Sunday, December 22, 2013

Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday: 3

The party's fame grows.
When I was around 12 or 13, I fell in love with the V television and book franchise. (I've resisted watching the two miniseries again for fear that they won't hold up to my recollections.) The series concerns the takeover of Earth by a race of aliens who initially appear as friendly "visitors" but eventually turn out to be bent on stripping Earth of its water and other resources. There's an almost heavy-handed use of Nazi symbology and themes in the series, with children encouraged to join "Visitor Youth" programs, scientists subjected to a kind-of Holocaust, and jack-booted troopers slowly infiltrating local law enforcement. Eventually, a Resistance forms.

The moments that I liked best were those in which the Resistance makes incremental gains against the Visitors through use of guerrilla tactics. An old woman tosses a Molotov cocktail in a parked scout ship. A high-ranking officer is stalked and assassinated. A group of vandals breaks into an office and destroys all the equipment and documents. There's a juvenile appeal to the idea that you can slowly erode an enemy this way; that if you kill enough soldiers and destroy enough vehicles one-by-one, eventually the enemy won't have any left. The evil empire will collapse for lack of resources.

I'm not an expert in military history, but I suspect it rarely works this way in real life. Guerrilla campaigns have been successful, of course, but usually because they've inflicted enough losses to make the enemy feel it just isn't worth it to continue (e.g., the American Revolution, Vietnam), not because they actually depopulated the enemy enough to bring the government to its knees. Also, the entire fantasy requires a state of total war against an irredeemably evil enemy; otherwise, it's hard to justify an explicit goal to kill such a high percentage of enemy soldiers and support personnel.

Another incremental win for the good guys.

But sci-fi and fantasy games can indulge this fantasy, and Buck Rogers does a better job than most in capturing that juvenile appeal. The enemy isn't some lunatic wizard holed up in a tower but a truly evil government, with ships and troops and control of entire planets. The enemy is depraved enough to build a Doomsday weapon to destroy the entire Earth, which removes any moral qualms one might have about annihilating its soldiers and ships. As the game progresses and the party invades various RAM bases and outposts, and destroys the odd heavy cruiser in space, there's a strong sense of whittling away the edges of RAM's power base and making the galaxy safe for democracy.

In the game, "whittling away the edges" occurs quite literally, starting with the outer ring of asteroids. When I last posted, I had discovered that the dread pirate Talon had a secret base somewhere in which he was keeping dangerous gennie (genetically-engineered warrior) canisters, and that an ex-crewmember named Garrity, last seen on Pallas, might have an idea as to the base's location. I had to look up on Wikipedia that Pallas is an asteroid. Nine asteroid clusters form a ring around the explorable solar system, and I had no idea which was Pallas, so I picked one at random and began working my way around them, counter-clockwise.

Arriving at an asteroid port.

Some of the asteroids had "menu ports" where I could visit various bars, shops, and the occasional training academy. Others had explorable bases belonging to RAM or RAM-affiliated pirates. On the Pallas base, I did find the ex-pirate, who gave me a password to Talon's secret base, but he didn't know what asteroid it was on. Continuing to work my way around the circuit, I found a mining asteroid that seemed to fit the bill:

The gennies had escaped their canisters and had killed most of the miners in the base. It was a small base, and it culminated with the discovery of a time bomb that I set to destroy the asteroid. Satisfied that I'd solved that little quest, I continued working my way around the asteroids rather than head to Mars, the location of the next major plot point.

On the next asteroid, I found a hidden RAM base that clearly had been monitoring NEO's communications. The entrance to the base was guarded by a single robot, but it was the most difficult enemy I've faced so far. It was capable of firing explosive rockets and was immune to most of the weapons that I had.

The only way I could defeat it was to fan out and minimize my losses from explosions, and to use my own explosive grenades. This was a bit painful because explosive grenades are as rare as they are useful. I haven't found any place to buy them (or, indeed, any of the more advanced munitions in the game). I had to waste nine or ten before I was able to destroy the robot without losing any of my crew.

The rest of the base was a series of encounters as I chased the base commander from room to room before I finally trapped him behind some communications equipment and made a bit of an evil role-playing choice:

NEO congratulated me and rewarded me with experience for neutralizing the base.

On the next asteroid, I found the real pirate base I had been trying to find at the outset; apparently, the mining base had just been an optional map. After I entered the passcode provided by the drunk ex-pirate, I entered the base to find it swarming with RAM soldiers upset about Talon's failures, waiting for him in ambush. They didn't seem to mind that I wasn't Talon.

Reminds me of that imperial legate at the beginning of Skyrim.

Just as in the communications base, I ended up chasing the commander from room to room before he was killed by one of Talon's robots--the same type of enemy that had given me so much trouble on the communications base. I had to waste a bunch more explosive grenades.

He's also vulnerable to melee attacks, but his low armor class means that I rarely hit.

With the last of the asteroids explored, I now set my sights on the planets. My next official mission was to search for a RAM base on Mars, but operating under the principle of whittling the edges before striking at the core, I decided to check out Mercury and Venus first. Mercury had a single base whose door I couldn't open, so I figured I'd have to come back later.

Venus provided a different experience. Instead of just taking me immediately to an indoor base, the game had me land on the planet's surface--a jungle populated by flowers, trees, and mushrooms.

Somehow, the top was successfully terraformed to the bottom.

Navigating was the same as exploring the outdoor areas of Pool of Radiance or Champions of Krynn, although in this case there were far too many squares to make me want to methodically explore all of them. There were only a few key locations punctuated with numerous encounters with RAM soldiers and local fauna.

Fighting RAM agents in Venus's tropical environment.

Early on, I found some reptilian Venusian "lowlanders," saved them from a RAM attack, and got an NPC companion named "Leander" for my troubles. Leander was helpful, but ultimately I lost him when I had to retreat to my ship for healing and he insisted on staying on the planet.

I don't know, in the game's mythology, where these creatures are supposed to come from.

A prominent acid lake in the middle of the map was inhabited by acid frogs. I'd received some scattered intelligence about them in a bar, including the fact that it was possible to befriend them. Unfortunately, I hadn't given any character points in the "befriend animal" skill, so I just ended up pissing them off, and they dogged me across the rest of the map.

In the northwest portion of the map, I found a decimated lowlander village where I killed the RAM occupants and assisted the few remaining survivors.

Some more role-playing options.

From the Venusians, I learned about their dealings with RAM. Apparently, the lowlanders produce a drug called "Gravitol." I'm not sure what it does, but a rumor I received at a bar says that space travel wouldn't be possible without it. The lowlanders' monopoly on the production of Gravitol was threatened by the continual terraforming of the planet, which would have allowed other races to set up shop there. RAM promised the Venusians that they would halt the terraforming if the Venusian scientists would assist in the construction of a giant lens for RAM's doomsday laser. But once the lens was completed, RAM turned on the Venusians and slaughtered them.

The lowlanders told me the location of the RAM base to the south, and I left the village after rescuing a child from the rubble. For some reason, the child, Zane, stuck with me as an NPC even though he had only 4 hit points and couldn't fire a weapon to save his life.

The RAM base on Venus was fairly small and had several special encounters that led me to destroy a hanger full of gliders and free some imprisoned lowlander scientists (one of them took Zane off my hands). Like the other maps, there were numerous encounters with various choices. While I like these encounters, as I said last time, I think they all lead to the same basic result.

Here's one of the more bizarre "role-playing" choices I've experienced in any game:

I ended up taking it, but I never found a place to use it.

At the culmination of the Venus base, Scot.DOS discovered that the Doomsday device is located "on the third Mercurian mariposa." I don't really know what "mariposa" (Spanish for "butterfly") means in this context, but in any event it seems that the device is in that locked base back on Mercury. Other than that, the only thing I got out of the base with that I didn't have before was something called a "retinal lockpick."

The Mercury base remains as closed as ever, so I guess the next stop is Mars. I know I said I'd have a big combat and equipment posting this time around, but I'm saving it for next time because I wasn't in a good place to video a combat in this last session.

Some other miscellaneous notes:

  • There are actually two economies in the game. The first is the standard "credits" received after each battle and from selling equipment, as in a traditional RPG. The second is the "salvage account" that increases as you defeat enemy ships and sell their parts. Salvage account credits are used to repair and refuel the party's ship at the various ports in the solar system; they are technically optional, since repairs and refueling take place for free at Earth's Salvation base.

Spending my "salvage credits" on fuel.

  • Ordering drinks and food and talking at bars and restaurants occasionally, but not often, produces some kind of rumor. I don't know if these are based on skills like "fast talk," "etiquette," and "act," but I haven't otherwise found any explicit use for these skills.

I'm going to assume this is a lie.

  • Ports also occasionally have libraries, where my medic's "library search" skill sometimes produces a bit of intelligence, rarely all that helpful. It does also provide a modicum of experience to the medic, though.
  • Some of the rumors I've received in bars have pointed to an artificial intelligence named "Holzerhein.DOS" in charge of RAM. I thought this was silly, but later on the Venus base, some wall decorations seemed to bear it out.

  • All of the maps since the last post have been fairly small. I was worried that every map was going to be as enormous as the one in the asteroid base.
  • The game's various "gennies" seem to be a manifest attempt to introduce some D&D-style monsters into a non-fantasy setting. Each has special attacks like poison or extra speed. I'm surprised I haven't found any that can turn me to stone. A quick gallery:


My characters are now Level 7 out of a maximum of 8 levels, so either there's not much more to the game or you're going to get a bit of a rant at the end.


  1. I was going to ask about the levelling system, which confuses me (can you only advance one level at a time? What is the 'loss of surplus XP to the next level' thing about?), but I guess if you are already only one level beneath the cap...

    1. Right, I didn't explain that well. Let's say you're at Level 3 and you need 5000 experience points to get to Level 4. You reach that mark, only you're far away from training, and before you can get back there to train, you earn another 5000 experience points--enough to put you at Level 5.

      Well, the game won't really let you earn enough to make two levels. Instead, it caps you at 9,999 and everything else you earn after that point is wasted. When you finally make it back to base and train to Level 4, NOW you can start earning more. At that point, you just have to go fight one more combat to the 1 extra point to make it to Level 5. Weird and annoying.

    2. I was sure I understood that wrong, but turns out it's the game that's stupid oO

    3. I think that a hangover from d&d rules, isn't it? You could only advance one level 'per adventure' and stopped getting xp 1 short of another level.

      Great blog posts by the way. For some reason I never played these back in the day. I guess if it wasn't fantasy, I wasn't interested.

      Jus - uk

    4. The mechanic is right out of the Players Handbook. You can only gain one level per session. This rule was instituted to block power-gaming munchkins.

    5. Yes, though I think it was added later in the game, as I recall hearing stories of people from Gygax's table going up multiple levels a session if they took big enough risks.

      What it is designed to prevent in the modern day is people going, killing something big like a dragon through a cheap trick and then hitting level 10 right out of the gate. Alternately, so that a low level character hanging around with a high level character doesn't zip up the levels too fast (Though this was a common tactic in ye olden days)

  2. I believe the bag of acid frog food is useful when you meet the frogs at the acid lake.

  3. My recollection is that the Venusian lowlanders and Martian desert runners were early gennies created to colonize parts of the solar system inhospitable to normal humans. Then they were more or less left to their own devices and formed their own, somewhat primitive, cultures.

    It helped my suspension of belief to look at this as kind of an alternate reality version of our future in the same way the fantasy settings seem to be alternate reality versions of Medieval Europe. The depiction of Venus as a jungle I think is very consistent with its typical portrayal in the early 20th century pulp fiction space opera genre. All most people really knew about it then was that it was hotter than earth, green, and had a lot of clouds... so must be a jungle or swamp, right?

  4. I imagine acid frog food would be helpful when befriending acid frogs.

    The lizard dudes might be native Venusians and the terraforming of Venus might not be as extensive as it would have to be in the real world. The original Buck Rogers was made in a time when it was believed that beneath Venus' clouds was a tropical rainforest. Similarly it was believed that Mars, though barren, was a place where you could walk around on. Problems with pressure and lack of atmosphere weren't known until decades later.

  5. I should have clarified that I'm not so monumentally stupid that it didn't occur to me that the acid frog food would be used to befriend the acid frogs.

    There is no option to use the acid frog food when encountering the acid frogs. In any event, you find the food well past the point at which the frogs are an issue.

    1. If I remember correctly, there are not-at-lake frogs you can use the food on for allies&xp bonus.

  6. The genesis version must be better balanced. I had to fly around waiting for enemy ships to battle; to get to level 8.

  7. Here I thought I was the only fan of "V" left in this world. I can tell you that the mini-series holds up pretty well, even after all these years. It's much better than you remember. The series, on the other hand, is really campy...I still love it, mind you, but it's not for everyone. So, if you're fighting the urge to watch it again, you should probably go ahead and do it. I think you'll still love it.

    1. Did you watch the recent new series? I haven't watched the old ones, so I wonder how it compares.

      I quite enjoyed the new series, although it got cancelled before they could really do anything interesting with it.

    2. I watched the new series and it eventually grew on me, but honestly, it was just a pale comparison to the original. If you haven't seen the original mini-series you should watch it. The series is another story (though if you really like the mini-series, you might like it or you might not).

    3. I didn't want to get involved in the new series unless it became clear it would stick around. When it got canceled after about six episodes, I felt my caution was justified. I hate it when series get canceled before they can finish telling their stories.

    4. Ummm...the show lasted two seasons...

    5. To follow up, Season 1 started in 2009-2010 and had 12 episodes, and Season 2 started in early 2011 and had 10 episodes. The producers had hoped for a Season 3 renewal but didn't get it.

    6. All right, I was exaggerating, but the point is they weren't able to bring the story to a conclusion. I suspected that would happen, which is why I never watched.

    7. That's true of a lot of things (including the original V). I'm not trying to convince you to watch the newer version (the original surpasses it in almost every single way, really). I'm was just trying to correct the idea that you might have thought it only had six episodes...which is pretty far off the mark.

  8. On the same vein as the frog food, I presume you checked to see whether that retinal lockpick could somehow be used on the door on Mercury?

    1. Yes. Still couldn't get into the base after finding the lockpick. I needed something from Mars.

  9. >V miniseries

    Finally! I've been trying to remember the name of this series for ages. For whatever reason it was broadcasted in Russia under the "Star Wars" title 12 or 13 years ago. And I loved it, but when I grew up, I was never able to find it because all I remembered is that it was titled "Star Wars" and the images of the alien ships over the capitals.
    Yeah, sorry for the off topic post, I'm just full of emotions right now.

    1. Very glad to help. I also remember that the novelization of the original two series by A.C. Crispin was quite good.

    2. On a related note, A.C. Crispin died this year. She succumbed to her battle with cancer at age 63. Her novelization of the mini-series was well received by fans because of her ability to flesh-out details and keep them consistent with whatever source material she was using.

  10. When I was about 9 I caught part of a V episode. It was one where a girl was scratching her skin and lizard scales were underneath. So basically it scared me half to death and didn't make me a fan until much later :D
    RE: Buck
    The idea of all these Genetically engineered species around the solar system seems quite cool to me.

    1. I remember the childbirth scene to be the most terrifying thing I'd ever watched on TV. I wonder if it would have the same power now. I suppose I should watch it again.

    2. Oh, man. I was about the same age when I saw that scene with the girl and the scales. I had nightmares all night long (literally woke up hundreds of times) about people turning into reptiles. And then, because I was a Transformers fan, of vehicles turning into robots, then turning into people, and then into reptiles. I don't think anything has ever given me more bad dreams than that show.

    3. More terrifying than your experience with "The Day After"?


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