a lot of choice in this process--and fairly original choice at that--which drew me into the game immediately.

The composition of the party is also an important choice. Only pilots and espers can increase in astro-gunnery, but the pilot and copilot don't man gun positions. That means that if you want to have a pilot firing a gun, you have to take on more than two pilots--which might help you in space combat but will hurt you significantly in ground combat. Soldiers, espers, and marines all have their strengths and weaknesses, and I'm not sure I had a very good balance in my party.

Training my first marine. Note that I've invested heavily in scouting and heavy arms, excluding everything else.
Increasing levels is similarly rewarding. I didn't like that there was no experience, and you could only train after completing missions (or paying lots of money--see below), but I liked the process of training, in which you can choose an attribute and then a skill to increase. I learned that it was better to focus on a couple of skills rather than spread your points out (e.g., heavy weapons and recon for a marine, not heavy weapons, light weapons, recon, and hand weapons), and only towards the end did my characters begin to max out their categories. Overall, character development was one of the best parts of the game, although the types of characters you choose don't affect the encounters. Score: 6.

3. NPC Interaction. There were very few NPCs in the game: a hermit, a couple of guys in a bar, a captured lizard, and a few computers. The game's system for talking with them, by entering keywords, recalls Ultima IV and other Origin games, and was kind of fun. I just wish the NPCs had more to say, and that the most important--the space hermit--wasn't so manifestly goofy. It would have been a little better if there were more NPCs to engage and learn about the various races; in a science fiction CRPG, only Starflight has done that well so far. Score: 4.
4. Encounters and Foes. The special encounters in the game brought out the worst tropes of adventure games, requiring illogical combinations of commands to produce unlikely outcomes. Fortunately, the game has limited inputs, so barring a couple cases where I blew something up and needed to reload, I got through them by just trying every command until something worked. Not many CRPGs of the era try to blend in some adventure game elements, so I appreciate the innovation, but it just didn't work well in execution.

I am unable to convince three insect freighters that I am their god.
Perhaps even more frustrating was the shallowness of the encounters with various enemies in the game. Upon encountering ships or land-based forces, you almost always find yourself locked in combat; strategies like plead, demand, and bribe worked so rarely that they might as well have not been there. I don't think I ever got "impersonate a deity" to work,  nor did I ever talk myself out of combat with a superior foe. Late in the game, when enemy ships outmaneuver and outnumber yours, each encounter produced only one viable option: fleeing. Even more nonsensical was the way that civilian freighters and luxury ships kept engaging me in combat, to their own inevitable destruction.

The foes themselves were unoriginal and tended to attack the same way in combat regardless of type. I do have to give my usual point for respawning and allowing grinding, though I don't appreciate how all the foes in the game increased with my level. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. The tactical nature of both ship and ground combat were flawed, but still appreciated after the rote combat of Sentinel Worlds and so many other games of the era. There were considerations of weight, movement, weapon type, damage, terrain, type of attack (including the "aiming" rounds), ammunition, reloading, and several other factors that I'm probably forgetting. I never really mastered it all. Ship combat became far too difficult towards the end, and it was tough to even grind at that point, because every encounter tended to produce five deadly enemy ships.

On the other hand, I found the "magic" system to be fairly stupid. I never thought I got anything out of my esper, whose best magic attack only affected one enemy per round, that made him invaluable. If I had to play again, I'd forget about his psychic abilities and invest all his skills in astro-gunnery, or perhaps even replace him with a pilot for that purpose. Score: 5.

"Psychic scream" is about to fail again.
6. Equipment. There is a very wide variety of weapons, armor, accessories, and special items to buy, and a lot of statistics to balance as you make your choices. I didn't mind so much that combat tended to break these items, but I did mind that every combat tended to break them. I also think it would have been more fun if, as in most CRPGs, you could pick up your enemies' weapons and armor after combat (for resale, if not replacement). Overall, though, this was one of the better parts of the game. Score: 5.

7. Economy. At first, I thought I loved it. There was always something new to buy: ship upgrades, weapons, armor, accessories, and ammunition. And if I was comfortable with all that, I could buy a clone to protect against death or even pay $200,000 for training sessions in between missions!

If things get bad enough, the game has the option to "declare bankruptcy." You lose your ship and all personal and ship's equipment, but you get $90,000 to start over (after a lecture from high command).
But in practice, I found the economy deeply flawed. There are only a few ways to make good cash: completing missions and getting paid, and finding espionage items (of which there are a limited number). Defeating enemy ships is often not a viable option, as repairs to and rearmament of my ship usually meant that I was making negative progress. The game had a trading system (I didn't really cover it) by which some planets would sell special items and others would buy them, but the profit margins were so small you'd have to make thousands of the transactions to make a difference. Paying for training remained tantalizingly out of range for the entire game; by the end, I couldn't even afford a decent ship. Someone with more grinding patience or better combat tactics may be able to do more with it. Score: 5.

8. Quests. There were 17 total missions, with enough varied content to make them interesting: destroy a ship, explore a base, rescue a princess, deliver supplies, and so on. They came rapidly enough and, as I previously discussed, the rewards were tangible. Regrettably, there are no side quests (including a few might have helped with the economy) nor any decisions to make during the main quests. However, a few of the main quest stages are randomly generated, allowing for some minimal replay value. Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. In the GIMLET, graphics don't have to be terribly good, just not "distractingly bad," but I have to say the graphics in this game were almost distractingly bad. Audio was okay, with different sounds for different weapon types and such, but often annoying--such as when scoring repeated hits against an enemy. The controls were great--very intuitive and responsive--although I wish ships and parties had the ability to move diagonally.  Score: 3.

 10. Gameplay. I guess what I like most about the game was its relative speed. I'm not saying that I always want to race from quest to quest in a CRPG, but when there's not much in between--not many flowers to stop and smell, as it were--I'd rather just get a pair of coordinates and zip on over to them. Not only was each mission pacing fairly good, but the overall game pacing pleased me, too. It didn't overstay its welcome.

At first, I was entranced with the open game world--the whole galaxy to explore at the outset (if you have enough fuel), but that was when I thought I might find interesting encounters on the planets.  An open game world doesn't mean much if there's nothing to find within it, and ultimately I don't think the game, in its non-linearity, really outperformed Sentinel Worlds, which only had three planets.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of the gameplay was its extremely variable difficulty. The first few missions were cakewalks. Then it got harder, but nothing that a little grinding wouldn't help. Then all of a sudden, towards the two-thirds mark, the ship battles became functionally impossible. But during this time, when I was hyperspacing away from every ship that engaged me, the missions themselves were fairly easy, and the last battle (as you can see from the last post's video) was disappointingly easy. Score: 4.

That gives us a final score of 44, which outperforms every game I've played since Wasteland. That feels right. It was an interesting game with innovative ideas and good moments, and it motivated me to play to the end, even if the overall package is a bit flawed. It didn't really stand out in any one category, but neither did it completely fail in any one category.

This was apparently the last game from Winston Douglas Wood and Eric Liebenauer, the team that designed the Phantasie series for SSI. As with other SSI offerings, the company's war game roots show in the game's devotion to tactical combat, which was uneven but innovative. I look forward to playing a lot more SSI in the coming months, as we enter the golden age of the "Gold Box" games.

Now, if I can just finish up Wizardry V, we'll be out of 1988 forever!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Star Command: Won!

Wow. Every headline in the "traingle!"

Star Command was fun for a while, but I feel that it fell apart in its last act. It was already getting silly at the time of the last posting, when I needed to consult a mysterious "space hermit" to find out information about the insect alien threat. For some reason, he lived in a huge maze and needed me to find four gems, also hidden in the maze, before he could tell me anything useful. All he told me were the aliens had a master plan for their attack against humanity, but the plans had been stolen.

The Bar was an interesting combination of "outdoor" and "indoor" mapping.

Somehow, my superiors at Star Command divined that I might find them at The Bar, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. The Bar presented an interesting "dungeon," with a quasi-outdoor map of ships surrounding the bar itself and a storage building. There were some light puzzles here. I had to gamble with a lizard until he got drunk and passed out, then steal his keys, then board his ship and recover the plans. I don't really know where the lizards came from. They started popping up towards the end of the last mission, but I never got a sense whether they were allied with the insects (apparently not, since one of them stole their plans) or what.

We tore that ship apart until we found those plans.

With the recovered plans, I learned that the insects were building a "radiation bomb" on one of their planets, and I was assigned the task of destroying the central computer and, thus, the bombs. This was the most frustrating dungeon in the game because the puzzles didn't make any sense. I had to solve them through brute force--by trying every possible command--until, for some reason I don't understand, a tuning fork helped me get hold of some sheet metal that I used  to protect myself from falling acid and reach the central computer. The computer required a password that was spelled out in the dungeon's walls (honestly, who would build a dungeon like that?)--a fact that I only uncovered because I happened to use my esper's "view" ability just to test it out. Anyway, in due course I ordered the computer to self-destruct and fled.

Tips on securing passwords:make them a minimum of eight characters, include a mix of upper and lower case, and don't build them into the sodding floor plans of your secret base.
About this time, I started to find that I couldn't win a single ship combat. The difficulty of ship encounters appears to be based on your characters' levels and not the distance from starport, so even battles right out of dock were killing me. I started encountering a lot more robot ships, which were nearly impossible to hit. My ship was already way overloaded and I couldn't spare the weight for more, or better, guns. This was particularly compounded because so many missions were now occurring in deep space, and I needed to defeat enemy ships to get enough fuel to return home.

This was one of many combats that did not end well.
Thus, I engaged in some grinding until I had enough money for a ranger frigate, which took  more than twice the weight and fuel of my dagger-class escort. I christened her the ISS Kellandros after my own encyclopedia of all things Star Command.

Unfortunately, I hadn't done quite enough grinding. With the money I had left over from buying the ship, I was only able to purchase one gun position in addition to the defensive hardware I felt I needed. This was offset by the fact that I now had enough fuel to hyperspace out of most combats. Thus, ironically, even though I bought the Kellandros to improve my chances against enemy ships, I don't think I won another ship combat afterwards.

My commanding officer is prone to hyperbole.
The last couple of missions had me return to the space hermit to get more information about the insects. He said he needed the "Gem of Death" from a lizard base. The whole hermit/gem thing was horribly explained. I infiltrated the base, got the gem, fought about a billion melee combats against the lizards, and returned. The hermit said that the insects are ruled by a queen, and that if I destroyed her frigate (he helpfully gave me the coordinates), the threat would end.

Yeah, that's what they said about al-Qaeda.
This turned out to be my last mission, and it was actually one of the easier missions in the game. I simply flew to the coordinates and scanned around until I found the alien frigate.

I don't know if my one gun position would have been enough to defeat her in ship combat, but I didn't wait to find out. I boarded the frigate and killed the queen and her minions. I lost one of my characters in combat.

Returning to starport without incident, I was awarded all kinds of cash, and each of my characters received "medals of honor" in a little fireworks ceremony. After that, the game offered the ability to keep playing, but there were no more missions.

After winning it once, I did it a second time and recorded it. You can watch it below, but I'd recommend doing it with the sound off. It was the middle of the night, I was tired, and I sound like I must be drunk or something.

My biggest question after winning is: what the hell was with the robots?! At the beginning of the game, I was told that humanity faced three threats: pirates, insect aliens, and robots. I figured I'd be taking them on in turn, but the robots were just there; they didn't really have a story of their own. Who made them? Why were they helping the insects? Maybe I missed something in  one of the computer banks.

Just a few notes before I sign off:

  • I had promised a detailed analysis of melee combat in this posting, but now that I've won, I've kind of lost interest. You can see the basics in my two YouTube videos on Star Command.
  • The most frustrating part of the game, aside from the extremely-difficult-to-hit robot shops, was the continual destruction of my equipment in every melee combat. Repair kits took the edge of this annoyance, but it was rare that I exited a dungeon with every character holding a working gun.

Gelt and Exmin are fighting with their hands because they had their RPGs destroyed. Meanwhile, everyone else is running out of ammunition.

  • The end of the game was melee-heavy. I must have fought 30 battles in The Bar, against almost every enemy in the game, and another 30 in the lizard dungeon.  This required multiple trips back to starport to restock.

There were a host of events like this, against pirates, insects, and lizards, upon both entering and exiting The Bar.

  • The lizard dungeon had one of those annoying scripted events where you wander into a room, get gassed, and wake up in a prison cell without your equipment. The resolution (shock the jailer with some exposed wires) only took a few rounds and made the entire episode pointless. 

One of the most tiresome RPG tropes.

  • As Kellandros has pointed out a couple of times, the game tends to remember dungeon maps and special encounters even when you haven't saved. For instance, after successfully obtaining the Gem of Death from the lizard base the first time, I died in an attack from some robot ships on my way back. When I reloaded and returned to the dungeon, I found that all of the doors were open and all of the puzzles were solved, even though I had never saved my progress after the first visit.

In total, I felt the game was promising and had some good elements, but its difficulty was extremely variable and the story got absurd towards the end. Let's see how she fares in the GIMLET.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Star Command: Upgrading

Meet the new ISS Bolingbroke. I've already managed to overload her.

In a comment a couple of days ago, Giauz suggested that maybe I hadn't done such a great job summarizing the plot of Star Command, so even though Kellandros replied with a good summary, I thought I'd recap. My group of federation officers and noncoms is part of Star Command, the last defense of humanity, whose denizens are confined to a "triangle" drawn among three starports. The frontiers of the triangle (and I talked about the silliness of these two-dimensional terms in my first Star Command posting) are being assailed by three hostile groups: pirates, insect aliens, and robots.

I haven't heard anything about the pirates since I killed their leader, Bluebeard, on a previous mission, nor have I encountered any more of their ships, so I'm assuming I dealt with them. I started to encounter the insect aliens late in the pirate missions, and my latest batch of missions has dealt with them exclusively. Then, towards the end of that batch, I started to encounter robot ships, so I assume the game will progress to this more serious threat.

Shortly after my last posting, I recorded a narrated video to highlight the various gameplay elements. In it, you can see me explore some planets, fight some ships, engage in melee combat, and ultimately sell my old ship and buy an upgraded one. The rest of this posting takes place, in narrative terms, after the video, so watch it if that's your thing. If not, I've put most of this information into my postings already.

The antitoxin mission that I mentioned at the end of my last posting was a bit of a milk run, but I did encounter my first two robot ships at the end of it. It was a good thing that I upgraded my vessel, as they were extremely difficult. More on that in a minute when I get to ship combat. The next mission after that involved the rescue of a princess (Really? Humanity still hasn't progressed beyond monarchy?) who had crash-landed after her ship was beset by aliens.

Sergeant Cowboy developed a bit of a crush for her, but she just called him a "scruffy nerf-herder" and walked off.

The game didn't give me any idea where she was; just that she had recently gone through a black hole. At first, I thought I was going to have to explore every system, but it turns out that the black holes really stand out:

I had no idea that "black holes" were so colorful. And visible.

I explored three of them before I finally found her.

Women get treated like objects even when they're princesses.

The next mission had me investigating reports that the insect aliens were trading with some other ships. These turned out to be more robots, and I destroyed them only after getting killed twice myself. There were a couple of fetch-and-carries after that, but ultimately I got to infiltrate the insects' main base. The game kindly alerted me to the unbreathable atmosphere in the base before I entered.

Ultima just would have killed me.

The base was guarded by a locked door. I've given one of my characters, Gelt, a lot of recon skill, but he never seems to be able to pick any locks. I had to make a couple trips back to starport to get enough chemical torches to finally cut through.

The base turned out to house a bunch of computers. Trying the different options, I was able to get out of them that the insect aliens think humanity is a plague and the insects are the cure. Also, they seem really interested in some psychic energy coming from a particular planet.

My next mission was to investigate that planet. The game tried to screw with me by giving  me the wrong coordinates in my mission. Compare the screenshot above to the one below.

I don't know if that was a bug or if the game just wanted to see if I was paying attention, but in any event I found the base where the energy was coming from. At this point, the game tossed a dungeon at me that I really don't think I'm going to like.

Who would build something like this?!

In the upper-left corner is the "Space Hermit," who has some information for me if I bring him the gems in the other three corners. Passage through the maze is interrupted by robot warriors (bad enough) and radiation traps (even worse). I have a radiation detector, but all it does is help me find the traps. I still have to disarm them at that point, and my scouting character only has a 50/50 success rate. Irradiated characters slowly die until you get them back to the medical bay at a starport, so setting off a trap is an immediate exploration-killer. Why does every damned CRPG have to have poison?

The maze remains where I'm stuck now, so let's talk about ship combat. As I mentioned, I upgraded my ship to a dagger-class escort. There are nine ships in the game, ranging in price from $57,600 to $516,000, and the dagger-class escort is about in the middle. Like everything in this game, however, bigger isn't always better. The most expensive ship, the warrior frigate, carries the most weight and fuel, but pays for it in a lower movement rate and defense bonus.

There are five classes of equipment to buy for the ship: weapons, shields, missile killers, defense systems, and armor. Weapons come in three types: missile weapons, torpedoes, and beam weapons. Beam weapons consume fuel, so I'm not sure if they're ever a good option. I've outfitted the Bolingbroke with three SS-28 "rogue" missile stations, which I think balance damage, weight, and cost. It fires two missiles per round from each weapon, each doing a maximum of 200 damage points. I probably won't get better weapons until I upgrade my ship again, as the ammunition for the better weapons weighs a lot. Some of the better weapons only fire once per round and require more frequent reloads.

For defense, I've got four shield stations, each of which can accommodate one of five types of shields, again increasing in protection and weight along with cost. I filled up the stations with cheap, light shields.

There are three types of missile killers which, as their name suggests, have a chance of blasting incoming missiles. The best only has a 50% chance, though. Armor is the last bit of defense, and it's measured in points. I try to keep the ship at the maximum of 1000. When it goes below 0, you're basically dead in the next couple of shots. Finally, there are five types of "defense systems" that increase your defense and movement bonuses; I was able to buy the most expensive.

All of this new gear has come in handy, because space combat became much more difficult when the robots showed up. Here's me facing one of them after destroying one:

Two things make them difficult: First, they have excellent defense bonuses, meaning that in order to hit them, I have to spend two or three rounds "aiming" at them to increase my attack bonus. That's what Nanelia is doing above. Second, their movement rate matches mine, so there's no hope of fleeing (without jumping to hyperspace, which uses 30 units of fuel) or even maneuvering so that you're fighting only one ship at a time.

Such is my normal strategy. Faced with these four insect ships, for instance...

...I would fly in the direction that my ship is pointing, until I'm away from the enemies. Then I'd turn around and engage the top ship, killing it before his friends could join in. I'd then dance around the edges of the other three ships, taking them one at a time. This isn't possible with the robot ships unless I downgrade to a faster ship, and I can't do that if I want to keep my guns and defensive equipment.

If you didn't already know that this game was made by SSI, you'd probably know from my description of the weapons and combat. I'm hard-pressed to think of any game that I've played on this blog that a) was truly tactical in its combat; and b) was not made by SSI. Wizardry comes closest, but its tactics are mostly about choosing the right spell. Considerations of weight, balancing accuracy and hits, movement rate, offense and defense...SSI has been working to master this since Wizard's Crown. They dumbed it down a bit in Shard of Spring and Demon's Winter, but found almost the perfect balance in complexity with the "Gold Box" series. The tactics in Star Command aren't on par with Pool of Radiance, but they're still quite good--a hell of a lot better than the brute mashing of keys that was Sentinel Worlds.

In the next posting, I'll talk about melee combat (and also about my characters and their skills). I really have no idea how far into this game I am. My highest-ranked character is a commander, which is 6th out of 13 ranks, so perhaps I'm about half way done?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Star Command: Disease and Danger Wrapped in Darkness and Silence

This was the most staggering moment of the game. My entire party died because the tow link was destroyed?!

After my last posting, the game got so difficult for me so swiftly that I suspected I was doing something wrong. For every successful sortie from starport--and when I say "successful," I don't mean finishing missions; I just mean returning alive--there were five or six in which my ship was destroyed or my party was wiped out.

These deaths happened more often in melee combat than in ship combat, so I put some effort into upgrading my weapons and armor. Key to the difficulty eventually stabilizing (it hasn't by any means gotten "easy" yet) was purchasing better armor and targeting equipment to improve my characters' accuracy. Kellandros's tips on melee combat also helped quite a bit.

Cash remains exceedingly precious, however. As I've discussed repeatedly, I dislike games in which you pile up cash with no place to spend it. This is definitely not the case with Star Command. Most trips, after I resupply my ammunition, fix my broken equipment (some personal weapon breaks in every damned melee combat), and repair my ship's armor, I'm lucky if I have as much as when I left starport in the first place. I don't know if I'll ever save up enough for a new ship, or to explore some of the more costly options in the game, such as cloning my characters in case they die, or paying for extra training levels.

I desperately need a new ship, though. My current one is doing all right in ship combat, but its cargo capacity is awful. If I mount three guns on her, stock up with a decent supply of ammunition, protect her with a few missile-killers and such, she's too heavy to maneuver in combat. As soon as I have $150,000, I'm buying a dagger-class escort, which can accommodate twice the weight. I have $71,617 right now, but that's mostly because I got $50,000 from Blackbeard the Pirate's hoard, so it's going to take a while.

This was a gratifying moment.

Watching my personal weight was important in helping to win melee combats, too. Yesterday, I said, "I learned the hard way that I want to keep a couple of backup weapons with me, because they have an annoying habit of breaking in the middle of combat." Well, this turned out to be stupid. Carrying more than one weapon encumbered some of my characters so much that they were too exhausted to fight. Even one weapon with a decent number of reloads tends to exceed my maximum capacity, especially if the character has a couple other bits of equipment on him, too.

Gelt couldn't carry another thing.

I thought I'd talk a little about personal equipment in this game today, because I mostly understand it. My next postings will probably cover ship equipment and combat and then melee combat, in that order. I hope that by then, I'll be close to the end.

There is quite a bit to buy and use in this game. In this category, it is in the top echelon of games so far, around the range of Might & Magic and NetHack. First, we have weapons, which come in five categories: hand, light, heavy, chemical, and explosive. Hand weapons seem interesting--they include a "lightsword"--but I feel like I've done something wrong if my characters actually get in hand-weapon range of enemies. I haven't invested much money or skill points in these.

Purchasing weapons.

I gave my two soldiers skills in chemical and explosive weapons, and they've been using these exclusively. My three marines are are built up in heavy weapons; I couldn't see a lot of reason to go with light weapons, which do less damage, although I probably could have taken backups of those without overweighting myself. Anyway, as you can see from the above, there are multiple sub-categories of each type of weapon and about 4 or 5 individual items. I count 60 total weapons, which--like the long list that included every pole arm in Pool of Radiance--seems like little overkill. Among the choices I have to make on the list are, for instance, between a 9mm MAC-10 submachine gun and a 11mm "Lead Hose" submachine gun (the difference is 2 damage points and 1 pound) and 20mm flame thrower and a 25mm flame thrower. For chemical weapons, the two options are a nerve gas canister and a caustic mist bomb; the latter does 5 points more than the former but otherwise they're practically identical.

Figuring what weapon to use is a long process--although I'm not arguing that it's bad--of studying the large table that accompanies the Star Command manual:

Damage isn't the only consideration: you also have to consider the number of rounds it can hold, the weight, the range, the weight of the ammunition, the weapon's accuracy rating, and of course the cost. 

Armor is a little easier. There are 16 types in the game, and the only considerations are protection, weight, and cost. When I could finally afford it, I outfitted everyone in something called "scout exo" which has an excellent protection/weight ratio, exceeded only by "electroactive armor," which costs $34,488 each; I won't be seeing this for a while. Like in Sentinel Worlds, buying a new set of armor simply replaces the old set.

Beyond weapons, ammunition, and armor, there are two other categories of things to buy: sighting hardware and "miscellaneous." For sighting hardware, which increases accuracy in melee combat, I waited until I had enough money to buy the best ("compusight aiming assistant") and just bought it for everyone. It greatly increased my effectiveness in melee combat.

Essentially, these options modify my accuracy. I almost wish there were similar categories of equipment that modified other attributes.

But miscellaneous items are exceedingly important. They include medkits for healing, repair kits for fixing weapons and ships, a "helmet scanner" (not sure what that does), motion detectors to get some warning while exploring areas, sonic and chemical torches for breaking through locked doors, and radiation detectors--I learned the hard way that I really needed to have one of those active at all times while exploring indoor areas. There are also oxygen masks, oxygen cylinders, and environment suits; I figure I'll need these eventually to explore space or atmosphere-less planets, but it hasn't come up yet.

In total, there's a host of stuff to keep track of, and to save money for. This is all keeping with SSI's emphasis on strategy and tactics in its games. You have to carefully manage your inventory, carefully manage your ship, and carefully negotiate your way through combat. It's a far cry from the relative simplicity of Sentinel Worlds.

Finding Blackbeard's base.
In plot terms, I haven't advanced much since the last posting. On Sunday, I had received a quest to go to Blackbeard's base and destroy him. This took me about 20 successful sorties; I died lots, lots more. I died so many times in Blackbeard's base that I got to the point where if I even mapped a new room, I would leave and return to base to save. Part of the reason that it took so long is that by the time I reached Blackbeard's base each excursion, my fuel was almost gone. I had to fight and capture a ship orbiting his planet each time so I could refuel.

There were several interesting encounters in the pirate base. I noted last time that exploring indoor areas is a bit like Phantasie, as a top-down map slowly reveals itself:

It's also like Phantasie in the nature of the special encounters you face. In the fortress, I encountered a kid who wanted to challenge me at a video game, a bar with several tables, a slot machine, an information kiosk, and a mechanical drill. Each of these encounters offered a set of default options like "demand information," "attack and destroy," "take," as well as sets of encounter-specific options and the ability to enter a custom command.

The game has a lot of  interesting special encounters in "dungeons."
While playing, I lost so much money to the slot machine (it seemed to pay back $3 for every $4 bet), I blew it up, revealing a secret passage behind it. This led me to a series of five titanium doors guarding Blackbeard's chambers. I had no hope of getting through them. But in another part of the base, I found a rock drill with no fuel. It took a while, but I solved this puzzle, which was to buy the most potent alcohol in the bar and use it to fuel the drill.

Only in a game would this be necessary, instead of, you know, bringing fuel from my ship.
I drilled through the rock on the back side of Blackbeard's headquarters, entered, and killed him and his minions--after about 7 attempts in which I died.

Blackbeard could stand to teach his information kiosks to be a little less forthcoming.
My next quest was to visit one planet, retrieve some antitoxin, and deliver it to another planet. This sounded easy, but the coordinates were very distant from any starport--much further than I could hope to make on 100 units of fuel, which is all my ship can carry. I knew right away that I would have to take advantage of two other fueling options: planets that sell it, and the ability to steal it from other ships. I found a couple refueling depots on planets near Blackbeard's place, but so far they seem few and far between, and I had to carefully explore to find them and make my way to the distant sectors.

The manual notes that pirates are only one of several threats against humanity; another big one is a race of insect aliens. As the missions have progressed, I've been encountering insect scout ships in greater numbers. They haven't been very difficult so far--much easier than the pirates, in fact.
Melee combat with insects after boarding their scout ship.
As I sign off, let me say that I'm not sure what good my "esper" is. Granted, he's the only character. His psychic attacks rarely do anything, and I feel like his slot would have been better spent on another marine. I'll have more on that in my melee combat posting.

I think perhaps the difficulty of the game was a calculated decision on the parts of the developers. If it wasn't difficult, each of the missions would take about 10 minutes, and you'd win the game in a couple of hours. It might be that they intended the player to successfully complete each quest only after multiple tries. On the other hand, no one else seems to be corroborating my assessment of the difficulty, so maybe I'm just a bad player.