Monday, 28 May 2012

MegaTraveller 2: Quest For The Ancients (MS-DOS) - Guest Post

Before you came along with your 'Mass Effects' and your 'Old Republic of Knights' or whatever, we had MegaTraveller.

Space dogs in space!

Old fashioned computer RPGs, eh? Phew, where to start! Let's start at the start. Character creation.

As far as I know, this follows the MegaTraveller tabletop rules to the letter. You roll random stats for your base stats: Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing.

After that, you play a sort of mini-game where you simulate the past exploits of your characters before they came to be in your party of freelance space adventurers. You choose an occupation and then you select from a number of Skill Tables containing sets of skills. The computer randomly picks a skill from the table and adds it to your characters skill list. The orange skills award you a skill level directly while the white lines let you choose your own skill from a set of related ones. You can also disable the random rolls entirely and manually pick from all the skills available to your occupation if you want.

Enough talk. Let's play the intro, sprite hand!

Once upon a time, retired Belter mecha-neko was enjoying a tour of an Ancient ruin on the planet Rhylanor.

The demonic tour guide explained that there were Ancient sites like this all over the galaxy, but nobody knows what they're for. Inside the structure, a vast network of cracked pipes extends for miles beneath the surface.

SUDDENLY SLIME. It's not supposed to slime.

Slime is bad. Slime is very bad.

Slime is very very bad. It's purple, toxic and spreading.

In seven years, the slime will reach the Rhylanor Startown. Shortly after, the entire planet will become uninhabitable. The planetary government offer a half a billion credit reward for any party capable of defeating the slime. Even slowing the spread of the slime, or saving part of the planet, will be compensated generously.

Never one to turn down a half billion credit bounty for just clearing up a tiny bit of slime, mecha-neko gathers four of his close silhouette chums and proposes they undertake the most awesome interstellar adventure of all time.

Who are these magnificent space heroes?

First, the party leader, mecha-neko. He was a Belter, making a living mining asteroids and salvaging derelict ships. He was pretty awesome at it too, until an injury meant he had to quit his steady job and become an adventurer. He's a born leader, an ace pilot, and he's never seen without his submachine gun.

When he left, he stole a scout ship and a massive stack of credits. You have to randomly roll for this stuff. It was pure luck that the game granted me a ship, what seems to be a significant amount of money and a choice of any weapon I wanted. Some characters get no money and no weapons whatsoever. It's possible to start the game as an 18-year office temp with no combat, survival or personal skills whatsoever.

Next, Max, the Vargr (space dog). He's mecha-neko's best friend. Master swordsdog. He's brought his formidable engineering skills, together with his own trading ship full of weapons and equipment for the rest of the party.

Third, Dr. Elizabath, squad medic. An expert in all sciences. Loves to gamble. Not too shabby with a laser rifle.

Fourth, Agatha Knight. Over the course of thirty-five years, she's used her iron will to force her way up to the directorship of a major interplanetary corporation. Throughout her position, the company doctor warned her constantly that if she didn't retire soon, she'd die of stress. She responded by calmly throwing the doctor through the reinforced glass windows of the hundredth floor. She's skilled in multiple languages, weapons, vehicles, computers, tactics, spaceship functions and she's a giant scary alien space dog woman with an automatic pistol.

You can't start the game unless you've got a full party of five so finally we have Reid. Team idiot. Used to be a Belter until they kicked him out, then joined the Navy. He knows how to read a star chart and how to fire a gun.

There's only those two races in the game, even though there's plenty more in the MegaTraveller universe. There's space cats (space LIONS!) in the books, but you can't play as them here. Booo. For some reason, only the Vargr are allowed to pursue a second career if random chance forces them out of their first. Humans get a Social Standing stat, while Vargr get a Charisma stat.

Here we are, the start of the greatest adventure of all time.

We've got two solid leads. We need to find Trow Backett, Ancient artifact expert and, luckily, Rhylanor resident. We also need to trace two unknown trespassers who were captured on video running from the site.

I say solid leads... but I have no idea where Trow could be. I don't even know how to tell which building is which. I hold the mouse down and drag my cluster of coloured splats around the map, looking for fun. The white splats appear to be NPCs. I can't talk to them and they keep running around the place randomly and getting in my partners' way. (Just like Burntime!)

I've found a shop!

This aggravated fellow sells weapons, ammo and equipment. There doesn't seem to be any indication of how powerful the weapons are or whether they're compatible with the skills of my team. I shuffle around my team's items, sell the useless stuff, and buy Dr. Elizabeth a Medical Kit and Hand Computer.

I figured I might as well sell mecha-neko's spare space ship, but this guy won't take it.

Another identical building reveals itself to the Library. It's got information on everything in the game, except where to find Trow Backett. Although there's an Index to the system, you still have to type in the name of the article you want to see. So, is it the "Ancients Collectors' Society", the "Ancients Collector's Society", the "Ancients' Collectors' Society" or the "Ancients' Collector's Society"? At least the computer doesn't charge you per use, like Perihelion.

I'm in a pub! The green splats are NPCs that you can talk to for information. They don't move around as much as the white ones, but they're still slippery bastards. You have go into the conversation menu and select 'Hail' to get them to stop, and then you can 'Converse' with them.

I like how every talk-able NPC looks identical. That way, I have to run up to and stop every green splat in the city, hoping that they're Trow Backett.

Yeah, yeah, mmhmm, yeah, mmhmm. Fascinating.

DO YOU KNOW WHERE TROW BACKETT IS.

I don't get any conversation options at all. Oh well. Back to wandering.

Along the top of the city are building belonging to various organisations like the Scouts and the Navy. None of them will let me in because I'm not a member. Space dog though he may be, they should let Reid in because he is a member of the Imperial Navy. I've no choice but to let this quite frankly racist remark pass as I have no conversation options in here. Git.

Let's zoom out. Can you spot the Trow?

(He's the green dot just above the arrow pointing to the right on the right hand side of the city.)

Trow had a relentless barrage of uninteresting things to say. He's given me Henry Jones' Grail Diary Vlen Backett's Ancients Diary and tasked me with finding more hidden Ancient sites. Sounds a bit risky, doesn't it? Two guys sneaking into the Rhylanor Ancient site managed to screw things up so badly that the entire world will become uninhabitable in a few years. Now this guy wants me to go to a whole bunch of other planets and start fiddling with their sites to fix the one that's already broken! Where does he want me to go exactly?

"Possible sites on I, P, E, L, G, F, K, M, J, and A"

I don't even want to know how many planets in the universe have names starting with one of those letters.

What planets can I go to anyway? Now that I've found Trow, I'm going to see what condition my spaceships are in. Knowing my luck, they'll all be beat up buckets of crap and it'll be quicker to walk to I, P, E, L, G, F, K, M, J and A.

I have not one but TWO spare space ships, which I can sell for several million credits each. Not only that, but Max's Far Trader appears to have come fully repaired, fully fueled and fitted with state of the art weaponry in all hardpoints. Good dog.

With my new found wealth, I buy the team the best armour I can find: the TL12 Hostile Environment Suit. We're prepared for absolutely anything. All we need now is a destination.

Next to the shop is a man selling a pass for the starport on the planet Fulacin. Hey, 'Fulacin' begins with an F! What are we waiting for?! Plot a course for Fulacin!

As we enter the ship, the party members all volunteer to undertake responsibilities appropriate to their skills: mecha-neko is the Captain, Max is on Engineering, Elizabeth is on Med-bay, Knight is on Weapons and Reid is on Navigation. You can override their choices or turn off auto-allocation entirely, which is nice.

Lift off!

We're in space! Yeah! Look at that! Awesome!

One problem. This ship, regardless of how cool it looks, simply doesn't have the range to get to Fulacin.

That's alright, because I've got more than one ship!

This one's Max's Far Trader, the other one is mecha-neko's Scout Ship. We still can't get to Fulacin, though!

First, we jump to Porozlo, using up one chunk of fuel. Then we refuel at the Porozlo system gas giant, which makes a noise like someone taking a whizz in a bucket for some reason. Then we use up all our fuel jumping to Fulacin.

How did I work all this out? Pure fluke.

As we approach Fulacin, we're contacted by another friendly space captain who tells us that we should visit the Ancient site on this planet, and it looks like a big yellow cube.

Fulacin itself, on the other hand, looks exactly the damn same as Rhylanor. I've worked out how to tell the buildings apart: there's 8 pixel by 8 pixel icons next to them showing what they do. I do the usual tromp around the city, looking for green splats to squelch for information. Plenty of people recommend seeing the cube, but nobody seems to want to tell me where it is. It can't be in the city: time for me to get some wheels.

Director Knight knows how to handle an ATV, let's go.

I'm going to paste something here from the MegaTraveller 2 manual about the skill system, for the curious.

"Although there are 135 total skills in the character generator, not all of them are necessary for this computer game. The non-essential skills have been left in the character generator for three reasons. First, the skill system in the character generator is the basis for the pen-and-pencil role-playing version of MegaTraveller. Some skills are not necessary to solve the computer adventure, but they were left in for completeness. Second, the non-essential skills were also kept for those who wish to develop characters for Traveller role-playing adventures. This compatibility would not exist if skills were eliminated for the sake of the computer game. Third, some skills that are not necessary in the MegaTraveller 2 computer game may come in handy for future Mega Traveller computer adventures. This is useful if you are planning to use the same characters in future MegaTraveller computer games."

And then it goes on to give a list of 64 unique skills that have little to no practical use in the game. There are 135 named skills in the game according to the manual, so if you simply go through the character generator and pick things that sound cool, you've got a 50/50 chance of picking something useless.

If I picked 'aircraft', 'helicopter', 'hovercraft', 'prop-driven aircraft', 'jet-propelled aircraft', 'large watercraft', 'lighter-than-air craft', 'small watercraft', 'tracked vehicle' or 'wheeled vehicle' (none of which appear in this game, according to the manual) instead of 'grav vehicle' or 'atv' when I was making up Knight, would I be completely stuck?

Even worse, Knight enjoyed such a long life in the character creator that I had to start erasing skills to learn new ones.

Would it have killed them to make a distinction between 'useful in MT2' and 'useless in MT2' in the character generator? They could have made a separate 'complete pen-and-paper MegaTraveller universe character generator' program and probably made money from it!

Anyway. Here we are on the surface of Fulacin, which looks nowhere near as purple as it did through the windows when we parked the ship. There has to be a yellow cube out here somewhere.

Keep an eye out, guys.

We've been driving for sixty-two days. We've hit the four corners of the map without encountering anyone or anything.

On the eve of the sixty-second day, we've finally found a green square. Not quite a yellow cube, but it'll have to do.

Oh, wait a minute. Turns out it is a yellow cube.

Argh! Where's it gone now? We've lost it! How do you lose a five hundred foot wide yellow cube?

Here it is. Thought you could get away, did ya?

After pushing on all the sides of the cube, I finally find the door; it was on the North side. Yes, I'm entering it from the left here. They're Ancients. They're spoooooky.

I keep my eyes peeled for any evil Ancient baddies. There's no saving of games within the cube. I really hope this place isn't a spiral. The only reason why this room would be a spiral would be to make walking to the centre more laborious for its own sake.

It was a spiral, and there were no baddies.

In the middle of the spiral were ten Ancient batteries for the Ancient-thing-I-have-but-I-don't-know-what-it-does. On the outside of the spiral on the opposite side of the cube were two 'coyns'. According to the item description, if you collect all 36 of them you can tell the future. My RPG senses tell me that collecting all of them and putting them into a metaphysical vending machine will reward me with the carbonated caramel-coloured goodness of a happy ending.

Even better, Trow Backett gave me six coyns to start with: that means I'm 25% done!

The green square was exactly one screen above the Fulacin city. Well, there's a waste of two months. Did I mention that you've got a finite number of years to save Rhylanor?

After returning the rented ATV, I'm ambushed by some red splats! Unlike Rhylanor, this planet doesn't have any laws against carrying weapons around in the city, so mecha-neko and his army of dog monsters let rip with some coloured lines. The combat is set to automatic; I don't have to do anything, and I don't know what I could do even if I wanted to. The combat options seem to be limited to 'target that person', 'begin firing' and 'stop firing'.

With a sampled "Noooo, aaaaargh.", the would-be assailant turns into a large sack. Inside the sack was a Gauss Pistol.

There was a green splat watching the combat and I wanted to know what they thought of it. They told me to buzz off, so I told Knight to apply her 'interrogate' skill.

After that, he starts to walk off. We shoot him in the back. I've had enough of this planet.

Right after taking off, we're ambushed by 'The nastiest pirate in the Marches'. He wants us to hand over everything we have. We have a choice: dialogue or combat.

You get the same choice even when you meet friendly captains, which is odd. When you succeed in a dialogue check, mecha-neko says 'I got us out of that. There they go.'. You don't even get to find out what he said!

This time, I choose combat. Nobody threatens us! We're 25% through saving the world! This Far Trader's got the best weapons money can buy!

Space combat is just as dull and uninteractive as the ground combat.

I ended up losing the fight. mecha-neko automatically ordered a retreat after the pirates blasted one of my 300,000 credit turrets to pieces. The ship itself is fine and our all-important stash of Ancient knick-knacks are okay.

I started picking planets at random. This one starts with a Z, which is a great letter for an alien planet to start with. You can ask the party leader at any time for plot-related advice, if you like. According to spaceman mecha-neko, we should "track down Ancient experts". Great.

I tried going to the casino and using Dr. Elizabeth's crack gambling skill to win back enough money to replace the turret. We walked in through the door as if we owned the place and headed straight for the blackjack tables. They asked us how much we wanted to bet. We said 700,000 credits. The house limit was 1,000 credits. We left.

I've finally found a planet with a different style of building! We've got another casino, a shop, a library... it's a miracle! And I have to stop playing now because if this game gets any more boring, my eyes are going to fall out.

I felt like I had no control over the combat, not that I got into much of it. I had no idea how much health anybody had, what weapon they were using, how much damage they were doing or when and if I needed to reload their weapons. Hell, I couldn't even tell if I was shooting the enemies or vice versa.

Imagine if I'd have lost the fight on Fulacin. How would I be able to tell what I did wrong? What could I possibly have done differently?

The game doesn't make use of the strengths of a computer adaptation. All the game seems to be asking me to do is exhaustively seek out every green splat on each planet in sequence. I haven't been asked any questions allowing me to express my characters' motivation, and I haven't had any combat sequences where my ability to devise a strategy is tested. I can't do anything but walk onwards, trading laser lines with any red splats I see until I come across a red splat too powerful and the game abruptly stops.

There wasn't any music in the game whatsoever after the character creation screen. There was some kind of theme playing when the game showed the illustration of the cube but that's it. Rubbish.

I played the Amiga version as well. It's exactly the same, except all the graphics are in less colours and there's disk accessing between every action, even changing between character sheets. And the character creation music isn't an upbeat Casio-keyboard jazzy tune (YouTube link) like in DOS. Instead it's a evil, slow track with synth voice sounds.

They should have just stopped this game at the drawing board and instead spent the money on writing a novel that comes with some nicely illustrated prints.

3 comments:

  1. I can't believe this is the first game on the site starting with the word 'mega'.

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  2. All the pictures are gone...

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's happening with a lot of mecha-neko's articles lately; finally his popularity has come back around to bite him in the ass. I'm not racing to fix it this time as the problem should resolve itself in a day or two, but thanks for pointing it out.

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