Saturday, August 19, 2017

MegaTraveller 2: Won!

The Duke of Rhylanor is a little excited.
Well, I said I'd do it in one more session, and I did. But man, did it take a long time. And I mostly just pursued the main quest after the last entry. I don't think I completed a single side quest.

As we discussed, side quests are only necessary for the money they offer. By the end of my last entry, my financial situation was already pretty good, and pretty soon into this session, any monetary woes disappeared forever.

First, I got sick of my scout ship's limited travel capacity (just one sector at a time), plus I was getting destroyed in every space combat--which can occur randomly every time you arrive at or leave a planet. I sold the ship for $1.5 million, which would have been enough to keep me going until the end on its own.
This happens a lot.
That amount was supplemented by the facts that a) apparently, I'd been taking photographs of every Ancients ruin I visited; and b) Trow Backett back on Rhylanor would buy the for $150,000 apiece. That was another $750,000 that I pocketed.
You really need to learn to lowball. I would have taken $5,000.
Then, not so long afterwards, I discovered that some of the Ancients artifacts I'd been collecting were capable of delaying (though not ending) the threat of the slime spreading across Rhylanor. Between a "stasis ray," a "disintegrator," and a "pocket disk," I reduced enough of the threat that the government on Rhylanor paid me $7 million! Apparently, I could have found something called a "force dome" that would have stalled the slime even further and netted me more money.
And the math actually works out.
When I sold my ship, I had intended to swear off my own space travel and just use commercial and charter travel. But now that I was nearing $10 million, I figured I'd buy a far trader and outfit it with the best weapons that I could. After all, it only took half my money, and it would let me experience a side of the game I'd been ignoring.

I haven't talked much about space travel. The game's 117 planets are dispersed across a map of about 320 hexagons, organized into four "subsectors." The dispersal is not even. Most planets are adjacent to other planets, but some are isolated with several empty hexes between them.

The "scout ship" that I started the game with is only capable of jumping from one hex to an adjacent hex. Upon arrival, I either need to land on the planet to refuel or hope the system has a gas giant, where I can refuel for free. Since the whole process of boarding the ship, assigning crew locations, taking off, jumping, landing, and buying fuel takes about a billion mouse clicks, trying to get anywhere in my scout ship was just frustrating. Fuel prices cost about as much as paying for commercial travel anyway. And if you accidentally jump to a system with no starport or gas giant, you have to pay a ton of money to have the ship towed back to a system with a port. It just wasn't worth it, so I sold the ship.
"Jumping" from one planet to another.
But a "far trader" has engines that allow jumping two hexes at a time. Every system in the game is reachable that way (though sometimes via a round-about route). I figured that might improve in speed upon commercial or charter travel. Plus, charter travel to some planets is so expensive ($300,000 or more, with my low negotiating skill), that I still had a vague worry about running out of money eventually.

I won my first combat with my new trader. There isn't much to do in combat. Your crew automatically assigns itself to various stations, including guns, based on their skills. You just hit "target" and "attack" and watch as the ships fire at each other. You can't move, even.
Watching the battle take place.
After battle, you have the option to loot the enemy ship. I got so much in one haul that I can see why some people prioritize piracy in this game.
Is it really "pirating" if the ship attacked me first?
But I only had the far trader for about an hour of game time. At one point, I visited the planet Ylaven because my notes said there would be an Ancients site there. I didn't find a site, but when I stopped at the system's gas giant to refuel, I did find an abandoned Ancients ship.
This was lucky.
In a series of text screens, the game described how my party boarded and used some fuel cores we'd discovered at another site to re-activate the ship. It became ours. The Ancients ship is capable of jumping four hexagons at a time and doesn't require fuel. It also has its own special weapons that can't be modified or supplemented. Traveling with this ship meant that I didn't even need to land between systems and thus became much faster than any other form of travel.

Despite my low skill in ship's guns, I never lost a fight with the Ancients ship. I don't even think I took any damage. With no more need for money at all, except paltry amounts to travel between cities on a single planet, the game largely became a race to the end of the plot at this point.
I'm not even sure I want t know what's happening with this ship.
As I wrote several entries ago, MegaTraveller 2 is basically one huge treasure hunt as you follow clues from one system to another. But being an open-world game, it's also non-linear and occasionally rewards random exploration. If you lose a quest thread somewhere, you may be able to pick it up by visiting a random planet. I made it a practice to explore at least the startown of each new planet I stopped at, and I took pains to route myself through unexplored systems when possible. 

The developers tried hard to make each planet seem unique. The map in the manual has codes for a bunch of systems, and these codes tell you the type of starport you can expect to find there, its size, its atmosphere, its hydrographics, its government type, its law level, its technology level, and its population. Computers that you can access in the naval and scout bases and the Traveler's Aid Society (I eventually bought a membership) tell you even more about the political and social situations there. I found that some of the computer entries even gave hints about quests or the likelihood that the system has Ancients ruins.
TAS computers offer back stories and hints about plot points.
I appreciate the effort, but it doesn't quite work. If money was harder to come by, you might study the computer entries for hours looking for planets with solid opportunities. You might use the data to plot trade routes. If combat was harder, you might be wary about visiting a high-law level planet with no naval or scout base, as you're almost certain to have your weapons confiscated. But from the outset of the game, there's almost no reason not to move freely from world to world, meaning that all this intelligence is mostly wasted. Plus, the uniformity of each city map ruins any sense of uniqueness.
A better game would have made more use of these variables.
You'll recall that there are two branches of the main quest: trying to stop the slime released from the Ancients site from taking over Rhylanor, and figuring out which megacorporation was behind the sabotage in the first place.

The Ancients part of the quest involved tracking down each member of the Ancients Collectors Society to get their wisdom and visiting each Ancients site to find artifacts and "coyns." The ACS members helped identify which planets had Ancients ruins, but random use of the "Locater" device on every planet helped identify a few more. Early in the game, I thought that I had to visit every site and collect every device, but I guess that's not the case. All of the artifacts but one are optional, I think--although the others are responsible for that $7 million. You only need 36 "coyns" to win the game, and there are more than that in the galaxy. I ended the game with 41.
We explored a huge set of caverns for 20 minutes to find this one coyn.
The Ancients sites are interesting. Each one has a slightly different look and feel, and as you explore each one, the game offers verbose cut scene text to describe them. Here's what I found on Gerome, for instance:
In the dark, murky cavern, you struggle to negotiate the craggy corridors. One of the passages seems to have a pale light source at its end. You venture down the tunnel, taking tiny steps, and struggle to maintain your balance on the damp rocks beneath you.

At the end of the tunnel, you stumble upon an incredible discovery: a deserted space vessel. Lying half-buried in a dry, crusty bed of mud is the wreckage of a fantastic ship like no other you've ever seen. A transparent, illuminating glow bathes the craft in a soothing array of soft colors. Only once race could have constructed a ship this magnificent: the Ancients. After photographing the Ancient vessel, you gaze at the remains of the shipwreck in wonder and feel a twinge of nervous excitement as you prepare to board the vessel.
Another nicely-written and illustrated introduction to an Ancients site that had, I think, a single coyn.
These passages are all very well-written but again, mostly wasted. The actual "exploration" of the ruins involves wandering around cavernous areas with no combats and no encounters, only to find a single item or two on the floor.

The plot occasionally got silly, too. On the wreck of the ship described above, I activated a computer and read some logs from the long-dead Ancients captain. The logs mentioned a few planets with ruins that I didn't know about, and they described the war beginning between Grandfather and his children. At first, they're confident: "It is one against 420." Later, they become panicky as they realize "Grandfather has pinched off his own pocket universe" and thus "we can't fight him." I'm not saying it's horrible, but I didn't expect the ancient legend of "Grandfather" and his children to be literally true. Plus, I had to track down an Ancients expert to translate some writing on a shield, but somehow my characters are able to interpret the writing on the computer? To use the computer in the first place? It took me 9 hours to emulate Gates of Delirium in MAME, and that system is only 30 years old, not 300,000. Why are the planets named the same thing now as they were 300 millennia ago?
You're the only sentient beings in the galaxy. Who are you sending that "mayday" to?
On the corporate side of things, I started to run into a wall. Representatives refused to speak to me, or refused to tell the truth, and my "interrogate" skill wasn't good enough to crack them. Very late in the game, I found some "truth serum" at an abandoned university. It apparently was placed in the game to compensate for weak "interrogation," but I found it too late to do much good. I basically only used it on the secretary of Lie Iaccocco, the president of Tukera Lines, to get her to tell me where I could find him. 
Ms. Chan illustrates the value of the initialism "TMI."
But when I visited him, he simply said that he couldn't believe anyone in his company would be responsible for internal sabotage, and he offered me $250,000 to prove otherwise.
For the record, the real Lee Iacocca was the son of an Italian hot dog vendor who started at Ford as an engineer and worked his way up to president via good ideas and hard work. Sometimes, I don't know what this game thinks it's satirizing.
I had expected the Imperiallines thread to lead somewhere. Two representatives had told me that the company was up to no good, and they recommended that I search the offices of a representative named Gryfythh on Junidy. I did that, and I found a disk that outlined Gryfythhs's plan to attack a Naasirka facility on Aramax. I traveled there but couldn't find the facility in question, and otherwise couldn't find anyone to give the disk to. In any event, this sub-plot didn't seem to be related to the "real" conspiracy.

It was blind luck that let me pick up the path again. I had a layover on Pscias between stops and decided to explore the starport. I entered a building and suddenly found myself in combat with 5 guys. In the middle of combat, incidentally, this appears on my screen:
Where has this been all game?
For the first and only time in the game, one of my characters spontaneously acquired a skill through continual use of an item. It didn't happen with any of the other items that I'd asked the characters to use, and I never got any more training opportunities at the training facilities. Honestly, the game's approach to character development just makes no sense. It's either bugged or horribly broken from the outset. In nearly 40 hours of constantly using various types of weapon, armor, vehicles, and interpersonal skills, I was able to train once in "ATVs" and spontaneously generated a level on "Swords." Unbelievable.

After I killed them, I interrogated their leader, a guy named Grazer, in an adjacent room. He admitted that he was one of the two suspicious characters fleeing the Ancients site on Rhylanor, having activated the slime. He said he had been hired by a Tukera representative named Jayef Nonnel, who my notes said should be on Treece but I was unable to find him in the first visit.
I filmed two people fleeing. I don't think we ever found out who the second guy was.
Here, things got interesting. Grazer offered to let me join the conspiracy. Just for fun, I said yes, and he gave me a quest to go kill Trow Backett. I made an alternate save at this point, reloaded, and said no. He battled me and I killed him.
An intriguing alternate path opens.
Grazer had started his speech with "So, Cruxlic spilled his guts?" I didn't know who that was. Later, looking at a walkthrough, I see that I was supposed to have interrogated one of the random thugs attacking me and discovered he was recently released from the Huderu prison world. I would have then gone to Huderu, interrogated the warden, and learned about Grazer.

On to Treece. I found Jayeff Nonnel in the Tukera offices. I didn't even have to use interrogation or the truth serum: he admitted to everything. He had somehow learned how to activate the Ancients site on Rhylanor, and he hired Grazer to do it. He broke into Ashkashur's office and issued the order for the Vemene agents to kill me. And he partnered with Cruxlic to recruit prisoners as hit men.
You're destroying a whole planet over inter-office politics?
He did all of this because of a rivalry with fellow Tukera representative Roald Bulolo, based on Rhylanor. He wanted to "teach him a lesson about power and control . . . to destroy everything and then reroute all trade to the Lanth subsector."

Okay. I mean, I'm glad I solved the conspiracy, but wow was it anticlimactic. And talk about overkill! That would be like some Microsoft executive from Cambridge collaborating with ISIS to nuke Seattle so that the headquarters would be moved to the east coast and he'd have better promotional opportunities.
Looting the body from what turned out to be the game's final battle.
In any event, he attacked me and I killed him. On his body were a couple of disks outlining his nefarious plans, plus an Ancient "string of pearls" and a journal that mentioned an "Ancient site where challenges await adventurers." I already knew from the shield translation that such a site existed in the Regina subsector, and I knew from visiting Regina itself that there was a site I couldn't access before.

The site was interesting. It consisted of a series of pearly domes with teleporters at each end of the room. The only "challenge" was a simple number puzzle in which I had to finish a sequence beginning 1-9-2-8. Don't overthink it. It's a count-up followed by a count-down. "3-7-4-6" was the answer.
The visuals here were pretty cool.
The site offered a "Locater Plug" which fit into my Locater, but I never really figured out what it was for. More importantly, it delivered enough coyns (7) to give me the full set I needed. When I tried to use the "coyns," I was explicitly told that I should use them on Shionthy, so that's where I went. I used them again right out of starport, and they opened a "rip through the fabric of time and space" which led my party to "a magnificent city."
I hope the writer had a per-world contract.
I'm tempted to transcribe everything that followed, but it would take forever. (The game got very verbose in its final hours.) To summarize, the party entered the portal. We started to marvel at the domed city when we were suddenly paralyzed by some Droyne (Ancients) warrior robots and taken to Grandfather, who was dressed in "an awesome suit of armor, carrying a majestic staff and had "black eyes like an endless abyss, filled with the answers to every question and the solution to every problem that ever existed."
"Grandfather, what do women want?"
Grandfather was cool. After hearing our story, he explained that he sealed himself in the pocket universe after the destructive war with his offspring. He was amused when he heared about Rhylanor. The slime isn't supposed to destroy the planet, he said; rather, it was a terraforming substance that would restore life and water to the barren landscape. He agreed, of course, that it needed to be stopped before it covered existing cities. He gave us a terraforming activation device and sent us back through the portal, promising that he wouldn't be interfering with the universe again.

We returned to Rhylanor. Before activating the device, we visited Lord Hollis and gave him the disk outlining the Tukera conspiracy. He gave me a pass to see the Duke of Rhylanor, who in turn rewarded me with $1 million credits--not that money was any good at this point.
Yes, it was an inside job. Again.
And so we rented a gravity vehicle, left the city, and flew to the edge of the slime's spread.
Just note that the planet appears to have water and trees already . . .
We walked up to it and activated the terraforming gun. The slime "vaporized, leaving fresh soil and lush, green grass and vegetation beneath it." A continued "domino effect" finished transforming the planet into a "lush paradise." I have to admit with some embarrassment that I don't remember Rhylanor being described as dry and barren before. Maybe it was during the opening sequence.
If the whole planet gets terraformed anyway, why did the slime ever need to cover the planet?
The endgame video commenced. The party met with the Duke again, who had a really long speech, presented for some reason as scrolling text on the bottom of the screen:
On behalf of the Royal Family and the citizens of Rhylanor, and on behalf of the Imperium and all of the megacorporations that conduct business on this great world, I, Duke Leonard, grant you Knighthood in the Honorable Order of the Arrow.

Though their reward is monumental, no amount of money can repay the debt we owe them. Our homes, our lives, and our futures are secure thanks to the efforts of these worthy individuals. These courageous and cunning knights have not only saved Rhylanor, they have transformed it into a lush, thriving world. There is now fresh soil where before there were scorching deserts. Rocky, barren wasteland is now dense, deciduous forests and vibrant green grasses. Dry river and lake beds are now filled with clear, life-sustaining water. In the amazing rebirth of our planet, new industries will emerge, agricultural enterprises will flourish, exotic species of animals will appear, and we will all take part in a cultural renaissance that will change our lives forever.

Thanks to these adventurous knights, the secret of the Ancients has been solved. The Ancients never meant to destroy Rhylanor. Instead, they sought to transform our world and make it a better place for all. Sadly, the Ancients never saw the results of their work, but hopefully there's a spark of their brilliance still left in the galaxy, somewhere. Maybe, the Ancients still exist in another time and space, and maybe they're looking upon our newfound abundance with pride.

Here's to Rhylanor! Here's to the Ancients! And here's to the greatest adventurers of all!
The party seems to be one member shy as we approach the Duke.
You may recall that the supposed reward for solving the crisis was half a billion credits. Well, after the speech, we got a scroll proclaiming that we were awarded $5 million credits, with the remaining $495 million to be paid "as Rhylanor begins to rebuild from the destruction." That's reasonably funny. I wouldn't bet on my party ever seeing the balance of that reward.
It's good to know there's still parchment in the future.
The sequence ends with Kevin, the tour guide from the opening sequence, starting a new tour at the Rhylanor Ancients site, noting that since the last tour, "an amazing thing happened."
The face that bookends the adventure.
The game then dumped us back in Rhylanor Startown and let us keep playing. In a slightly better game, I'd be tempted. Of the 117 planets, I only visited 82. What's the story with Bevy on the fringes of the Rhylanor sector? How did I miss Paya right there in the middle? Is there anything else to discover on the prison planet of Huderu? What's happening on Celepina, where the an NPC captain told me that a visit from a Zhodani representative is under protest? What does the TAS computer mean when it says that Vanejen has an "unusual Vilani culture?"
You occasionally get hints from NPCs in space.
Unfortunately, with no character development, boring combat, and a tendency for side quests to play out either banal or goofy, the game doesn't quite justify further exploration. But it almost does. From this year, from this developer, that's a reasonably important accomplishment.

I may keep playing to see how the "evil" plot resolves, working with Grazer. If they actually programmed an alternate ending in which Rhylanor is destroyed, that would be pretty amazing. I also want to see what happens if we just wait out the clock. Thus, we'll save the summary and rating for a separate posting.

Time so far: 39 hours

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Eternal Dagger: Won! (with Final Rating)

My sequel-deprived characters remain trapped eternally in a foreign landscape.
The Eternal Dagger
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Apple II and Atari 8-bit; 1988 for Commodore 64
Date Started:  2 August 2017
Date Ended: 13 August 2017
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Hard (4/5), although adjustable on the main screen.
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
My commenters offered good advice for the "impossible" combat I described in my last entry. It centered around prioritizing dexterity in my attribute upgrades, searching for armor that protects against life draining (the high demons' primary attacks), and making better use of spells in combat. Thanks to everyone who commented.

But when I returned to play the game, I couldn't bring myself to engage in yet more grinding. So I sighed, lowered the difficulty, and tried the battle against Sri again. I defeated him with 4 characters killed. It was a hollow victory, yes, but by this time I was just trying to get to the end.
The objective of the dungeon. Acquired but not really "achieved."
Sri's chambers held the 8 "aqua-helms" I needed to visit the sunken city of Enolho. I retrieved them, made my way back to the Dwarven city, and left the Dwarven Island for the Elven Island.

I returned to Gray Eagle, and his minions flew me to the underwater city, leaving me on top of a tower sticking out of the surf. I strapped on the helmets and entered.
You probably want to back up your save before this point.
Enolho was a large single level featuring a lot of battles with demons, mermen, and sharks. By the time I found the portal to the demon world, my health was quite low and my karma about half used-up, so I somewhat shamefully reloaded from my position outside the city and simply made directly for the portal. There wasn't much reason to explore the city since all the nice weapon and armor upgrades that it offered had to be discarded before entering the portal.
"Wish" isn't the word I'd use, no.
My characters went through the portal with nothing but the Eternal Dagger (immune because it had once been living or something). We immediately faced battle with "undead warriors" whom my priests turned quickly. On their bodies, we found some basic equipment to replenish what we'd just discarded. A couple other battles on the same level also helped restore the characters' preferred weapon types, but the quality of the items was nowhere near what we'd just abandoned.
A fairly nice magic axe among a bunch of non-magic gear.
The demon world was two levels. The first had a maze in which the walls shifted every time I stepped on piles of rubble. The goal was to get to a set of stairs in the lower-right corner, but I had to use trial and error to get the walls to shift into the right position to allow me to make it down there. It was time-consuming but not hard, as there were no combats in the area.
Navigating a small, shifting maze.
There was a further maze of diagonally-situated squares that was no trouble at all, then a couple secret doors, then a final battle with some normal demons. The game really took it easy in this last section owing to the loss of equipment, I guess.
We are the sworn foes of colorful light!
In the room following the final battle, I looked at a table with a "pulsing colorful light." I had the option to destroy it with the Eternal Dagger, and of course I took it. This produced the endgame text:
As the Eternal Dagger strikes the light, it bursts in a polychromatic explosion. Huge energies tear at the fiber of your very souls. The Eternal Dagger shatters in your hand. You feel torn into a myriad of pieces. You have destroyed the heart of the gate and your world is safe. But still you are buffeted by the forces released. Suddenly, with an awful twist, you find yourselves in a normal landscape.

You are in a clearing in a wood. It is beautiful, but it is not home. That you must still find . . . but that is another adventure . . .
But the screen froze and there was no final save, and of course we know now that there was no "other adventure."

It wasn't until I was compiling this entry that I took a look at the walkthrough by the always-reliable Andrew Schultz and saw that if I'd dithered around the room with the pulsing light, I would have been attacked by the "big bad"--the guy sending all the demons in the first place--whose name is Anawt. The name was referenced in a couple of earlier encounters.
What I would have experienced if I'd messed around instead of doing the obvious thing.
He attacks with a dozen or so high demons. I'm tempted to call the battle unwinnable, but I know from experience that if I do that, it will be 20 minutes before someone links a video of someone winning it on the hardest difficulty with a single unarmed character. So I'll just say that I couldn't see a way to win it. Not with my characters half-equipped with inferior stuff. I'm grateful the fight is optional.
The likely-impossible final battle.
In a GIMLET, I expect it to do slightly better than Wizard's Crown owing mostly to some interface improvements. I otherwise don't see many strengths or weaknesses that either game had that the other didn't have. Let's see.
  • 3 points for the game world. Storytelling was never SSI's strong suit. They improve in the Gold Box titles, but they never get great. Here, the world and backstory are mostly a set of allusions to generic fantasy tropes.
None of the business with the turtle, the eagle, the sunken city, and most other plot elements was well-fleshed out.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. By far, this is the strongest part of this little series. Even in the sequel, starting with skills and attributes already high, there remained a palpable sense of progress after every few combats. But while development was strong, there were still no good role-playing options by race or class.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. The "NPCs" in the game are more like "encounters." That one point is generous. Dagger doesn't even have the old man spinning tales.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The game has a decent menagerie of monsters with their own strengths and weaknesses and a strong sense of contextual encounters (alas, not offering much in the way of role-playing options). The puzzles of Mad Avlis's dungeon were a particular bonus.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. My opinion hasn't changed. The tactical options are great--a huge step on the way to the Gold Box--but the game errs on the side of too much complexity, which in turn makes it too easy to rely on quick combat.
I was too ashamed to mention above that I used quick combat for the last battle. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn't know it was the last battle.
  • 6 points for equipment, the best part of the game other than character development. Given 8 characters with numerous slots, almost every battle produces an upgrade. The ability to pay to add enchantments to items is also fantastic, but I rather prefer the way the first game did it, where you could pay for substantial enchantments (e.g., storm damage) instead of just higher "+" levels. That's balanced here by more potions, scrolls, and wands that give magic ability to non-magic characters.
Having to drop everything, on the other hand, was painful.
  • 5 points for the economy. It's strong, with that one major "money sink" in the way of enchantments, although lacking in complexity since that's the only thing you spend money on.
  • 3 points for the main quest, but unlike the first game, there are no side quests or side areas. There remain no choices on the main quest path, except perhaps to stick around and try to kill Anawt.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics and sound are barely adequate, though improving slightly on the first game with a title graphic (and having any sound at all). Although the game makes good use of the keyboard, too many of the commands are cumbersome to access, and the movement system still sucks, but at least dungeon movement isn't the nightmare it was in the last game.
  • 3 points for gameplay. While larger than Wizard's Crown, it's still pretty linear and thus non-replayable. At the default difficult level, it's a smidgen too hard, requires too much grinding, and lasts a bit too long.
That gives us a final score of 41, or 3 points higher than Wizard's Crown, which I guess it earns primarily for having sound (the Apple II version of Crown didn't), the slightly more interesting dungeon encounters, and easier dungeon travel.
Why does the box show them stepping through the portal with equipment?! This would have been the one time that nudity was justified.
Dragon magazine, which famously awarded 5 stars to anything that blinked and beeped, gave this one 1.5 stars--literally the worst rating I've ever seen in their pages. It seems astonishing, since the game so faithfully replicates--as well as could have been done in 1987--a tabletop RPG module with tactical combat. I couldn't imagine what they thought was missing, especially where they gave 4 stars to Wizard's Crown.

Well, it turns out the low rating has little to do with the core game and everything to do with the character creation and import process. The review doesn't mention which version of the game they tried, but either it wasn't the Apple II or they suffered issues that I didn't. "The translation program does away with all but one wizard, and the remaining characters are really knocked down in abilities," it says, which simply doesn't make any sense. At least in the Apple II version, the characters came over completely intact. Anyway, because of this problem, the reviewers recommend creating new characters in Dagger, but they had trouble there, too. "One mistake or accidental slip of the finger could cause you to exit the creation module. If that occurs, you can't return to complete your adventuring party . . . you must start the party creation sequence from scratch again." Again, I have no idea what they're talking about. Each individual character is created and saved independently on the main screen (there's no separate "module") and even a power outage preserves that character on disk. I verified this with all three platforms.

The reviewers claim they lost their self-created parties, mid-creation, three times in a row, so resigned themselves to playing with the pre-created characters. Here, they ran into problems with the difficulty. "We got no further than a few miles with these adventurers, coming at last to a temple in the south. The party turned out to be entirely inadequate in holding its own against the hostiles that abound in nearly every hex." They finally gave up after 9 hours. I guess I agree that the beginning stages are hard, but certainly no harder than Wizard's Crown. Did they notice the difficulty slider?

Scorpia offered a more accurate (though still largely negative review) in the October 1987 Computer Gaming World, noting the interface improvements but also encountering the same difficulties in tactical combat when you start right outside a door and "your whole party is stuck until some room frees up." She noted that missile weapons can help, but "too often the angles are too severe, and bows or thrown weapons can't be used, making for a great deal of frustration during dungeon combat." I couldn't have said it better. She objected to the game's treatment of dwarves as money-grubbing and arrogant. Most of all, she disliked how the balance of tactical combat was tipped towards spells, making the battles more difficult and lengthier. "Not up to the previous game," she concluded, and "for patient players only."

The bottom line is that SSI did a pretty cool thing with Wizard's Crown but didn't learn enough lessons about what did and didn't work before crafting the sequel. Those lessons would be well-applied, however, when many of the same developers went on to Pool of Radiance the following year.

Paul Murray co-designed Wizard's Crown with Keith Brors, but Brors didn't seem to have a role in the sequel; instead, SSI had him on Realms of Darkness, which we'll see later this year. For his partner on Dagger, Murray was teamed with Victor Penman, who went on to manage several of the Gold Box titles. Murray himself had created several games for SSI, but after Dagger his resume switches to programming credits on titles designed by others (including, again, many Gold Box titles). He disappeared from the scene right about the time that Ubisoft retired the SSI brand in 2001, only to resurface in 2014 with the announcement that he and fellow SSI veteran David Shelley were founding Tactical Simulations Interactive (TSI). TSI is currently working on a Gold Box-inspired title called Seven Dragon Saga, which got off to a rocky start with a failed Kickstarter campaign in 2015. I really hope they're able to finish it.

Next up for 1987 is an Ultima clone called, for reasons that I hope turn out to be interesting, Gates of Delirium.


Further reading: Don't forget to check out my coverage of this game's predecessor, Wizard's Crown (1985). You can also read about the titles directly influenced by this engine, including Shard of Spring (1986), Roadwar 2000 (1986), Pool of Radiance (1988; the first Gold Box game), and Disciples of Steel (1991).

Monday, August 14, 2017

MegaTraveller 2: An Important Stop

And the whole "dog-person" thing gets creepier.
I continue to struggle with the differences between MegaTraveller 2 on paper and in reality. Part of me wants to hail it as an important stepping stone on the way to today's open-world games, with hundreds of explorable locations and an equal number of side quests. There's no denying the figures: MegaTraveller 2 has 117 planets with about 350 cities, and just about every one of those cities has something to do. There really hasn't been anything like it in CRPGs before.
The MegaTraveller 2 "game world."
The problem begins, I suppose, with the fact that the planets and cities are incredibly boring. There's one basic city map that has a few modifications for each city. Except on planets with Ancients ruins, things are rarely found outside the cities. There are only about 4 interior maps that all buildings with explorable interiors conform to. In some ways, this repetition is welcome: it would be exhausting to have to learn a brand new layout with each city you visit. But it also means that, for all the developers do trying to establish different governments, law levels, technology levels, and populations on each planet, the cities and planets are mostly undifferentiated except for their skins. There were many times, particularly when exploring the cavernous interiors of universities to find a single NPC, that I wished the developers had just used menu cities instead.
Pretty much all cities in this sector look exactly like this.
This city has different textures but otherwise has the same buildings in the same positions.
The more serious problem is the lack of solid RPG mechanics as you go about your galactic explorations. As much as I might love the many textures, building styles, and histories of the locations in series like The Elder Scrolls, I don't think I'd enjoy them for very long if all there was to do was walk and look. Those games offer open worlds with hundreds of locations--but in the context of the RPG mechanics to which I am addicted: fighting, leveling up, finding better equipment. MegaTraveller 2 is so weak in these areas that it strains to justify its RPG label.

But I have to give credit where it's due. Paragon was an exceedingly mediocre developer who fundamentally never understood RPGs, but against all odds, this game has managed to evoke some of the most enjoyable and addicting elements of what we'll see in the next two decades: nonlinear gameplay, long quest lists, complex plots that only slowly come together, and an inability to bring oneself to stop playing, even after a long session, because the next quest resolution is just around the corner.
Another quest gets added to my long list.
Despite having started over to ensure that my party had a ship, I ended up leaving it in the dockyard on Rhylanor for most of this session. I used commercial transportation to get around. Towards the end of the session, I found myself back on Rhylanor, and I'll probably use the ship from here, because I have to visit some interdicted worlds and the price of charter flights to those worlds is off the wall. I also can't end the game without having experienced space combat at least once. But in general, trading, piracy, and space combat will probably remain alternate approaches to the game that I'll never experience in detail, having made my fortunes on planet-based quests. I'm sure it's possible to win the game without setting foot in your own ship.

I settled into a pattern very quickly. It has basically consisted of the following steps:

1. Arrive on a planet. If it has a naval base or scout base, sneak out through their back doors rather than visiting customs and giving up my weapons. Otherwise, give up the weapons and hope for the best.

2. Check my "Locater" device (for which I eventually found batteries, as I'll describe below) to see if the planet has any Ancients ruins.
3. Fully explore the "Startown" of each planet. Chase down any wandering green NPCs. Visit any enter-able buildings and talk to those NPCs. If any of them give me a quest, enter the quest location in my notepad. Kill anyone who attacks me. Solve any quests self-contained to that city.
Chasing down NPCs in a new city.
4. This step didn't appear until late, but it eventually became important: if the planet has a police station, visit it and see if they want any of the IDs from any of the outlaws I've killed. It's a pain to figure out which outlaws are wanted on which planets, and you sometimes encounter them systems away from whoever has the bounty. Since about the 24-hour mark, I've had a dozen or so ID tags in my inventory at any given time, and it's always a nice surprise when a planet takes one or two and rewards me.
"Scars Pacino." Really strained yourself on that one, huh, developers?
5. Use the travel agency to visit any other cities on the planet for which I have business. Repeat Steps 3 and 4.

6. If the planet has an Ancients site, rent a grav vehicle or ATV and find it. Explore and loot whatever it has.
I couldn't get into this site on Regina.
7. Hopefully, by now I've solved whatever quest brought me to the planet in the first place. If not, I may have to take a second loop to find the NPC I missed the first time.

8. Return to Startown. Visit the equipment shop and sell any excess weapons and armor that I may have looted from enemies on this trip.
A good portion of my income comes from weapons looted from bad guys.
9. Occasionally, stop in the casino, play roulette, and weigh down the ENTER key on my keyboard so it keeps betting and spinning while I use the bathroom or make a snack or something. As per my previous entry on the subject, I make an average of $10,000 every 10 minutes that way. If I forget about it and leave it weighed down for hours, my party gets kicked out of the casino after earning $100,000.

10. Head back to the space terminal and check the destinations for commercial and chartered flights. Head for the nearest planet for which I have a quest on my quest list. If none of the destinations are on my list, consult the map for the closest destination that will get me closer to a quest planet. Either way, upon arrival, start over at Step 1.
I don't know. It looks pretty comfortable to me.
There's plenty to do on the planets besides whatever quest may have brought you there in the first place. About 1 in 4 cities have a wanted criminal to kill and loot. Many have fetch quests contained to a single city, or at least contained to other cities on the same planet. A few, of course, have special encounters that advance the main quest.
Something like this happens in about 25% of cities.
These side-quests, as I noted in earlier entries, are vital to help maintain your bank balance so you can keep traveling, renting vehicles, buying artifacts, and replenishing equipment and ammo. There isn't a strong correlation between the difficulty of a job and the amount it pays. I spent over an hour on a bunch of interrelated quests between Yres and Alell, helping some engineers on Yres manufacture a new sealant for the planet's domes, and earned less money than it cost me in passage. Other times, I might kill a wanted criminal with no difficulty at all and make $150,000. A lot of fetch quests that require you to travel between planets, even between systems, pay only $5,000-$10,000, while a few that don't require you to leave a single city pay as high as $40,000-$50,000. It makes no sense.
$5,000 will barely get me off the planet.
I have completely ignored those NPCs willing to pay a few thousand for generic items. Occasionally, you'll run across someone who wants a laser rifle or a vacuum suit and will pay above what the shop pays, but never by much, and I can't believe anyone makes serious money this way. There are a ton of NPCs running around who will buy Rech Fruit, but any player who actually bothers to go to the planet Rech, pick up loads of the fruit, and sell it across the galaxy for $2,000 a load wants to extend this game a lot longer than I do.

Mostly because of the casino winnings, bounties, and selling looted weapons and armor, my bank account has swiftly grown, and I probably could have shaved a few hours off the game by prioritizing the planets with main-quest stops rather than those with side-quest stops.
Looting a gun after a successful combat.
Combat remains idiotic. It's completely bi-polar. A handful of enemies have PGMPs, which are capable of killing my characters (even those in battle dress) in a single hit if they get close enough. Since my characters have a tendency to rush enemies even when wielding ranged weapons, this is almost all the time, and fighting such enemies has become a frustrating exercise in attacks and retreats. Usually, though, I can defeat them in a few reloads. Then there is the occasional enemy with an FGMP, which can kill my characters in one hit even at a distance. I've just had to learn to give up on them.
Fighting some random attackers on the streets of this city.
The vast majority of combats, though, involve not the slightest hint of danger to my characters. My vacuum suits absorb most of the damage, and if the occasional bullet or laser shot gets through, I can just use my medic's kit to heal it immediately. Thus, my characters are perfectly capable of winning 80% of the game's battles with their bare hands if my weapons have been confiscated at customs.
Killing someone in an office building.
The characters are completely uncontrollable in combat, except for the lead character, who is theoretically controllable but never seems to actually attack. He particularly won't move to attack the way the others do. Repeatedly, I'll arrive at a Startown and get attacked by some enemy agents. My lead character will stand dumbly in place while everyone else chases the enemies through the streets. I could manually move the lead guy, of course, but that's a waste of time since, while being moved, he won't shoot.

Finally, I'll note that there remains almost no character development during this entire process. Skills don't increase as you use them, nor do they ever seem to appear in the training ceters. Only once in the entire game has a training center offered me the ability to increase a skill, and that skill was "ATV," which I maybe used once. The whole system is enormously frustrating, and even this late in the game, I don't understand the connection between, say, combat skills and success in combat, particularly since you can't see the damage that individual characters are doing. Does it make sense to equip a powerful weapon for which you have no skill? What about wearing a powerful suit of armor? Are my characters without "laser weapons" skills hitting anything when I equip them with laser weapons? How have I been able to kill so many enemies with my fists despite no "brawling" skill? Why am I never offered the opportunity to increase that skill despite using it repeately? I fear I'll reach the end of the game still not understanding any of this.
The one time I was able to level up, with a skill I rarely used, assigned to a random party member.
A couple of notable side-quests have included:
  • On Ohian, King Klem wanted my help routing out an underground rebellion. I only found out about this by wandering into his house by accident. But since he said in the same breath that his primary motivation was to "corner the oxygen market on Ohian," I declined to help him. He and his palace guards immediately attacked. I only had fists for weapons because his customs service had impounded everything else, but we still killed the king and his guards easily. I stole some "oxygen factory blueprints" from his house and later sold them to the leader of the rebellion.
  • On Effate, I went the other way. A guy named Viddi was raising a rebellion, but it was clear that he and his followers were full of hot air. For killing him in a fairly easy combat, I made $150,000.
The game could have perhaps been more subtle in this characterization.
  • I wasted a lot of time on the planet Alell, searching the mountains for the ruins of a crashed ship. Unable to find it, I re-consulted my screenshots and saw that, according to the NPC who told me about the supposed crash, the name of the ship was Blatant Lie. I guess maybe that should have been a sign. 
  • On Regina, a woman named "Marilyn Monrope" wanted my help putting her demo cassette in the hands of a talent agent. I took it to a guy in another city who listened to it and told me to give her an appointment slip. When I returned to her, the game called us "naughty, naughty travellers" and said that Monrope "showed her appreciation in a most special way." In case that wasn't clear, it also noted that the experience was "most . . . aaahhmmmm . . . satisfying.
Okay, gross. There are 5 of us.
  • On Alell, a woman gave me a "birthday present" to deliver to her brother in another city. It turned out to be a drug shipment, and her brother had been replaced by an undercover police officer, who arrested one of my characters for trafficking narcotics. I had to bail her out of jail for $3,000. That seems to be the end of it, though--there's no word on having to return for a court appearance or anything.
I get arrested for no reason whatsoever.
  • The Vargr planet of Vreibefger was suffering a rabies epidemic. I don't even remember where I got hold of a vaccine, but I brought it to a scientist there, and he gave me a "bronze star" signifying the planet's gratitude.
The Ancients sites are all accompanied by textual cut scenes.
As for the main quest, there are three basic "avenues" that I've been exploring:
  1. Visit the Ancients sites and see what I find.
  2. Visit the Ancients experts and see what they can tell me.
  3. Visit the agents for the various mega-corporations and interrogate them about the corporate conspiracy that caused the disaster on Rhylanor in the first place.
On the first topic, I've explored three sites, on Inthe, Fulacin, and Victoria, and I found a fourth site on Regina that won't let me in. On Inthe, just as with the first party, I only found a single "coyn." I suppose I'm destined to eventually collect the entire group of 36.
Finding batteries to power Ancients devices.
The Fulacin site was a big yellow cube that seemed to have no entrance until I prodded at its circumference and was eventually teleported inside. It had a small maze in the interior that led me to 2 more coyns and a pile of 10 batteries. One of the batteries inserted in the "locater" I received from Trow Backett causes the device to emit a green light if we're on a planet with an Ancients site, and an orange light otherwise.

I found the site on Victoria because of the locater; I was otherwise only there to talk to a professor at the university. The site took the form of a huge checkerboard that had two piles of 5 coynes each.
19 down, 17 to go.
The Ancients experts have offered varying degrees of help. On Zivje, Karim Flored sold me an Ancients shield with an inscription on it. On Moughas, a guy named Rahjel Dramahern translated it to say, "Grandfather's proving ground of intelligence, wisdom, and cunning," with a map pointing to the Regina sector. Deghrra Szan on Efate just expressed confusion that the Ancients would build a device to destroy a world. Beckett Senchur spoke of the importance of finding all the coyns and suggested some might be found in a cave-in, in which his grandfather was nearly killed, on Gerome.
An early "collection quest."
The last Ancients expert I visited, Sawert Weston, attacked me when I introduced myself. On his corpse was a note directing him to kill "anyone who comes looking for information on the Ancients." It was unsigned, but noted that the author works for a megacorporation and that his "plans to destroy Rhylanor can't be ruined by any meddlesome fools on a hero's quest."
The incriminating note.
This ties, then, to the murky corporate conspiracy. I noted earlier that I've been attacked upon arrival on a lot of planets. Upon interrogation, one of the attacking thugs told me they'd been hired by Vemene, the special security service of Tukera Corp. But this made little sense, as Tukera has a headquarters on Rhylanor and stands to be destroyed by the slime. On Ohian, I spoke to Aran Ashkashur, head of Vemene, who claimed that someone hacked his computer to issue the orders to kill me. A Tukera agent named Lorn Denveldt suggested that Sharushid or Imperiallines might be responsible.

Chabon Art, representing Sharushid on Efate, said his company had nothing to do with the disaster and suggested something might be going on internally at Tukera. In the game's only callback (so far) to the first MegaTraveller, he recalled Konrad Kiefer's betrayal-from-within at Sharushid a few years prior. "Dont rule out an internal traitor," he said. "I can attest to the fact that it can easily happen."
Until now, I wasn't even sure that the first game took place in the same continuity.
A few NPCs opined that another corporation, Oberlindes, was behaving suspiciously, and one of my side quests involved stealing some of their client files for who I think was a Tukera agent. But on Regina, the Oberlindes representatives, even under interrogation, called their company "honorable" and its founder "a man of unwavering honesty and fairness." Later, on Extolay, Marc Oberlindes himself claimed innocence. "I'm a competitor of Tukera," he admitted. "But I'm certainly not out to ruin them."
Oberlindes resents my interrogation.
On Ruie, the thuggish representatives of Naasirka also denied involvement. Amusingly, they offered that the slot machines at the casino on Garrincski are programmed to pay off, as if all slot machines don't do that in this game.

I did get some traction on Enope with some Imperiallines agents. One of them told me that the company is up to "no good" and gave me an antique pistol to give to another agent as a sign. He, in turn, gave me a message for "Axl Rows" on Menorb. For his part, Rows directed me to a Vargr named Gryfythh, "head of Imperiallines' Aramis subsector" and suggested I search his office on Junidy. That remains outstanding on my list.

The "interrogate" skill has been invaluable in these discussions. I don't see how you'd get far without it, although I'm not sure that solving the corporate conspiracy is necessary to winning the game. I should also note that a lot of the NPCs remained green even after I interrogated them, meaning there's still something they have to offer. 
Before using the "interrogate" skill...
...and after.
There are still lots of places to visit, including Ancients sites on Gerome and Lablon, Ancients experts on Heroni and Treece, and more corporation representatives on Junidy and Treece. Most of my other "to do" items involve visiting salesmen who sell passes to interdicted worlds. As yet, I don't have any particular reason to go to those worlds, but there might come a time when I'm out of clues and just have to start visiting random planets looking for Ancients sites.

If you can ignore the goofy NPC names, the story isn't bad. It just takes a little too much wandering through nondescript cities and corridors to find these individual pieces of the puzzle. Here's hoping I can push through and win it for the next entry.

Time so far: 30 hours