Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Charity Backfires (with Thoughts on Some Recent Games)

No one in my industry does any work between about December 15 and January 15, so quite happily, I'm never on the road during this period. Theoretically, it's a good time to catch up on reading and writing in my field. Functionally, it becomes a time that I binge on RPGs. I gave the entire period to Skyrim a few years ago.

This year started out promising. I started a second play-through of Fallout: New Vegas, determined to get a foothold in Dark Souls and Dishonored (the latter not quite an RPG, but whatever), and planned to finally finish Dragon Age II. I know that this will make many of you cringe, but I had the Xbox 360 versions of all of these. On a blustery wintry day with 10 hours of game playing ahead of me, I want to be relaxing on the couch, not sitting in my office chair.

Alas, the couch is shared space, so I have to bend slightly towards what Irene prefers, at least when she's around. She preferred Dragon Age II. I didn't love it, but I thought it got better as it went along. We finished it in a few marathon sessions, by which point she'd heard about Inquisition and was eager to check it out, which I didn't mind at all. She goes back to work on January 5, but I don't, so I have another week, I reasoned, for Fallout et. al.

The trouble started on Saturday, December 27, the date we were scheduled to do Christmas with her family. They were coming at 14:00. She headed out early to do some last-minute shopping for them. After she'd been gone about an hour, I got a text from her: "At Wal-Mart. They have DAI, but only XB ONE version. Will that work?"

I texted back, "NO. We have a 360. Won't play it."

"Oh." I could feel the disappointment.

Meanwhile, in Fallout, I suffered my 35th consecutive death at the hands of a deathclaw. As I waited for it to reload, I had a thought.

"Do they have Xbox Ones?" I texted.


"Screw it. Buy one and the game too. We'll have to get one eventually."

$480 later, she came home, and I had a new console to set up. Alas, I had no time to do it. The in-laws were coming in a couple of hours. I put it aside and started looking forward to the evening, when they'd leave, and I could enjoy much faster reloads after deathclaws killed me.

From that sentence, some of you already know where this is going, but you don't yet know how bad it is. Later that afternoon, I caught my brother-in-law eying the new console.

"You like the Xbox?" he asked. "I'm thinking of switching from the Playstation. Why did you go with the Xbox in the first place?"
I didn't offer the real answer: that I hadn't done any research at all; that my decision came down to feeling ashamed for owning a console in the first place, and for that reason deliberately purchasing the one that sounded least like a toy.
"Why don't you take my old one?" I said to evade the question. "I don't need two. Check it out and if you don't like it, give it to a charity or something."
"Sure. Just give me a few minutes to copy my profile and saved games to a USB."
I did that, deleted the profile, and boxed it up for him, along with disks of Red Dead Redemption, several Assassin's Creeds, and Fallout 3.

It would have taken about 5 seconds of Googling to realize that the Xbox One isn't backward-compatible with the Xbox 360, and that the games I held in reserve were now worthless, but for some reason I didn't do the search. Later, the revelations escalated in a manner that would have been comical if they were happening to someone else. At first, I was just pissed that I would have to re-purchase my old games for the new platform. Then, I realized that my saved games probably wouldn't work with the new versions. Finally, I realized that Xbox One versions of Fallout, Skyrim, and every other game I enjoyed playing don't even exist. With two weeks of binge-playing to go, I managed to end up with a platform that only has about three RPGs to its name.

This was good news for my Wizardry III playing (more on that soon) but not so good for my overall vacation plans.

I do like Inquisition, though. It took me a while to warm to the Dragon Age setting. Origins was a decent game, but it felt overly "assembled," with a game world and lore that was a little too manufactured and tidy. I liked the NPCs, dialogue options, and multiple paths you could take through the story, but I never warmed to the combat and the maps felt too confining, with lots of artificial boundaries. I also didn't like the way monsters leveled with the party.

Dragon Age II had most of the problems of Origins, plus more besides. I didn't like that the PC was voiced, or that the dialogue options didn't match the actual words spoken by the PC. The reuse of environments was justly criticized, and I thought the combat was worse. But the stuff that BioWare does well came through: memorable, fun NPCs, an interesting overall plot and story arc, and lots of decisions that affected the nature of the story.
Inquisition fixes almost all the problems I had with the previous games. Enemies don't seem to level with the party, and they respawn, so grinding is possible (though I haven't had to do it). Combat, while still not great, is a much better console experience. The ability to pause, zoom around the battle field, and advance time incrementally puts the game close to Infinity Engine territory. The environments are much better, allowing much more open exploration. I don't love the "search" mechanic, but I like it a lot better than having every chest or piece of loot sparkle in the distance. The plot has been fantastic so far, and BioWare managed to top themselves on NPCs. If I had to name the 10 most memorable ones from any RPGs I'd ever played, Sera and Iron Bull would be two of them. Perhaps most important, the setting has evolved a more complex lore since the first game, with numerous factions that go beyond simple good and evil, and plenty of historical mysteries, all fleshed out in numerous tomes and bits of dialogue. It has a long way to go before it can rival The Elder Scrolls in these areas, but it's a distant second.

One of the features I like most is the ability to set up the "world state" based on your decisions in the previous games. You do this on a special EA Origin site called the "Dragon Age Keep" rather than by importing your previous saved games. I can see why this would annoy some players, but it ended up working out quite well for me, and I think Bethesda could take a lesson from this system for the next Elder Scrolls game. I otherwise don't know how they'll handle it. They did a clever trick with the "Warp in the West" to integrate Daggerfall into later games, but I can't see that working with the events of Skyrim (Arena and Oblivion had almost no player choices in the main plots, so there wasn't much need to incorporate player decisions). Unless the next game is set so far away in distance and time that Skyrim doesn't matter (which would be too bad), or they choose one of the many paths as the official canon (which would be even worse), the Dragon Age model is the best.

I also like Inquisition's "war room" concept, where you view a map of the kingdoms with your advisers and send their agents on various quests to collect intelligence, scout areas, retrieve artifacts, obtain resources, and resolve disputes. When I first heard about it, I inwardly groaned. I thought the analogous systems in Assassin's Creed were silly and boring, and I thought it would be an excuse to shoehorn some multi-player nonsense into a single-player game, like they did in Black Flag. But it turns out to work quite well, with more interesting plots and more meaningful decisions than we ever saw in Assassin's Creed. The war room missions are well-integrated into the main campaign and not just silly side quests.

Anyway, if you want to discuss Inquisition in the comments, please avoid spoilers past the first chapter. My party just went to Orlais for the first time, so I'm not very far into the game.

In past posts, I alluded to playing New Vegas but didn't really offer much commentary. I'll say now that I loved it. I would put it among the top 10 RPGs I've ever played, and I can't tell you how much I wish Bethesda had learned from Obsidian in designing the game world for Skyrim. I love the combat system, which straddles the line perfectly between action-oriented and tactical. I love the plot, the factions, and the multiple ways the player can navigate the story and game world. I love that no NPC is unkillable, and yet the game world manages to continue on anyway. In my first play-through, I went to Caesar's Legion camp on some quest or another, but ended up in combat when I refused to surrender my weapons. Instead of reloading, I just went with it and ended up wiping out the entire map, including Caesar himself. I couldn't believe the game let me do that. 

It fails with NPC companions, though. I don't find any of them terribly interesting, there was hardly any dialogue with them, and it's far too difficult to find the path to some of their side-quests without looking up spoilers.
Oh, and the level cap is way too low. If I hadn't bought the four major DLCs, I would have hit it about halfway through the game. As it was, I hit it the first time with only three DLCs completed and a bunch of side quests unfinished. The second time, I decided to avoid Old World Blues and Lonesome Road (which I didn't like anyway) and save the levels for the core game. I also deliberately took a perk at the beginning that reduces experience point rewards so I'd be less likely to hit it.

In my first play-through, I supported the NCR and fought on their side at Hoover Dam. The second time around, I was determined to go through the "Wild Card" option and take control of the New Vegas Securitrons myself. I'm disappointed that my only option to see how that plays out is to wrest my old Xbox back from my brother-in-law, who by all accounts is enjoying it immensely.

By the way, in case you didn't notice when they appeared, I finally got an index of games by title and an index of games by year posted. Like the FAQ, they appear as "pages" accessible from the top of the mobile browser or the sidebar in a regular browser. I hope they make navigation a little easier!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

MegaTraveller: Space Sucks

My current quest is on line 3.

If nothing else, MegaTraveller manages to capture how difficult, expensive, and confusing it must be to travel among multiple planets. The few hours I've invested in the game have been an exercise in complete frustration.

I started by finishing exploring what I thought was the rest of Efate, hampered by the fact that the mercenaries from the first battle never went away; they just dispersed. Every so often, one would come charging at me, firing his weapon, and I'd have to run away.

I was reluctant to buy anything until I'd checked everything out, but eventually I got everyone outfitted with cloth armor, which is fairly inexpensive. There's a Traveler's Aid Society in town, but you have to be a member to enter, and the manual says that you can only get membership while mustering out of the military. There's supposed to be some cool information there, so I suppose I should think about trying again with a new character.

Aside from the two NPCs in the museum who offered to buy diamonds and "starrghrite," I didn't find anyone interesting to talk with. I found some rubies on the floor of the inn. Eventually, I made my way back to the bar where a dog-headed bartender warned me about messing with Konrad Kiefer but offered no new advice. 

A few rolls of the slot machine at the casino just lost me $400.


Commenter Old Man Matt had warned me that there were areas of each planet inaccessible without a special vehicle. I rented an ATV and headed out into the world. I found some emeralds in a crevice, but otherwise nothing that I couldn't have found by simply walking there. NPCs kept randomly shooting at me along the way.

I can't figure out combat in this game. At all. When it's time to fight, you're supposed to break your single-icon party up into multiple icons representing each character, then issue various movement and attack orders. Now, my party isn't well-equipped for combat anyway because only two of the five party members got weapons upon retirement, and I didn't find a weapon store on Efate. But regardless, the two characters who have handguns simply refuse to use them. I keep issuing "Fire" commands and targeting the attacking NPCs, but the characters won't fire no matter what I do. I've read the relevant section of the manual multiple times and can't figure what I'm doing wrong.

Eventually, I discovered that a texture I had thought was a wall was actually a path, and it led me to the planet's starport. Only in starport can you save the game, use the bank, buy and sell cargo, and buy equipment for the ship. The bank was particularly mystifying to me. Every shop had given me the option to let an individual character pay for an item or spend money from the "party account." I didn't see any reason not to put all of the money in the party account, so I had everyone do that. Later, I found that characters need individual funds for gambling and bribes.

Messing around transferring money from the party account to individual members.

Anyway, our ship--the Interloper--was in the starport, and I entered it to take off and explore space travel. It's similar to other space games like Starflight in that there's a distinction between intra-system travel, which is simply controlled by turning and thrusting around, and inter-system travel, which requires you to "jump" between hexes in space. Ships fly around you in the meantime, but fortunately none were attacking me.

My mission was to visit Boughene and find Arik Toryan. I was pleased to see Boughene right there on the "jump" screen and decided to head for it. Well, not so fast. "No jump possible," the screen told me. "No nav program running."

The different systems in the game.

It took me a while to figure out how to get into the computer station and load programs into the computer. Basically, on board the ship you have 6 stations to which to assign the 5 crew members: pilot, gun1, gun2, computer, engineering, and medical. The game automatically assigns crew to the first 5 of those stations, and I'm not sure how it figures out how to put who where. Anyway, to see more about one of the stations, you have to click "View" and then the station.

The various stations on the ship and the ship's current status.

On the computer station, you can load up to 6 programs, which include navigation, jump, and various combat maneuvering programs that I don't have yet. I figured out how to "Load" the program, but for the longest time, I couldn't get any loaded program to "Run" no matter how many times I hit the "Run" button.

It turns out that you actually have to wait for the program to load, in real time, which took about 15 minutes for the navigation program. Wow. I mean, I can appreciate a good simulator, but to me that carries it a bit too far.

Anyway, the navigation program was finally loaded. Time to jump! Uh, no. Now there's no "jump program" loaded. I had to repeat the navigation program process in the second slot.

One program loaded. Waiting on the status bar for the second.

When I finally had that loaded, I was able to jump--just not to Boughene. After some more experimentation and reading, it appears that the "Jump 1" drive that comes with the ship will only get you to the four systems in the lower-left part of the map. To get to those in the upper right, including Boughene, you need "Jump 2." It costs $2 million. Since I only started with $300,000, and had to buy a bunch of stuff besides, I have a long way to go.

With no compelling reason to jump anywhere, I decided to explore the Efate system a bit more. The little navigation window in the upper-right is supposed to show ships, planets, and suns, as well as your own ship, but as you can imagine I have trouble with the colors and it's just chaos to me. I eventually found that if I accelerated the ship to maximum thrust, I could identify "me" by the object that was rocketing through all the others, then kill the thrust, keep my eye on the icon, and proceed at a more sedate pace.

Flying in space obeys some real laws of physics. When you turn, you don't immediately start heading in that direction; instead, the thrust in that direction is added to the cumulative thrust from the previous direction, sending you on some middle path between the two. Keeping the thrust active imparts constant acceleration. Planets and stars exert a gravitational pull and can screw up your path. Fortunately, you can just hit a single key to stop all thrust and start over if you need to.

The sun pulls me in.

Eventually, I found myself on the planet Kra. The starport only offered saving abilities; it had no cargo, bank, personnel, equipment or fuel.

The planet also had no atmosphere. My party died the moment I stepped out of the starport.

You'd think someone could have put up a sign.

Very well, I thought, reloading. Clearly, I needed to invest in some vacuum suits back on Efate. I flew around some more and found three other planets--Llun, San, and Solon--which all had no environment, although Llun offered cargo for sale, and I recorded the prices of the various goods for later reference.

I feel like I've done this in about six games by now.

Finally, I found my way back to Efate. I spent a bunch of money restoring the fuel I'd expended and decided to have a more thorough look around. There was some kind of structure in the far northeast that I'd ignored earlier because I couldn't do anything with it. After some fiddling around, I realized that what I really needed to rent from the vehicle store wasn't a boat or ATV but a "grav vehicle," which allowed me access to a separate little city called Seara.

I entered the first building on Seara, a bar, and was immediately killed by two random gunslingers while I futilely tried to get my characters to shoot.

NPCs kill me for no reason.

The combat thing is a dealbreaker, and I need someone who's played the game to help me out, as nothing I find online has been of any use. But I'm otherwise starting to feel like I understand the game. It's clear that the visit to Boughene is not just a quick next step but rather a far-off goal, and that my immediate goal is to make lots and lots of money. At least three opportunities for doing this have presented themselves:

  • Gambling, though none of my characters have the skill.
  • Fulfilling NPC quests to get various gems and goods, though so far I've been unable to match the items I've found with NPCs who want them, and vice versa.

I don't know what they are, but I'll keep my eye out.

  • Buying cargo at one place and selling it at another, though I have to do some more exploring and recording of prices to see how that will be profitable.

It's also possible that killing these random NPCs who keep shooting me will gain some rewards. The manual suggests that you can make money "pirating" other ships, but that just seems wrong.

While waiting for someone to reply with any help on combat, I'm going to start over, see if I can get a party member with Aid Society membership, and buy vacuum suits and extra oxygen tanks for everyone so I can explore the other planets. I'll take notes on the cargo prices in the area and see if I can make any money that way.

Not a great start, but here's hoping it gets a little better.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Revisiting: Wizardry: Scenario #3 - The Legacy of Llylgamyn (1983)

I have a few reasons for returning to the wireframe halls of Wizardry III. The most obvious is that I didn't do a good enough job with it the first time, nearly five years ago, when I spent only the minimum required time on the game before getting frustrated with its character creation process and permadeath. I was still adhering quite strictly to my published rules, and it had only been a couple months prior that my party stepped over the corpses of dozens of failed colleagues to win the first Wizardry. Exhausted at the idea of going through the same process with the two sequels, I abandoned both the second and third scenarios in quick order. Later, I went back and re-won the first game and completed the second, in both cases by allowing limited backups of the party roster.

When I first played through the series, I lacked any sense of history. Now, with almost two decades of CRPG titles in my rearview mirror, I have a greater appreciation of Wizardry's status as a founding father of an entire CRPG line (including the Bard's Tale, Might & Magic, and Dungeon Master branches). Yes, Wizardry itself borrowed or plagiarized many of its elements from PLATO's Oubliette, but Oubliette owes its existence to Moria, which owes its existence to even earlier PLATO games, and ultimately it all goes back to Dungeons & Dragons (or even further, some would argue). It's a rare game, novel, movie, or other work of art that doesn't owe some of its elements to some progenitor. Wizardry still occupies a landmark place in the history of CRPGs, if nothing else as the first multi-character game.

The party in town. The names of the businesses don't change all the way through Wizardry V.
I also have a greater appreciation for how well Wizardry still works as an RPG. It is essentially the first game to have all the elements of a modern RPG in their most primeval forms: exploration through an environment, a main quest, tactical combat, a fully-realized spell system, a big variety of foes, role-playing decisions, and character advancement through both leveling and inventory acquisition. For these reasons, it is (at least for me) the earliest RPG that can still effectively satisfy the RPG craving. I gave Wizardry a 37 on the GIMLET scale. The average of every game before it was 19--nearly half--and no game came close to touching it until Ultima III came out in 1983 and ushered in the Golden Age.
The Wizardry series was the first to introduce this combat mechanism, in which each character decides on an action, and they execute (along with the enemies' actions) all at once. This dynamic continues through The Bard's Tale, Might & Magic, and Wasteland.

It's therefore been fun to re-visit Wizardry every couple of years and contrast it with whatever games I'm currently playing. In this case, it's particularly interesting to contrast it with the recently completed Dragon Sword, which does a reasonably good job copying Wizardry's interface and mechanics. In making this contrast, I've developed a much greater appreciation for the pacing of a game--a quality that doesn't really exist in my GIMLET except for a minor consideration in the "gameplay" category. When you distill a satisfying CRPG into its most basic elements, what you have is a reasonably regular system of challenges and rewards. "Challenges" include not only combat but also the more unpleasant aspects of RPG playing, like drawing 20 squares on a piece of graph paper, or spending 5 minutes hauling your party back through a map you've already cleared, or working out a logic puzzle. These things are work, and every once in a while you expect to get paid. Such "rewards" include literal rewards like gold and equipment upgrades, but also things like character advancement, uncovering the next plot point, or even seeing an interesting graphic. Until you've played both in a row, it's hard to appreciate just how much two tiny differences--the ability to save anywhere and the overwhelming frequency of random combats--make Dragon Sword a game I'll never play again and Wizardry a game I'll find a way to revisit again and again for the rest of my life.

Nothing in Wizardry is very sophisticated in content, but it still manages to get the challenge/reward ratio about right despite--and this is the key--being extraordinarily difficult. You fail a lot of the challenges. Characters die. If you're playing it "straight," you have to start over a lot. And yet you still feel a compelling sense of accomplishment at regular intervals, whether that comes from a level-up (which accompanies almost every return trip after an expedition), a new piece of gear, a special encounter, or some random message on the floor.

Graphically, the Wizardry series is very much "tell" rather than "show."

The difficulty is, of course, a key part of the Wizardry experience. You've heard me blather on about it repeatedly, but I think it's still worth emphasizing, because we've utterly lost it in modern RPGs except perhaps in the rare case of a Dark Souls. By including permadeath, but disallowing traditional "saves," and by offering no ability to restore spells while in the dungeon, each of the first three games maintains a marvelous sense of tactical tension. Each step feels like a risk. You find yourself carefully weighing whether to map a few more squares or start heading back to the surface for a refresh on spell points. There's a palpable relief when you get back to the castle and know you're temporarily safe. There are hard individual battles, yes, but the real difficulty comes from the accumulation of battles--the slow whittling down of your hit points and spell slots. A battle doesn't have to be hard to be ruinous; it just has to be unlucky. A die roll goes bad and a character gets decapitated. Unlike most games, you don't have the option to reload, so with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you bring him up to the surface and try your luck with a resurrection. Another die roll goes bad and he turns to ash. Raised on modern RPGs, you find yourself unable to believe that that's the end--that there really isn't any other way out of the situation.
Death is frequent and not even paid resurrection is guaranteed. This one failed.

To achieve the same tension in modern games, you have to purposefully delay saving. I was playing Fallout: New Vegas about a week ago, traveling the interminable canyon path between Jacobstown and Red Rock Canyon. The place has so many cazadores (giant mutated wasps that will definitely make my "most annoying enemies" list when I get to 2010) that it's crazy. I had plenty of ammo going in, but towards the end I was reduced to fighting with a BB gun and a tire iron. I kept thinking that I'd finally killed all of them, but then I'd round the next bend and there would, unbelievably, be three or four more. As the likelihood of death increased in proportion to the expenditure of my ammo, I was continually cognizant of the fact that a quick, simple save would ensure that I didn't lose all of my progress. Preventing myself from doing that was a Herculean feat, and I really wish developers would make that decision for me, like they did in this early era.

Wizardry admittedly goes a bit too far, particularly in the second and third scenarios, when death is not only permanent, but creating a new character means firing up the original Wizardry, creating him, and importing him into one of the sequels. (Neither II nor III has an internal character-creation process.) III is slightly better in this regard, since imported characters are supposed to be "descendants" of the I or II party members, and thus start the game at Level 1 no matter what level they were in the previous game. Starting over in II, on the other hand, meant trying to survive the advanced dungeons of that game with a Level 1 party or spending time re-building a character in the first game just so you could import him into II at a higher level.

I paid my dues winning Wizardry straight, burning through dozens of characters before defeating Werdna with my umpteenth party, so I don't feel compelled to adhere to such difficulty in III. Instead, I'm following the same rules that I use when playing a modern game like Skyrim or New Vegas: set my iPhone timer for 30 minutes after each save, and don't allow myself to save again until it goes off. In the case of Wizardry III, that means allowing myself to back up the scenario disks. It still maintains a lot of the tension, but with slightly less disastrous consequences.

Just about time for a reload.

Scenario #3 is explicitly not a sequel, but rather the second of two expansions to the original game, but later entries in the franchise kept the numbering system as if it really was Wizardry III. The gameplay is so unchanged from Wizardry that its section in the Ultimate Wizardry Archives manual is only 4 pages, all describing the back story and the import process; all other mechanics and spells are the same as the original.

As for that back story, again we see that story-telling wasn't Sir-Tech's strong suit. If the era is famous for trite "kill the evil wizard" plot, Sir-Tech is famous for nonsensical embellishments on it. The game nominally takes place in Llylgamyn, the same setting as Wizardry II. A generation of peace and prosperity followed the recovery of the Staff of Gnilda and quelling of the rebellion, but now the world is threatened by an inexplicable increase in earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, and other natural disasters. To determine the source of this new evil, the city's leaders have asked the party to find the Orb of Earithin, a powerful scrying stone hidden deep in the lair of the great dragon L'kbreth.

Each imported character goes through a "rite of passage ceremony."

The party members are explicitly given as the descendants of the victorious Proving Grounds and Knight of Diamonds adventurers. After importing the characters from the previous games into Llylgamyn, they have to go through a process of "legation," which is presented as a kind-of blessing from the ancestor to the descendant. The descendant keeps the name and attributes of the original character but is re-set to Level 1, gets only 500 gold, and can re-select an alignment. They also keep the symbols that indicate whether they won the first game and what role they had winning the second.

The ">" indicates Gideon won the first game; the "G" is Gnilda's symbol for his retrieval of the pieces of the Knight of Diamonds. I don't know what the "D" is about. Everyone has it, even the character I just created.

My party had finished Knight of Diamonds alive, but as you may recall, my thief had accidentally been changed to a lord by a Ring of Metamorph. I needed someone to disarm traps, so I jettisoned him and created a new thief character to join this party. (Later, I realized it would have made more sense to keep the lord and get rid of one of my two fighters.) After that, it was off to the equipment shop to buy the standard gear (500 gold per person was more than enough) and into the dungeon!

Checking my old "WIZ3" folder, I was pleased to find that I already had all of Level 1 and much of Level 2 mapped, so I could concentrate on character development during the first stage of the game. This is good, because the hardest part about this game is surviving Level 1. Each character's 8 hit points are easily obliterated by a single attack from some of the level's foes, and the 2 Level 1 spell slots allotted to the mage and priest barely help. I spent most of the first few hours reloading from my save disks when my characters died (easier than creating new ones), and saving at every successful combat after the iPhone marked the 30-minute point. Eventually, I was able to stabilize the party at Level 4.

Thank La-La for the KATINO (sleep) spell. Almost everything is susceptible to it. Unfortunately, a Level 1 mage only has two of them.

The first few Wizardry games have several quirks that are worth remembering:

  • When you find items in treasure chests (which is rare), they are usually unknown, annotated with a question mark before their names ("?ARMOR"). Unless you want to pay Boltac to identify the items back at the trading post, you have to have a bishop in the party. In Wizardry V, I created a bishop but kept him in the tavern, swapping him into the party only when I wanted something identified, but it didn't work well because the bishop really needs to level to identify things successfully. In this party, I have a bishop.
  • Bishops are one of four "prestige" classes offered by the game. The others are lords, samurai, and ninjas. It's very hard to create characters of these classes because they require high attribute values and you'd have to get very lucky during character creation to get enough points. Theoretically, you can switch to these prestige classes later, once you level up and increase your attribute scores. The primary advantage to the bishop, other than identifying items, is that he can cast both mage and priest spells.

Paul prepares to identify a bit of clothing.

  • When leveling up, there's a good chance that you'll lose points in some attributes while gaining in others. In fact, it appears to me that every attribute has basically a one-in-three chance of increasing, decreasing, or staying the same. This makes it very hard to ever get enough points to switch to the prestige classes. This may only happen in the DOS version; I'm not sure if we've ever come to a solid conclusion on that.

I'm so glad I leveled up.

  • The series is the first I know to offer the mechanic, now somewhat commonplace, by which you can hide the command options and status windows while exploring the dungeon, theoretically creating a deeper sense of immersion as you explore.
  • Equipment-based improvements are very slow in the early Wizardry series. A +1 weapon or armor is an advanced piece of gear; +2 is epic. I'm not sure +3 even exists.
  • If you want to find equipment at all, you have to open chests. Only a thief has a chance of disarming traps on the chests, but he often fails. This was responsible for an accelerated ending the first time I won Wizardry.

Lone Wolf identifies the wrong trap.

  • When you first encounter a group of enemies, there's a chance that they'll be friendly. If they are, and you attack, there's a chance your party (or just some members) will become evil. Conversely, if your party is evil and it declines to attack a "friendly" bunch, there's a chance that they'll become good. See this post for one of the consequences of this.
  • When you enter combat, there's a chance that you surprised your enemy or that they surprised you. The party that surprises the other gets a free round of attacks. Oddly, if your party is the one surprising, mages can't cast spells in that first round.

Level 1

Level 1 of the dungeon (or tower; the levels work upwards instead of downwards) is dominated by an area shaped like a castle with four turrets in the corner. The castle is surrounded by "moat monsters" who provide a reliable 50 experience points each and were responsible for a lot of my grinding, particularly since they were susceptible to the KATINO sleep spell. Near the entrance to the level is a "lake" with an island that I can't reach. I'll have to check it out later when I have the MALOR spell.

Inside the castle are repeated fixed encounters with "Garian guards," who would be reasonably tough except for their tendency to run away in the middle of battle. At least one such group drops a pouch of gems every time I defeat them. I don't know if this is a quest item or just something to sell.

Why?! You're winning!

The castle culminates in a message from L'Kbreth that "neither good nor evil alone can triumph here." This is an indicator of the game's little gimmick: some levels are only accessible to some alignments. I don't know if the entire party has to be of that alignment, just a majority, or just one of the characters, and I don't know how the game treats neutral characters on those special floors. Beyond the message, however, are three staircases, two of which kick my entirely good-aligned party (save one neutral thief) back to the town. The third one lets me up to Level 2. At some point, I'm going to have to create new characters or somehow switch the alignments of my existing ones.

This is about as far as I got in my first attempt to play Llylgamyn back in 2010. Shortly after this, my entire party was killed, presumably on the last square I mapped of Level 2, and I gave it up. I look forward to finishing it this time. It might take a few weeks and a few posts in between MegaTraveller and other games.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Game 171: MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990)

The main main screen lacks the "1" after the title, but the pre-main screen, the box, and the manual all have it.
MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy
United States
Paragon Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Amiga, Atari ST
Date Started: 22 December 2014
More than 3,500 years in the future, mankind has colonized space. Multiple planets and systems, each governed in a neo-feudalistic style, are united into the Third Imperium--a "classic aristocracy" of haves, have-nots, and political machinations. Around 500 years ago (in the year 5018 on the "old Earth calendar"), humanity came into contact with the Zhodani, a race of human-looking mind-readers whose psionic powers--and the accompanying loss of any sense of privacy and secrecy--have created an authoritarian, unemotional, highly-regimented existence. The Imperium and the Zhodani clashed in a series of five Frontier Wars, each ending in either a loss or a Pyrrhic Victory for the Imperium (rendered worse after the first three Frontier Wars were followed by bloody coups in the Imperium).

MegaTraveller 1 starts amidst the beginning of the Fifth Frontier War. The titular Zhodani Conspiracy is to smuggle military weapons and armor to "dissident guerrilla units" on a selection of Imperium worlds. When the Imperium forces are distracted by these uprisings, the Zhodani plan to seize imperial worlds in the Spinward Marches, an area of space that marks the boundary between the two empires. The arms shipments will be conducted through a secret alliance with Konrad Keifer, an executive in the Sharurshid Megacorporation.

The characters get the main quest amid the opening screens.

But Lenara Raclor, a special agent from Sharurshid's internal intelligence agency, Transom, has learned of Keifer's treason. Clutching stolen data tapes and on the run from Zhondani forces, she bursts into a tavern frequented by ex-military types. Desperately, she approaches a table at which five veterans are reminiscing about their service. She hands them a data storage device, a decoding key, half of an imperial seal, and $30,000, begging them to take the items to Supernova, a bar on the planet Boughene, and find a man named Arik Toryan. As she finishes her plea, the door bursts open and commandos storm the tavern. Shouting a command to the party to "run!," Lenara pulls out an automatic pistol and begins firing.

No villain speech should ever begin with "Surprise...Surprise!"

The backstory and prologue for the game are as intriguing as anything I can remember. You could almost imagine them as a title crawl at the beginning of a Star Wars film, setting up an immediate action sequence. The five veterans are, of course, the player's party, created through an hour-long process and dead within five minutes unless the player has helpful commenters who warn him to run away from the opening battle. (To be fair, Lenara does say "run!," not "fight!")

More on the opening moments in a bit, but let's talk about the five veterans in the bar. MegaTraveller has an unusual and complex character creation system. We saw it earlier in Space (1978), which of course was plagiarized from the Traveller RPG. It starts with a random assignment of scores to strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education, and social standing on a scale of 1-15. I don't think the rolls are truly random, because I almost never saw 1s or 15s and in general everything seemed weighted towards the middle of the scale.

Character creation begins.

Once you get a character you like, you choose whether to enlist in a service or submit to a random draft. Assuming you enlist, you have a choice between Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, and Merchants, each with different requirement for starting attributes. If you choose a branch whose minimum requirements you don't meet, you automatically go to the draft.

No matter how you end up in service, once you enlist, you watch the years pass, aging the character from 18 to whenever, depending on how many terms you serve. During each term, you can get promoted or assigned to special duty, which affects the number of skill points that you earn for the term. These points are spent acquiring new skills or bolstering existing ones. You can also get injured or even die during service, forcing you to start over. Aging takes a toll on the starting attributes after a while. It's unnerving to see a character get worse after generation.

Man, this game makes me feel old.

The choice of skills practically drove me to paralysis. With 82 skills, MegaTraveller has more than any other game I've ever played. With some franchises and companies, you can rest easy that whatever selection of skills you prioritize, the game will offer you appropriate alternatives to most puzzles. I don't know what the next Fallout game is going to look like, but I know that nothing crucial to a quest is going to be behind a locked door--or, if it is, the game will offer a computer terminal that also unlocks the door and, failing that, a keycard hidden somewhere in the same base. I know that I'll find plenty of weapons of all types, so I don't need to obsess about whether to favor energy weapons or guns. I know that bribes or running errands will compensate for failed speech checks. If Origin made MegaTraveller, I'd have the same level of trust. Paragon, whose only previous RPGs are the bizarre Alien Fires: 2199 AD and the silly Wizard Wars, has not yet earned that faith.

(The manual helpfully tells you that 25 of the skills--including cool-sounding ones like "interrogation" and "robotics"--aren't used in the first game, suggesting that you might want to develop them anyway "for future MegaTraveller computer adventures." The company certainly hasn't earned that kind of faith.)

Despite the complexity, you don't really get to "select" your skills during training. Instead, you choose a "skill table" that you want to focus on, and the game randomly picks a skill from the table--perhaps mimicking how military personnel don't have full control over their assignments. Thus, the character's starting position, in terms of skills, is somewhat arbitrary, although I'm promised that there are ways to acquire skills throughout the game through use and training. If a character turns out to be entirely useless, you can always dump him and create a new one at any starport.

I can choose "Advanced Education," but the game will choose randomly from among the items below it. On the other hand, if the game chooses any of the bolded options, it will open a sub-menu where I can choose the specific skill. It's all very complicated.

You get to choose how many terms characters serve, and basically the choice you're making (in addition to gambling on injury and death) is whether you want a young, inexperienced character with high attributes or an old, character with lots of skills (and retirement pay) but diminished attributes. Naturally, the manual advises, a mix is sensible.

Once the character leaves service--either by choice or force--he gets a certain number of "benefits" related to the number of terms he served and how many times he got promoted. Such benefits include cold, hard cash, increased intelligence and education, weapons, armor, and an "imperial release"--basically a pardon for crimes. As with skills, you don't get to actually choose the benefits--you just choose from two categories, "cash" and other "benefits," and the game randomly makes a selection among them.

Selecting from retirement benefits.

My party took most of this playing session to create. These were the five successful characters.

Keller seemed from her stats (high intelligence and education, low social standing) like an engineer type. I enlisted her in the Army. By focusing on "special skills" and "education" and keeping her in service for five terms, I ensured that she developed "ATV," "electronics," "grav vehicle," "jack of all trades," "mechanical," and "watercraft" skills along with "combat rifleman" and "submachine gun." (Ironically, general "engineering" wasn't available in this branch.) Despite my intentions to keep her in until the age of 40, the Army released her at 30 at the rank of captain. She received $20,000, cloth armor, and an imperial release upon retirement.

Castle was pretty high in social standing and dexterity but moderate in everything else. I thought I'd make him a "Face" character, skilled in things like bribery, communication, gambling, trading, and "streetwise." With the random selection, I was able to partly realize my goals, with skills in "carousing," "liaison," "streetwise," and "communications," along with the non-desired skills of "vacuum suit," "electronics," "jack of all trades" and "computer," before mustering out at the age of 34 and the rank of 3rd officer.  He retired with $11,000 in cash, an auto pistol, and an imperial release.

Maddox got above-average (but not extreme) scores everywhere, so I decided to make him my pilot. I was hoping he'd get out with the "pilot" skill, but instead he got "medical," "engineering," "forward observer," and "navigation" before the Navy mustered him out at age 30, having never been promoted. Ouch. He got $20,000, an autopistol, and +1 intelligence upon leaving.

Naming the character is technically the last step of the process.

By this time, I needed a couple of ground soldiers. I decided to try to make one young and hale, one old and grizzled. I rerolled forever until I went with Espinosa, moderately high in everything but education, and enlisted her in the Marines. I had intended to keep her in until 40 or 50, but the marines released her, having never been promoted, at age 30. Nonetheless, the training had done its job and I got out with 3 levels in "laser weapons," one in "heavy weapons," and the ancillary skills of stealth and bribery. In choosing benefits, her intelligence went up by 4 (from an already-high 11), but she only got $5,000 cash.

My last character, Casey, had 9s in most of his attributes. I enlisted in the Scouts. His enlistment was blessed with "special duty" and lots of skill selections. I intended to train him in weapons, but he ended up becoming more of a pilot than Maddox, with skills in "pilot," "navigation," and "engineering," but I also got him "handgun," "heavy weapons," and "battle dress" while improving a lot of his initial statistics. I wanted to keep him going, but I got discouraged at the losses of 1 point of strength, dexterity, and endurance for every term after the age of 30, so I mustered him out at 34. He got the most money of anyone--$90,000--plus a 2-point bump to his already-high intelligence.

At this point, Casey and Maddox were a bit redundant with each other, but I had been rolling, re-rolling, creating, and discarding characters for over two hours, watching some die in combat, others on the operating table after combat, and so forth, so I decided to just go with it and see how it worked out.
Too much of this gets depressing.
This game's approach to character creation isn't nearly as cruel as the one used in Space, where 9 out of 10 characters were simply unplayable and 9 out of 10 who were playable died during military service. I wonder which is closer to the original Traveller rules. I do like the general approach. Most RPGs assume that the player is a young, rank amateur, and it's fun to see one approach it from a different angle: these people are coming from long careers that have made them who they are. I wonder why those careers all have to involve military service, but that's a minor quibble. It's a nice inversion of the standard D&D-based system. On the other hand, for such a detailed process otherwise, I found it odd that you can't choose the character's sex.

After the long character creation process, MegaTraveller starts in the bar described above, where Lenara has demanded that the party "run!" from the Zhondani allies. The party starts outside the bar in the middle of combat, taking constant damage from enemy weapons while trying to figure out the interface and controls. This is only the second game I can remember that starts the party in such a cruel position--the first is Ultima VI. But where the battle in Lord British's throne room was fairly easy to win--including NPCs in the party who acted independently--the battle here is reportedly impossible even for a player who knows what he's doing.
Shot by Zhodani agents the moment I leave the bar.
I didn't know what I was doing, so I had my party hightail it out of there, to the far corner of the map. The interface shows that I'm on the planet Efate in the Efate system.

Hiding in a corner from Zhodani agents.

MegaTraveller has a bizarre interface. The top of the screen shows five icons in a row that represent the various party members, annotated with symbols representing the branch of service they came from, but I don't know what the pictorials below them mean and the manual isn't much help there: despite taking up 143 pages, it has about 4 total screenshots. The upper-right shows the active formation. I'm not sure what the symbols in the mid-right are about, but the bottom right has most of the commands, fortunately accessible with redundant keyboard shortcuts.
Combat begins by "breaking" the party into multiple icons and controlling them separately. But it takes place in real time, and party members don't act on their own, so I haven't quite figured out how to effectively give commands to five characters at once. More on that next time, I guess.

I wandered around speaking to the various NPCs, but none had anything to say but "Greetings, Traveller!" I found a shop that rents ATVs, "grav vehicles," and boats; a clinic; a general store; an imperial base; a Museum of Natural History; and a "traveler's aid society" that won't let me in because I'm not a member. If I wandered too far, I kept running into Zhodani agents, so I ducked into the Museum and wandered around looking at items for a bit. (Just the icons; the game doesn't have a "look" icon that I can see, or any other way to interact with things.)

"Greetings. Please get out of my way."

One curator indicated that he'd be interested in purchasing "starrghrite" if I found any; another was interested in diamonds.

The extent of NPC dialogue, at least so far.

The Zhodani agents didn't go away, and they're blocking my access to the rest of the city, so I'm not sure if I'm supposed to hide longer or take them out individually now that they're dispersed. I'll work on that for the next time.
The RPG on which the game is based.
For now, let's focus on the game's origins a bit. It is, of course, a computer edition of the Traveller tabletop role-playing game, first published in 1977 by the Game Designers' Workshop. It seems to be the most successful science-fiction tabletop RPG, particularly given that it's still active, with the latest edition funded partly by Kickstarter and released in 2013. An impassioned e-mail from frequent commenter Gaguum, calling himself "without a doubt, the biggest Traveller fan among your regular commenters," led me to learn more about the setting, and I confess I really like it. Much like Firefly (which Gaguum speculates was heavily inspired by Traveller), it offers a future in which, despite faster-than-light travel and ray guns, people are pretty much the same as they are now. Although aliens exist in the universe, the focus is on humans. It eschews the utopian dreams of Star Trek for a gritty future in which people steal, trade, scam, scrimp, and hustle to make ends meet. Gaguum's description of the universe is so good that I'll just repeat it verbatim:

In the typical Traveller campaign (as in MT1), your PCs operate a "tramp steamer" starship, paying your bills and debts by taking various gigs--mainly speculative interstellar trade, but also odd jobs like bounty hunting, mercenary work, private investigation, delivering messages/parcels, etc. At the same time, you have to avoid myriad disasters and threats. Nearly everybody will try to kill you if you get in their way (e.g. space pirates, corporate goons, mobsters, corrupt officials, aliens, spies, critters, etc.). And there are always guys out there who are richer, more powerful, better connected, more heavily armed, and meaner than you, all of which makes diplomacy and discretion as important as fighting.
For its tenth anniversary, GDW published a new edition called MegaTraveller. My understanding is that the original Traveller was just a set of rules with no backstory. Later, GDW fused it with its Imperium boardgame to create the game's official universe, but even then it was up to the players to make up much of the story. MegaTraveller created a more rigid universe from that point forward. The weird thing, mentioned by Gaguum and confirmed by other online sources, is that while the tabletop version of MegaTraveller is set during an era of rebellion against the Imperium, the CRPG version mentions nothing of the rebellion at all. Despite taking the name from the updated universe, it's set during a period of the original Traveller universe.

This isn't Gaguum's only problem with the computer version. He complains that the plot strips the subtlety and complexity of a traditional Traveller campaign; that the mechanic removes the rules system by which players have to choose to do things "cautiously," "normally," or "hastily"; that the skills are under-used; that the computer game significantly limits character development; that the real-time combat system destroys the tactical nature of the game; and that, overall, it's too hard.

I have to agree with his last point.

I haven't gotten far enough in this game to assess any of these things for myself, but his comments don't fill me with hope for the game in general. By the end of the next post, I should know whether I like it yet.

One major theme of 1990, which I'll explore in more detail in the end-of-year post, is the number of other tabletop roleplaying franchises that, presumably seeing the success of the D&D Gold Box games, decided it was time to get themselves on the nearest computer. MegaTraveller is one of four tabletop-to-computer conversion that we saw in 1990, the others being Buck Rogers, Tunnels & Trolls, and the upcoming Space: 1889 (the latter also by GDW and Paragon). All of them flopped. None of them had great reviews, and only MegaTraveller and Buck Rogers survived to sequels--only to die after that. So as discussion questions: 1) other than Dungeons & Dragons, what RPG system has been most successful in its computer translation; and 2) what is so special about D&D that it was able to inspire 6 billion computer games where everyone else seems to die in the single digits?