|My characters, who wouldn't survive on the red planet, pick berries, which wouldn't grow there.|
At some point in her childhood, Irene became a fan of The Brave Little Toaster, a 1987 film about inanimate objects who become animated when their owner isn't around and show unwavering loyalty to him despite the fact that they're almost certainly destined for a dumpster. (How they didn't sue the makers of Toy Story is a mystery to me.) I didn't care for the film, so I didn't much care when, some years after we met, she discovered that the film had a sequel. I only remember that she was watching it in the living room one weekend afternoon while I was messing around on my computer--probably playing an RPG. I got up at some point to get a snack and, walking past the living room, I heard the unforgettable line, "Me--a little toaster--the Supreme Commander of Mars! Wow!"
For years, without even knowing the context, I held up that one line, heard in isolation, as the prime example of the most absurd plot point that could ever exist. That was before I rescued from a Martian cave a man named Cooter McGee, who was hiding from Rasputin, and got, as a reward, a map to some rocks that release oxygen when you chew them.
|There's a dialogue suggestion that we might not even be on "real" Mars. I don't know how this is going to play out, but I'm willing to bet it will be stupid.|
I hate this game. I hate it beyond its faults. I hate it while recognizing that it's not objectively bad. I continue to like the Ultima VI engine. I just hate what they've done with it here. I like talking to NPCs by keyword, but I hate these NPCs. I like the combat system, but I hate the actual combats against these stupid, meaningless foes.
Most of all, I hate what the game has done to my favorite game mechanic: open exploration. There's nothing I like more than being cast adrift into an open game world, where I can explore the landscape and visit ruins in essentially any order, learning neat things about the history and lore of the setting. Martian Dreams offers that gameplay but perverts it by ensuring that anything I find is going to be stupid. Every ruin is going to fill in the backstory of a Mars with a breathable atmosphere that dozens of people have visited after being shot out of a cannon. Every NPC is going to be some VIP from the Victorian Age with no depth or wit to his characterization beyond the initial, "Hey! It's Marie Curie!" or "Hey! It's Buffalo Bill Cody!"
|Hey! I led her to come up with the name "radium"!|
Somehow, I've let over a year elapse since my last attempts to play Martian Dreams. The reasons for this were partly thematic (i.e., my reaction above) but mostly technical. The issues with saving and crashing really bothered me. I don't mind working around bugs when I can clearly define them, but when the solution is ambiguous ("don't save near the equator"), it just creates a paranoia throughout my entire gameplay. Especially in this case, where the consequences are both dire and not immediately clear: you can never save the game again, and it continually crashes after you successfully save the game twice.
I downloaded a DOSBox version with save states and found that it works reliably as long as I don't close the session in which the save states are created. If I do that, all bets are off. So I waited until I knew I was going to be home for a three-day stretch on President's Day weekend and determined to finish the game in one go. I'll quickly recap the beginning of the game below, but please refer to my first and second entries for a full discussion of the silly backstory, how I feel about what the games did to the "avatar" concept, and the initial game moments.
|Restoring power to Mars is clearly going to be part of the plot.|
If you'll recall from the backstory, the Avatar and Dr. Spector (from Savage Empire) have followed clues given by a disguised alien to travel back in time to 1895 to Nikola Tesla's lab. Two years prior, a malfunctioning "space cannon" had sent a group of dignitaries to Mars from the Chicago World's Fair. Realizing that history will forever be altered if Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt et. al. remain on Mars, Dr. Spector conceives a rescue mission involving the Avatar, the journalist Nellie Bly, Sigmund Freud, Tesla, a cowboy named Dallas Garrett, and a doctor named C. L. Blood, whose full Wikipedia article has been the best thing to come out of my playing this game.
|Sigmund Freud offers an interesting character-creation mechanism.|
I created a new character and went through Dr. Freud's pscychoanalytical character creation again, choosing responses that made me a male character with decent strength. As before, the game started in the rescue mission capsule with Nellie Bly and Dr. Spector in my party. I loaded up on cold-weather gear, guns, and tools for everyone (though as we'll see, not enough), pried my way outside, and headed for the wreckage of the crashed 1893 expedition.
There, as before, I encountered a Lt. Dibbs, who had been commander of the ceremonial guard at the British pavilion. Dibbs gave me the rundown of how the previous dignitaries had fractured and dispersed. Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane set up a trading outpost. Percival Lowell's group settled in the Martian city of Elysium and used something called a Dream Machine until they went mad and started believing they were Martians.
|This is later confirmed by another NPC.|
A group led by someone named Jack Segal (no idea on the historical analogue) settled at Olympus and began constructing another space cannon to return to Earth. They refuse to allow anyone "contaminated" by the Dream Machine into their compound. Finally, Grigori Rasputin led a group to the Martian city of Argyre to investigate dangerous Martian technology.
I took the party, now with Lt. Dibbs, to Buffalo Bill's outpost and got Cody's quest to rescue Cooter McGee, a prospector who has been supplying the outpost with Oxium. Oxium is a sponge-like rock that releases oxygen when chewed. It both serves as a currency and prevents your characters from suffering attribute drains associated with oxygen deprivation.
This was as far as I had made it in 2015. Every time I tried to visit McGee's place, the game crashed at specific place along the way. The bug seemed to be associated with the general saving bugs. Since I was saving only by save-state this time, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when the party passed the same area with no problem. By using the sextant and following the coordinates given by Cody, I found McGee's cave without too much trouble.
Cody had also given me some berries and said something about needing them to access McGee's cave. Thus, even though it didn't seem to make sense, I turned to them when I reached an uncrossable chasm with a board on the other side. It turns out that the berries, which I guess are blue, convey ESP and allow you to move objects from a distance. I'm not sure how long they last, but I was able to move the plank across the chasm and enter McGee's residence.
|Maybe there was a better way to say that I've acquired ESP?|
I looted his crates and boxes for ammo and such, and searched around until I fond a couple of notes. One indicated that McGee was being harassed by Rasputin for information on the location of Oxium lodes. The other was a note from Rasputin telling McGee to meet him at a cave "in the middle of the Coprates Chasma" and bring his Oxium map. The official game map had the location of the chasma; it was basically an extension of the network of chasms I was already in.
This would be a good time to talk about navigating the game. After this session, I realized I would have to bring the official game map into something like Paint and start annotating it, because it shows neither coordinates nor the locations of key geographical features like bridges. The landscape, which allows you to walk around the entire circumference of a planet more than half the size of ours, is bisected by chasms ("chasmata" in geo-speak), canals, and other geographic features that can make navigation a nightmare. You might be at 20N 140E and have to go to 25N 150E but end up walking for hours until you find the right combinations of bridges and chasma entrances to get there. The game world is more like a maze than an open world. That isn't necessarily a complaint; it actually adds a dimension of puzzle-solving to the game once you realize what's happening and what you need to do to solve it.
|To get to the north end of this screenshot, I first have to find my way out of this chasm.|
More annoying than the navigation are the enemies that you encounter along the way. They seem both more numerous and more persistent than their counterparts in either Ultima VI and Savage Empire. In those games, if I didn't want to fight, I could usually just walk away. Not here. Once a "creeping cactus" or "sextelleger" has you in his sights, he follows you relentlessly until you give up and turn and fight. Enemies often attack in large swarms that overwhelm the party, and I found myself doing something in this game that I rarely did in either of its predecessors: reloading.
|Fighting off a group of "creeping cacti," which use similar animations as slimes in Ultima VI.|
Because of all the combats, my ammunition has depleted quickly and I've resorted to equipping half the party with melee weapons. Much like they do in the previous games, characters have a way of accidentally hitting each other with their shots, too. I also have the same problem seen in the other games where characters just stand around in combat and don't act at all, although it's not consistent. (And yes, I have adjusted their combat actions in their profiles.)
The only upside to all the combat has been fairly rapid character development. In contrast to Savage Empire, where everyone started at Level 6 and maybe leveled up once during the game, in this game plenty of NPCs start at Level 1 or 2. The Avatar starts at Level 4. Almost every time I sleep, someone levels up. This is accompanied by a dream in which the character sees an obelisk and can touch it with a sword, heart, or book, corresponding to a 1-point bump in strength, dexterity, or intelligence. (Although there are no spells in this game, intelligence is apparently important for using some weapons and the duration of the berry-conferred telekinesis.) This same mechanism was done with animals in Savage Empire.
|Nellie levels up. I'm still not sure why the heart/love is associated with dexterity.|
Leveling up occurs during sleeping, which you do frequently because an insulated tent (found among the opening supplies) is the only way to get out of the cold. Once 18:00 falls, characters without sufficient protection start taking damage from the cold. A few hours later, almost everyone does (I haven't been able to figure out the exact combination of clothing I need to keep warm). So you have to stop and sleep until dawn just to survive. I don't know what my companions back in the capsule are doing.
|Girls are always freezing.|
Anyway, back to the plot. I found McGee in the cave in Coprates Chasma after fighting some Martian critters and moving a barricade of boxes. McGee related that he'd found a mother lode of Oxium, but it was behind some kind of powered door and there's no electricity running on Mars any more. He suggested that Thomas Edison, living at Olympus, might be able to help get the power running again. He gave me directions to where he'd buried the map to the mother lode and then headed back to his own cave.
During the conversation, he mentioned three explorers who have been planting marker flags around the planet. Their names are Sherman, Yellin, and Duprey. You know where this is going.
I found his map, and based on the canal configuration around it, it seems to correspond to an area in the northeast section of the game map.
The next obvious step seemed to be to head to Olympus and speak to Edison. Dibbs knew the coordinates of the city, but when I arrived, the gate guard, Nathaniel, refused to let us inside unless we could get a voucher from three people who could certify that we weren't insane (i.e., not affected by a Dream Machine). Dibbs suggested the trio of explorers mentioned by McGee, and Nathaniel agreed. Nathaniel indicated that they were last seen headed to Syrtis Major and he gave me the coordinates.
Getting to the location took longer than most of the game I'd played already, thanks to the navigation issues described above. On the plus side, I ended up in some random chasm with a bunch of Oxium geodes (you have to smash them with a hammer to get Oxium) and significantly increased my supply.
Arriving at Syrtis Mons, I found "Dr. David Yellin," a geologist, who told me that the trio was looking for iron for Jack Segal's space cannon when his companions, Major Greg Duprey (a former U.S. cavalryman who fought Indians until he met one) and Richard Sherman (an explorer), became trapped in a cave-in. These NPCs are, of course, stand-ins for Britannia's Iolo, Dupre, and Shamino. They even use the same base portraits. This recurring trio also had doppelgangers (never fully explained) in Savage Empire, and as in that game, the characters react to their Britannian names.
|Sure it is.|
To free Duprey and Sherman, I had to assemble a drill, which first required a wrench. There had been a wrench among the supplies back at the capsule, but I had declined to take it, so with a groan, I hauled my party back to the capsule, got the wrench, and found my way back to Yellin. I put the drill together and shoved it into the nearby cave, moving it along tracks until we reached the cave-in. A few uses of the drill cleared the way.
|This game is turning into more of an adventure game than an RPG.|
Sherman joined my party and all three of them were happy to sign my voucher. I returned to Nathaniel with it and gained entry to Olympus.
I leave you in that city, having spoken to Marie Curie, the actress Sarah Bernhardt (who has turned to painting in her new circumstances), and Theodore Roosevelt, who believes Rasputin sabotaged the cannon in 1893 and caused its premature discharge. Thomas Edison said that he thinks that power on Mars is broadcast from a series of towers controlled from a central location. The irony vis-a-vis Tesla is not lost on him.
|Unfortunately, Roosevelt won't join me.|
There are some ruins under the city with gears and control panels and whatnot that I haven't explored yet. Some comments from Admiral Peary suggest that I might have to melt the ice caps and re-flood he canals at some point. A man named Legrande Coulliard is preventing access to the Dream Machine in Olympus, but he'll let me in if I can find his brother, who was lost exploring Olympus mine. I've yet to see or speak to Jack Segal. There was too much to keep track of at this point, and I took a break.
|I have a feeling there's going to be some exhausting puzzle behind this.|
- The game has a pretty jaunty soundtrack, credited to Dana Glover, Tom Hollingshead, and George "The Fat Man" Sanger. It's lost on me because I don't like in-game music, but I recognize its quality.
- Even with the CPU cranked, gameplay becomes maddeningly slow and stuttering when monsters are near.
- I continue to like the inventory system in this engine, both in terms of the types of equipment slots the characters have and the way inventory items work with each other. Lighting a lamp involves filling it with oil and then using a match or tinder box on it, for instance. Shovels and hammers are important tools. You don't often see this kind of complexity outside of roguelikes.
- Unlike its predecessors, Martian Dreams has no food system.
Nothing I've described throughout this entry suggests a game that I should hate, but I still do. The engine remains solid, but I don't care anything about this story. It was already done in Space: 1889 and it's not done cleverly in either game. Wandering through the caves of Martian Dreams just made me wish I was playing Ultima VI again. Oh, I'll finish the damned thing because it's an Ultima game, but I'm not going to be happy about it.
Time so far: 8 hours (includes 2015 entries)
Reload count: 4