Tuesday, January 18, 2022

WarWizard: Still Priming the Pump

 
You have to watch for those little "chest" icons as you walk, or else you miss treasure chests.

     
In Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King offers some advice about reading:
     
A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give . . . eventually.
     
This part is often quoted. What is usually left out of these quotes is the sentence that precedes it. It's the advice King's character gives to a young boy who worries that the book won't start giving: "Then don't finish it."
   
Games are the same way. I tend to mentally divide them into two groups: those I have to force myself to play and those I have to force myself to stop playing when it's time to go to bed. What I tend to forget is that almost all games start in the first category. The beginnings of games are always rough for me, the only exceptions being the rare occasions when I've loved a developer's previous games and its new one seems to use the same conventions. Most of the time, I dread the first few hours, but usually after that, the pump is primed the water starts flowing, and I get into that dopamine groove that we all crave. 
        
"At Calorman's, the friendships last long as the mountains stand."
    
WarWizard is, alas, one of those games that has me flailing the handle of the pump long after those initial hours. Every session is a chore. I simply cannot figure out a path through the game that makes any kind of sense. This is a danger with open-world games, but usually there's some kind of hint about where to go first, or some "introductory area" that gets the player used to the game's conventions. Here, I thought it would be the quest given by the duke in the closest city to the beginning, but if the area he sends you to is the easiest, I don't want to know what the hardest looks like.
   
The most frustrating part of WarWizard is the slow rate of progression. In most RPGs, even if you spend a lot of time bumbling about (the original Might and Magic comes to mind), at least you're amassing gold, equipment, and experience. This game's approach severely mutes that sense of progress. It doesn't have traditional levels, and the number of combats you need to fight to gain your next level of proficiency with a weapon is nuts. (I believe I needed 750 experience points to reach proficiency Level 1 with a sword, and every hit gives you like 3.) Things might start to improve once I can cast spells, but I've only just now gotten enough gold that I can afford a single scroll. It doesn't help that you can't keep selling looted items to shops, which would otherwise be a reliable way of making money, because their display cases fill up after three or four sales, and then they won't accept any more items. The result of this lack of development is that it's rare that I can fight two battles in a row without having to visit a temple to heal in between, and it's hard to see that situation changing soon.
   
I did finish outlining the continent and its road network, which is something like 100 x 140, although for all I know the seas extend farther in one or more directions, perhaps even wrapping around. There are islands with cities that I can't reach, so I assume some kind of boat transportation is later possible.
        
Where I stand with the game world. The game starts in the northeast. The dungeon I spent most of this session trying to explore is in the middle of the red area in the north-center.
             
Both the indoor and outdoor maps have two types of enemies and NPCs. The first type is fixed, and you can see their icons as you approach. The second type are random; they have no icon, but when you step into their square, an image pops up in the lower-right of the game screen, next to the compass. If you step off the square without engaging them, you've lost them. If you turn random encounters off, the only way you ever fight random enemies is if you pause long enough in movement to watch for them to pop up, then hit the "Combat" button. The notification doesn't distinguish between enemies and NPCs, so I suppose it's best to try to talk first.
    
Anyway, the outer world has two places in which enemy icons appear in the environment. One is in the northeast. There are about seven of them blocking some kind of castle. They look like giants and demons, so I assume this is where the endgame is going to take place. The second place is a single serpentine enemy guarding a bridge in the northwest. Until I can get past him, I suppose it's not impossible that the world extends a lot farther in that direction, but given the shape of everything else, it seems unlikely.
      
A bunch of fixed monsters guard a castle. I assume this is the endgame.
    
At this point, my map is complete enough that I don't feel the need to do any more mapping. I'll fill in some of the other bits when I get to a point that I need to explore for more cities or dungeons, but otherwise I got what I needed: a basic shape of the world, its road network, and its major cities.
    
The main quest isn't that hard in concept: you have to find nine artifacts to defeat whatever evil has taken root in Aladain (the location of the monster-guarded castle discussed above). Most of them are going to be found in one of the land's dungeons, and a hint to those locations is going to be given to the player by the different kingdoms' leaders. The duke closest to the beginning, Bendor, sends you to "the swamps to the south east," although I'm pretty sure he means southwest, as there are no swamps to the southeast. In the swamps to the southwest, there is a dungeon called the Caves of Anbari, which transitions at some point to the Caves of Kolin. The Caves of Kolin exit to an outdoor area that I'm pretty sure is within a mountain range whose outside edges I mapped. There's a third dungeon accessible from here called the Lair of the Ogre King.
        
An ogre blocks a tunnel in the Caves of Kolin.
    
My attempts to explore all three of these areas have been sporadic. The caves are full of fixed parties of lizardmen, ghouls, and ogres. While the composition of these parties is immutable, the quantity seems to be based on a random number between 1 and 8. My party can reliably defeat one ogre, three lizardmen, and or four ghouls. If I walk into one of the fixed enemies and get more than that, I almost certainly die and have to reload. On the reload, I may or may not get luckier. Even when I'm "lucky," my party is usually so wounded after the combat that I have to retreat for healing. You can see why progress has been slow. Fortunately, fixed enemies that you kill don't respawn, so I am making at least some progress.
        
The party got lucky here, with just one enemy.
    
I decided to try adding some spellcasters to the party, but that didn't really help. The spells that arcane spellcasters get in the early levels don't offer much assistance. In Levels 1-2, the sorcerer gets "Tongues" (translates languages) and "Protection 1" (works only on the spellcaster) and the magician gets "Bring Food 1" and "Poison." None of them are game-changers in combat. I can't even figure out how to use "Poison." When I cast it in combat, the game pops up with an error message that I don't understand. The spell isn't even mentioned in the manual.
       
I don't know what this is asking.
      
The combat system sounds good on paper, but small interface issues make it somewhat annoying in practice. For instance, making each body part have its own hit points isn't a bad idea, but it only really makes sense if each body part also has a different number of hit points and a different chance of hitting. Whether to go for the head, torso, or arms ought to be a tactical decision: Do I go for the critical hit that has a low chance of hitting (head), the easy hit that only leaves the enemy slightly disabled (limbs), or the center-of-mass hit which will almost surely connect but not do as much critical damage (torso)? Instead, there's essentially no reason not to go for the default (torso) since it has the same number of hit points and same chance of hitting as the head.
   
But even if you're going to use the default, the game still requires you to select the enemy and hit "target." The latter can be done from the keyboard but the former must be done with the mouse, unless you want to use "Next" and "Last" to cycle through enemies, which never goes in a sensible order. So if you've been moving your character with the numberpad or arrows (right hand), you have to take your hand off the keys and move it to the mouse to do targeting. The game could have made the entire thing much easier by allowing you to move into enemies and thus automatically execute the default attack, which is what you're going to do 90% of the time anyway. 
   
The most annoying part of combat, though, is having to acknowledge enemy attacks. When enemies attack you, a message window pops up on the screen to tell you the results, and you have to click "Okay" or hit ENTER to get it to go away. For most enemies, this will happen two or three times in succession, and when facing a party of enemies, you have to do this repeatedly every round. 
       
Why couldn't this just appear in the message window?
        
Rewards have been so meager that I rejoice at every couple dozen gold pieces or stack of food. In addition to the loot they carry, enemies are often standing on treasure chests--you have to watch for that little icon in the lower-right corner--although a lot of these are mysteriously empty. These chests might show up in random terrain, too, so it makes sense to explore the dungeon slowly and try to hit every square.
     
I break into a chest and find it empty. Is it because i broke in?
      
Miscellaneous discoveries:
    
  • I appreciate that the game makes use of the keyboard, but the choice of keys is often annoying. Some screens have you leave them with ESC, some with (R)eturn, and some with (L)eave. The latter is particularly annoying because I usually have my right hand on the numberpad for movement. ESC could have easily served as the default key to back out of a screen.
  • In the Caves of Anbari, I met a warrior who said he was there searching for treasure. I abandoned a "woodsman" and got the warrior to join my party. Curiously, his icon remained behind in the caves, and I think I could have gotten three copies of this warrior if I'd tried.
  • There are several locked doors in the Caves of Kolin, and my success rate at picking locks is at 0%. Lockpicks come in various levels, and I guess I need a more advanced one. I haven't been able to bash down any doors, either, although I have been able to bash open chests. 
  • The lizardmen attack with +1 swords in combat but never seem to leave them behind when they die.
  • There is a dwarf in the Caves of Kolin and a halfling in the city of Caer Ereth that I can't talk with because I don't know their languages. I need to find a magic shop selling "Tongues" or enlist a magician with that spell.
      
If this dwarf is going to live in a human city, he should learn to speak human.
      
  • Food goes at a ridiculous rate. Every time I think I have plenty, it's only about 20 minutes before the game is warning me that I'm low. Every time I think I'm making progress financially, I have to waste it on food.
  • I ended my first session with a couple of cleric NPCs who joined me for free. I can't remember for the life of me where I got them. The only cleric I've found in this game wants 500 gold pieces to join my party.
  • An NPC in Middlegate tells me that "near Caer Ereth lies a hidden valley surrounded by impenetrable mountains." There's supposed to be a settlement in the valley. I can see the mountains that the NPC is talking about, but I don't know what mechanisms the game will later allow to cross them.
  • None of the NPCs in this game seem to have any names. You just see their class and race. If they join you, you get to name them.
        
A hint from an NPC. I know his race, class, and how much damage each of his body parts will take, but not his name.
       
In a recent comment, Rangerous raised the question of whether the game can even be won. He experienced an issue in which a wizard told him to take his key from a desk, but there was no key in the desk. I haven't found that encounter, but I faced a similar one in the city of Kaleth. There, a nomad told me that he knew who I was and that he would help me find a piece of armor. "Take the key from my chest and use it to see the Nomad Lords." I assume that he's talking about a locked door in the same city.
  
The nomad is standing in a room with two squares. Both have "chest" icons, indicating treasure in the room. But one of them is empty, and the other won't let me search it because you "cannot search inhabited rooms!" I guess that means that I have to kill him if I want the key. I don't know whether this is a game-breaker. It's possible that I can pick or bash the door to get to the Nomad Lords, and it's possible that I can find the piece of armor without their help.
          
Then how do I get the key he's offering?!
      
Rangerous attributed the problem to the versions of the game online having already been played, thus resulting in changes to the world state that would require a fresh copy to overwrite. I'm not sure whether that's the issue. I noticed that each saved game is actually a folder that has multiple files, with sub-folders for every place you've visited. (This is in contrast to a single saved game file containing all the character and world data within it.) This suggests that changes to the world state are saved with each saved game and not within the original files. But when it comes to programming, I don't know what I'm talking about, so take all that with a grain of salt. In any event, as nice as it would be to have an excuse to mark the game "NP" and move on, I'm not there yet.
    
In between forays into the Caves of Anbari and Kolin, I've been visiting the various cities in the world and taking notes on their services and NPCs. Most cities are pretty boring. They'll have some combination of services (weapons, armor, inn, pub, healer, potions, clothing, scrolls, lockpicks, stables) and maybe one or two NPCs. Capitals have a ruler hiding somewhere, though often behind a locked door. The NPCs give hints, but they don't seem as vital here as they do in the Ultima games. Maybe I'll change my mind as I meet more.
    
I'll keep pumping away, hoping that the game transitions into one that's tough to put down. I know I'll get some comments encouraging me to follow Stephen King's advice and quit if I don't like it, but this one is so poorly documented online that I feel it deserves some extra effort.
   
Time so far: 18 hours

33 comments:

  1. When playing games of this sort from that time period, I find it easier to use a seperate USB numpad keyboard with my left hand, leaving my right hand free for the mouse.

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  2. You have to wonder if the super slow progress/brutal combat is some kind of anti-piracy measure that got activated somehow. Or another bug, if you take into account the missing keys thing.

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    1. Hmm...the missing keys could be the "missing icons" bug I mentioned before? So maybe the keys are there, but invisible?

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  3. It would be REALLY weird for a 1993 game if the "start new game" button on the title screen somehow kept the world state from the saved game. I doubt that's it, when it could instead be buggy coding.

    But it would be easy to double check. Install the game a second time in a different folder, open it from there and press "continue saved game". Then you'll see the world state of the game that's already been played by someone else.

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  4. Someone created a lot of content for this game, but I imagine very few people experienced it. We've seen this happen quite a few times on the blog, where the play experience is soft-locked behind non-existent QA.

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  5. I'd be curious if there's actually a swamp down in the unexplored southeast area in the midst of the desert. It almost feels like you've accidentally ended up trying to take on a dungeon earlier than intended as a result of heading SW to the swamp rather than finding one in the SE as directed.

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    1. Then again, a game this buggy and lacking in QA could easily have left a critical mistake in dialogue like that and created a very unbalanced dungeon.

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    2. I played this a bit after the last post. There's a dungeon called 'Alor' in one jungle area to the SE with some minotaur statues outside. In the other jungle area below (in the very bottom SE corner) there's a temple called 'Kalor-Kun'. I didn't completely explore either because paths are blocked by stationary enemies.

      I was hoping this would be a 'Disciples of Steel'-type hidden gem, but this game is a real chore to play. I also don't understand the magic system: So you can only ever have five spells memorized and need to go to inn every time to recharge? Anyways, combat and leveling are so tedious that I won't be playing any further.

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    3. I found that, but it's WAY to the southwest. It's hard to imagine that's what the duke was talking about. Also, a jungle isn't the same thing as a swamp.

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  6. What about your sneaking regard for games that start you with nothing and make you fight for every inch in the early game ;)

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    1. I guess my "sneaking regard" is limited for those games where I have some faith that all the fighting WILL eventually pay off. I haven't developed that here.

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  7. I'm the opposite of Chet - I like the early parts of CRPGs the best, and finish only the best ones.

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  8. The fact that you're encountering so many empty chests (including one situation where you're supposed to get an essential item) does lend credence to the theory that changes are made to the world, not just the saves, though...

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    1. Or they're just empty chests. This would hardly be the first game to get the player all excited about a chest only to let him down with no loot.

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  9. Regarding the theory that all versions of this game on the internet have been played in a way that irrevocably modifies the game: the below link is the archive of the official website; clearly this has to be a good version. If that still doesn't work, well, that means the game is buggy.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20050317093624/http://www.bradmcquaid.com/WarWizard.htm

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    1. That is the shareware version. Also, the SET VER workaround doesn't work, it crashes when creating a new game - though that's possibly an emulation issue. But you can see that the data files are copied to the savegame, and the original data files are not modified. Creating a new game over an existing one deletes the old files. So I don't think it has anything to do with versions on the internet being irrevocably modified.

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    2. Well it strikes me that irrevocably modifying saved games is so unusual that a programmer could only do that on purpose (on grounds of making a "truly dynamic world" or something like that), but IF that were the case they would have advertised it as such. This is kind of like how certain Roguelikes save data when you die, so that in a later game you can get attacked by the ghost of your former character.

      So it seems much more likely to me that the game is just buggy; the other explanation is just extremely unlikely. It's a small development team, they probably didn't have a lot of resources for testing.

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    3. The crash on creating a new game is most likely due to it expecting to find "xcopy" available but it isn't available in DOSBox. Other downloads provide a version of xcopy in the root folder of the game so that is does not crash. Or you can place your own flavor of xcopy in there.

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    4. Irrevocably modifying game data with no easy way to reset it was actually relatively common all the way until about the late 1980s -- the assumption was that you could do a reset by recopying the original floppy disks. Games that do this include Apple ][ Wizardry, the original Wasteland, and Ultima before IV.

      Developers MOSTLY stopped doing this long before they stopped providing games on piles of floppy disks.

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    5. No it was not. Wherever did you get that idea? Why do you think it hasn't come up before in this blog, considering how many 1980s games it has covered?

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    6. This kind of irrevocable modification was specifically mentioned in the blog posts about Wasteland, so it has come up before here.

      I don't think that was a case of distributing an already played game, but any game that does this has the potential for this to happen.

      Nothing happened when Chester played Ultima III, because he played that through with a single party and never re-started. If you restart, things like chests and ships left on the world map persist.

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    7. The original Bard's Tale saved the shop's inventory as a world save. So if more than one person was playing the game, they'd see the stuff that the other player sold too.

      And I know I've played a copy of Phantasie that had some of the world map and some of the city inventories already accessed.

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    8. Fair enough, but I'd hesitate to call that "relatively common". More to the point, the reason why these games did that (low amount of disk space and compatibility with one-drive systems) don't apply to a 1993 game on a hard disk.

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    9. Also this post provides ABUNDANT evidence for the theory "no one ever did an end-to-end playtest".

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    10. Irrevocable modification of game data as Jeearr mentions was a thing for Wizardry 1 as well, at least for the Apple version disks circulating on the internet. Chester played the DOS version, which had a clean master available.

      (It's documented on Data-Driven Gamer's blog entries on the game.)

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    11. I agree; irrevocable modification has been a problem. Starflight was another, I believe. However, in all such cases, the game could be restored from the original download file. We've yet to meet a game that was irrevocably altered in the .zip file. However, I don't think that's the case here. I think perhaps there are other bugs that might preclude me from finishing the game, but not that the freshly installed game is using someone else's world state.

      I downloaded the version I'm playing from the archive of the official site, and VER SET does work for me, so I'm not sure how to account for some of my commenters' experiences.

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    12. For people reading this thread, in the Addict's next post he finds that the disappearing keys are not because of data modification, but because of a weird interface design that hides keys in a semi-hidden submenu. I'm not sure that's actually better, but at least it's not irrevocable.

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  10. >I tend to mentally divide them into two groups: those I have to force myself to play and those I have to force myself to stop playing when it's time to go to bed.

    Interesting, for my own chronological play I was thinking about the games in kind of this way but I came up with a three tier system:

    (1) Games that are fun and I would play them even if I weren't doing a chronogaming blog

    (2) Games that I might stop playing if I weren't doing the blog, but I do have a reasonable amount of fun with them and when I finish it I feel good

    (3) Games that I would absolutely not play if it weren't for the blog; I force myself to play them and when I finish them I feel only relief and some annoyance that I forced myself to play them.

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  11. Assuming that there's a full version of the Amiga original, does that version have the same issue? Might be a bug relating to the version everyone's played being a port.

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  12. "Cannot search inhabited rooms!"

    "Huh. Well, then. Cleric, Other Cleric, throw Sir Geoffrey Longswordington over there out the third-story window, THEN we can search his room!"

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  13. Please, take my key!
    Sorry sir, I have to murder you first. Unless you'd like to step outside? No? OK then ...

    ReplyDelete

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