Monday, January 26, 2015

Hard Nova: Hard Start

Preparing to enter a stargate as hostile ships approach.

The beginning of Hard Nova is difficult enough that I feel like I must be missing something, though I've pored through the documentation several times and I'm not seeing any hints. The essential problem is that the first quest is nearly impossible for an early-level character, but I've found only one opportunity for grinding experience, and no opportunities to upgrade equipment even though I can make plenty of cash.

When I closed the first post, I was prepared to spend some time in the "robomaze" on the opening base to grind for experience and gold. It turned out to be a decent place for experience grinding, but there was really no way to make money because I spent way more on entry fees (which increase with every level) and ammunition than the "bronze flags" restored.

After I gained a couple of levels and was almost out of money, I decided to head to the Starkiller base for my first assignment. I landed at the base (the "D" key was what I was missing before), which was a small structure with a shop and three NPCs: a human communications technician named Janai, a "Darcator" (flying species that looks like a manta ray) named Leod; and the "highest visible official" in the Starkillers group, Gerard Kendall.

Kendall ribbed me about the way I've been treating the ship he gave me and then gave me my first quest: a water tanker was hijacked somewhere near Ciberan and was last seen heading towards the stargate. He wanted me to get aboard and wipe out the thieves without damaging the ship.

Accepting the first quest.

(Incidentally, I got the impression from the backstory that Nova had joined the Starkillers after they rescued her from the disaster that killed most of her crew. But the dialogue makes it seem like Nova was already a member, and she was on a Starkiller mission when it happened.)

The Darcator Starkiller member indicates that he knew me before the disaster.

The map showed that Ciberan was two stargates away from the opening Mastassini system. I followed it to find the location of the gates and jumped through with no problem. The Ciberan system was swarming with hostile ships that surrounded and destroyed me if I went too far from the gate.

This really didn't work out for me.

I located and boarded the water tanker, which is when it became clear that I would need to do a lot more grinding before I'd succeed at the mission. The enemies killed me almost instantaneously, and even when I tried to isolate them and take them on one-by-one, my weapons damaged them slower than their bodies healed the damage (more on that below). I was also nearly out of fuel by this point, and didn't have enough money to re-fuel, so clearly I needed a new strategy.

I got this screen a lot in the first few hours.

Let's talk about the combat mechanics before I get into the rest of the adventure. Neither ground combat nor space combat have advanced significantly since Sentinel Worlds, where they both sucked. In ground combat, you basically use two keys: SPACE to select your target and ENTER to fire. NPCs attack automatically. Or, at least Ace does. A'kri's only skill is with melee weapons, and since characters never break formation, you have to walk right up to an enemy before he'll attack.

Combat occurs in real time, though the PC, each enemy, and each NPC, has to take a timed break between attacks dependent on his or her "Agility" score. Health--both yours and the enemy's--regenerates quite quickly in real-time (it did in Sentinel Worlds, too, but you had to have a doctor in the party), so combat is only dangerous on an individual-enemy basis. Essentially, you have to do enough consistent damage to overwhelm his regeneration process to kill him, and he has to do enough damage to overwhelm your regeneration process to be dangerous to you. If you can survive a single enemy or group of enemies in the same area, you just have to wait a bit to get back to full strength. Since enemies (and the party) can't shoot through doors, if you can put a door between you and the foes and stand right next to it, they can't enter and you can heal as long as you need to.

I'm safe as long as I stand behind this doorway.

Thus, the only "tactic" I can discern is to try to isolate enemies. This is hard, because they wander around randomly even when engaged in active combat (this is the second game in a row where this happens) and will happily wander on- and off-screen while you're trying to kill them.

Enemies don't seem to respawn when you move on- or off-screen, but they do respawn if you hit the F10 key to save the game, at least in the robomaze. Sometimes, they respawn right next to you, in large groups. In the case of the robomaze, where I'm trying to gain experience, I guess this is a good thing.

Your ability scores affect two major combat factors: how often you can fire (there's a small delay between moments where you can press the ENTER key) and your accuracy, represented as a score between 0 and 100%. Damage seems to depend solely on the type of weapon. I've noted that increases in both the "Firearms" and "Tactics" skills increase my accuracy. A higher "Agility" reduces the delay.

This shot shows that at my current ability level, I hit 55% of the time and do 4-12 damage. I don't know how the speed actually translates to seconds-between-shots, but more speed is better.

Space combat isn't much more sophisticated. You use SPACE to target a foe, G to fire lasers, and ENTER to fire missiles. Lasers consume fuel; missiles are in limited supply but cost only a small amount to re-stock. The prime difficulty of space combat is that the window is extremely small and the enemies move extremely fast. It's nearly impossible to keep them on the screen, and I can't even begin to target missiles effectively. [Edit: As Redleg_FAO reminds, there is a "shadow" option that keeps your ship flying close to the target. This does make tracking ships a bit easier.] (Missiles always fire from the front of the ship, but lasers just automatically target the enemy.) The "Star Gunner" skill for anyone assigned to the "gunner" position seems to govern accuracy in space combat.

The ship is damaged a lot in space combat, and so far I don't have an engineer to effect quick repairs. Fortunately, repairing at a space station doesn't cost very much--considerably less than replenishing fuel. So far in the game, I've defeated a couple of hostile ships in combat (and had to reload after getting killed by a lot more), but you don't get any money for it, so I'm not sure if there's any point until I get an explicit mission that requires me to fight ships. I guess maybe the gunner gets some experience.

Buying repairs at a space station. Everything but "Avionics" needs to be fixed.

I'm a little confused about how experience is allocated. The manual only says that each character gets experience by "succeeding in combat" or "in the performance of duties on the spacecraft." The former is the more obvious; it seems to be awarded to the character who makes the kill. The latter is a little more nebulous. A'kri's one duty on the spacecraft is to navigate stargates, but he doesn't seem to gain experience when we go through them.

Leveling up allows you to allocate a handful of points to your abilities. The number of points you get for each level seems to be governed by the "Aptitude" ability, so I've been putting one point into that at each level and then distributing the rest as makes the most sense, mostly in ground combat skills. I'm trusting that I'll eventually find another NPC with high "Mechanics" and "Electronics" skills, or else I'm in trouble.

Nova after this session. I really hope I didn't need to be investing in some of the other abilities yet.

Based on my failure in the first mission, I knew I'd need to increase the accuracy and speed of my guns. It also would have been nice to get another NPC--someone who could relieve the useless A'kri on the ground party. And I would have liked some better weapons and armor. The problems were that a) I didn't have any money for better weapons; b) the only two shops I've found, on the opening base and the Starkiller base, don't sell better weapons or armor; c) I don't know where to find more NPCs; and d) the only place I know to grind against enemies is in the robomaze.

The only one of these problems I was able to successfully solve is the first one. Each space station offers a group of lucrative "smuggling missions" by which you agree to accept a certain cargo, then fly it to a specified set of coordinates on another planet, at which point you're immediately paid. These are analogs to the "science foundation" quests of Sentinel Worlds.

Accepting a smuggling mission.

The most lucrative of the bunch pays $29,000 to smuggle fuel cells to Ciberan. I had already been to the area, so I knew it was hard, but not impossible. The only danger comes once you exit the second stargate and hostile ships start attacking. My strategy was to ramp up to max speed, blow past them, and quickly enter the planet's orbit. At that point, you're "safe." The specific set of coordinates where I had to drop the supplies was blocked by a "drop shield," but it was easy enough to go to a more remote set of coordinates, drop, and then fly to the supply zone. 

Reaching the drop point. There's nothing visual there, but the text at the top tells me to unload the cargo.
After the mission, I had to spend a lot of money on fuels and repairs, but I still made about $24,000 net. I repeated this a few times, interspersed with less dangerous missions, and soon had more than $100K--a nice bank for ship upgrades and equipment upgrades, if only I could find a store that sells the latter. I did buy an "A7 comet beam" for my ship, which is supposed to be the best laser weapon.

The obvious thing to do was to explore random worlds looking for NPCs, combats, and shops, but the worlds are quite large, and it seems unlikely that I'll find anything by flying around randomly. From space, there don't seem to be any beacons that show you the locations of settlements (or maybe I just need a higher "Star Comm" skill first?). Also, in a comment, Dariel says that visiting locations before the plot sends you there can break the game. I scoured the documentation looking for some list of coordinates for cities and bases, but I don't see anything.

With nothing else to do, I just spent a lot of time grinding in the robomaze, especially since I have plenty of money for ammo and entry fees. Leveling slowed down quickly, though, and the robots were insanely boring even with The Rockford Files playing in the background. By the time Nova reached Level 7, I'd had more then enough. I decided it was time to try the first quest again.

Grinding in this area is very boring.

I flew back to Ciberan space, found the tanker, and boarded, saving just inside the door. It took me several re-loads, but I was finally able to clear out the opening area, which had 3 enemies, which gave me some breathing room to engage the rest of the ship. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that I didn't have nearly enough ammo for the mission. I had to abort, head back to the opening base, and fill every empty slot in both individual inventories and the party's "pool" inventory with magazines.

Returning to the ship, I was surprised and happy to see that the enemies already slain hadn't respawned. The rest of the enemies, while not impossible, were very annoying. They kept ducking into single-square rooms in the middle of combat, regenerating health while I was powerless to kill them. The enemy AI in the game is maddening. They just move randomly. They don't advance, so you can't lure them. They don't retreat. They just bumble about. In an area with a lot of doors, which cut off your ability to hit them, it's infuriating.

Enemies hiding in little cells where I can't get them.

But eventually I picked them off, and on the bridge, I found my first weapon upgrade, a "SMG-70X," along with a belt of ammo.

Equipping my new, slightly-better weapon.

The captain of the hijackers was by himself, unmoving, in a room where only one character could fit through the door. With my new SMG, I was able to kill him with only about 5 reloads. Once he was dead, I had the option to take his head as proof of completion of the mission.

I returned to Kendall, who was unhappy with my choice of "proof," but he gave me the $5,000 reward and told me to "go smuggle or something" until he called again. I hope that's soon, because otherwise I really don't know what to do except go out and make a lot of cash that I can't spend.

A somewhat realistic reaction to being given a bloody, severed head.

A few other notes:

  • Death is gruesome and permanent. Since there are a limited number of NPCs in the game and you want to preserve those with special skills, it's also an occasion for an immediate re-load.

  • Dariel mentioned that there are abandoned military bases on Holbrook that you can explore. Flying my hovercraft randomly, I did discover one, but it just contained rooms full of ammunition for weapons I didn't have. Easier to do smuggling missions than to pick up and sell all of these.

Okay, granted, this would come in handy now, but this was before I found the SMG.
  • When I entered one sector of space, the "Glorious world of Ariel" demanded a $16,508 tribute. I refused, and I didn't notice any changes in the number of hostile ships.

The second game in a row where navigation success rests on differentiating between colors of tiny dots.

Thus ends my first quest in Hard Nova. Given the sophomoric combat system and facepalm-inducing dialogue, I don't have a lot of high hopes for this one. (Leveling up is, admittedly, satisfying and instantly-rewarding.) Here's hoping the plot, at least, turns out to be better than Sentinel Worlds.
At least this game avoids the trope in which you're wondering why your character is running around doing side quests when there's a pressing main quest to do. Now, if there were only some side quests.
In other news, I was going to offer a bonus post on the Intellivision Swords & Serpents (1982). I saw that if I completed it, I would have played every western-released RPG, computer and console, through 1982. Moreover, there aren't any more console-only RPGs in the west until 1987, and there's only one that year; the next one is in 1990. [Edit: As the discussion made clear, I was misreading my own data. I should have said "there aren't any more console-only RPGs released by a western developer," not "released in the west."] Anyway, I downloaded it and played it for a bit, and it appears to me that it's not an RPG at all. It offers no character development, combat seems to be all action-based, and the only "inventory" is treasures that you collect for a score. It's basically an arcade game or an early version of Gauntlet. If anyone has any experience with the game and can refute this, I'm listening, but otherwise I'll conclude that I have played all western RPGs through 1982 (barring ones that no longer exist in playable form).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Game 172: Hard Nova (1990)

Hard Nova
United States
Spaceport Malibu (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Amiga, Atari ST
Date Started: 24 January 2015
The other day, I downloaded Hard Nova, fired it up just to get a sense of it, and had an immediate visceral reaction. Specifically, I said, "Oh, hell no." With mounting suspicion, I did a search for the game's title in my past blog comments, and my heart sank when I saw that most of them were attached to Sentinel Worlds: Future Magic. That game sticks out in my memory as one of the dumbest games I've ever played. I just checked out my final rating from May 2012, and sure enough, I wrote it has "a dumb plot, a dumb interface, a dumb approach to combat, dumb dialogue, dumb exposition, and a final 'battle' so dumb it beggars description."

I'm not saying it didn't have some interesting elements. My final rating of 36 was, after all, slightly in my "recommended" range. The game has its fans. The interface, while difficult overall, had some interesting elements. Character development was okay, and it was one of the few games in its year to offer actual NPC dialogue. But every time that Sentinel Worlds had to do anything with plot and dialogue, it suddenly seemed it was created by a sixth-grader. Let's all recall the game's moment of victory, seconds after the player has defeated the dumbly-named "Malcolm Trandle" in the bizarrely stupid final combat:

Slightly better would have been, "You destroyed me?! I am beat."

Hard Nova is recognizably from the same team as Sentinel Worlds. Both were published by EA, and Karl Buiter was the designer of both. Seeing all this, I did not approach Hard Nova with a lot of promise. My fears turn out to be partly founded. The manual and in-game descriptive text are well-written, but the in-game dialogue is absolutely cringe-worthy (as we'll see below). The lame combat system hasn't been improved, and the interface is confusing as hell. It relies a lot on the function keys, which aren't the easiest set of keys to get right without looking at the keyboard.

On the other hand, there are some improvements, primarily in graphics and sound. The back story is pretty good (then again, so was Sentinel Worlds', before it devolved into idiocy). There are more descriptions of individuals, objects, and areas; in fact, you get a D&D module-style paragraph upon entering each room.

The pre-room and in-room descriptions add some flavor to the visuals.

The back story casts the player in the role of a ship captain who lost his or her ship and crew in an errant meteor strike. Escaping in a pod with one crewmember--a "Bremar" named A'kri Janr--the player gets picked up by the Starkiller Mercenary Group and has no choice but to join. As the game begins, the player chooses whether this captain is "Nova," a female who specializes in guns, or "Stark," a male who specializes in hand-to-hand combat. As with Sentinel Worlds, both portraits look vaguely like people I've seen before, but I can't quite place.

Neither, incidentally, looks anything like the character on the box cover, who to me looks like a young Kate Mulgrew. Voyager wouldn't be on for five years, but perhaps Buiter was a fan of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

In any event, it's not like the game is called Hard Stark, and since the manual uses "Nova" as the main character in its back story, I decided to go with her.

A map of the game world, courtesy of The game starts in the system in the upper-left.
The game takes place in an area of space called the Four Systems, a group of mining and trading colonies established for commercial exploitation. Conflict has recently broken out between the systems, which has both enriched the mercenary companies and pitted them against each other. Meanwhile, far away from the Four Systems, the sun of a planet called Typhon is dying, and the Typhonese battle fleet is seeking a new home "beyond the tunnel in space." The ominous suggestion is that the tunnel's exit is somewhere near the four systems.

Nova starts on a base called Mastass, at which her ship is docked. She is accompanied by an NPC companion named A'kri Janr, her alien navigator from the backstory and the only survivor from the meteor strike. The first quest seems to be to assemble a new crew.

The small base has a store, a "robomaze," and a casino. The "robomaze" requires a $300 entry fee and offers a televised match in which Nova fights robots and can collect bronze flags to sell for $60 each at the store. It's an easy way to learn the combat system, gain some experience, and make a little money. I'll have more to say on combat in a later post, of course.
Fighting in the robomaze.

The casino offers the ability to play roulette (using Vegas-ish rules, so no real PC advantage) and talk to a few NPCs. Dialogue is something like Sentinel Worlds, offering a couple of full-sentence options for each stage of the conversation. Also, like Sentinel Worlds, the writing is awful. Sometimes the dialogue options don't make a lot of sense, as in this case, where the only choices are to insult the NPC or lie to him.

Or in this case, where you're just obnoxious whatever you choose:

The casino included an aristocratic "business woman" who didn't want to talk with me no matter what I chose, a merc from the "Zero-L" company, a space merchant who ran a test using a crystal to see if we were "compatible" and got scared at the result, a Lanta (lizard species) preacher who called me an "abomination," a young alien who was entranced by my status as a mercenary and wanted to join me (I said no, since he didn't have any skills), and a more competent NPC named Ace Elcator who did join me. I'll relate the entire dialogue with Ace so you can get a sense of it:
ACE: That seat's taken, merc.
NOVA: What makes you think I'm a mercenary?
ACE: Either you're a merc or a plastic surgeon's test dummy. Your clothes are torn and smell like smoke and fusionite. And you also had the eggs to talk to me. What do you want.
NOVA: I'm looking for some people.
ACE: People? What kind of people?
NOVA: (striking a noble pose). People who want adventure, fast living, and the threat of death at every turn.
ACE: What are you, a recruitment poster? Is this your first time looking for a crew?
NOVA: Well, yes, it's my first time. But don't worry--I've got experience.
ACE: That's a load of crap. If you're not going to be honest with me, we can stop talking right now.
NOVA: Okay (shrug), so I've done this a lot. I just didn't want you asking questions about my last crew.
ACE: That's better. (She smiles.) So what happened to your last crew?
NOVA: Hey, it was an accident. We took a meteor hit, and only me and my navigator made it. That what you wanted to hear?
ACE: I'm sorry about your crew, but accidents happen. So you need a gunner, don't you? I know where you can find one.
NOVA: Yeah? Tell me.
ACE: Me. I'm the best gunner you'll ever find.
NOVA: Great! You're hired. When can you leave?
ACE: You're being sarcastic! You don't believe I'm a gunner. Well, watch this! (She gets up and starts to walk away.)
NOVA: Uh...
ACE: (She walks away, over to the front of the bar. She taps the Lanta evangelist on the shoulder and says...) Hey, snot face! I wanna buy a book! (When he turns, she pulls a nasty looking blaster out of her holster and fires one blue bolt of plasma at his chest. The Lanta falls amidst a shower of sparks. The twisted body lies on a scorch mark on the carpet.  You notice three other scorch marks near the new one. The whole bar erupts with applause. The woman bows and she walks back to your table while the bartender quickly drags the body away. The woman sits down next to you and says...) So, where's our first assignment?
NOVA: Welcome aboard. What's your name?
ACE: Alexandra Elcator. But call me Ace. It really pisses me off when people call me Alexandra.
NOVA: No problem. (You smile.) I don't think I want to piss you off. Let's go.

So my first NPC addition is a psychotic murderer, and apparently there are no laws in this universe against shooting someone in a bar just because he's annoying the customers.

The bartender, an ugly guy peddling a drink called "hot mud," was described as Nova's friend. He sympathized as I recounted the events of the backstory but didn't offer much information. I found a case of mud near the bar and sold it in the store for $360.
The on-base store.

Each character has a score in 16 abilities, categorized into those that are "land-based" (e.g., agility, firearms, demolitions) and those that are "ship-based" (mechanics, star gunner, electronics). I'm not sure if there's a maximum to the scores, but the maximum that anyone starts with is 21, and the average is around 3-6. Although there's no character creation process, characters start as if they've already "leveled up," giving you the option to put 1-4 points into the various abilities.

Each character starts with a different concentration of actual and possible abilities. Nova herself can learn anything except the Bremer-specific "navigation song," which is the ability that allows navigation through stargates. She comes with a strong selection of land-based abilities and a couple of ship abilities; her highest scores are in stealth, fitness, aptitude, star communication, and programming. The Bremer scout, A'kri Janr, can only learn 7 abilities; he starts extremely high in "navigation song" and moderate in a few ground abilities. Ace Elcator has her highest abilities in both ground and ship weapons.

Ace Elcator's ability selection.

As with combat, I'll have more to say about abilities, experience, and leveling when I understand it better. I assume that the goal is to get a balanced crew. You appear to be able to recruit up to 5 additional NPCs (for a total party size of 6), but only 3 of them (not including Nova) can be assigned to the "ground squad" at any given time, so there's a place for 2 people with space-only abilities. I hope there are more than 5 NPCs in the game because I rejected "Young D-Coro" when he told me he didn't have any skills.

The dialogue options are to take an unqualified crew member or be cruel to him.

There weren't any other encounters or clues as to the main quest in the opening base, so after exploring a bit and talking to everyone, I entered my space ship and blasted off.

You fly your ship in several views depending on the scale. When I first left the base, the screen showed me a close-up view of the planet, across which I could coast and watch the changes in coordinates. I guess I'm in the "hovercraft" at this point.

This view reminds me of an action game from the 1980s where you fly a plane and dodge missiles and obstacles before bombing something at the end of the run. I did some Googling, but I can't find it. Any ideas?

One level above that is a planetary view, where you cover larger territory in a low orbit. I think that at this level, the hovercraft had docked with the ship, as indicated in the little diagram.

And above that is "space" view, where you do a lot of things: travel between planets, fight other ships, repair your ship, assign ship and ground positions for the various party members, and change the "signature" of your ship to deceive others. We'll explore all of this in the future.

Getting my first sort-of quest.

The moment I left the base, I received a message from Starkiller Headquarters that my "r and r" was over and I needed to return to the headquarters on Holbrook (described by the encyclopedia as an airless, lifeless world populated only by mercenaries) for a new assignment. According to the map, it was in the same system, so I flew to the planet, orbited it, and went to the coordinates indicated in the message, where I found some kind of base. As I wrap up this post, I'm trying to figure out how to land in it; moving up and down in the hovercraft doesn't seem to work. Whatever the case, I'm probably going to reload in the original base and master the robomaze first.

This appears to be Starkiller headquarters, and I'm guessing the arrow is where I land. I just can't figure out how.

A few miscellaneous notes:

  • While you can move with both the arrow keys and keypad, there's no diagonal movement. I think this is a bit unforgivable in 1990.
  • While the sound in general is okay, a horrible disco soundtrack plays when you start the game and when you transition between areas. I don't think there's a way to turn it off independently from the sound effects.
  • The game makes an autosave as you enter and exit each area, so it's easy to pick up where you left off. You can separately save and load specific game statuses. I don't remember any game doing this so far in my chronology.
  • There's a decent in-game encyclopedia about different planets and races.

The entry for the starting planet.

It took me a long time to get this opening post written, but I mostly think I'm over the hump and can start to enjoy what the game has to offer. Coming from a game in which space combat was completely optional and kind-of lame, I look forward to seeing how it works in Hard Nova.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

MegaTraveller: Won! (with Final Rating)


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
Date Ended: 21 January 2015
Total Hours: 28
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 109/169 (64%)
Ranking at Game #458: 320/458 (70%)

Well, what a weird little game. After spending about 20 hours on gambling, bounty-hunting, and trading to amass my "Jump 2" drive bank, I only had about 3 more game hours before winning. The plot and quests were staggeringly lame, consisting of 3 fetch quests and a final battle. Specifically, I had to:

  • Finish exploring the base on Neaera to find Arik. Showing him Lenara's half of the Imperial Seal got me his half and a quest to get his "decoding key" from a friend on Yres.

His reaction if you approach him without the seal in the hands of the first character.

  • Travel to Yres and show the full Imperial Seal to a hotel clerk to get the decoding key.
  • Travel to Akarates to give the decoding key to Lenara (glad she made it out of the game-opening bar okay) and get the final quest to kill Konrad Kiefer, along with a passkey to the warehouse where he's hiding on Efate.
  • Return to Efate, the opening planet, and storm the warehouse.

Getting the final mission.

None of these quests involved anything more interesting than landing on a planet and hunting around for the right nearby building. The backstory, which I described in the first post as "as intriguing as anything I can remember" turned into absolute nonsense--essentially just an easily-replaceable framing story for a game that's mostly about logistics and mechanics. Kiefer was hiding in a warehouse 10 steps from the opening screen, and the only thing stopping me from getting to him was a key? And why don't these agents just travel to each other? If Lenara knows where Kiefer is, why doesn't she just instruct Imperial forces to bomb it off the map? What does this group really need us for? Not to mention that the titular Zhodani don't show up in the game at all.

The final battle was difficult, and I suppose I could have done a better job preparing for it with side-quests to increase my funds, training, and armaments. There were about 8 thugs wandering around a large room, protecting the doorway to Kiefer. I took them out one-by-one, but with quite a bit of reloading and retreating for healing.

Carnage and destruction lie behind me as I blow apart the door with a demolition charge.

Kiefer himself wasn't very hard.

Tough talk from a guy facing 5-on-1 odds.

I beat him?! He is destroyed.

Once he was dead, the game immediately cut to an awards ceremony in which Strephon, the Emperor of the Third Imperium, gave the party an "Imperial Certificate of Achievement." Three screens of text awkwardly recapped the game's plot . . .

Do we really have to hear about the decoding keys again? I just did that 20 minutes ago!

. . . and the game mysteriously gave me a code to write down for no reason that I could discern.

For god's sake, someone tell me what this means.

If nothing else, the endgame gave me the pleasure of imagining my five characters leaving the awards ceremony clutching paper certificates printed on some template from OfficeDepot rather than the riches and titles they expected.

What's particularly staggering about MegaTraveller is how much of the game is simply unused. The main quest only takes you to 3 of the 8 systems. Some of the planets have caves--essentially the game's "dungeons"--none of which are necessary. This includes a long maze on the planet Sino, a planet I never visited in a system I never visited, which contains very deadly creatures guarding a bunch of treasures whose combined value is worth about 4 trade missions.

Wandering around an optional "dungeon."

Even in the systems that are used, most of the planets aren't, and even on the planets that are, most of the territory isn't. My visits to Yres and Akarates involved simply walking from the starport to a nearby building when there were screens and screens of the planet to explore. Some planets had areas only visitable by gravity vehicles or watercraft--just no incentive to actually visit those areas.

Space combat is also entirely unnecessary. It never comes up as a plot point. You only engage in it if you want to earn your money through pirating. I played around with it, but it seemed extraordinarily basic--switch between the two gun turret views, "target," and "fire."

Attacking an innocent ship.

Finally--and this is the most damning aspect of the game--skills seem unnecessary. Of the 82 skills, the manual explicitly says that 25 are unused in MegaTraveller 1, leaving 57 that are supposedly useful. As far as I can tell, I got use out of exactly two of them: "laser weapons" and "gambling." I grant that some of the other skills would have come in handy if I'd made different weapon and armor selections--skills like "assault rifle," "energy weapons," "brawling," and "sword"--and others would have come in handy if combat had been harder and I'd been less willing to reload (e.g., "battle dress," "tactics").

What mystifies me more is the host of skills that seem like they ought to have done something, but for which I couldn't detect anything. For instance, characters without the "pilot" or "navigation" skills are perfectly capable of flying the ship; characters with no "ATV" or "grav vehicle" skills don't seem to have any problem operating those vehicles; and characters with no "medical" or "communications" skills can still operate those stations on the ship. "Trader" doesn't seem to affect buying and selling prices, and none of the interpersonal skills seem to affect interaction with NPCs. If characters with those skills are somehow better at the tasks than the others (perhaps someone with "navigation" makes the ship use less fuel and "computer" makes the programs load faster?), it's extremely subtle and ultimately a non-issue in gameplay.

Skill seems to have no bearing on who can use a medkit or how much it heals.

Having said all of that, you can detect the foundations of a much better game beneath all of this rubble. That 5/8 of the systems are unused in the main quest isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, most of the locations in Skyrim, Baldur's Gate, or Fallout 3 aren't really "necessary," either. If these planets had been more interesting, with more NPCs to talk to, more lore to discover, and side-quests that involved something more than finding an item in one place and selling it in another, the result would be a reasonably good sandbox game. If the main plot had required a different variety of skills and the combat had been harder and more interesting, and the rewards had been more balanced, the player would have had a reason to do all of the side-quests to pay for better equipment and skill-development. The developers spent a lot of time on mechanics but didn't integrate them into a sensible, cohesive, balanced game.

I expect it to perform in the low 30s in a GIMLET, but let's see:

1. Game World. The background of the universe, drawn from the pen-and-paper Traveller RPG, is complex and interesting. It just doesn't translate well to the CRPG itself. It acts primarily as a framing story for a set of mechanics that could have been transferred to just about any story. The titular Zhodani Conspiracy is pretty pathetic, and the Zhodani themselves never appear.

There are maddening hints at a better game if the developers had simply had more time and technology. Most of the lore in the game comes not from NPC discussions but rather nuggets of information that you buy for $2,000 each at special shops. For instance, one discussed a civil war in progress on Yres, which explained why I kept getting randomly shelled as I wandered around the city. This could have been more interesting if there was anything to do with it. Score: 4.

There is an explanation for these craters and bodies; it's just not very interesting or helpful.

2. Character Creation and Development. A great creation system--one of the best I've ever experienced--undermined by almost no character development after creation and a lack of use of the skills, making all the development a waste of time. The only way to increase skills after the character creation process is to pay around $40,000 per point. Again, it's an issue of balance. If skills were more useful, training cost a bit less, and rewards from miscellaneous side quests were a bit higher, there would be more incentive to spend time on skill development. As it is, you can pretty much win the game with the starting party.

Aside from skills, none of the other aspects of the character's background--in particular, branch of service and rank--seem to affect the game at all. Score: 4.

3. NPC Interaction. For all the random NPCs wandering around, interaction is pretty pathetic. Most of them just say, "Greetings, Traveller!" Others tell you to bring them various items for a reward. Only a couple have anything to say relative to the plot or game world, and none of them offer dialogue options. I found maybe two opportunities to use the "bribe" skill and no place to use all the other interpersonal skills--"leadership," "carousing," "interview"--that the manual insists are important. Score: 3.

I forgot to mention this. On some planets, you get stopped for an "illegal weapons" search. What's "illegal" differs from place to place; sometimes my laser weapons were confiscated; sometimes they weren't. But I never saw any negative consequence to just saying "no" to the search. Imagine if the TSA worked that way.

4. Encounters & Foes. There are really no non-combat encounters, and the selection of enemies is limited and boring, mostly consisting of interchangeable thugs in gray combat suits. None of them seem to have particular strengths and weaknesses. Score: 2.

5. Magic and Combat. Ground combat is mostly boring. You simply order your characters to fire at an enemy and the two groups exchange shots until someone is dead. I guess it was even worse in an earlier version of the game (I'm playing 3.0) when there was no option to pause to issue orders, and essentially you could only control one of your characters at a time.

Ground combat does probably have more tactics than I actually used. For instance, I never did much with grenades, even though they would have been helpful on clusters of enemies. There are some considerations with terrain and character placement that could have made a difference. If the battles had been harder (or, in any event, less random), I might have been inspired to explore these options further.

Giving orders in the penultimate battle. Technically, I could be hiding my characters behind these objects, but it's more trouble than it's worth.

Because it wasn't necessary to the game, I simply didn't explore space combat much. It has some interesting ideas, with a variety of laser and missile weapons to buy and a variety of programs that you can purchase and run to increase ship maneuverability, defenses, and weapon effectiveness. In my few attempts at it, nothing really gripped me about the mechanic, though. Score: 4.

6. Equipment. Like many things in MegaTraveller, equipment is solid in concept, flawed in execution. There is a lot of stuff to buy and use, including weapons and armor, medkits, grenades, demolition charges, vacuum suits and helmets, spare oxygen tanks, electric torches and lanterns, and various quest items. There just isn't much reason to buy them.

Early in the game, I bought everyone the best level of vacuum suit, which also provides decent armor protection, at $9,800 each. The next level of armor, "combat armor," costs $122,500 each, so I never bothered to go there. Again--and I know I keep repeating myself--if combat had been harder, the armor less expensive, and the quest rewards more lucrative, there would have been a much greater incentive to continually upgrade equipment. Score: 4.

Some of the items I can sell.
7. Economy. This one category encapsulates the game's entire raison d'etre and almost everything wrong with it. The economy in MegaTraveller plays a huge role. It's key to the main plot--the first step is to acquire $2 million for the "Jump 2" drive--and it's the only real mechanism of character development, both in terms of equipment and purchasing new skills. You constantly need to resupply ammunition, fuel, and healing (if you don't want to waste a lot of time in the ship's sick bay). It's the driving force behind all of the side quests as well.

On the surface, the economy has everything I like in an RPG: lots of ways to make money, lots of ways to spend it, never a time when you can just ignore it. It's just that the balance is horribly off. When a single reload of "Laser 12" ammo costs almost $20,000, it's hard to get excited about a side quest that offers a $15,000 reward. When you can make almost $60,000 flying back and forth between Efate and Louzy in less than 10 minutes, why would you spend 20 minutes flying a "space race" between three planets for $10,000? When the difference between an adequate combat suit and a great one is $113,000, are you really going to spend a lot of time grinding for that extra cash?

With a few tweaks in rewards and costs, the economy could have been much better-balanced, which would have changed the nature of the game entirely, making the side quests more of a necessity than an option. In particular, I would have removed the trading mechanic entirely (or made the prices more variable) and made the "Jump 2" drive cost a lot less. Score: 5.
8. Quests. The game has a multi-stage main quest with no options or alternate outcomes and a pretty pathetic series of events. There are side quests--still oddly rare in the era--but almost all of them are fetch quests with such small rewards that they're hardly worth the time. The exception is bounty-hunting, which is both lucrative and somewhat fun. Score: 3. 
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Nothing here is going to win any awards. The graphics are VGA but look EGA and haven't really advanced beyond games like 2400 A.D. from several years prior. The NPC portraits look simply awful. The sound consists primarily of an annoying rat-tat with every footstep and a blasting noise during combat. I played with the sound off. The interface is generally okay. I like that it supports a mouse without (usually) requiring it. Some of the inventory-related activities, like dropping an item or transferring an item to another character, are clunky and non-intuitive, and it's actually quite easy to drop an item without realizing it (if it's the active object when you hit ESC to leave the inventory screen). Score: 2.

Even not considering the hair, this is the ugliest NPC portrait in history.
10. Gameplay. As a quasi-sandbox game, gameplay is mostly non-linear, allowing the player to explore the systems in any order and do whatever he wants to achieve the first step of the main quest. But since there's so little of interest in the universe--basically just retrieving objects for rewards--it's hard to regard the non-linearity as a major advantage or to call the game "replayable" because of it. The difficulty is moderate, which ends up hurting the game, as it makes so many of the mechanics unnecessary. The pacing is way off, with the first 4/5 made up of boring grinding and the last fifth a quick flurry of fetch quests. Score: 3.

That gives us a final score of 34, right about where I expected it.

I'm tempted to give the game some bonus points for a few of its innovative ideas, like being able to refuel a ship from gas giants, or the mechanics of spaceflight, in which Newtonian physics prevent easy turning, gravity wells of planets can capture you and throw you off course, and an inattentive player can easily get sucked into a sun. But I'd just have to take them away again for its bugs (my fifth character never did fire his weapon) and dumb gameplay decisions, like starting the party in the middle of a hopeless combat. Thus, we'll leave things as they are.

Wow, did this game get polarized reviews. The best seems to come from the always-charitable Dragon, which offered its modal score of 5/5 and praised how well it followed the rules of the tabletop Traveller (ahem, Gaguum?) and designated it "one of the best science-fiction role-playing games ever for the computer."
Much as we're used to high praise from Dragon, we're equally accustomed to reviews from Amiga magazines in which the reviewer seems to have never played an RPG before. From the July 1991 Amiga Computing, we learn that MegaTraveller 1 is--I'm not making this up--"undoubtedly the best ever computer RPG" just before the reviewer goes on to describe an experience that sounds more frustrating than fun. In the June 1991 Amiga Power, our old friend Stuart Campbell, who gave Secret of the Silver Blades 8/100, opines that "if you took the Pacific Ocean, stacked another Pacific Ocean on top of it, and then attached two more Pacific Oceans to either end, it wouldn't be quite as deep as MegaTraveller 1" and concludes that "the attention to detail is almost breathtaking, and if there's been a game with more to do in it than this one, I haven't seen it." I'm tempted to suggest that Mr. Campbell therefore hasn't seen the last three Ultima titles, either of the two Starflights, or any of the Gold Box games, but we know he's seen at least one of those.

Sanity comes from the June 1991 ACE (combat "irritatingly difficult to control"; mechanics "serve to slow down the action rather than generate excitement"), pretty much all the German Amiga and Atari ST magazines (ratings in the 50s out of 100), and Computer Gaming World. Back in the 1980s, when CGW was pretty much the only show in town, I thought my own opinions were widely divergent from those of Scorpia and the other reviewers. Now that we're in the 1990s and puerile gaming magazines like Amiga Power are springing up everywhere, CGW's coverage always seems like a refreshing oasis of reason. In the November 1990 issue, L.S. Lichtman offers a fair and sober review of the mechanics, drawing from some previous experience with the tabletop Traveller. He indicates that fans of the RPG will be both pleased and disappointed with what did and didn't make it into the computer version. He praises the game for simplifying the character creation process (while still leaving it interesting) and extensive manual but criticizes the combat system and issues with the economy, ultimately labeling it an "unfinished product" and "seriously flawed" while still praising its "variety of activities and natural feel to the adventuring that it offers." In 1996, the magazine included the game on its list of "50 worst games" of all time.

Paragon never did have a decent track record with RPGs, and I'm curious how they managed to get the rights to Traveller and other RPGs in the first place. (By contrast, SSI and D&D were a natural pairing.) Their only previous offerings were the nonsensical Alien Fires: 2199 AD (1986) and Wizard Wars (1988), neither of which exemplified a good RPG. Now, suddenly in 1990 and 1991, they got this agreement with Games Designers' Workshop, and issued games based on MegaTraveller, Space: 1889, and Twilight: 2000.
The project lead for MegaTraveller was Jane Yeager, and this is the only game on which I can find her credited in such a role; all her other credits include art design and direction. We've seen her work before on DarkSpyre (which, artistically, bears a passing resemblance to MegaTraveller) and will again on Dusk of the Gods (1991), The Summoning (1992), Dungeon Hack (1993), Veil of Darkness (1993), Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession (1994), Menzoberranzan (1994), and Anvil of Dawn (1995), before she leaves the field and turns to computer education and web site development.

Most of Yeager's later work was at DreamForge, which was co-founded by her co-designer on MegaTraveller, Christopher Straka. This is the first game on which he's credited for "design," but he went on to become the lead designer on almost all the titles above, plus Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War (1999), his last credited game.
Next year, we'll see MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients, which everyone seems to think is much better, likely because it involved the active participation of Marc Miller, co-founder of GDW and co-developer of the tabletop Traveller. Also, it looks like primary game design was taken over by F. J. Lennon, who wrote the manual for MegaTraveller 1--arguably the best part of the game.

The 143-page manual provides a solid intro to the Traveller tabletop RPG, not just this game's mechanics.
I am sick to death of 1990 games that don't crack the 30s in the GIMLET. When I designed the scale, I really thought that the average game would be in the 50s or 60s by now. In my entire last year of blogging, there have been only a handful of really good games--Ultima VI, Quest for Glory II, Secret of the Silver Blades, maybe Lord of the Rings--and a bunch of mediocre offerings that feel like throwbacks to 1986. The future doesn't look any brighter, and soon we have to deal with Space: 1889, yet another science-fiction RPG from Paragon that's based on a tabletop game. Maker's breath, will I be happy to see 1990 in the rear-view mirror. 
Hard Nova, written by the same person who thought "Malcolm Trandle" and "The Key of Thor" were good ideas, is next. Yay.


Further reading: My coverage of the sequel, MegaTraveller 2, begins here. Paragon's other GDW-based games includes Space 1889.