Saturday, January 24, 2015

Game 172: Hard Nova (1990)

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 was reasonably good, 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
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: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

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 of 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 involved 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 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 9/100, 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 see 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 leader 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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

MegaTraveller: A Cool $2 Million

I'm exhausted just reading this.

I can only think of one other game, Baldur's Gate II, that requires you to hit some kind of monetary threshold before moving on to the next stage of the plot. I'm sure there are others, and I'll be glad to hear about them in the comments, but I can't remember this type of challenge showing up so far in my chronology.

The difference, of course, is that Baldur's Gate II made the accumulation of funds fun and interesting, with numerous quests and a couple of related sub-plots. It's a safe bet that most players continue playing that chapter well beyond having achieved the monetary threshold. In MegaTraveller, in contrast, the accumulation of $2 million takes a long time, is mostly boring, and happens in maddeningly small increments. Take the screen shot that leads this post, for instance. You race between three planets to return a flag to the original planet, all for a measly $10,000--expending about $3,000 in fuel in the meantime. It's simply not worth the effort.

A "Jump 2" drive is necessary for traveling more than 1 hex at a time. Thus, you need one to reach the upper-right systems.

The $2 million is needed for a "Jump 2" drive, necessary to get out of the original cluster of systems and to the Boughene system, where an agent named Arik Toryan is waiting. Depending on how many terms your characters served and how you selected their retirement benefits, you might start with anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000, but you also have to buy weapons, armor, miscellaneous equipment, and ship's equipment, so the real amount of money you need to move to the next plot point is closer to $3 million. You can accumulate it a number of ways:

1. Waiting for assassins to attack you, then taking their ID badges to the Imperial Military Security Agency on Alell for the reward. (Fortunately, Konrad Kiefer only hires "most wanted" criminals to bounty-hunt the party.) This is by far the most lucrative of the options, awarding a couple hundred thousand dollars (it varies depending on the assassin) per ID badge. Unfortunately, you can only earn up to around $600,000 using this method in the first cluster of systems, as the rest of the assassins are in areas only accessible with the "Jump 2" drive.

The manual has a detailed description of each assassin.

Grabbing an ID off the corpse of one of them.

2. Gambling. But you need a character with high "gambling" skill to make any money, and the rewards are small.

3. Cargo-trading. Recording prices at each starport allows you to buy low and sell high.

4. Finding miscellaneous items wanted by various NPCs, like gems, pendants, and artifacts. Like the "racing" option above, these provide such low reward value (around $10,000 - $20,000 each) that they're barely worth the effort. There are also a limited number of items to find and return.

These small amounts aren't really worth the trouble.

The first and fourth options are most akin to the quests of Baldur's Gate II, and in a better-plotted game, I would have been happy to run around fighting enemies and solving side-quests to earn the $2 million. But the planets of MegaTraveller are consistently boring, as is the gameplay necessary to move from planet to planet; the combat system is unimpressive; and there's almost no sense of character development (which would be the other reason to do side-quests and engage in combat), so my first attempts to earn money centered mostly on gambling.
One of these days, we're going to have to have a long discussion about gambling in RPGs. It's hard to do it well. In the real world, the game itself is half the point, but in a CRPG, you're already playing a game that's presumably more interesting than the gambling minigame, so if the minigame takes too much time and effort, you get impatient. But if it's too simple and fast, the gains and losses rack up awfully quickly, magnifying even the slightest edge towards the player or the house, either breaking the game or making the minigame an idiotic proposition.

Then there's the whole saving aspect. If the game already allows liberal saving, it's hard to make an exception just for the area of the gambling facility, but without such an exception, gambling becomes meaningless.

MegaTraveller manages to solve some obvious problems. Even though gaming is quick--a three-second slot machine spin--the losses and rewards are so small that it's hard to either gain or burn money quickly. Since you can only save in starports, this puts a little distance between the game and the gambling facility and discourages reloads. Since you can only wager exactly $100 at a time, there isn't much danger of catastrophic loss in the first place.

The system is otherwise mostly nonsensical. Even though the only gambling game is a slot machine, somehow "gambling" skill affects the results. Perhaps slots work differently in the future, but I don't encourage any of you to head to Vegas thinking that you can somehow beat the slots through experience or education. To have a chance of a consistent winning streak, you need a character with a skill of 4 or 5, which is relatively hard to achieve. Recall that during character creation, you pick the category that you want to study in, but the game randomly picks the specific skill (or sub-category of skills) from the category list. "Vice" is the sub-category containing "gambling," and for all branches of service, it only shows up one time on one list. To get a skill level of 4 or 5, you have to select the master category containing "Vice" every time and hope that the random roll selects it. I went through 12 or 13 characters before I finally graduated one with a skill of 5.

A winning spin.

I added him to the party and took him to the casino, where I recorded the results of 200 rolls. With results ranging from $0 to $1,750, I averaged a return of about $140 on a $100 investment, meaning the average roll returned $40 in profit. This sounds pretty good--it would be great in a real casino--but do the math. I would have needed 50,000 rolls to achieve $2 million, and at 3 seconds per roll, that's 42 hours.

I wasn't above weighing down the ENTER key while I did other things, but the other complication is that the casino runs out of money after it loses about $30,000. You have to get into your spaceship, take off, and re-land before you can start winning again. In general, then, it was a way to make some of the money I needed while I took a shower or ran an errand, but it wasn't going to get me to my goal.

This is what happens when a casino bases its slot payouts on skill rather than luck.

I ultimately turned in three bounties, and collectively they netted me about $500,000, which was a good chunk of the money I needed. I turned in NPC rewards when they were convenient; for instance, a bartender on Efate wanted a pendant that I also found on Efate, earning me $15,000.

My most lucrative bounty.

Most of the funds came from trading. The most lucrative route that I found was to fill up my cargo hold with water in Efate for $50 a unit and sell it on Louzy for $3,390 per unit. Unfortunately, the cargo hold only carries 20 units of anything at a time. Still, the route earned $57,800 per trip, minus about $5,000 to refuel the ship each time. Once I had a system in place, each trip took about 10 minutes in real time. Supplemented by gambling, about 30 trips got me the $2 million I needed, plus a comfortable padding, and about a third of the way through the first season of The Rockford Files. That show really holds up.

(I should also mention that I was constantly spending money, too, mostly on ammunition, healing, and fuel. Earning money isn't a constant upward trajectory.)

Loading up on cheap cargo for resale.

Reader Gaguum, a big fan of the tabletop Traveller game, has commented several times that the spirit of the game involves playing a party that is usually broke and scrounging for its next meal, taking on any job or mission that it can find just to survive. In that sense, the computer version has done a reasonably good job mimicking the tabletop experience. It's just that the game world and mechanics of the computer version are so uninteresting that it makes this stage of the game an exercise in warding off tedium. Nothing interesting happens on the planets except that someone tries to attack you. NPCs never have anything interesting to say; there are no discoveries. And 1990 players didn't have Netflix to keep them company while they ran dozens of trade missions between the same two planets.

Refueling at a starport saps my hard-won credits.

In any event, I eventually had about $3 million. I bought weapons, computers, and programs for the spaceship, then blasted off on the main quest to Boughene. Before I talk about that, let's discuss the game's approach to combat, which I've mostly figured out.

Missed shots leave a blasted landscape.

There are hostile NPCs on almost every planet, and sometimes--as in the case of the gravitic city bar on Efate--it's not entirely clear why they're hostile. They just start shooting. To respond in kind, you first have to enter the "party" sub-menu and break up the party's single icon into multiple icons representing each character. The game scatters them around the initial location using any space available, sometimes putting them right on top of the hostile NPCs, which creates a bit of a problem.

Once separated, you can enter the "orders" sub-menu, which pauses the game, and issue individual orders to each character, including moving, firing at a target, reloading, and using an item like a combat drug or grenade. Exiting the "orders" menu causes your orders to execute, and characters will keep doing what you told them until you issue new orders. The character's skill with the chosen weapon affects both speed and accuracy. You watch as your character's shots and the enemy's shots criss-cross each other, often missing, sometimes leaving gouges in the floor, sometimes hitting but doing no damage, sometimes hitting and doing damage.

Blasting away in close quarters.

The dynamic doesn't sound too bad, except that:

  • Characters don't always seem to do what you tell them to do. In an early post, I remarked that I couldn't get them to fire at all. Lately, I've had problems with a single character never firing his laser rifle despite having a "laser weapons" skill of 3 and plenty of ammo.
  • Sometimes, characters do no damage. Minutes will pass in which every fired shot does 0 damage. I'll enter orders mode again, tell everyone to fire again, and suddenly they'll start doing damage.
  • Characters often mistake my orders to target a particular enemy to target the enemy's square. The enemy moves and half my characters track him and keep shooting at him, while the other half waste ammo blowing holes in the floor where he was standing a few moments ago.

Perhaps the worst part is that combat is extremely unpredictable. I've had my entire party wiped out by a foe, reloaded, and then had the same party kill him without taking any serious damage.

The only real tactic seems to be to avoid engaging more than one enemy at once. This isn't too hard, as groups of enemies wander around randomly, and with a little patience, you can separate one from the herd. Once you enter "party" mode and start shooting, enemies never enter or leave the active screen, so skillful use of the terrain lets you take them on one at a time. In confined quarters, like a building, this strategy doesn't really work.

Siphoning a single enemy from the larger pack across the river.

One major complaint that I have about the game is that the characters don't seem to be developing at all. I thought I understood from the manual that skill levels increase through use, but multiple combat victories haven't advanced anyone's weapon skills, and hours and hours spent at gambling didn't increase my character's "gambling" skill. I'm pretty sure not a single skill has increased through use. That leaves training as the only mechanism for "leveling." Training areas in some starports offer a relatively random selection of training opportunities (they change with every visit), but at around $40,000 to $50,000 per skill point, it will be a while before I can afford even a handful.

This starport offers training in "laser weapons" and "jack of all trades." I could afford two sessions, but I'm not sure it's a good expenditure of funds at the moment.

At long last, I made it to Boughene to track down the contact that the Transom agent had instructed me to visit in the game's opening scenes. A bartender told me that a man named "Viktor" wanted to meet me on the other side of a bridge. It took me a while to find it. "Viktor" turned out to be another traitor working for Konrad Kiefer, somehow high enough in the corporation that he arranged for Arik (the contact I was supposed to meet) to be transferred to the nearby planet Neaera. He explained all of this in his villain's speech:

He attacked me with five other guys, and I kept dying, so eventually I just walked away from the battle and flew to Neaera in my ship. In the only building on that planet, I found a locked door, so I figured I needed to defeat Viktor to get a key or something.

82 skills in this game and not one of them is "lockpick."

I returned to Boughene and used the strategy described above to engage and kill them one-by-one. Even as singular foes, Viktor's party was extremely deadly, and I had to run back to town to heal and save between each individual battle. Eventually, I killed him and got a keycard from his body.

I end this post back on Neaera. The keycard got me into the facility, but it's crawling with Kiefer's agents, and there are no healing services on the planet, so I'll probably have to take this slow.

If you made a list of the lamest villain names in speculative fiction, "Kiefer" would have to be close to the top, perhaps just under "Malcom Trandle."

In the meantime, a couple random observations:

  • Technically, you don't have to pay for fuel. Once you have enough money to buy "fuel scoops" for $25,000 and a "fuel purify plant" for $50,000, you can stop by any gas giant and refuel. Although the manual clued me into this, and I bought the items fairly early, it took me a while to find suitable gas giants. Planets that I thought were gas giants confounded me when they didn't do anything, and it's hard for me to see their color (dark blue or maybe purple) against the black of the main navigation map.

Not a gas giant suitable for refueling.
Here we go!

  • Gaguum told  me that Traveller fans refer to the game simply as "Trav." This is, probably not coincidentally, the name of the executable that starts the game.
  • My navigation of systems is complicated by the presence of asteroids in a lot of them. They show up on the mini navigation map, but I have trouble distinguishing them from the planets, more because of the size of the dots than because of the color.

It makes a pretty cool picture, though.

  • The manual probably explains away some of my points of confusion, but the blasted thing is 85 pages long. It's tough to keep track of that much information. 
  • I experimented with buying information for $2,000 a pop on some planets. The intel has been mostly useless, discussing things that I would have found through general exploration anyway, such as the presence of a maze on Sino or the flag races on Alell.

This information is easily-discoverable by simply talking to NPCs in museums.

I hope the game moves at a faster clip now that I'm fully equipped and engaged in the main plot. I have literally no idea what percentage of the game I've experienced. For those who have played: is accumulating the $2 million a significant portion of the game, or is it just a prologue to a much longer plot?