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The Best of 2014

The year 2014 has been a bit of a blur for me.

I had a kid, I had some major changes at work, and the world in general seemed to a state of constant tumult.

But that’s still no reason not get in some gaming.

It’s been a bit of a tradition around here that at the end of every year, I pick out a Best of and a Worst of. But this year, in the interest of spreading some more positivity into the world, I’m going to forgo the Worst part and just focus on what brought me some gaming joy this year…

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Reaction – Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2 was not a game I ever expected to play.

The original, as I’ve discussed at great length before, holds a very special place in my heart as the game that helped introduce me to CRPGs. Despite that deep and abiding attachment, after 24 years my hopes had worn pretty thin. Even after Brian Fargo announced the Kickstarter to fund the project in 2012 (full disclosure: I totally kickstarted it) and the project was fully funded, I still had a hard time imagining it was every actually going to come out.

And yet, despite the odds, it happened.

In September 2014, 26 years after the original, Wasteland 2 became reality. So now, some 100+ hours of game later, does this return to the wasteland hold up?

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No Mercy

There I was, making my way down a gently descending mountain road, trying to get as far as I could from the death and destruction I had escaped mere moments before. Getting a last minute reprieve from my own execution by a dragon attack was not exactly how I planned this day to go, but what’s a Nord to do?

With a new lease on life (for the moment, anyway), it was up to me to warn the people of Skyrim that death from above was on the way, and they’d best start finding some hidey-holes if they wanted to survive. Unfortunately for the people of Skyrim, there was a narrow trail leading off the road that I just couldn’t possibly pass up.

Clambering up the trail, I spotted an old mine tucked into the mountainside. As mines so often do, this one had a bandit standing guard outside of it. Clearly, there were nefarious things afoot within, and it was up to me to snuff them out (I was sure the dragons could wait).

Stepping forward, I met the bandit in heated battle. Her sword clashed against my stout shield, iron rang out against iron as our blades crossed, and blood mingled in the dirt beneath us. Shoving her backwards with a blow from my shield, I stepped forward and brought my axe down in a might strike. That’s when it happened: worn down to the edge of death, the bandit dropped to her knees and cried out for me to spare her.

This was not something I expected.

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Know Thy Enemy

A memorable villain in a game can be a powerful force. Players can learn to hate them, fear them, or even pity them. Everyone who has played Final Fantasy VI remembers Kefka, and any StarCraft player in the world probably has a firm opinion on the Queen of Blades. The big villains – the bosses – have a lot going for them when it comes to memorability: the story usually revolves around them, they usually get the most epic battles, and quite often they get the best graphical treatment, too.

But what about the little guys? What about the endless underlings the player crushes on their journey to the Big Bad? What makes those guys memorable?

Consider, for a moment, the humble Goomba. Almost anyone who has had contact with video games over the past 25 years can probably identify one in an instant, most likely right down to even knowing their name. Even those that might not know the name still know they are “the little mushroom men from Mario” (as my father has called them). Koopa Troopas fall into that same category. Heck, most of the enemies from the Mario series fall into that category. But why?

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Friendship is Rare

As it turns out, I am a dangerous person to travel with.

First, there was Uthgerd, who I met in the inn at Whiterun. She had a fiery temper, and insisted that we get down to fisticuffs after the briefest of conversations. I gave her a sound thrashing (as heroes are wont to do), but her toughness impressed me. She was happy to find a travelling companion, so with that, the two of us set off into the world.

Our first few weeks together were spent merrily exploring the lands around Whiterun; slaying bandits, dispatching wolves, that sort of thing. Eventually, I decided it was time for us to push our horizons a little further, and we set off to the west to see what adventures lay there. All was well and good until the fateful day I agreed to check out some Dwemer ruins buried beneath Markarth, for it was there that our adventures came to an end. A might spider, far greater than it’s pathetic kinsman we’d been purging from caves across the land, confronted us in its lair. Seeing this foes power, I fell back into the tunnels, using the rocks to my advantage to pepper it with arrows. Uthgerd, on the other hand, did what she always did: ran directly up to it and began hacking away. The spider had her on her knees in a few moments, clinging to life. Mere seconds after that, its deadly poison finished the job and she was gone (or perhaps it was an errant arrow of mine; let’s not dwell on the past).

I felled the mighty beast shortly thereafter, and knelt by Uthgerd’s side to mourn her. Also, to take her armor and weapons so I could sell them back in town. With that brief bit of ceremony out of the way, I returned to Whiterun to find a new travelling partner. Fortunately, I knew I had a housecarl named Lydia more than ready to take the job…

You Don’t Have to be a Doctor to Have a Companion

The concept of the companion is not anything new in gaming: a computer-controlled character that travels with, and fights for, the player. And in most cases, for as long as I can remember, I have never been able to care about them. On the surface, the idea seems sound: provide the player with a character that is out of their control, but that they can begin to feel responsible for. In that manner, the player should begin to connect with them, and thus have a deeper in-game experience.

The problem is that AI companions are usually have about as much depth as the puddle of spilled coffee I inevitably step in on the train. Take Wasteland, for instance, which offers several potential NPC companions through the course of the game. Beyond whatever initial situation you rescued them from/hired them in an alley/agreed to help them with, they really have nothing going on. Once Ace convinced me to go deal with the problems in Vegas, he pretty much just sat around and wasted ammo if I gave him the opportunity. For the most part in Wasteland, you handed your companions a melee weapon and treated them like a glorified pack mule. Now, I know what you are thinking: Wasteland came out over 20 years ago. And yet, here comesSkyrim.

Much like Wasteland decades earlier, Skyrim offers an array of eager companions through its world. Much like with Uthgerd, the player usually has to accomplish some minor task before earning the devotion of these followers. Once that’s out of the way, however, they don’t have much to say. All it took was a few swings of the fist to earn Uthgerd’s eternal loyalty, and as we travelled Skyrim together, about the only thoughts she could muster were that she had  bad feelings about places.

My second companion, Lydia, was no better. Quite literally assigned to me by the jarl, Lydia was – to quote herself – “sworn to carry my burdens.” And carry them she did, back and forth across the lands of Skyrim. She too spoke often, but had little to say. In a fight, she was more than ready to run ahead and get herself hacked to the edge of death. And, much like Uthgerd before her, met her unfortunate end in some forgotten ruin when she caught the wrong end of a fire burst scroll.

No Tears for the Fallen

Now, I know many Skyrim players have become obsessed with their companions (Lydia specifically), but I think that has more to do with being able to remove her armor than any sort of depth she possesses.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much to make me, as a player, care about my companion. In the original Fallout, the player could pick up a handful of NPC companions to travel with them. While Tycho might not have been the most talkative guy in the world, when he did choose to speak up about a location, it gave me glimpses into who he was. Upon entering the Deathclaw lair, for instance, Tycho states: “Note the lack of any animal life for quite a distance. And the piles of bones. Whatever lives here is a real beast. Keep your weapon handy.” Based on Tycho’s already established history as a Desert Ranger, this simple comment helps reinforce that he is a knowledgeable traveler, and someone you would want at your back while navigating the wasteland. A simple thing to add, but with a powerful impact on the player.

On top of that, Fallout – even with its simplistic companions – at least let me give them some combat orders along the lines of “stay back” or “charge forward.” InSkyrim, while I can give them some basic instructions about waiting for me or pulling levers and things, when it comes to combat they pretty much seem to do whatever they feel like. If I’m hurling fireballs down into a pit of draugr, they seem more than happy to dive right in the way. Not to mention their perverse joy in setting off every trap we come across.

With no personal connection to these companions, I can’t really feel that bad for them when they hurl themselves into the line of fire and suffer the consequences. That being the case, I’ve left a lot of dead travelling partners in my wake.

I bring this up because, as with most of the flaws in Skyrim, it stands out so starkly against so much of what is done right. In such a lush, detailed world, why is it that the people that can accompany me on the journey are so shallow?

Bredth, Not Width

In Skyrim’s case, the experience would be better served with fewer potential companions, but more richly developed ones. Rather than just plunking down another 500 gold for a new mercenary, or working my way up to another housecarl, why not trim the fat a bit and give me a more richly-developed Lydia? Skyrim is a huge land with a rich history, so how does Lydia fit into all of that? She must be from somewhere, and surely a skilled fighter such as herself has done some travelling before. Much like the example of Tycho from Fallout so many years ago, Lydia must have some opinions on the places we’re travelling. Even if it is something as simple as telling me that Markath is famous for its dwemer ruins, or even that she really, really hates necromancers. Just a few little touches to give her some personality beyond her penchant for sounding sarcastic. Or Uthgerd could have a habit of insisting we visit every meadery we pass, or of picking fights with giants. Anything, really, to give me some reason to feel something for these walking loot stashes.

I fully understand that in our current world of having to have every single bit of text in a game spoken, adding dialog is not as easy as it used to be. However, I think eliminating some extraneous lines elsewhere, and refocusing that time and money into creating a few richer companions would be well worth it.

In terms of combat, we’ve seen that AI companions can in fact be smarter than a bag of hammers; Alyx Vance managed it over eight years ago in Half-Life 2, so I would hope that we could see some more advancement in that area.

That Special One

Again, I focus on Skyrim here because it does encapsulate how little we’ve advanced in twenty-odd years, but by no means is it an indictment of the game as whole. The developers took a look at the massive world they wished to create, and they obviously put some priorities ahead of others. From my vantage point, though, if it comes down to Skyrim having 10 more semi-identical caves vs. better travelling companions, the choice is pretty clear. A player is far more likely to remember the way Jordis overcame her fear of spiders to bail you out of a tight spot in a Frostbite nest than they are that one fort up on that one hill.

You know, the one with the bandits?

Yeah, that one.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 13 – Natural Selection

As we’ve discussed before, it probably goes without saying that one of the most satisfying parts of playing an RPG is watching your character grow and develop over the course of the game. In a party-based RPG, of course, you get to spread that joy across your entire party, watching each of them flourish into the doctor/safecracker/killing machine you know them to truly be. I bring this up again because it is in this that I believe Wasteland takes its biggest stumble.

Experience, lifeblood of the RPG character, is handed out in Wasteland for one thing and one thing only: killing enemies. And here I mean that very specifically: characters ONLY get experience if they deal the killing blow. In practice, what this means is that even if Eddard deals 99 damage to an enemy, if Tyrion hits it for that final 1 point, Tyrion gets all of the experience and Eddard is left with nothing.

In the early part of the game, when characters are limited to single-shot weapons and enemies tend to go down in only one hit, it’s not much of an issue. During most normal fights, every character (unless they are truly terrible at combat) is likely to rack up at least a kill or two. It isn’t until you start getting stronger weapons and facing stronger enemies that you will probably start to notice some characters pulling ahead of others. For me, it first became clear with Drogo. One other important note about experience is that any melee kills are worth double. Drogo, who is a big fan of beating things to death, began to pull ahead of the rest of the team during our time in Quartz. With his increased leveling, Drogo began to have better stats than the rest of the party, which in turn meant he was more likely to be dealing killing blows, and therefore was likely to continue to get the lion’s share of experience.

The mitigating factor in Drogo’s case is the fact that we don’t always close to melee range during combat. As such, sometimes he just sits around and twiddles his thumbs. Where the experience gap starts to be more of an issue is with Daenerys. In our adventures in Needles, once we had our hands on some assault rifles, because of her stats or just sheer luck, Daenerys began to rack up a few more kills per combat than everyone else. When this in turn led to leveling her up sooner, again, that led to higher stats and more kills.

Where this experience gap really begins to rear its ugly head is now, during our Vegas adventures. During the first sweep through Vegas, we got our hands on our first energy weapon: a laser pistol. Now, any character can use any weapon, but to use it without the appropriate skill is an exercise in frustration. Without skill, characters will miss pretty much constantly, jam their weapons, and on the rare occasion they do hit, they will do almost no damage. Laser guns, as you might expect, fall under their own skill category: Engery Weapons. Energy Weapons are a high-IQ skill, and can only be learned from a few specific libraries in the game. Of course, energy weapons are incredibly powerful, so having somone skilled in their use is a must.

In our case, Daenerys (who was the smartest in the party to begin with) is the only member of the party currently eligible to learn the skill. Thanks to her slight lead in levels, she has a high enough IQ and enough available skill points. So, with Energy Weapons now a skill under her belt, Daenerys can equip that shiny new Laser Pistol and get to shootin’. This is very, very good, because once we get back to Vegas will be facing even tougher robots that can hardly be damaged by anything less than energy weapons.

I’m guessing at this point you can see where this is leading.

As the most “advanced” character, Daenerys is now equipped with the most effective weaponry, meaning that in most combats from this point on, she is the one earning the lion’s share of the experience. As such, she continues to advance at even faster pace, which in turn leads to sucking up even more of the experience. With the winner-take-all awarding of experience, she is almost always in the position to be the one doing the most killing. It’s an insidious chain of events, and one that the player may not even realizing is happening at first. After a steady stream of one or two characters being promoted while the others are still struggling to figure out which end of the gun to point, it becomes clear there is a problem.

For me, the answer to this problem lay in meticulous micromanaging of some of the tougher combats we faced on the road ahead. I would actively take rounds where Daenerys and Drogo would do nothing, simply to give Eddard and Tyrion a chance to start earning some kills. Obviously, this made combat slower and a lot more dangerous, as letting enemies hang around shooting back at you is always a risky idea. Ultimately, though, I was able to bring the boys up to a point where they too could wield energy weapons (though, spoiler: this didn’t happen for quite a while), and from there on out it was less of an issue.

With such a strict experience award system, such a disparity seems a statistical likelihood, and is the reason I suspect you never see any games using such a method anymore. Lump experience for the entire party, or proportional experience based on actions/damage are more egalitarian ways to divide up reward, and ways that are more likely to keep your party members on roughly equal footing. While it is a joy to see your characters grow, it can be equally as joyless to watch some of them fall behind through no fault of their own.

Now, don’t misunderstand: this doesn’t make the game unplayable by any stretch. Honestly, it’s quite possible to get through the game with only one or two super-characters and the “normals” backing them up. But, like I said, a proud player usually wants all his creations to grow up big and strong, and in Wasteland that can usually only be done with some either some very good planning from the start, or some very meticulous scheming towards the end.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 12 – Vegas, Baby!

After wrapping up in Needles, we take a quick detour back to the Rail Nomad’s camp to pick up another engine. Bringing it back to the garage, the mechanic fixes up the jeep for us and Ace gets us back on the road to Vegas. A short jaunt to the northwest, we arrive just in time to get jumped by a gang of thugs who steal our car. While I understand that the jeep was merely being used as a way to (quite literally) drive us along the plot, I have never much appreciated that it is taken away without so much as a fight. We are the the Rangers – we enforce justice, we stop blood cults, we hit on barmaids. We do not like “thugs” making off with our car without us even getting a chance to shoot back.

At any rate, dropped at the southeast corner of the city, it is easy to see that Vegas is far and away the largest location we’ve seen so far. It is also, we quickly discover, the most deadly. Almost immediately upon entering the city, we are set upon by packs of killer robots. Apparently these robots are the “trouble” that Ace was speaking of. Some of them are easily defeated by our current weapons, but others, like heavily armored mini-tanks, send us scurrying for cover as we are barely able to dent them.

The most dangerous of all, though, sits smack-dab in the center of the city: The Scorpitron. This giant armored tank controls the entire downtown area, and getting near it at the moment is pretty much a death sentence. Avoiding the Scorpitron makes exploration much more difficult, and it also cuts us off from a large chunk of the city. Sticking to the edges of Vegas for now, we find a surprisingly well informed hobo who gives us some vital info about the city. It seems Vegas is mostly run by Ace’s boss, Faran Brygo. However, Fat Freddy – a ruthless gangster – wants to take Brygo’s place as top man in town. Freddy has gone so far as to kidnap Convenant, one of Brygo’s men. It seems Covenant is being held in the Vegas jail by Freddy’s men. It seems that Brygo’s best man, Max, is also missing, but no one seems to know what happened to him.

Continuing our loop of the city, we stumble upon the Vegas jail and decide to liberate Convenant from Fat Freddy’s clutches. Granted, we’re not entirely clear of the situation in town, and inserting ourselves directly into the middle of a power struggle might not be the best idea, but sometimes the long arm of the law needs to make snap decisions. Covenant, at any rate, is thrilled with our decision, and offers to join us. We take him up on the offer, as he is quite the formidable fighter, with high stats and lots of valuable skills.

After finishing our sweep of the outer edges of the city, we are beaten up pretty badly from robots fights, and still have no chance of getting past the Scorpitron. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, we limp our way back into the desert and decide to explore elsewhere in the hopes of getting our hands on some better weapons and armor. Doing as men have done since the days of old,  we follow the river to see where it leads us.

Coming up to the far north edge of the map, we push Eastward along with the river. Eventually we come to a bridge and are forced south by the map’s eastern boundary. Slipping though a mountain pass, we spot a town we hadn’t noticed before. It is fortunate we arrived from this direction, as an approach from the south would’ve taken us directly into a ring of radiation around the city. Stepping into town, we are informed that we have arrived in Darwin. Like most places in the wastes, we are immediately set upon by a roving gang of thieves and robbers.

This time, at least, they are nice and soft and fleshy.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 11 – A Bloody Good Time

Despite Ace’s insistence that we get our butts up to Vegas to help out, it seems that leaving a shadowy, murderous cult unattended to in Needles would fly sharply in the face of our devotion to carrying out justice at any cost. A detective at the local police station tells us that the cultists have been grabbing people for months and draining them of their blood. He believes they have been using something called the Bloodstaff, but he doesn’t know much more about it. This story is confirmed by a bishop at the Temple of the Mushroom Cloud, who tells us that one of his priests was kidnapped and the Bloodstaff stolen from him. He promises us a great reward if we can get it back. While we Rangers are not driven by materialistic aims, we will certainly not refuse a little sweetening of the pot now and again.

Some more digging tells us that the cultists are headquartered in the northwest corner of town. Heading up to check the place out, we run into a sporadic but insidious threat in the wasteland: radiation. At various locations around the map are pockets of residual radiation lingering from days gone by. At night, these spots show up on the map as little rad symbols that are easy to spot. During the day, however, they are completely invisible, and the only warning you get is from the insistent ticking of your party Geiger counter. You party starts the game with Geiger counter in hand, so as long as you don’t drop it or sell it at any point, it will always be there as your early warning system. That being said, even with that warning, if you are speeding around the map or simply aren’t paying attention, it can be pretty easy to wander into an irradiated area.

Fortunately, in the world of Wasteland, radiation exposure is not a death sentence: a trip to the hospital can clear it up for a few hundred bucks. Still, if you are far from a hospital, or deep in hostile territory, getting irradiated can turn into a pretty major headache.

The Cult of Blood’s temple is surrounded by a field of radiated tiles, so approaching at night is the far safer option. With the radiation illuminated, we are able to pick our way safely across the grounds to enter the temple itself. We are met inside the front door by a group of security robots, which are the first mechanical opponents we’ve faced so far. Turns out they deal out some pretty heavy damage, but after a hard-fought battle, we finish them off. Bloodied and wounded, we slip back out of town to camp. After a night of R&R, we make our way back in and deal with the next wave of temple guardians. Fortunately, the cultists themselves seem pretty oblivious to our presence, so we poke around the building for a while to see what we can find. Scrawled on the back of a pew are the words “MOTEKIM,” which I’m sure will be important later, so we make a note of that. A cultist locker room holds some ammo and other useful equipment, so we reclaim that in the name of the law.

The next room in comes as a bit of a surprise. Stepping up to a computer terminal, we are offered the chance to face a challenge from the cultists. Saying yes, my Rangers are suddenly teleported onto a giant chess board. A blood cultist stands waiting for us on the far side of the board, but we quickly discover that things aren’t so simple: taking a wrong step brings down a rain of laser fire from security turrets along the walls. It seems that there is a single safe path through the room, and we’re only going to find it through guesswork. After some trial and error, we make it to the gamekeeper who asks us how many steps are on the true path (30); if we’d gotten that wrong, we’d have to start over again.

Getting it right, however, dumps us onto a small dock by a blood-filled lake. Lovely. While much of the world of Wasteland has thus far maintained some realistic internal geography, I have to admit that the spatial organization of the Temple of Blood is a little iffy.

Regardless, using our Swim skill to get across the lake, we make our way to the fortress-looking island in the center. Once we reach land, we come under attack from a series of unseen snipers. We have to combat move our way forward to eventually expose each of them, at which point we take them out. It leaves us wounded again, but it also gives us our first M1911A1 Assault Rifles, which are the strongest weapons we’ve found thus far. I give one to Daenerys, and one to Tyrion. That leaves Eddard with the Uzi 9mm, and Drogo with his crowbar. Ace gets Tyrion’s old M19 rifle, and Mayor Pedros is still thrilled to be pounding people with his fists.

Reaching the main gate, we blow it open with some TNT Drogo has been lugging around, and get set to enter the heart of the temple. Now, my memories of the battle that await me through the door are of one of the toughest fights of the early game. My characters still have relatively weak armor, and I recalled getting swarmed by Bloodbeasts – nasty dog creatures – that would tear my Rangers apart. So this time, I make sure everyone is fully healed and ready to face whatever lay ahead.

Entering the room, we detect two pressure plates directly beyond the gate. The game gives us the option to jump over them or not. Had we not detected them, we would have triggered an automated turret that would make the fight even harder. Immediately, several groups of guards and bloodbeasts appear, ready to take us down. To cut a long story short, the first attempt at breaching the temple’s defenses does not end well: complete destruction of the party.  The guards are not the problem – they are fairly inaccurate, and their shots don’t hurt much – it’s the bloodbeasts. With multiple melee attacks per round, they swarm us and kill us faster than we can deal with them.

Reloading, I once again breach the temple doors and leap the plates. It’s then that I have an epiphany that never occurred to my past self: I, as the player, can get past these pressure plates… but can the enemies? Putting my theory to the test, I trigger the battle by leaping across the threshold, and then spend the first round executing a combat move to jump back across the plates and into the shattered remains of the gate. The next few rounds have us laying down fire at the advancing bloodbeasts in the hope of taking some of them out before they reach us. Then, after a round or two more, the first group gets to the plates and is stopped dead in their tracks.  Success! Thanks to this obstacle, we can freely fire on them, but those nasty dogs can’t get close enough to melee us. Suddenly, what was a headache of a fight is a walk in the park. Sure, Drogo and the Mayor are useless as well, but our gun-toters are more than able to deal with the beasts from afar.

Once the Bloodbeasts are down, we jump back into the temple core and finish off a few stragglers. Pushing around to the inner sanctum, we confront the blood priest and his final followers.

As you might expect from his surroundings, the demon-priest is an
utterly corrupt individual. A flowing blue robe covers his diseased body..
and a foul smirk twists his face askew. He smiles and teeth blacker than
ebony glint in the half-light. Palsey’s wracked hands grasp the Bloodstaff
tightly and threaten you with it. ‘”You will not have it,” he whispers
harshly. “You cannot take my life!”

Now, that sounds like a challenge if ever I’ve heard one. Taking him up on it, we enter battle. The blood priest hits pretty hard compared to his followers, but with some liberal use of auto fire, we take down him and his cronies without too much difficulty. Searching through the piles of loot they leave behind, we are able to restock on much of the ammo we just burned, as well as pick up some very valuable power packs (which will be quite handy later). Most importantly, we find the bloodstaff and pry it from his cold, dead hands.

Justice is served.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 10 – Fight!

Computer role-playing games can have a lot of things going for them. Some of them may have amazing character building options, letting you decide everything from how skilled your character is with a glaive-guisarme to what zodiac sign they are. Others may have incredible crafting systems that let you fashion items of amazing power from the various bits of scrap metal and bat guano you’ve gathered on your journey. Some have dialog options that let you play anything from a silver-tongued devil to a bone-headed lug barely capable of stringing a few words together.

Really, though, when you get right down to it, what most of us are really looking for in a CRPG is some rock-solid combat.

In almost any RPG you can think of, you are going to be spending an awful lot of time killing things, so it’s vital that the combat system be one that’s capable of holding a player’s interest through the entirety of the game.

That combat plays such a large role in CRPGs is really no surprise. CRPGs grew out of tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, and those in turn grew out of the wargames of old. And let’s face it, you really can’t get much more combat-centric than a wargame.

In the early days of CRPGs, combat systems branched into two main types: turn-based, and what I will loosely call “real-time.” Turn-based systems were much as they remain today, focused on the idea of the player and the enemy each alternating turns in some fashion, taking their time to plan out their moves. The early real-time games, on the other hand, were nothing like the fighting-game-esque systems of the Tales series, or the AI-controlled teamwork of Dragon Age that we have today. Mostly, early real-time games involved smashing on the attack key as much as you could and hoping that you killed the monster before it killed you.

Wasteland, for its part, uses a turn-based system that hearkens back to it’s CRPG predecessors, but adds a few little twists of its own. Much like a multitude of other CRPGs from the time (and the many years before that), the fundamentals of theWasteland combat system involve the player being confronted with an enemy (or groups of enemies), then issuing single orders to their party members to execute during a single round of combat. For anyone who had played a Wizardry game, or aBard’s Tale, the whole system would look very familiar.

Where Wasteland starts to differ from those others is with the addition of positioning. All battles, once entered, take place on the exact same map the party has been traveling through all game; no separate battle maps, or abstracted spaces where the combat takes place. By pressing the spacebar during combat, the player can see the party’s exact position in relation to any enemies in the area. The distance between the party and the enemies effects both whether you can use melee attacks (only when adjacent), and how accurate your ranged attacks will be (pistols don’t tend to do so well at extreme ranges). On any given turn, enemy groups can move either closer or further away, and the player can choose to move their entire party, or to disband individual members and move them around the battlefield separately.

Again, disbanding can be a powerful tool when used properly, as you can allow your melee fighters to charge forward to meet the enemy while your ranged shooters hang back. The risk here is that if a character is caught by themselves without a medic to back them up, they could be dead by the time you move someone up to help them. Line of sight also plays a part, as any obstacles between the party and the enemy will effectively end combat. This makes hanging out near walls a good strategy, as you can always duck behind them and regroup if things start to look bad.

In terms of per-turn options, Wasteland is actually pretty thin. Characters can either attack, dodge, reload, move, or use a skill. Dodging, moving, and reloading are all fairly self explanatory. Attacks in Wasteland are broken down into two types: ranged and melee. Ranged attacks only happen once per turn, but depending on the weapon the character is holding can be one of three types: single, burst, or auto. Single shot attacks hit one enemy, and that’s that. Burst attacks use up three units of ammo, and can potentially hit up to three targets in a group of enemies. Auto fire burns an entire clip of ammo, and goes against every single creature in an enemy group. It has the highest damage potential, but at the cost of precious, precious ammunition.

Melee attacks, as I mentioned earlier, can only take place against adjacent enemies, but can happen multiple times per turn depending on the character’s skill level with their weapon. Drogo, for instance, can already attack twice per turn with his crowbar, even at this early stage of the game thanks to his high brawling skill.

In my experiences, combat in Wasteland travels in a wave throughout the game. In the early stage, it is pretty straightforward as you have limited weapons and fairly simple enemies. During the mid-game, it starts to feel a lot deeper as you take advantage of new weaponry, and engage in a little more tactical thinking against larger groups of stronger enemies. There is a point towards the late mid-game, however, when it slides back downhill again as your party is usually strong enough to tackle pretty much anything, and combats become a repetitive affair of hitting “Attack” over and over again. Fortunately, at that point combats also tend to go much faster, so at least you don’t feel like you are getting too bogged down. It’s not the greatest system in the world, but it works well, and it keeps things moving.

Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 7 – Two Roads Diverge…

There is a certain art to playing the role of Dungeon Master in a tabletop role playing game. Sure, you can spend hours picking out the perfect creatures to man the gatehouse of the evil overlord’s castle, and you can design the most devious of traps and puzzles to thwart invading parties of adventurers, but there is one variable you have little control over: the players. All that beautiful work can be completely for naught if they decide that instead of busting through the front gates, they want to use that teleport spell they found to warp up to the roof and sneak in the back door.

Now, the less artful DM solves this problem by forcing the players to stick only to the path that they have laid out. This often involves an awful lot of heavy-handed hints and orders from NPC, and occasionally falls back to the DM simply saying “you can’t do that.” The more skilled DM, on the other hand, rolls with the punches. Sure, now the players won’t get to appreciate the brilliant battle planned out for the front gate, but now the players are possibly having even more fun using their stealth and skills to make their way through the twisting corridors of the palace, trying to stay out of trouble. By giving the players more flexibility to solve problems the way they want to, the DM is most likely letting everyone have a lot more fun than if he doggedly kept them on his single-minded path.

CRPGs, obviously, don’t have the flexibility of an actual DM to deal with whatever the player throws at them. Still, like a skilled DM, the best games offer the player a variety of options to make their way through certain portions of the game. This gives the player a chance to try their hand at a little creativity beyond fighting their way through everything, as well as a chance to play with all those skills they’ve so lovingly selected.

Wasteland, while still limited by the technology at the time, still manages to offer the player that sense of flexibility in many situations. While many of its contemporaries were still in the mindset of the Bad DM, the designers of Wasteland created a series of unique situations in the game in which the player could think a little outside of the box to deal with obstacles.

The first of these that the player encounters is in the town of Quartz, where we last left off. As the Rangers learned in the bar, the criminal genius known as Ugly John and his thugs had taken over the courthouse and were holding the Mayor and his family hostage. Everyone in town seems more or less nonplussed by this, but my Rangers are still ready to step up and save the day. First, though, is the matter of the room key just slipped to us by the lovely barmaid.

Heading out from Scott’s Bar, we make a brief stop at the Quartz general store to sell off all of the extra pistols and knives we have collected from clearing the streets of thugs. With the amassed cash, we buy two M19 Carbines for Eddard and Denaerys, as well as a Bullet Proof Shirt for Drogo. As our brawler, he’s most likely to be on the front lines taking the hits, and could use some extra armor. With the shopping out of the way, we poke around the center of town until we find the Stagecoach Inn.

The Stagecoach looks like it probably would’ve been a rat trap of a motel before the end of civilization, so all in all not much has changed for it since. The man at the front counter offers us a safe place to rest for the night, but we’ve got more important business to take care of. A slimy pool dominates the center of the motel courtyard, and this would be a good place to work on upping our swim skills if we were so inclined. Poking around, we find that every single room is locked. Feeling the itch of leaving no stone unturned, I have Eddard get to work picking the locks. Shockingly, it turns out that people don’t appreciate it when heavily armed men come busting into their hotel rooms, Rangers or not. After clearing out a few rooms of angry bums, and one with a mentally-unwell gentleman, I start to think that maybe, just maybe, this is why people seem pretty down on the Rangers as a whole. The slaughter is not fully without reward, as one bum gives us a crucial piece of information about a secret path into the courthouse. Deciding to refrain from further slaughter of people who’ve done nothing wrong but stay at a hotel with flimsy locks, we make our way over to room #18. Tyrion puts on his smoothest of smiles, and we open the door.

What we find inside was not what we were expecting. Instead of a sultry barmaid, we meet a young girl in a wheelchair. A young girl who is also pointing a gun at us. So much for Tyrion’s moves with the ladies.

After being asked to repeat what we told Ellen, we discover that this is Ellen’s daughter, Laurie. Laurie has been waiting for some Rangers to come and fix things up in town (at least someone is glad to see us) and has some information and supplies to help us out. She tells us that the hostages are on the 3rd floor of the courthouse, and there is a stair in the back of the building that will take us right to them. More importantly, she’s learned that the password is “MUERTE.” On the weapon front, she drops in front of us a pile of 9mm ammo, cash, grenades, and two Manglers (anti-tank weapons).

Now here we can already see some options laid out before us; instead of gunning through the front door, a little investigative work has turned up the secret gang password for us. What’s more, we also know about the secret path in housekeeping, giving us another option. Searching around the motel a little more, we bust into housekeeping and confront two angry maids (well, it wasn’t breaking into a room, so I figured it was ok…). Taking care of them, we push on towards a back hallway occupied by two drunken hobos. Bribing them out of the way with some Snake Squeezins (the drink of choice for bums across the wasteland), we find the hatch leading to an underground tunnel. The tunnel, in turn, takes us into the courthouse atrium.

From the atrium, we again have a couple of options. We can either smash through the glass and into the courthouse itself, likely triggering a fight right away. Or, we can use our climbing skills and scale the vines to the second or third floors, using a little more stealth to bypass most of the guards. We know the hostages are on the third floor, but we decide to split the difference and climb up to floor two. After dealing with a few guards in the hall, we bust our way into a heavily fortified door. Inside, we encounter a punk-looking fellow named Huey. On his arm we find tattooed a single number; this seems like it could be important information. Pushing into the room past him, we confront his two other identical brothers, Dewey and Louie. Taking them down, we find they each have a number on them as well, and we also find a poor, dead fellow tortured to death in a chair (It turns out that if we had been a little more stealthy, we could have subdued Huey and saved this fellow as a potential party member).

Making our way upstairs, we finish off a few more gang members, and find some intel indicating that Ugly’s headquarters are cleverly hidden across the street from the courthouse. Pushing forward into the holding cells, Eddard picks his way through to a prison cell holding the aforementioned Mayor Pedros. The Mayor thanks us for the help, but pleads that we must find his wife Felicia who is still being held captive by Ugly. At this point, we go into Encounter mode (despite the lack of enemies), and use the Hire command to add Mayor Pedros to our party. With the Mayor safely in tow, we sneak back over to the atrium and make our way out of the hidden tunnel and back to the motel.

Next Time: A Party Gets Better When There are Guests, and Ugly Plays Dirty