Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Starflight II: We Come in Peace, Shoot to Kill

That's more like it.
Starflight II is a fun game for exploration. I stayed up way too late last night because I kept saying, "just one more system." But on the combat side of things, the game is pissing me off.

A lot of CRPGs ease you into combat, offering low-level enemies at the beginning so you can get used to the interface. Not Starflight II. The attitude of this game seems to be that if things come down to violence, you've already lost. I've yet to face a single foe in a group of fewer than three ships, and until the end of the session, even one of them seemed capable of defeating my Class 3 shields, armor, and weapons.

Getting trounced in combat.
Combat was the one thing I hoped Binary had improved after Starflight, but unfortunately they didn't. It's barely changed at all. It's theoretically a bit easier in the sense that you no longer have to be pointing directly at the enemy ship when you fire; the game automatically targets the closest enemy. But that reduces combat to a simple exercise of mashing the SPACE bar while flying to avoid enemy missiles (lasers are unavoidable). You can't even choose between your own missiles and lasers; the game simply chooses lasers for close enemies and missiles for distant ones. I would have thought the opposite made more sense, but there you have it.

I've been seeing this screen a lot.

When you first encounter enemies, there's really no way to tell they are enemies unless you want to make an assumption based on the sector of space you're in. They usually give it away by shooting at you. You could mitigate this by flying around with shields up and weapons armed all the time, but some friendly races understandably take exception to that.

You don't want to take too long deciding whether to hail or raise shields at this point.

I haven't been talking about it so far, but I find the game's controls a little annoying. There aren't so many actions that the developers couldn't have programmed each one to a unique key instead of forcing you to scroll through horizontal and vertical menus. The process of "deselecting" a menu option so you can scroll through the others is inconsistent: it's ENTER on the land, the right or left arrow when looking at your inventory, and SPACE while in flight. This makes it easy to deselect a command when you want to select it or to keep doing something when you really want to deselect it and move to a different command. There's also a bit of a pause between a keyboard input and the game's acknowledgement of that input.

All these problems are livable until you have six enemies shooting at you, and you're desperately trying to raise shields, arm weapons, and enter combat, and you end up raising shields, then accidentally lowering them again, then arming weapons, then disarming them, then entering combat, then exiting combat, and then you're dead.

At least reloading doesn't take that long.

The last two voyages of the ISS Laivas.

My many defeats at the hands of what I can only assume are the Umanu, and also a few at the guns of the Spemin, came as I explored around the cloud nebula. When I last wrote, I was trying to skirt the upper edge in search of artifacts on the other side, but I soon found myself outclassed by so many enemies that I decided to return to starport. The fastest way was directly through the nebula (I hadn't found any continuum fluxes), so I aimed and booked it, simply running every time I encountered any ships. 

In the upper-left quadrant, I'd found a Dweenle outpost where they were selling god-masks, a craved trade item for the Tandelou. I bought 30 cubic meters of them thinking I'd make a huge profit, but the Tandelou only offered to buy them for pretty much exactly what I'd paid. The venture paid off in another way, though: when you sell a favored trade item to a species, they'll allow you to buy any artifacts they have, and the Tandelou Eshvay had a "System Scanner" that came in handy on my next expedition. It shows the presence of other ships and tells you a little bit about each planet the moment you enter the system.

I've adopted the practice of buying at least 1 cubic meter of every special item that a species sells. I won't make much profit that way, but it ensure that I'll always have at least one on hand if a species really wants it. It was by this method that I had a "livelong" in my hold when I visited the Humna Humna, and was thus able to buy a "Flux Scanner."

I guess I should have bargained harder.

Setting out from starport again, I explored the bottom third of the map, hitting almost every star system--trade or no trade--along the way, picking up minerals, selling them, restocking fuel, noting trading outposts, logging planets for colonization, and reloading every time I got killed, which was lots. I visited at least two systems that had "trade beacons" but found that there was "no trade" when I arrived. (Thankfully, I wasn't low on Shyneum!) Two other systems were full of aliens that immediately attacked when I entered, preventing any trade.

If the gravity of this planet didn't turn me away, the flying, carnivorous plants who refuse to trade certainly would.

It was towards the end of my expedition that I finally encountered a new species called the Arla. Conversation revealed that the species goes through three mental metamorphoses tied to the moons on their home planet. In the "Arla" stage, they're peaceful and rational. In their "Kher" phase, they go insane. And in the "Ng" phase, they become extremely hostile. Because of this, they tend not to spend much time around other races. They say that the Lowar was the only species to understand them, and they feel sadness at their destruction. They warned me to beware of the "microwave beam" used by the Umanu, which defeats both shields and armor; to defeat it, I need to somehow acquire the "phasing" technology of the ancient Leghk.

An entire species with multiple personality disorder.

On a planet run by the "Nelsons," a goofy "species" that prides itself on "hard work and good, honest, down home values," I bought an artifact called a "gas slug." I had no idea what it was for, but I figured, hey, an artifact! Plus, the Nelsons promised that if I had one, I'd never have to worry about my crew getting injured.

Well, it turns out it it prevents them from getting injured by ensuring that they won't do anything. My crew got lazy and refused to perform their jobs. (I wonder if this is what Burzmali was talking about in my first posting.) I jettisoned the thing into space and everything returned to normal.

Get it together, crew.

When I was finally ready to return to starport, I used my new "Flux Scanner" to find the presence of continuum fluxes. Some of them took me to random places, but eventually I found the right combination to return to starport.

This thing is pretty handy, but there are lots of places where multiple fluxes appear in groups, and it's hard to distinguish them at this scale.

Checking into the headquarters, I was delighted to find that I'd made so many successful planet recommendations that I had over $400,000.

I also got a $10,000 fine for recommending a planet that was too cold.

This turned out to be just enough to outfit my ship with Class 5 everything: engines, armor, shields, and lasers. Knowing that I wasn't going to get any better equipment than that, I headed back out to find something to kill.

The Laivas isn't taking @#*# from anyone any more.

Delightfully, my first encounter in hostile territory was with five Spemin ships. As usual, they tried to shake me down for a quarter of my Shyneum.

Yes, that's exactly why I'm here. Come closer.

Without even bothering to return their communications, I raised my shields, armed my weapons, and opened fire.

I still don't like the combat system, but I admit this was pretty satisfying.

Well, "Class 5" must mean pretty good, because I defeated three of them very quickly. The fourth immediately surrendered, and in true Spemin form, spilled everything.

They confessed to stealing the "most valuable thing" from the Tandelou, only to sell it to a species called the G'Nunk when they "discovered it was only a worthless hunk of green glass." They admitted to acquiring their new technology from a "data cube" found on a "derelict ship," and they gave me the coordinates. They told me their planet in the system is called Bemfblunk and gave me the coordinates. Finally, they said that Shyneum originates on a planet somewhere in the middle of the cloud nebula.

Disgusting little things. I shall rid the galaxy of all of you.

When they had nothing more to say, I armed weapons again, destroyed them, and looted the wreckage of their ships.

Now it's time to get serious about various quest locations. In addition to the four I mentioned last time, I've heard that the Humna Humna sell an "encounter scanner" on one of their planets in the center-right part of the galaxy. It's time to finish my explorations on the right side of the map, try to find these G'Nunk, and see if my new weapons don't help against the Umanu.


  1. Yeah, that's the artifact ;)

    When I first played, I missed the cause and effect of the gas slug and thought the game was pissed that I had skipped the copy protection (the version I bought was patched so that any answer was accepted). The effect actually gets worst over time, requiring up to a dozen attempts to get the crew to arm weapons or raise shields. I actually went into some of the end game encounters without being able to reliably raise my shields :P

    I don't know if you've tried it, but a few species have very different responses if you use particular postures with them.

    1. I'm not sure that the copy protection in the DOS version "worked" for anyone, unless the effect is subtle? I bought a legitimate retail copy (and still own it) and never noticed any ill effect from entering random numbers in answer to the copy protection queries.

      Ng-Kher-Arla is a race that I knew was still undiscovered by Chet in his previous posting, but I didn't want to spoil it.

      As for combat, I think the designers really wanted you to feel outgunned at the beginning (probably due to a combination of Arthians being new to the sector, the Spemin being self-proclaimed demigods, and the "it's-even-in-the-title" emphasis on trading). I seem to recall that there are more ways to even the combat odds than were available in the first game, however.

    2. I'm supposed to be able to use a "blasto pod" somehow in combat, but the manual just refers me to the "quick reference card," which I can't seem to find a copy of.

    3. I don't have my original materials handy, but the quickstart guide included in the GOG version says:

      "Press F1O to launch a blasto pod. The targeting mechanism automatically appears on the Main View Screen as a group of concentric rings. Use the numeric keypad to move the detonation point close to your opponents. Press the [spacebar] to confirm the detonation point."

    4. Since the inteface of the Amiga version is mouse driven I didn't had any of the problems mentioned.
      (You can check the screenshots from HOL

      And I could target a blasto pod, with the mouse. I think that blasto pods are, one shot - one kill weapons and you can carry only two of them.

    5. I got lucky on the gas slugs. I had just been examining it in my inventory to see if it had an associated function key or anything when my crew went all wonky. That made it easier to put two and two together.

      HunterZ, thanks for the keyboard shortcut. That does indeed seem to be it.

  2. 3st against! I could have been 1st, might have been 2st, but instead of have the 3st comment again.

  3. Love the title by the way, from the song about Star Trek from the late 80s or early 90s.

    1. It was always on "Dr. Demento." I had the damned thing memorized before I'd ever even seen an episode of Star Trek/

  4. I always found that moving through the menu system momentarily paused any of the live action, so that raising shields/arms was never a life-or-death issue. I'm not entirely sure why it's an issue here, but the only thing I could suggest would be the DOSBox emulation parameters. Starflight 2 is much more sensitive to these than Starflight 1 was. However, it is known to make it much harder to successfully hail aliens if the CPU speed is too high (which is why I found it hard to talk to aliens properly when I played this as a kid - I played it on a 100MHz Pentium!). Other effects include changing the speed of alien ship movement in combat (and the more alien ships, the slower they move around) and terrain vehicle movement (at certain speeds you can zip across a landscape very quickly but not at others). You could play around with this until you find some combo that makes you happy.

    If you do manage to get the menu-pausing effect going, then you should try making more use of your sensors to fix one of the other problems you're having.

    Copy protection was never an issue for me. I imagine that if you were a kid, played this and had a copy with working copy protection then you would probably end up throwing the floppy disks through the nearest window given the nature of the scheme (counting coloured stars!).

    The map resolution and flux path lines are terrible, but fluxes do map to 1x1 coordinate squares. It is also possible to be at the edge of a flux square without being in the flux.

  5. Starflight has always been open-ended exploration. There's no "level 1 Kobold village, level 2 Orc village" style play. The game allows you to go directly to the most difficult encounters as soon as you have the fuel. Sure you're going to get destroyed...don't go there again until later!

    Now that you have Class 5 everything, there isn't so much need for money except for fuel.

    1. As I wrote in my "Difficulty" posting in the fall, I actually like games that offer a wide range of difficulty from the outset, allowing you to stumble into encounters in which you're hopelessly outclassed. But I also like such games to have some encounters in which you're NOT hopelessly outclassed, too. This game doesn't seem to have any of those. But combat doesn't seem to be a priority anyway.

  6. I see the "short range lasers, long range missiles" arrangement all the time. At the risk of starting a scifi physics discussion, what kind of points are there for having it the other way around?

    (Hopefully avoiding that discussion. There's no single right answer, anyway. It all depends on the technobabble, world-building and perhaps on the fact that game lasers tend to fire blobs of brightly colored goo.)

    1. Missiles take time to reach their targets, but lasers travel at the speed of light. So the point for having it the other way around would be that at short range, missiles can reach the ship before the ship can dodge. At longer range, the ship can weave around and make the missiles lose lock - or even fire back with lasers of its own - whereas it can't easily evade something traveling at c. Pulsed lasers would be even harder to dodge because they can only be detected at the point of impact, so it's hard to know which way to jink.

      If the game lasers don't go at c, then that reason goes away. And if ships can shield themselves against lasers, that also makes that reason go away.

      I remember one adventure game taking place on a ship had drones (basically autonomous fighters) for long distance combat. These would collectively track the target and even do some amount of basic strategy, rendering the "lose lock" objection less effective.

    2. One possibility is dispersion: even lasers cannot maintain a narrow beam for an indefinite distancel. So it could be that beyond a certain range, the laser beam is too wide and diffuse to damage a ship. Missiles don't have this issue, obviously; they hit at full force whatever the distance.

    3. From what I recall (sorry if this opens up that dreaded argument), lasers do technically have range limitations in space- at least with current technology, laser beams aren't perfectly consistently aligned. And minorly, space isn't a complete vacuum; there will be a few random hydrogen atoms that will slowly absorb some of the energy.

      Our current technology of lasers don't output completely parallel beams, but for small distances are close enough. The more distance the beam has to travel, the more spread it will have (think of a flashlight beam- a good one has a tight focus spot, but even that will get more and more diffuse the further out you need to see).

      As the distance goes up, the focus lessens and the area the laser hits increases- so the amount of force per area generated goes down (and doubling the area roughly quarters the force involved). A tightly focused powerful laser can cut through metal, but an unfocused one would just make it a little warm.

      The effectiveness of missiles is another debate; costs less energy to get them to the target and you could steer them with course corrections; but explosions are much less effective in space.

    4. but explosions are much less effective in space

      You do not need explosives in space. But you will need a lot of kinetic energy, which is quite easy in space. ( And if you can accelerate any mass, beyond 0.10c (c=lightsped), you will have a relativistic missile). The real problem is targeting over vast distances.

    5. Anonymous gives my rationale for making the statement in the first place. I can't speak to the science of the rest of it.

  7. There is yet another item which can make your life in space encounters much easier.

    1. More than one, though the game is fairly good about ensuring you pay the price for more powerful artifacts.

    2. Let me know if I have a complete list after my subsequent posting.

  8. If I can give some advice for the G'Nunk, make sure you not only save before trying to deal with them, but backup your save.

    They're a bit buggy, and more than once I've ended up locking them into a state for which the only way to deal with it was to cheat.

    1. I didn't read this until after I'd encountered them a few times, but fortunately nothing seems to have glitched yet--unless the fact that I can't get them to parlay or trade at all is a glitch.

  9. So you went from your starting gear straight to level 5 gear? Seems like it kinda takes the fun out of slowly building up your gear...

    1. Well, one of the things you discover very quickly is that on some parts of your ship (engines in particular) some upgrades are a waste. For example, never bother with class 2 or 4 engines.

      Also, unlike SF1, Class 5 isn't the best around any more.

    2. No, I had a few upgrades in between that I didn't mention. But I did go from mostly level 3 to level 5.

      My overall point is that, as 'Nym says, the levels in between 1 and 5 are fairly useless for weaponry and armor. Combat is so deadly that you really need L5 anything to survive it.

      'Nyms last line is a bit cryptic. L5 is the best you can BUY anyway. I haven't found anything better.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Wow, I had forgotten all about this game. I still have a complete boxed version but I must admit, I really stunk at it, lost interest, and moved on. Your review has inspired me to re-open the box, fire up my one remaining PC with a 5 1/4" disk drive, and give this game another shot. Thanks!

    1. Hopefully your disks are still good. The old 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 disks would go bad if left over time. The actual process that the disk drives used to read them kept the information fresh because it would read it and write it back. If you left your disks alone for a long time you would lose your magnetic information in spots due to natural magnetic factors that are always dancing around us.

    2. Seriously. Just buy it from GOG, man. $5.99 for both games.

    3. Speaking of GOG, you should pick up Darklands which is on sale, so you have it when you reach it.

      Which is funny because I had this exact same conversation with a friend today. I had bought him Darklands from the bargain bin decades ago and he still has the 5 1/4 disks for it. I mentioned the sale and he said he still has the disks, to which I reply that finding a working 5 1/4 drive costs more than the $2.39 for the current sale this weekend.

    4. Actually, addict you should reach out to GOG and see if you can come to a deal where they use your reviews with a link to the game, as a sales tool and a way for you to monetize your hobby. They could also do play along sales for your fans who want to get the game and play it at the same time as you.

    5. I don't know. That sounds like a lot of work.

    6. Heh, you sound like me sometimes.

      Anyway, couldn't hurt to send an email and see how much work it would really be. I figure it makes more sense that your other foray into adds.

    7. UbAh, that is the second mention of Darklands and 5 1/4 disks I've seen today. Hmm...

    8. UbAh...

      Sorry, no, reading data from a 5.25" disk does not cause any electromagnetic 'restoring' action to occur on the disk itself. No does the drive, disk controller, or MS-DOS rewrite sectors automatically. I think you are confusing the operation of DRAM with the operation of floppy disks. At most rotating the disk every few years would limit mechanical adhesion. (I once built a custom floppy disk controller, and spent a fair amount of time messing with the PC BIOS level floppy disk interfaces, so I have some experience in this area)

      I have read data off 5.25" single-density disks that was written 30 years ago (good quality disks). I also remember cheap 3.5" 1.44mb floppies in the late 90's that would degrade in weeks.


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