Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Savage Empire: Seeking Home

The characters have about as much trouble finding a place to sleep as the player.
It's a tough time for the Bolingbrokes. We've had to vacate our house of 12 years while it undergoes a complete gutting and rehab, thanks to significant water damage incurred during this year's Winter from Hell. As my work keeps me in a hotel about 5/7 nights a week anyway, the consequences for me have been somewhat light, but Irene is used to the comforts of hearth and home, and shuttling around to various forms of temporary housing has worn down her nerves. On the days that I have been home, I've been occupied with helping her with the house situation. CRPG playing has naturally taken a back seat.

This isn't to say that I haven't had any time to play. I had a long plane ride from Los Angeles to Boston a few nights ago, and it would have been a perfect time to make a dent in The Savage Empire. I found myself opening DOSBox repeatedly, firing up the game, staring at the screen, and closing it. Normally, I give myself a break of 90 minutes between work "cycles" (which vary in time and intensity based a complicated spreadsheet that you really don't want to hear about) to play and blog, but this week, I've found myself preferring to do more work during those times of permissiveness. This leaves me with the question as to whether it's my mood that so disinterests me or the game itself.

Let's assume for a minute that it's the game. It's set in the same universe as Ultima VI and uses the same game engine. I loved Ultima VI. It's my second highest-rated game. Why wouldn't I at least like this one? Why would I find playing it a chore instead of, at least, a diversion from my woes? As something of a preview of the GIMLET to come, this is what I see:

1. A stupider game world. Eodon just doesn't really do anything for me. A land of dinosaurs and tribesmen ought to be more interesting than this one, which is largely based on tropes from a genre (early 1900s pulp magazines) that modern players aren't familiar with and don't care about.

2. Lamer NPCs. NPC dialogue has always been a strong point of the Ultima series, but the NPCs in The Savage Empire are somehow less interesting than the standard high-fantasy ciphers that occupy Britannia. They don't talk in ways particularly unique to their tribes; too many of them are literal copies of each other; and a lot of what they say is just goofy. There are a few notable personalities among them, but not as many as Ultima IV-VI.

3. Depressing combats with innocent animals. Combat wasn't a particularly strong feature of Ultima VI, but it's just worse here, with your own party members refusing to act most rounds and your enemies composed primarily of mindless animals like dinosaurs, great apes, and saber-toothed tigers, all of which seem wrong to kill.

4. Theft or poverty. At least so far, I haven't found many places to legitimately loot items. You either have to steal them from the huts of tribesmen or run about unarmored.

A roomful of goodies I can't take without feeling like a jackass.

5. No economy. I keep finding rubies and emeralds and such but no place to spend them. I guess this changes later, but nothing so far.

That's great. What am I going to do with emeralds?

6. Jungle camouflage. My colorblindness doesn't do well with the palette used by this game. I can't discern much of anything against the jungle backdrop. I even lose my own party members sometimes.

None of this quite adds up to a game that should exhaust me, but it does. Perhaps it's just all the other stuff in my head this month. No matter how strong the addiction, there are times that you just don't feel like playing a game.

When I broke off last time, I was heading south, aiming for the land of the Barrab, hoping to recover Topuru's "mind" so he'd tell me where the Urali hole up. I never made it. On the way, I ran into a large series of structures occupied by the Nahuatla and got wrapped up in their politics.

Tichticatl is the city of the Nahuatla, and it appears to be modeled after Aztec pyramids. The tribe was recently ruled by King Moctapotl, but he was overthrown by a usurper named Huitlapacti. Huitlapacti, in turn, is supported by an outsider named Zipactrioti, who turns out to be the missing Dr. Spector, a German scientist sucked into Eodon while fiddling with one of the corrupted moonstones. (I met his assistant, Fritz, in the last episode.) The evil duo also imprisoned the tribe's shaman, Oaxtepac.

...says the shaman who wears skulls on his headdress and earlobes.

I found Oaxtepac in his prison. Moctapotl is supposedly hiding out with the Disquiqui, who are next on my way to the Barrab. Anyway, Oaxtepac had some things to say about the overall Eodon mythology. Apparently, the Nahuatla used to reside elsewhere (like Central America) before "mighty beings" brought some of them to Eodon to be their servants. The Nahuatla rebelled and killed their masters.

As I wandered Tichicatl, every other tribesman I tried to talk with ended up attacking me. I felt bad killing so many of them, but I didn't see any other choice.

This didn't work out for your 25 predecessors.

I ran into Spector's parrot before encountering Spector himself. By repeating everything Spector had said in his presence, he gave a bit of intel. Spector himself gave the rest when I encountered him, although he kept breaking off dialogue to order nearby guards to attack. I had to leave the area, wait a bit, and return to continue the dialogue.

Between the parrot and Spector, I learned that Spector had run across some ancient technology in an hidden city called Kotl. The technology includes belts that create force fields around their wearers, protecting them from all harm. He wears one and so does Huitlapacti.

A villain more invincible than Lord British.

Spector--or Zipactriotl--says he plans to repair and reactivate the automatons in Kotl, use them to clear out the caves of the Myrmidex, and recover a giant stone that powers the belts as well as other technologies. He plans to use the giant power stone to teleport the entire city of Kotl to the heart of Washington, DC, and use his army of automatons and Myrmidex to conquer the USA, and then the world.

Just give us another decade of iPhones and Xboxes.

Oddly, despite having a diabolical plan and all, Spector, like me, seems primarily concerned with just getting out of Eodon:

"No. Do you know how to effectively negotiate with Allstate?"
There doesn't seem to be anything to do to help the Nahuatla until I can find the source of the power and turn it off. Oaxtepac indicated that the city is somewhere to the southwest. The sun has to strike a gem on the right time of day to reveal the entrance, which is guarded by a man of solid gold. But the Urali stole the gem a while back, so I have to find them first.

There's been another interesting thread among the conversations with a few NPCs. There's an evil race of "ant-things" called Myrmidex that I haven't encountered yet. NPCs like Sahree, Aiela's friend, talk about an ancient warrior named Oloro who once united the tribes against the Myrmidex. Oloro did some kind of service for each tribal chief to secure that tribe's allegiance. Then, he beat a giant drum to summon them to war.

So far, I've uncovered a few of the quests that this task would seem to require, such as rescuing the Barako chief's daughter from a great ape. I also ran across the Hill of the Drum, where a crazy guy named Tuomaxx will make a big drum for me out of an animal hide. I imagine that ultimately, I'll have to wander around to each tribe and toss the UNITE keyword at the chiefs, solve their quests, and go beat a drum. But nothing about the Myrmidex has been pressing yet.

Ascending the Hill of the Drum.

Two other notes:

  • I'm going to complain about the day/night cycle again because it's so annoying. You can barely explore half a city before it's nighttime again and you have to go find someplace to rest. Unfortunately, the game has a very wide search area when it says that you can't rest when "foes are near." You end up having to wander miles into the distance to get away from all foes, at which point you waste half the next day trekking back to your origin point.
  • I still don't know how to level up. I can't believe I haven't accumulated enough experience points yet.
  • Healing is very slow in the game. You only get back 5 for every night's rest, and casting the appropriate spell only gives you a few more while depleting scarce resources.

We'll see if my mood or the game improves over the next week. In the meantime, why don't you all head back a few posts and see if you can think of anything to say about Hack, which got a measly 13 comments despite everyone harassing  me to play it for the last three years. I finally get a post up, which uncovers some interesting stuff about the game, and...crickets.

Time so far: 8 hours
Reload count: 2

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Game 187: Operation: Overkill (1990)

This appears to be an alien hand holding...something.

Operation: Overkill is a BBS door game--a phrase that I'm writing for the first time in my entire life and still don't fully understand what it is. I mean, I looked it up on Wikipedia and everything. Here's the link. I like to consider myself a pretty smart guy, and I definitely understand the conjunctions and indefinite articles in the first two paragraphs, but I'm fuzzy on everything else. Although I was alive and young for it, I really missed the entire BBS era, much as I am doing with social media in the 2000s. Three decades from now, someone will be reminiscing about Candy Crush, and I'll have no idea what they're talking about and no frame of reference to understand it.

Without commenter HunterZ, who sent me some instructions for making the game work on my computer, I wouldn't be playing it at all. Having jury-rigged some kind of solution to mimic a BBS on my own computer (I think), I've gotten the game running, but I lack confidence that it will stay running, particularly since it's bent on kicking me out after a certain amount of time, and every time I want to play, I have to run a maintenance program that changes some things.

Operation: Overkill was created by Dustin Nulf, a programmer with a moderate game portfolio, usually as the audio programmer or music composer. This game was  his first, and his online resume suggests he might have been in high school when he created it. He kept maintaining it throughout the 1990s; the version I was able to get running is 1.20, with a copyright date of 1996-2001. His c.v. says that he sold 3,000 copies.

The title of the game is somewhat confusing. Almost every web site and database has it as Operation: Overkill II, with no word on the first game in the series. The game's main executable is called "OOII," lending credence to the II part, but its title screens generally just say Operation: Overkill. I say "generally" because the game has a variety of title screens that it chooses at random when you start up, and one of them does say "Part II" on it. None of the others do, nor does the copyright screen.

This alternate opening screen is the only one to indicate that the game is "Part II" of something.
The game takes place in 2060, decades after a nuclear war wiped out most of the human population. To avoid contamination of the planet's water supply, humanity somehow converted it to "water crystals," which serve as the world's currency. As if a nuclear holocaust wasn't enough, Earth was soon invaded by the forces of the planet Hydrania, ruled by a merciless commander named "Overkill." Overkill and the Hydrites stole most of the planet's water crystals. The remnants of humanity live in an underground complex, protecting the last of their precious water, sending scavengers to the surface to find food and more crystals. On the surface, they must contend with Hydrite marauders, mutants, bandits, and other assorted monsters. There is a vague main quest to find and kill Overkill, but it isn't well-elaborated.

A bit of the in-game backstory.
The game is all text, though with some occasional navigational graphics. It plays a lot like a roguelike, particularly since I assume death is permanent (I haven't died yet). In the base, which serves as a kind of "town level," you can buy and sell weapons, armor, and equipment, get healed, store money, practice combat, train to level-up, and interact with other players.

The main base offers some basic navigational graphics.
Characters begin with 18 strength, 21 dexterity, and 21 hit points, and they can enroll in a training program that makes small adjustments to the totals. At each level increase, they can raise one of the three attributes by 4 points.

The brief character creation process.
Outside, the wasteland occupies multiple "levels," each with coordinates extending from 0,0 to 24E, 29S. I assume the map is randomly generated for each new game, though I'm not really sure how this worked with multiple players. Not all the squares are used; the entire wasteland is ringed by impassable rock, and the interior has a variety of terrain, including mountains, water, swamps, desert, and radioactive areas. In my explorations of the first "level," I found a couple of missile silos (these just seem to serve as temporary camps where you can rest and meet other characters), an abandoned Air Force base, and a hole that goes down to the other levels; I guess the other levels are meant to be underground, but they have the same terrain as the initial one.

The outdoor navigation screen. The infrared scanner shows that I'm on flat terrain (in the center). Flat terrain surrounds me to the west, east, and north, but south of me are impassable rocks. I've just encountered an enemy.

My map of the first "level."
There don't seem to be any fixed encounters in the wilderness areas. Instead, you randomly bumble into enemies like scavengers, cobra-men, bandits, rabid dogs, and giant frogs. At least one non-combat encounter, with a weird gypsy named Aurora, moves randomly around the map. She tells you answers to questions for a sacrifice of your attributes.

An encounter with the only NPC so far.
Combat uses an interesting combination of real-time reaction and underlying attributes. Each round, a series of As, Bs, and Cs scroll along the screen in groups of 5, and the game tells you which one you're looking for. When your desired letter group appears, you hit SPACE or ENTER, and if you caught it before all 5 letters went by, you score a hit. At that point, damage is based on your weapon and strength. I think the speed at which the letters scroll by is based on your dexterity.

A bit of the action combat system. I like the descriptors.

For players that don't like the action-oriented system (or had laggy modems, I guess), there's an alternative system based on random rolls against your dexterity, but I found that I miss a lot more using the random system. Either way, for all its originality, combat offers few tactics, making it long and boring, and the game promises to offer hundreds and hundreds of them.

Fighting using the "statistical" method gives me nothing to do but watch helplessly.

Each character can carry both a melee weapon and a long-range weapon. The melee weapons range in quality and value from a steel chain up through a "TransAxe," an electric sword, and something called a "Tevix-Bahn." Ranged weapons range from a "Trialism" through a "Z-Tempest." Most of the weapon names are invented by the author, but the neat thing is that you can get a full description of each item in the base, making this one of the few games so far with item descriptions.

This looks like the thing that Worf uses.

If you have a ranged weapon, you have the option to squeeze off a shot at the beginning of combat. If your foe doesn't have a ranged weapon, that's a freebee for you. After that first round, the enemy closes with you and you have to fight with your melee weapon for the remainder of the combat. I don't know if there are any combats with multiple ranged rounds, but I haven't fought any yet. Even opponents with guns generally run into melee range after the first round.

Usually, you can loot items after combat, but occasionally something like this happens.

There are four types of armor, each with a specific number of "hits," and two types of suits: environmental suits (which protect against radiation) and combat suits. There are a large number of miscellaneous items, including ropes (for climbing up and down the levels), medpacks, "summoners" to increase the number of random combats, "Galacticoms" to enable translation, gas masks, and explosives. These things are all sold in the base, but I've found that it's easy enough to save money by waiting for enemies to drop them.

Purchasing equipment.

The annoying thing is that you can only carry 2 weapons and 5 inventory items at a time, making looting items for resale, which would otherwise be very lucrative, almost impossible. Apparently, you can build your own base to store items in--up to 100--but these cost over 100,000 water crystals, and I haven't possessed more than 15,000 at a time yet.

Like any good post-apocalyptic game, radiation and disease are problems. Your radiation level increases slowly as you explore the terrain. If it goes above 50%, you can't get back into the base, and if it goes above 75%, you start to lose attributes. I don't know if there's a way to cure radiation without returning to the medical bay at the base, but I've been doing that frequently. It's fairly expensive, and most of my money has been going to de-radiation. There's also a variety of diseases you can catch in the wasteland, including malaria, yellow fever, rabies, and polio. Fortunately, you can pay to vaccinate yourself against all of them. After a near-fatal bout with "Delyria," which causes you to move in random directions, I spent all my money on vaccinations against everything.

Getting vaccinated. How the post-apocalyptic society managed to develop vaccines for all these diseases is unexplained.

In about 2.5 hours of gameplay, I rose to Level 5. When I hit Level 5, I got a notice that future training sessions would cost 5,000 water crystals, and the experience and money rewards from creatures on Level 1 of the wasteland would be substantially reduced, making this one of the few games of the era to impose level scaling.

An unwelcome message upon reaching Level 5.

I've started to explore Level 2--though I don't know if maybe I should go to the Air Force base first--and have found more difficult monsters but better equipment. As I noted above, I haven't died yet. I don't know if the game gets a lot harder later, but so far I've found it easy to survive as long as I keep medkits with me and use them when I get below 50% health.

Operation: Overkill isn't bad, but neither is it offering anything particularly enjoyable. It's shaping up to be something like Fallthru with a smaller game world. I've had no leads on a main quest, but some of the things I was able to ask "Aurora" about, including launch codes for missile silos, the locations of keys to some kind of cells, and the location of an "Oracle," suggests a broader plot to come.

My character on leaving this session.

Naturally, I'm missing a huge part of gameplay by playing this by myself. Playing it on a BBS allowed players to talk to each other during gameplay, send each other e-mails, trade water crystals, form "squadrons," and kill and loot each other. I'm getting none of that, but then again I don't particularly want to play with other people. I guess I'm setting a standard here that as long as an online game offers a single-player experience, I'll play it if it's still possible.

I jumped into this game because I was having trouble getting back into The Savage Empire after a week's absence form it. These two in-progress titles are all that remain of 1990. Let's see if we can wrap them up this week.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Game 186: Hack (1984)

Hack [v. 1.0.3]
Independently developed on Unix systems from 1982-1984; ported to DOS in 1984
Date Started: 20 April 2015
Date Ended: 24 April 2015
Total Hours: 7
Reload Count: 6 characters; 16 reloads on final character
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Here's one reason that roguelikes are awesome: while anyone reading this post could identify a roguelike in an instant, to the uninitiated (which, let's face it, is most people), they don't look anything like games. They look like work. An average person glancing at my monitor thinks I'm using some kind of retro graphing calculator or an early DOS version of AutoCAD. He thinks, "Man, I always knew Chet was smart, but whatever that is is hard core."

All week, I've been in a series of meetings and events that didn't exactly require my full concentration but had people hovering around my computer frequently. The Savage Empire was definitely out, as were most of the other games on my upcoming list. I needed a roguelike. Since I kicked Angband to 1993, the next obvious choice was the original Hack.

I can't remember why I missed Hack when I first passed through 1984. I probably looked for it but couldn't find it or didn't try very hard. Having already played Rogue and the first generation of NetHack, I rather expected that Hack would be an obvious evolutionary step, perhaps halfway between the two. (Reading the posts on both will greatly assist roguelike novices in understanding this one.) Instead, I was surprised to find a game that was almost indistinguishable from the first versions of NetHack. By the time of its DOS release, Hack had left Rogue far behind, and the improvements made between this game and early NetHack are few and subtle.

The opening screen from an early version of NetHack. Note how similar it is to the screenshot at the top of this post.
Some history is in order. Rogue was created by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold on Unix systems at a couple of University of California campuses in 1980. My understanding is that they didn't intend for it to be open-source software; in fact, they eventually marketed it through several companies, with varying degrees of success. But other programmers found it easy enough to knock off, and they generally made their creations open-source. This led to the entire roguelike genre.

A fortune cookie message hits a little close to home.
A game known as Hack was first programmed in 1982 by Jay Fenlason and other students at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts. By most accounts, the game was essentially identical to Rogue except that it featured more monsters. (Some sources say that it had shops and pets, but Andries Brouwer says those were his additions.) In any event, Fenlason et. al. released Hack with an open-source license. It somehow found its way to Andries Brouwer, a mathematician, computer scientist, and professor at the Mathematisch Centrum in Amesterdam. Brouwer greatly improved the game from its Rogue roots and introduced most of the elements that distinguish it from earlier incarnations, including:

  • Multiple classes that start with their own inventories
  • Shops
  • Pets
  • Intrinsic attributes gained by eating corpses
  • Complex interactions between monsters, items, and the character, such as a dragon's breath hitting other enemies in your path or destroying your scrolls
  • Ability to backtrack to previously-visited levels
  • Special rooms like vaults and "treasure zoos"
  • Ability to write on the floor
  • "Bones" files 
  • Fortune cookies with associated "rumor" messages
  • A special set of levels on which the Amulet of Yendor is found

The adventurer stumbles into a killer bee hive.

There's still plenty of opportunity for later development by Mike Stephenson and the rest of the NetHack development team. The item and monster lists are about half of what modern NetHack aficionados are used to; there's only one way up and down; you don't get the option to identify your possessions or see your intrinsics when you die; there's no "blessed" status or altars; there are no spells or spellbooks (making the wizard class a dubious choice); and while "pray" exists as an option, the manual is quite frank that it doesn't do anything. But the basic structure of NetHack is here, and it's clear we need to credit Andries Brouwer as the most important founder of the game.

Shops are a particularly welcome addition.

Brouwer released the game on Usenet in December 1984. He offered a patch a month later, an updated version (1.0.2) in April 1985, and a third version (1.0.3) in July 1985. The three versions show as much evolution as we see from Hack to the first NetHack. Adjustment of luck based on phases of the moon first appeared in 1.0.2. Designation of the lower levels as "Hell" (and the need for fire resistance) also appeared in 1.0.2, as did the Wizard of Yendor in a special square in the middle of a level (in the first version, the Amulet of Yendor was found under a rock). Version 1.0.3 first required players to reach Hell via teleportation, and it also introduced "wizard mode" for the first time.

In October 1985, Hack 1.0.3 was ported to DOS by Don Kneller, who would later port Moria. Kneller didn't seem to know Brouwer by name, crediting the development of the game only to "several people at the Stichting Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam." Reading his notes on the game, we come across this shocking paragraph:

Saved games have no special protection, so you can save a game and make a copy of the save file. Then, if you die trying something risky, you can use the copy to restart your game from the same place.
Folks, this is the author of the first PC port of Hack telling us that it's okay to save-scum. Imagine the time I could have saved myself with NetHack a couple years ago.

Hack offers six character classes: tourist, speleologist (later replaced by the more common term "archaeologist"), fighter, knight, cave-man, and wizard. Version 1.02 introduces the ability to specify sex. There are no attributes other than strength. I played a little with each class and finally settled on a knight to go for the win. Having already won NetHack 2.3e and NetHack 3.0.9 legitimately, I didn't feel any particular compulsion to do this one the hard way. I backed up my save file before each new level and ended up reloading 16 times.

If my adventurer is killed in Hell, where does he go?

I didn't find it very difficult to survive within the first 15 levels as long as I took my time. Beyond Level 15, as the monsters get harder, the game becomes a lot deadlier--particularly since the game caps the character at Level 14 (a liability that continues through the early versions of NetHack). It's important to improve strength as much as possible through Potions of Gain Strength and eating Royal Jelly (from killer bee hives) or spinach, as well as weapons and armor through Scrolls of Enchant Weapon and Scrolls of Enchant Armor. Eating the right creatures conveys fire resistance, frost resistance, regeneration, invisibility, and other intrinsics. I was never able to get poison resistance, and I'm not sure what other intrinsics are available since you can never see them and never get confirmation of their acquisition.

Strength increases a point.

There are fewer options for getting yourself out of tight situations than in NetHack, and I learned to prize various wands and scrolls, including Wands of Teleportation--which send monsters off to a random location--and Scrolls of Teleportation, which do the same thing for the character. While you can get ESP by eating floating eyes, there are no blindfolds in this version, so the ESP only helps when you get temporary blindness from eating rotten food or getting blinded by yellow lights. As with later versions, teleportitis and a Ring of Teleport Control are the most important intrinsic/item pair in the game.

Below Level 25, the levels become a series of mazes. Paradoxically, the game becomes a little easier in the maze section because each level has a dead-end in which a Wand of Wishing lies beneath a boulder. You have to have a pick-axe or a Wand of Teleportation to get rid of the boulder (there might be other ways), but a couple of those wands goes a long way towards finishing your ascension kit. Unfortunately, there are no Scrolls of Recharge in this version.

After Level 30, the maze levels are designated "Hell," and you need fire resistance (either a ring, or by eating a dragon) to survive. You also have to find a way to teleport into it. There are no down staircases after Level 29, so the only way to reach Hell (and the Amulet of Yendor) is via level teleportation. Later versions of NetHack give you several ways to accomplish this, including Cursed Scrolls of Teleportation and level teleportation traps, but in this version, the only way I could find to reach Hell was to read a regular Scroll of Teleportation while confused and in possession of a Ring of Teleport Control.

The Wizard of Yendor and the Amulet of Yendor supposedly appear at a random level between 30 and 40, but I found him right away on 40. He's surrounded by a wall, which is surrounded by a moat, so you need some mechanism of getting past the water and the walls. I found that a Wand of Fire evaporates the water and a Potion of Levitation lets you cross over it. As for the wall, a Wand of Digging or a pick-axe do the trick.

The Wizard is a pushover in this version, since there's no real magic or magic resistance. I killed him quickly with my sword, and grabbed the Amulet from his body. This version's Wizard doesn't resurrect and harass you all the way to the exit.

Once you have the Amulet, the rest of the game--just as in the first versions of NetHack--is a breeze. All of the up staircases are in the same location in the maze levels, so once you find it on the Wizard's level, you just have to keep hitting CTRL-period to quickly pass through all the other Hell and maze levels. Once you get to Level 25, you have to navigate from staircase to staircase, but the game remembers the maps from previous visits, and if you have teleportitis, it's a simple matter to just teleport yourself from the down staircase to the up staircase.

When you go up the staircase from Level 1, the game tells you your score and number of moves.

For someone who has played a later version of NetHack, Hack feels fairly primitive. But just as I noted with Moria in the previous year, Hack was undoubtedly the most complex, tactical game of 1984. It's not until 1985-1986 that regular RPGs start to rival roguelikes in the complexity of their mechanics, and as late as 1990, no commercial RPG has come close to the Hack/NetHack line in the complexity of inventory and inventory interactions.

On a GIMLET, this game gets:

  • 0 points for not even the slightest description of the game world in the manual.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The selection is limited and the level cap is a huge turn-off.
  • 2 points for NPCs. You know what gets those two points? The pet. I forgot to reward other versions for this addition. I typically abandon the pet because I find it annoying to constantly maneuver around him, but it's still a unique and interesting element of the game.
  • 5 points for foes: a terrific variety of monsters with special attacks and resistances.

I wouldn't have minded if this had waited for a later version.

  • 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system is deceptively sophisticated with all the item-based tactics you can use, but there's no magic system to speak of.
  • 6 points one of the best varieties of equipment that we've seen to date, and the ability to use items in complex (but logical) ways to solve puzzles.

A mid-game inventory shot.

  • 2 points for the economy. You might get a store on an early level, might not. If you don't get one, there really is nothing to do with the money you find except score extra points.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no decisions or branches
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, all for the interface, which is intuitive and well-documented.
  • 4 points for challenging gameplay that, while linear for each game, offers a lot of replayability.

The final score of 30 is better than anything else in 1984 so far, but a little lower than the 36 I gave to the first edition of NetHack. The variance actually surprises me a little because I feel like it played about the same, but looking through my notes, I see that NetHack offered enough features to get an extra point here, an extra point there. In any event, it's hard to recommend Hack for modern players with more advanced versions of NetHack available, but I'm glad I played it for its historical value.

I hope to get back onto a regular schedule next week and continue on with The Savage Empire. I have no idea why I have this kind of lull every single April.


For further reading: Check out my posts on Rogue, this game's antecedent, and my posts on NetHack v. 2.3e (which followed Hack) and NetHack v. 3.0.9.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Savage Empire: Neither Savage nor an Empire

Love or hate the game, this is a pretty awesome scene.

I've often remarked that while Origin was competent at "creating worlds"--better, indeed, than any other developer of the 1980s--they generally fell short of greatness. Their world-building often falls apart under scrutiny. The gargoyles, presented as misunderstood victims, are actually pretty vile when you think about it, and their virtue system makes no sense. The explanations for the extinction-level physical changes to Britannia's landscape are just absurd, and don't even get me started on Ultima II and its planets. When the world-building doesn't fall apart under scrutiny, it's just a little too tidy. Britannia's eight major cities, each based on a virtue, with docile NPCs spouting platitudes like "STRIVE FOR HUMILITY!," seem more like one big cult than a viable socio-political system.

Given its history, I've been alert for The Savage Empire being a little too cute. For instance, the three "totems" needed to cast spells are Heluzz, spirit of knowledge and vision; Aphazz, spirit of emotion and strength; and Molazz, spirit of battle--which of course correspond with the three principles of truth, love, and courage. For a while, I thought the various tribes were somehow going to be organized around the eight virtues, and that may in fact be the case. (There are actually nine tribes, but the Urali are supposed to be weird outliers who no one knows where they came from.) For instance, the "Disquiqui" are said to be "happy, musical, and rather notoriously amorous," which somewhat fits with the bards of Britain in the main series. The Pindiro have a "one with the land" thing going on that may associate them with the rangers and the virtue of spirituality. But on the whole, if this is what the developers intended, it's very subtle.

The manual's depiction of some of the tribes.
More specifically cloying for this game is the way that each tribe represents some aspect of "primitive" Earth cultures. The character portraits and NPC dialogue hint at this, but the game book makes it explicit. The Yolaru are Africans,  the Nahuatla are Aztecs, the Barrab are Asians, the Disquiqui are Polynesians, the Kurak are South American Indians, the Haakur are Neanderthals, and the Pindiro are North American Indians. Eodon is about the size of EPCOT, and yet these tribes have managed to maintain distinct cultural identities over what must have been thousands of years.

Whether by ignorance or design, Origin does a good job treading the "cultural sensitivity" line sometimes, as we discussed in association with Tangled Tales and Ultima VI's "Miss Mandy." They're never actually what I would call "offensive," and yet they sometimes elicit a groan, as when the Barrab are described as having yellow skin, or in Professor Rafkin's note about the Polynesian Disquiqui: "I always recall how and where Captain Cook died, and keep my wits about me when dealing with the Disquiqui." For the record, Captain Cook died while trying to kidnap the King of Hawaii to hold him for ransom.

I don't want to give the impression that I really care about this stuff, because I don't. I don't really think that anyone at Origin hated Mapuches, or that the game somehow hampered Caucasian-Polynesian relations. If I was an ethnic Zulu, I wouldn't feel offended. It just suggests a certain failure of imagination. Like a million things they did, Origin started with the germ of a good idea but failed to take it beyond the usual tropes.

'Cause nothing says "Native American" like feathered headdresses
As gameplay goes, it's been tolerable so far. Not Ultima VI quality, but a decent quasi-expansion. It follows the typical Ultima dynamic of offering a large game world which you navigate by a non-linear approach, taking notes as you talk to NPCs and find clues, juggling multiple quests at a time.

I decided to explore the north part of the map first and see if I could find Topuru, the exiled ex-shaman of the Urali, who supposedly knows where the Urali live (no one else does). The first camp I ran into belonged to the Pindari. From them, I learned that Topuru lives on an island west of the Barako camp, and that I'd need a raft to get over to him. A raft, meanwhile, requires four people to paddle in unison; the Pindari get their paddles from the Disquiqui far to the south.

Fortunately, I found my fourth party member in short order. Shamuru--Shamino's doppleganger from the introduction--was waiting on the road between the Pindari and Barako villages. Like Triolo, he said he had been found by the tribe after wandering out of the jungle with no memory, so it's possible that he actually is Shamino. His fellow Barako villagers revere him as a "great hunter." Talking about things like Lord British elicits a faraway look. Another clue was that Shamuru was wearing leather armor, which wouldn't otherwise seem to exist in Eodon. I gave the armor to the Avatar, the only character who fights with a melee weapon. Everyone else has a bow.

Another clue: Shamuru is white.

The Pindari had told me about a stranger living in a cave north of the village, and I found him after some exploration. He turned out to be Fritz, a colleague of Professor Spector; as per the backstory, both had disappeared while studying the rogue moonstone, which they recovered from a dig in Guatemala.

And the German scientist manages to insult about a dozen cultures in the space of two sentences.

Fritz related that after they were in the Eodon, Spector found a crystal skull in an underground city to the southwest. He referred to the crystal skull as a "brain" and said that he (Spector) could use its energies to conquer the Earth. (One wonders if the crystal skull drove Spector insane, or whether Origin thinks that a German's default use for any artifact is to try to conquer the world.) Fritz ended up stealing the "brain" from Spector and fleeing to the cavern. He gave me the skull and 60 rounds of ammunition but declined to join me for fear that he'd run into Spector again.

The Barako village was astir because a great ape had recently kidnapped the village chieftain's daughter, Malisa. The villagers say that they can see the ape on the top of a cliff, but they can't get to him. I, too, found him lurking at the top of a cliff, but I couldn't find any way up to the plateau. There were a couple areas where it looked like I should be able to perhaps attach a rope to a tree, but maybe I need to find or fashion some kind of hook first. Nothing I tried worked. Mild hints welcome here.

I suspected I'd have to travel all the way down to the Disquiqui village to get paddles for the raft, so I was surprised when I found a bunch piled next to it. I nearly didn't see them--the color contrasts in this game are the worst I've ever experienced. As usual, I suspect it's my colorblindness, but those of you without that problem can tell me your opinion. I suppose it makes sense, given that we're in a jungle, that everything seems sort-of camouflaged.

Can you see the four paddles just south of my lead character?

Using the paddles (one in each character's inventory), I made it over to Topuru's island. Topuru is the insane, exiled shaman of the Urali tribe, banished by his own apprentice, Wamap. He promised to tell me where the Urali "hide" if I would bring him his "mind," which he claims he lost in a magic battle to Balakai, shaman of the Barrab tribe, far to the southwest.

Topuru makes a reasonably funny joke about Aiela's abductor.

In the meantime, Professor Rafkin had given me a list of some items necessary to build rifles and grenades. For instance, a grenade requires a strip of cloth soaked in tar, gunpowder (charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulphur ground in a mortar), and a hard clay pot. I started looking for these items in the wilderness and in the villager's huts. Eventually, I assembled the rifle items, but Rafkin insists he needs to be in his lab to make one. His lab is supposedly southwest of the Kurak (starting) village, but I haven't been able to find it yet. I'm going to search a little while longer and then continue with the main quest if I can't find it.

Soon, I'll be able to defeat the Gorn.

Given the name of the game, I was expecting a lot more combat, particularly with hostile tribals. Maybe that comes later, but so far the only enemies have been random dinosaurs. Since they are, you know, dinosaurs, I feel rather bad about killing them, and I would have expected my party members to offer more incredulous exclamations. There have been a few attacks by big apes, too. So far, I don't think any of my party members have increased in levels. I don't know if there's something I have to do to get that to happen, or if I just haven't earned enough experience yet.

Fighting a pteranodon while walking across a rope bridge feels very cinematic.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Night comes very fast. I'm constantly having to rest for the night to make it go away. Bumbling around a village and finding all the NPCs to talk with can easily burn a day or two.

Fighting at night. The game won't let you rest until you've cleared the area of monsters.

  • While I love the engine's ability to designate an active character, I sometimes forget to turn "party mode" back on until my main character has wandered miles away. It's annoying to have to get everyone back in the same area again.
  • NPC dialogue is my favorite part of Ultima games, and this off-shoot didn't adapt it very well. Each village has maybe three important NPCs and 6-8 generic NPCs. None of them, even the important ones, have very many things to say. I had hoped that through dialogue, we'd learn more about the game world and its relationship to Earth or Britannia, but nothing that I cue them with enlists anything more than a few stock lines or issues of purely local concern. Again, maybe that comes later.

I feel like maybe I should have been able to get further with him.

  • I found a potentially game-breaking bug while talking with Fritz. When he first gave me the crystal skull, my lead character was already at the maximum of his encumbrance, so the item simply didn't show up in his inventory. I suspect this is going to be a necessary item later. Fortunately, I noticed what happened when it happened and reloaded.
  • When I enter combat, it's a complete crapshoot whether any of my party members fire their bows, even though I've set all their actions to "ranged." I may have to just take manual control of everyone.
  • The game has poison swamp patches just like Ultima VI. So far, I haven't found any mechanism for healing poison, so I've been avoiding them like the plague they are.
  • Using a knife on a slain foe results in meat and sometimes hides.

Dian Fossey had better not be around here.

  • The consensus from the last post is that there's no penalty for taking whatever you want to take from the villages. I've been trying not to go overboard with this, and only take what I absolutely need.

Such as arrows.

  • In the middle of the jungle, I found something that looks like a portal. Rather than investigate it and screw up my adventuring path, I marked it for later investigation.

You just know that this is going to be important.
  • I don't know what was happening with graphics outside the RPG genre, but I think this waterfall represents the most advanced water effects we've seen in RPGs so far. This reminds me: a few weeks ago, Irene and I were playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on one of the seaside maps, and we were remarking how awesome the water effects were. I couldn't remember any previous RPG that actually had waves. Anyway, I said to her, "No matter how good we think these graphics look, I guarantee you that there are people online complaining about how much they suck." The Internet did not disappoint.

Sorry it's been a week since my last post. Irene and I have had to move out of our house and put all of our stuff in storage while the interior is completely gutted and replaced. (The house suffered horrible water damage this winter.) Eventually, this might result in more time for RPG playing, but alas not just yet.

Time so far: 5 hours
Reload count: 1


Let's talk about Angband. I'm not sure I shouldn't regard it as a 1993 game instead of a 1990 game. My general tendency has been to play roguelikes in the year that they had their first general release, not in the year that they were first a gleam in someone's eye. Hence, I played Moria in 1983, not 1981, and I'll be playing Hack in 1984, when it first appeared on Usenet, not 1982, when some students at a Massachusetts high school were able to mess with it.

From what I understand, Angband first appeared on some Warwick University computers in 1990, but that was just a variant of Umoria. The first version that seems to have achieved general release under the name Angband--and the earliest version currently accessible--is from December 1993. (The official Angband site actually says it "eventually became Angband some twenty years ago in 1994.")

Hence, unless someone comes up with a compelling counter-argument, I'm going to bump it to 1993 and get one step closer to getting out of 1990.