Buck Rogers:Countdown to Doom review by Al Giovetti
By Al Giovetti
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Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomby Al Giovetti
Buck Rogers is Strategic Simulations Incorporated's (SSI's) first science Fiction adaption of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) system (TSR licensed the Buck Rogers system uses for paper and pencil Role-Playing Games (RPGs) to SSI.) The story concentrates on strategy and tactics for a band of up to six characters and two non-player characters (NPCs). Tactical combat has been refined to a fairly efficient and very popular system in the Gold Box games that started with Pool of Radiance
The faithfulness of the game system to the Buck Rogers paper and pencil RPG rules is one of the big pluses for this game, and I found this adaption well done and carried off with finesse.
SSI plans several sequels to this scenerio, but not until next year. Character advancement is limited to level eight for all Careers in this game, but higher character levels will be attainable in subsequent "volumes."
You can't import characters from the other SSI AD&D games, such as Pool of Radiance, but may use a group of pre-rolled characters provided with the game, roll your own characters, or use the training menu's "modify character" option on new ones to recreate existing characters from the paper and pencil games or other games that you have played.
There are six bioengineered or gennie races (the same number of available races in the previous AD&D and SSI Gold Box games): Terrans, Martians, Venusians, Mercurians, Tinkers, and Desert Runners, and characters can be male or female.
Of the six attributes only Tech (short for technical know-how) is out of the ordinary. Races have a bonus or a penalty of up to three points in character attributes. A Tinker gets a +3 bonus to his technical attribute, so one with a Tech skill of 19 acts as a Tinker with a Tech attribute of 22. Characters are given 4,000 experience points and the levels are determined according to the pencil and paper Buck Rogers RPG rules, which translates to level three characters when they start the game.
Unlike AD&D, this one doesn't allow multi-class or dual-class characters. The five classes or Careers, are Rocket Jocks, Warriors, Engineers, Rogues and Medics. Each character has a set of eight pre-selected career skills from the 55 available general skills, divided into six skill categories based upon the attributes.
Some of a Rocket Jock's eight career skills, for example, are Drive Jet Car, Pilot Fixed Wing and Pilot Rocket. Characters start with all eight career skills and 80 skill points to allocate to these skilles, plus seven general siklls and 40 skill points to allocate to them.
Characters can add one general skill for each level gained, and also get 40 career skill points to allocate. The manual does an excellent job in explaining the skills. (But I know some people who threw the manual out the window, used the prerolled characters and did well.)
Activities are much more diverse than just combat, so you must learn to balance these skills. A Medic must hide during a battle, or no one will be healed after the battle if he is killed or knocked out. (Thanks to a new feature, healing occurs automatically when their is a conscous Medic or other character with developed medical skills.)
Another Enhancement comes in handy when attempting to use any of this plethora of skills. When asked "who will perform this task?" in the other Gold Box AD&D games, you have to blindly choose a character, but here you can select the View Character option and review everyone's skills before deciding who'll pick the lock, bluff and so on. This sensible innovation improves game play significantly.
Shells, not spells
The AD&D magic system was replaced with high-tech ranged weapons: in place of Fireballs and Ice Storms, for instance, are Plasma Throwers and Rocket Launchers. As with spells, some characters are immune to certain types of shells. Lasers can be countered by reflective or curved surfaces on battle armor, or aerosol mist grenades that disperse the beam. There are six types of grenades, from Dazzle to Stun, and their range can be increased to twelve by a grenade launcher.
All wapons, armor and devices can be made on Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury or Luna. Weapons and armor receive a bonus to hit or to AC (armor class) based on their origin, with Luna being the best, and Earth the worst.
Unlike the AD&D games, Buck includes wilderness travel and space travel. The action takes place within the asteroid belt and the inner planets of the solar system and their wilderness areas, in the structures on the planets, in the space stations, and in space.
All planets and asteroids have a space dock. Many have facilities such as restaurants, bars and libraries. Some meetings in these places will turn into encounters, result in your learning some new piece of information, or present mazes for you to explore.
Banks can store your money, but regrettably have no facility to store items as seen in Silver Blades and the other games. I used only the port facilities in the Sanctuary III base because they are free there.
NEO versus RAM
Countdown to Doom begins in 2456. A lot has happened since 1990, when Buck Rogers was frozen in a freak accident in space. The superpowers have abandoned the arms race to form RAM (Russo-American Mercantile), space travel has become commonplace, and the now evil and opressive RAM has taken over the planet. NEO (New Earth Organization) has rebelled against RAM just about the time Buck Rogers is revived from his frozen sleep to a world that's turned him into a legendary folk hero.
Buck helps solidify NEO's resolve and make great strides against RAM, whose powerful new laser weapon threatens to depopulate earth to make it easier to exploit. You and your team join NEO's struggle to stop RAM in its tracks. Buck joins the team as an NPC on Talon's pirate ship early in the game.
The action commences in Chicagorg, a NEO base on the burnt-out husk of old earth, where your party arrives for induction into NEO. The NEO base is attacked by RAM troops and sabateurs who disable the anti-spacecraft missile system. As level two and three characters, the team is hard pressed to defeat the marauding RAM teams and turn on the manual control console to reactivate the missile system and save the base. From here on, the game remains somewhat linear until they obtain a space ship.
Once you have the RAM cruiser, your team can go anywhere in the galazy, and except for some event-triggered subplots, any major part of the game can be played in any order. In one place you could choose to enter a base from one of two doors, and your choice and actions determine the levels of resistance encountered at either entrance -- nice touch! This return to the non-linear plot line makes Buck Rogers all the more exciting.
Best Mini-quests of the Month
Many surprise encounters and special battles that are mini-quests will appear in some of the asteroids and planet menus when you arrive there at certain times. As Buck says when he encourages you to rescue the Desert Runner Queen, "Sometimes people are more imporant than orders," and even though such mini-quests are not essential to completing the game, they add a sense of reality and depth to the adventure.
Combat on the surface
In combat you see the familiar oblique-angle view. Characters can move in any of eight directions by using the keyboard numerical keypad, mouse or joystick. Combat is resolved on a turn basis depending on the relative dexterity of each combattant. A delayed tyrn phase accomodates the time it takes to fire the missile weapons or to time your movement and attack.
Combat can be handled manually or in automatic mode. Some battles can be handled from beginning to end in auto mode, while others require the direction of the players in their use of heavy missile weapons and melee weapons. Auto combat with heavy weapons is not recommended. The heavy weapons have area effects and those weilding them will shoot enemy characters with no regard to the fact that the area effect will also hit one of your friendly combattants. The friendly fire factor can kill off your characters unnecesarily. Tactics differ a bit from previous games (see Hints).
Auto mode sacrifices common sense strategy and often resuslts in disadvantageous movement; characters might run behid a wall or away from a foe. Automode movement should be a little more intelligent. SSI has done little to improve the artificial intelligence of player characters in combat.
You can play the whole game without melee weapons in which case Strength is of limited importance. You are also given no option to batter down doors with your shoulder which would use Strength. Less brute Strength and more Intelligence and Dexterity would improve this game.
As in the other "gold box" releases after Pool of Radiance, combat is quicker and you won't have any five-hour battles, so save your game often. There are a lot of poisonous characters, but yo have a poison antidote that prevents your characters from being killed right off by the poison. Some AD&D games allowed characters to die instantly from poisons, but not Buck, so breath a sigh of releaf.
Simplistic at best, space combat consists of selecting menu options such as "destroy control systems" to disable an enemy ship, portrayed in a hi-res picture. Then you board the ship and fight the kind of battles described above in Combat on the sureface. SSI has a long history of excellent ship-to-ship combat games that blow this system out of the water, and it's disappointing they counldn't have done something at least a little better.
Graphics are mush the same as in the AD&D games, with first-person illustrations reminiscent of a Bard's Tale-type display. Bt pictures of the monsters and gennies are very different, due to the different game play system.
The animation seen in the encounters with the enemy is the two frame kind showing the two dimensional picture of your adversary in one view or pose and than another to simulate movement.
As you walk down the outpost corridors, the scrolling walls are made of many colorful and varied media, lending atmosphere to the chase. The monsters and other NPCs, when encountered, approach you in ever increasing sizes until they fill the dungeon window with their two-frame animated visage. Special characters and situations result in the whole top half of the screen being devoted to a computer art display that, unfortunately, is not animated.
Voice ActorsThere are no voice actors.
Music ScoreMusic is limited to the beginning and ending of the game.
Sound EffectsSeveral external sound boards are used to play the Buck Rogers theme song. But the PC speaker handles all the sound effects during the game. Tandy owners will find the three-voice sound chip supported with a result superior to the PC clone external speaker.
Several areas can be auto-,apped after you "clear" a small local area of hostile monsters. Many areas cannot be cleared of these random encounters until the final objective is obtained and the mini-scenerio is over. The number of areas that can use auto-mapping after limited fighteing to clear small areas is much smaller than in Secret of the Silver Blades, so one of the main objections to the game system appears to have returned to haunt the game playing public.
Buck has mouse support, and people who enjoy the mouse, say it speeds up the game and makes operations less tedous. In some situations, such as flying, mouse control excells over the keyboard. Joystick is also supported for movement.
SSI has still not added tha ability to restore a saved game or restart it without rebooting the game, which is a nuissance. And you are limited to one save game, which is rediculas.
You get a twelve-page rule book and a 43-page log book that replaces the 60 plus page "Adventurers Journal" in the AD&D Fantasy versions of the "gold box" games. Some versions come with a 275-page paperback novel, First Power PLay, which I have read and enjoyed.
I finished the game in 20-30 hours. Times of completion may vary, expecially if you like to explore. The game does not shut down after you complete the final goal. So you can go back and explore the parts of the plots and sub-plots that you may have missed in the helter skelter race to save earth. This is a big improvement over previous "gold box" games. Thank you SSI!
Multi-player FeaturesThis is a single player game.
ConclusionsIf you liked Pool of Radiance or other games in the AD&D series, you will like this one. I find it refreshing to have a somputer "scenerio"/dungeon master that does not cheat me out of stats and levels. The story is detailed and interesting and carries you right along. The combat system seems smarter and the scope of this game is very large considering all the beautiful landscapes on the different planets. One expects a "sequel" to be better, and this product is excellent -- a must buy for those who liked the other gold box games.
Cheats, Hints, WalkthroughDaxxle grenades can be rendered totally useless with protective goggles. Characters without goggles may be blinded. Stunning can last from 2-7 rounds and is quite as effective as sleep spells or stoning, but can be counteracted by a Medic with high treat stun/paralysis skill. Stink Clouds are replaced by gas grenades.
Almost all enemy combat robots (combots) have heavy explosive missile weapons that can damage your characters if they are in the same area. Where robots or characters with explosive grenades are in the attacking formations, hit the space bar to disable auto mode, then use heavy explosive missile weapons to keep these powerful characters from using their devastating weapons.
Spreading your warriours out when up agains explosive area weapons is also a good tactic, but characters with little Maneuber in Zero-G skill may be unable to disperse. During combat, each character's turn begins with a Maneuber in zero-G skill check. The characters that fail this check may be limited to 2-3 movement points for the turn, and explosive area weapons will be used by the enemy if your group is within range.
The only set of battle armor with fields in the game is obtained later in the game by clearing a mining outpost of ECGs just before the last battle on Mercury. The extra -2 points in AC will sure help. Buck Rogers has a Lunarian Smartsuit, a gun, a Rocket Pistol and other gear you may want. Save your game to an open game slot and duplicate those items using a simple technique in thtraining menu (also from c:\buck\save directory in DOS, you can copy chrdatx7.stf chrdatx4.stf if Buck is in character slot 7 when you save, 4 is the character you want to get duplicates of Buck's equipment, and x equals the save letter that you saved your game to.
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