Category Archives: Ancient Gaming

Things from my early days of online multiplayer gaming.

Diablo II Act Five and some Thoughts

In my brain Diablo II ends with Act IV.  I mean, you kill Diablo, whose name was on the box, just like in the original, you feel like you’re done.  So once that was done, my arrival in Act V and the town of Harrogath, home of the barbarians, felt a bit strange.

Deckard Cain is always there waiting for me

That isn’t to say I am knocking the Lord of Destruction expansion.  It brought a lot to the table, like new classes and the coveted upgrade from 640×480 to 800×600 video resolution.  But the actual content… it only stuck with me in a very vague way.  Something about being in ice tunnels and catapults… though that latter might have been from Diablo III, which itself is already eight years old at this point.

And you don’t even get an opening quest to send you off into the wild.  I mean, sure, you got the pep talk about Baal, so you know who the final boss is, but beyond that you don’t even get a “good luck storming the castle.”

So I just headed out the gates to see what I could see.

Cain’s words about Harrogath being untouched only apply to inside the town.  Just outside are the armies of hell who have the place under siege.  And there were catapults to destroy, so I did at least remember that bit.

You only get the first quest at the far end of the first zone, once you have cleared enough stuff out.  Then it is back to town for an update and a plea to go into the next area and release captured barbarians.

The next zone is more of the same.

I will say that the zone tiles were all new, so it wasn’t a repeat of any of the last four acts.  And there are new mobs, some new mob mechanics, and all that, but I wasn’t feeling a lot of attachment to it either.  That may be due to the new zones being somewhat sprawling in an aimless sort of way.

I freed the barbarians, the reward for which was the ability to put some sockets in a piece of gear.  I bought the highest armor class piece of chest armor I could find, put sockets on that, then put two runes in it, which ended up being the last item upgrade I did during the game.

My memories of Diablo II don’t include crap itemization and drops, but here I was in Act V and I was still wearing a couple of items from Act I because I had yet to find anything better.  And I think the most recent piece of gear was from Act III.

Basically, there isn’t any feeling of planned gear progression.  Some of the stuff at the vendors gets better as you level up, but not radically so in most cases.  My rogue companion had a very good bow with two sockets that I picked up in Act II and I never once saw anything better drop or show up at a vendor.

My stash was overflowing with gems and runs and whatnot, just waiting for a good item to use them on, and I got nada.  I complained about pre-expansion itemization in Diablo III, where it felt bad, but at least it did progress somewhat regularly and, more important, it got fixed with the expansion.

Anyway, I carried on, found the start of the ice caves.  There I realized how nice the open plains had been to me.

Having spec’d as a Hammerdin, as I mentioned last time, I was pretty dependent on that attack in order to kill things.  You launch the Blessed Hammer and it spins around you in an ever widening spiral, applying damage to any mob it passes through.  A pretty good attack when you’re in the thick of things, though the spiral does open up wide enough between orbits that it does miss mobs at times.  It only stops when the hammer fades after it has traveled its full distance, or it runs into something solid, like a wall.

Caves are nothing but walls, so my Blessed Hammer often faded as soon as I launched it.  So I learned to train things back to open areas to make better use of it.  Eventually I found one of the people I was looking for as a follow up quest.

Really, I only vaguely remember why I came here…

There was a quest update, and then more caves.  I could feel myself starting to lose interest in the cave crawl, something not helped by the fact that waypoints seem poorly scattered.  There were the usual full complement of them, but I somehow managed to miss three of them along the way.

I ended up popping out of the caves into an open area again, where I faced a boss challenge blocking my progress.  Something different at least.

Challenge accepted!

This was at least in a nice, open area, where my Blessed Hammer could be used to full effect.

Beyond them was the Worldstone Keep, another indoor crawl.    The mobs ramped up a bit in there and tended to come in large groups.  I hit a few points where I got overwhelmed and died and wondered if I should really bother carrying on.  The closest I came was when I died trying to get my gear back before I could toss a fresh town portal, so there was going to be a long run back to where I was.  But I persisted.  I felt I was close enough to the end that I should hang on.

And I did come to the throne of Baal.  There he throws five waves of special baddies at you, including some old favorites, as they appear to be a group from each of the previous acts, plus a special new group for Act V.  The most recognizable group was the councilors from Act III, largely because they and Mephisto were the only memorable bits of that act.

There were issues and a couple of deaths and a some regret that I didn’t thoroughly clear the whole level before I started on these event spawns, but I managed to defeat them.  Then Baal disappears through a portal and you get to follow him in for the final fight.

This way to Baal

When you get in, you find you are fighting two Baals.  There is no doubt an endless supply of testicle jokes in that.

In the chamber there is a real Baal and a fake Baal.  They look alike.  There is apparently a way to tell them apart by their name tab, but in the end fake Baal is less tanky so it becomes obvious which is which.

It is another fight with a lot of running away, using portals back to town to refill potions, and scrambling about to stay out of the way of Baal’s big attacks.  Keeping on your feet slows things down, but eventually I got the best of him.

Baal down at last

That is the queue for Tyrael to show up for another one of his expositions.

He is always impressed, isn’t he?

After that, you are about done.  You get the victory screen where it announced you have a new title.

Slayer Wilhelm at your service

And then you are tossed back out to the character screen where you can choose to start over again at two of the three difficulties.

Hell remains locked

That is it, I made it through.

Final Thoughts

Despite the low resolution and the distortion caused by the game being rendered at a 4:3 screen ratio, the whole thing was very playable 20 years down the road.

In various ways the experience of playing through was both better and worse than my memories.  A lot of the game is very well tuned and timed.  The waypoints are… mostly… spread out just right to make for nice play sessions in manageable chunks.

The play though showed, once more, that Act I is good and connects you back to the original Diablo.  Act II then takes everything up a notch and gives you a brand new feel and locale.

Then comes Act III, which isn’t bad, but which doesn’t have a lot of flavor to it.  It feels like a bit of a slog just to get to the fight with the council and Mephisto.

Act IV is short, but lively.  And, of course, you face off against Diablo again here.

After which there is Act V, a level that feels like an expansion level, tacked on and perhaps unnecessary.  It wasn’t horrible.  The team clearly had some ideas they wanted to try out.  But the whole act felt like they stretched it out more just to make sure you felt like you got your money’s worth.

Having done a play through, the question becomes what to do next.  I am not particularly keen to run through the same content at Nightmare difficulty.  I am just not that engaged.

I could try another class.  The paladin has been my go-to for ages.  I might try out a druid or an assassin, the expansion classes.  I am not sure I have ever played them at all.

I should/could play each class through at least Act I… maybe Act II… to compare the classes.  We shall see what I feel up to.

But for a 20 year old game, it isn’t so out of date as you might think.  Playing through does make me wonder how a remake or remaster would play.  The temptation to update things that feel “wrong” in 2020, like the respec option, would be strong.

Diablo II Act Four

Having made it through the long and linear third act of the game, I was deposited in the Pandemonium Fortress, the base for the fourth act.

Tyreal is there to greet you

I tend to think of this as “the short act” as well.  There are only three quests, two of which are optional, and three waypoints, including the one you start with.  Feeling a bit of completionist drive, and knowing the act to be short, I took the time to take on all three quests.

The act itself takes starts in a gray hellscape as you follow the path to the final confrontation.  Along the way I found Izual and confronted him.

Izual speaks

Finding him is worth it as the quest reward is two more points for your skill tree.

After that, you keep moving forward… though I ran into a problem in getting to the next zone, The City of the Damned.  The path there are some stairs that are on the edge of the zone and, after having circled the perimeter of the entire zone, I realized that there was one tiny bit off on one side that I had not gotten close enough to, so of course that was where the stairs were.  But I fully explored that zone.

In the city you run into Hephasto the Armorer, who works at the Hellforge.  Fighting him is a bit of a battle, and he drops some gems and runes when you defeat him.

Hephasto the Armorer

But what you really need is the Hellforge on which you destroy Mephisto’s soul stone, which you have left over after defeating him at the end of Act III.  That knocks out the second quest for the act.

From there you hit another NPC who gives you a pep talk about moving forward.

On the path forward

Tyreal has your final goal to hand as well.

The final mission

From The City of the Damned you enter the River of Flame.

That is a lot of flame

From that point you are on the route straight to Diablo.

This is where I started having some problems.  I managed to fight my way through to the five seals that you need to unlock in order to release Diablo, but forgot that clicking them spawns a boss and some minions, so clicking two in quick succession got me in over my head and I died in an awkward spot.

Also, I had not thrown up a town portal.  So it was back to the way point for a naked run to my corpse, where I put up a portal, then started kiting mobs away from my corpse.  Of course, I died a few times doing that… and blew a bunch of gold reviving my mercenary each time as well.

Eventually I got things under control, but it was one of those situations where, after I had several corpses on the floor and my gear as yet not recovered, that I started thinking about calling and end to the run.  I pressed on though, got my stuff and then, carefully, cleared out the area and clicked on the final seals.

And then Diablo himself shows up and the fight is on.

A wild Diablo appears!

And then things were slow going.  I am honestly surprised that my “seemed like a good idea at the moment” spec actually lasted this far into the game.  But here, at the final fight, it was not cutting it.  I wasn’t doing enough damage and was having to jump out through a portal for more heal potions (and to revive my eternally dead merc) way too often.

But I had planned for this.  Not too long after launch Blizzard added a reward to one of the Act I quests that let you re-spec just once.  I had been waiting until I hit a wall, so I decided now was the time.  If not on the Diablo stage, then when?

Googling paladin builds, I came across the Hammerdin spec, where you go all in on Blessed Hammer, and skills that boost its damage.  Once I had that set, I went back to Act IV and jumped back in to face Diablo.

It took me a bit to figure out how to use the spec… maybe I should have read that bit before jumping in… but I got it down after not too long and managed to bring Diablo down.  Victory was mine.

I went back to the Pandemonium Fortress and got the pat on the back from everybody.  I had defeated Diablo, something I probably last did more than 15 years ago.  But I was not done yet.  I had created my paladin as an expansion character, so there was another portal go jump through, to get to Act V, and another prime evil to slay, Baal

Deckard Cain is always there waiting for me

The first two acts I remember very well.  I’ve gone back and run them many times.  The third act was a bit hazy, while the fourth act is so short that there is little really to forget, save a few details that might get you killed.

But the fifth act, the expansion act… I was having trouble recalling anything at all about that except for being in a frozen tunnel at some point.  So I pressed on.

Diablo II Act Two

Carrying on with my 20th anniversary play through of Diablo II.  I wasn’t sure how far I would get, but I appear to have some momentum.

It has been a long time

The first act of Diablo II sets the player up in an atmosphere that is reminiscent of the original Diablo.  It could be seen as both the act that welcomes the players from the older game into something that feels familiar… everything is dark, and while there is a lot of above ground play, you spend a lot of time in dungeons as well… while introducing them to the mechanics of the new game.

Act Two changes things up.  You run off to Lut Gholein, set in the bright desert wastes.

Welcome to Act Two

This is very different from the darkness of the original and what was in the first act.

But the structure of the act, based on six quests, remains the same.  And, while there is a bright sunny desert to explore, the first quest sends you down below the town, a dark dungeon with a new tile set for the new act.

Down below town

There you fight the first boss, which is where I lost my NPC helper.  I managed to finish the battle, but I was a bit worried about getting her back.  Something in the back of my brain said that you could only revive rogues back in the first act.  But once I found the NPC who does the revives, I saw I did not need to travel.

Available for a price

Then it was back out into the desert sunshine.

Fighting cat people and vultures

But the desert is really just a way to put distance between your objectives.  The major objectives of the act all tend to be deep in some dungeon somewhere.  Somewhere.

Finding the dungeons can take a while as the random desert areas can be somewhat sprawling and you have to eyeball every grid of the map until you find what you are looking for.

The first thing you’re looking for is the Horadric Cube.  Sure, finding it in the Halls of the Dead advances the quest line and Deckard Cain is impressed when you show it to him.

Praise from Deckard

But the real reason I want the cube is that by this point in the game my stash has started to fill up with gems and the cube cans transform three of a kind into a higher quality gem.  So it is time to clean up the stash.

Cube, take me away!

Also, in a pinch, the cube is bigger on the inside than on the outside, so while it takes up four slots in inventory you have a dozen slots to play with when you open it up.

Once done there the Horadric staff is next on the list.  That is further along into the desert in a warren of rather squelchy bugs.

It is in the glowy chest one you wipe off the bug guts

After that, it is the head piece for the staff.  Once you have that and have assembled them with the cube, you are off to the palace where the tale continues.

The intro to the palace levels

Somewhere deep inside is a portal to the arcane sanctuary.  Things came forth from there and slaughtered those in the palace, so you have to clear your way down to it.  This actually went very quickly.  The random factor and the fact that the upper levels have two connections up and down, mean that it is pretty easy to just go a few rooms and find your way to the next level until you hit the cellars.

Down to the cellars

Those are a little more complicated, but I managed to stumble my way down to the bottom level and the portal to the arcane sanctuary.

The portal

The arcane sanctuary is very much its own place in the game.  An Escher-esques series of ramps, stairs, and platforms, it isn’t one of my favorite bits.

In the arcane sanctuary

There are a couple of challenges to this area.  First, a lot of it is made up of narrow paths, so you do not have a lot of room to maneuver.  More narrow than most dungeon hallways, you often find yourself having to plow though a wave of melee mobs to get to those casters in the back that are killing you.

But mostly the layout is such that your helper ends up getting hooked up trying to follow you because the pathing algorithm isn’t up to the complexity of the level.  So I end up losing my rogue friend over and over.  Sometimes the game decides to teleport her to me, sometimes I just have to do without.  But you have to keep plowing through until you find the summoner, read his book, then jump through the portal that appears.

Summoner down, time for the portal

The symbols in that screen shot are all the ones that mark the false tomb.  The real tomb is marked with the missing symbol, which is recorded in your quest log.

Though the portal puts you into the Valley of the Kings, right at the waypoint, which I always click immediately so I do not have to go through the arcane sanctuary again.  It is visually interesting, but not a place I like to linger.

The it is off to Tal Rasha’s tomb.

The tomb awaits

There are six fake tombs and one real one.  Back in the day I would run them all, just on the off chance of getting some good drops.  This time I just went for the correctly marked one.  The plinth with the symbol, the triangle, is just barely visible in the dark in the upper left of the screen shot.

From there it is another fun dungeon crawl to the room where you use the assembled Horadric staff.

Staff goes here

At that point a passage is broken open in the wall, you can see it in the upper left, which leads to the final boss.  I took the precaution of opening up a town portal in the staff room, just in case things went badly.

Fortunately, the fight went pretty well.  I remembered, from past experience, that I needed to skill up cold resist aura for this fight.  I also had saved a couple a couple of pieces of cold resist gear to wear for the fight, so I was able to do it in one go.

Fighting Duriel, the Act Two final boss

After that, the fighting is over.  In the back of the chamber you will find the angel Tyrael who has a speech for you.

Due to the fact that we had a power blip before I saved some of my screen shots… Diablo II doesn’t do the screen shot thing so all I do is press Print Screen, then tab out to paste the captured image into Paint.net, which I then crop and save… I lost all of my original screen shots from Tal Rasha’s tomb.  I was able to go back and recreate some… I fought Duriel twice… by Tyrael is gone after you speak to him.  But I have a video i took back in late 2011 of that speech.

 

After that the act is pretty much done.  You get comments from the main NPCs and are set for Act Three.

For whatever reason, I always seem to miss a couple of waypoints in this act.  ITt happened back in the day, and it happened again now.

Missed some

The Lost City is out in the desert, and once you find your destination and finish, you don’t need it ever again.  Likewise, the palace can run so fast that you end up in the arcane sanctuary pretty quickly and can live with just the waypoint there.

So now I have made it through the first two acts and have been deposited in Kurast for Act Three.

On the dock in Kurast

Now to see if I get through that.

Diablo II Act One

As I mentioned, for the 20th anniversary of the game last month I downloaded it and set up to play a bit, just to remind myself of what it was back in the day.

It has been a long time

I did try to run down mods that were alleged to help with screen resolution.  The problem with Diablo II is that the base game runs at 640×480, with the Lord of Destruction expansion boosting that to a big 800×600.  However, I did not have much luck on that front.  A lot of stuff I ran across was out of date.  20 years will do that.  So I opted to just go with 800×600 and rough it.

Which, honestly, wasn’t all that bad.  When you first get into the game things look blocky and distorted as the 4:3 aspect ration maps itself onto a 16:10 screen.  Everything is a bit wider than one might like.  But I found that I got used to it pretty quickly and only really noticed it when I was looking at screen shots, which show up as 800×600 4:3 images.

The main problem with getting 800×600 is that the expansion added some things that were not in the base game.  While gems were always there, charms and jewels were expansion items, and I started getting those as drops pretty early on.  So not a real run at the experience of 20 years ago, but close enough I guess.

I went with a Paladin, which is sort of my default class in the game.  I like the aura and the tanky nature of the class.

You start out in the rogues camp and there is a quest waiting for you.

Oh look, a quest!

You can see how that quest marker might have evolved into the yellow exclamation point we know in WoW.

Diablo II drives the plot via quests, but it is not at all quest obsessed.  The quest UI only has space for 6 quests per act, and if I recall right, a couple of them are optional and the final act doesn’t even have the full six.

Quests are more central to the game than in the original Diablo, but not as rampant as they are in Diablo III, and they seem almost rare relative to how most MMORPGs in the last 15 years have handled them.

Things start off slow… though the pacing is never frantic save for in a few boss fights… as you are sent forth from the camp to find some bads in a den.  You need to slay them all, which starts you on what is my own obsession, exploring all corners of the map.  Eventually you’ll find that last little demon in a side path you missed and then return to camp for a reward… and a new task.

You gain the esteem of the rogues and get one to follow you around and assist.  I had forgotten about that, but quickly came up to speed.  The rogue assistant, who is a ranged player, is the best in the game.  I recall that in Act Two you get a melee helper who jumps in and gets themselves killed a lot, compare to the rogue who hangs back, pelts mobs with arrows, and lights them up with a target marking ability.

Lighting them up is important because the game is dark, and the play of light and dark and the shadows in between is still amazing 20 years down the road.  I have said this before, but I don’t think any game I have played has done this better.  I always use this video from Act Two as a sample.

But it is everywhere in the dark underground or indoor places in the game.  I was wandering around places just to see how the shadows moved around my light source, how places remained dark until I got up close.

(Also, you can see I have the Act One rogue helper there in Act Two.)

Eventually though you have to go find the narrative voice of the series, Deckard Cain of “Stay awhile and listen…” quote fame.  He is locked away on old Tristram, the setting of original Diablo, which has fallen to the forces of evil.

Cain locked up in Tristram

Once he is freed he portals back to the rogue camp… not sure how he knew where to go, but sure… and then he starts in on what he believes is really going on.

There is another quest along the way, but it takes you along the path to where you need to be.

Charsi lost her hammer

That gets you into the final area and gives you another preliminary boss to fight.

The Smith has the hammer, or course

This is where I want to point out how much I like the map system in the game.  It is an overlay, which has its pros and cons.  You can have it up while still seeing what is going on, which is a big plus.

The map in the barracks

I do find that it can be a distraction when up though.  I find myself looking at the map and not the tactical situation if I leave it up.  And, of course, it isn’t mapped to the M key by default.  The Tab key isn’t a bad choice, but habit keeps me pressing M over and over.

Once you have fulfilled Charsi’s quest, which has an excellent reward, you’re on to Cain’s mission.

Cain and his working theory

This is where the pacing of the game shows its patience.

One of the key features of the game is the waypoint system, little teleport pads that you find as you move further into each act.  There is one in the starting base, then eight more through each of the first three acts, and they allow you to basically pick up where you left off rather than having to camp in place or walk all the way back to the start of the act to turn in quests and get updates.

My general play style is to play through to the next waypoint.  They are good ways to dice up the content into more manageable pieces.

In Act One, Charsi’s quest gets you to the Outer Cloister.  The barracks is just beyond that.

The waypoint list

That done, the final battle, where you face Andariel, is a good three waypoints down the line.  In between are levels to explore, loot to find, and mini-bosses to slay, but nothing to advance the final quest, save getting closer to it.  I am not sure a more modern game would let you wander that far without a quest update cookie or, if it did, it would likely be accused of padding out the game needlessly.

Here, it is just a nice, extended dungeon crawl, part of the experience you’ve paid for.  It isn’t in the way of the game, it is the game.

Loot is, of course, everywhere.  Some named bosses along the way almost explode in a shower of loot.

Gold spilled everywhere in the tower

But inventory space keeps you honest.  You need to carry potions and keys and scrolls and those charms you may have picked up that need to be in your inventory to work.  You cannot pick up everything, and anything good needs to be identified.  Once Cain shows up he will do it for free, but you have to portal or waypoint back to town for that.  Otherwise you have to keep identify scrolls on hand to asses the value of something.

And it often feels like feast or famine when you’re deep in a dungeon.  I will go from walking past some healing potions because I have too many in my bag and on my belt already, then get in a tough fight and suddenly I am scrambling to grab every healing potion I spot because I am running dry.

I did reach Andariel and defeated her without dying myself.  I made it through the whole of Act One without dying.  But it was a tough fight and I had run in and out of the area a lot.  I long ago learned to pull a fight like that back to the zone line so I could flee at need.  I lost my rogue helper at one point, so had to portal back to town to revive her.  But I always keep a town portal up for those fights as well.  And, after a few retreats to heal up, Andariel exploded as nicely as an ship in New Eden.

The loot fairy says yes!

Then there was the sorting through the drops.  There was a set item, which I think were also expansion things.  The problem is that once you get a piece of gold level gear, it is hard to find a replacement that scratches all the same itches.  I got a gold scepter early on, have to level up into it, and then used it for the full first act as nothing else I found came close.

And so Act One was done.  I moved on to Act II, arriving to the welcome in Lut Gholein.

Welcome to Act Two

Act Two is out in the desert, a bright and sunny landscape unlike that of Act One.  But there are still many dark, underground places to explore.  We shall see how far I get on that.

Summer Reruns – Online Gaming in the 80s

It officially turned Summer in the northern hemisphere yesterday, so I can legit post a Summer Reruns post.

This time for a look way back in time at the online video games I played in the 80s, a time when a 2400bps modem made you special and the command line was pretty much your only online interface option.  Back then you paid a per hour online charge that makes the whole $15 monthly subscription thing look like a serious bargain.

GEnie Price “cut” back in 1989 actually raised prices for non-prime time

While the internet was a thing at the time (I had a shell account through a company called Portal back then, which at the time was run out of a suburban house that backed up to the middle school I attended years before, and an email address with the domain cup.portal.com), only online services like GEnie and CompuServe had the infrastructure to let people all over the country connect together to play games.

I started online games with an Apple //e and an Apple 1200bps modem that I bought second hand from Skronk.  Later I upgraded to a Mac SE and a Zoom 2400bps modem that came in an odd smoked acrylic case.

Apple and Zoom modem pictures gleaned from the internet

That set off a series of events which led me to start my own BBS… back when BBS meant a modem hooked up to somebody’s computer that you could dial into… and eventually launched my so-called professional career of the last 28 years or so.  Time flies.

But before that I played… and spent too much money on… online games.  Fortunately I spent some time writing about them during the early days of the blog, when those memories were at least 10 years more recent than today.

Those were not the only games I played, but the ones that had the biggest impact and, thus, left the strongest memories.  All Kesmai titles, but Kesmai was the online powerhouse of the time. (Staff from Kesmai ended up developing the original PlanetSide as part of Lodestone Games.)

I also vaguely remember playing Island of Kesmai on CompuServe as well as a version of Maze War and the beta of Gemstone on GEnie back then, but not with enough detail to tease anything beyond “I was there” from my brain.

These games were very revolutionary at the time, unique experiences that left indelible impressions on players who were there.  However, they were also very much games of their time in terms of technology.  Impressive as they were in their era they would appear as rough and primitive by today’s standards, where the phone in my pocket certainly has more power and resources than the VAX minicomputer that hosted Stellar Emperor back in the day.

However, that has not stopped people from attempting to recreate these old games, or at least MegaWars III and/or Stellar Emperor.  I have covered those in posts now and again.

And so it goes.

As far as video games go, the 80s started with me owning an Atari 2600 and going to arcades to play video games.  I then moved to the Apple II platform and played a number of the classic games of the era.

Apple ][+ back in the day

Then there was the modem that got me online in 1986, then the move to Macintosh, and the decade ended with me running my own BBS.  MUDs and then MMORPGs still lay in the future for me.

MegaWars Dawn of the Third Age

In order to talk about MegaWars – Dawn of the Third Age I feel I need to delve into the well of ancient games from which I drew the title of this blog.  It is been a while since I’ve gone here, so a refresher might be due.

Back in the early-to-mid 1980s personal computers were becoming common, modems were increasingly becoming an option for the, and online services like CompuServe and GEnie began to flourish.  This was the pre-web era, when even having a GUI beyond a command prompt was considered.  (There is a whole “pre-web online services” category on Wikipedia.)

And while special interest forums, online encyclopedias, and services were often bullet points used to get people to sign up, it wasn’t long before online games came into being.  Kesmai was an early leader in online games and its Island of Kesmai on CompuServe was very much a precursor to today’s fantasy MMORPGs.

Also on CompuServe was a game called MegaWars III.  If Island of Kesmai foretold the fantasy side of the MMORPG genre, then MegaWars III was very much a hint as to what the future might bring when it came to internet spaceships in EVE Online.  Launched on CompuServe in January 1984, it gained a following even at the expensive hourly connect rates that online services charged back in the day.  $15 a month seems like a bargain compared to $6 an hour.

MegaWars III did not feature a long term persistent universe.  Instead games were four week long affairs that saw everybody logging on to scout on the first night to find and colonize planets.  There was a fixed amount of numbered star systems, but the planets around them, and the quality thereof, changed with each game.

Players would colonize and manage their planets, build up defenses, try to take planets from each other, and attempt to blow up each other’s ships.  At the end of the four weeks scores were tallied up and winners declared.  The leader of the highest scoring team was declared Emperor while the highest individual score was named President of the Imperial Senate.  The top 20 scoring players were made senators.

When GEnie arrived on the scene, they wanted online games too and got Kesmai to make a simplified version of MegaWars III which was called Stellar Warrior.  A fun game in its own right, and following the four week campaign model, it did not have the depth of MegaWars III with its planetary management module.  GEnie eventually got a straight up copy of MegaWars III a bit later in the form of Stellar Emperor.

And that is where I came in.  During the fourth four week Stellar Emperor campaign during the summer of 1986 I logged into GEnie via the modem I bought from Potshot for my Apple //e and started fumbling around with online games.

It was then that I first used the handle Wilhelm Arcturus.  I had been recruited by a team called the Arcturan Empire (-AE-) and learned the ways of the game sufficiently to become both Emperor of the Galaxy and President of the Imperial Senate.  You actually got physical trophies for that back then.

Pewter Cups Awarded for Emperor and President titles

The names are probably easier to read on the paper certificates that were also mailed out to winners, including those senators in the top 20.

Wilhelm d’Arcturus Emperor of the Galaxy

Wilhelm d’Arcturus – President on the Imperial Senate

Later I dropped the “d” from the last name to become simply Wilhelm Arcturus.  My tales from those days can be found here:

And so it went.  For most of the balance of the 1980s MegaWars III and Stellar Emperor ran along as identical twins.  As the 90s approached GEnie and Kesmai began to work on improving Stellar Emperor, giving it a GUI eventually, while MegaWars III remained as it was.  If you played them both after 1989 or so you’ll probably say they were different, but before then they were essentially identical.

Into the 90s the internet and the web became a thing and online services started to fade away.  CompuServe was bought by AOL in 1997 and faded away into the background while GEnie shut down in 1999.  Kesmai ran its own online service, GameStorm, through the 90s until the company was sold to EA.  EA did what it always does with studios it buys; shut it down, never to be seen again.  And so all of the Kesmai titles, including MegaWars III, disappeared.

Like all closed online games, somebody out there decided to go ahead and recreate the originals.  I have written previously about Crimson Leaf Games and their resurrection of the original MegaWars III as well as Cosmic Ray Games and their recreation of a 90s version of Stellar Emperor.

But some time has passed since then; seven years in the case of the former and four years for the latter.

Crimson Leaf Games has been hard at work and has produced a new version of MegaWars III, MegaWars: Dawn of the Third Age.  The site for the game is here, and includes a history of MegaWars III worth reading.

The new version has a client and graphics and all sorts of things we associate with more modern online games.

The MegaWars III universe has also expanded from a couple hundred stars to over five million systems to explore.  Space has also changed in a way that might sound a bit familiar to EVE Online players.  Rather than the game being open season for PvP, there are three regions of space.  They are:

  • Empire – no combat and planets cannot be taken
  • Frontier – full combat and planet industries can be bombed but not taken
  • Open – full combat and planets can be taken

The penalty for Empire and Frontier is that you pay taxes that sap your planetary economy, and a hit in score, relative to the wild west of open space.  But in exchange for that you get complete safety in Empire space and some amount of safety in Frontier space.

The game is currently in open Alpha… which seems to be what we would call Early Access if it were on Steam… so you can try it out if you are interested.

So we now have a new take on a game that has its origins in the nearly 40 year old DECWAR, which was, in turn, an attempt to make a multiplayer version of the Star Trek terminal game from the early 70s.

And the beat goes on.

Trying to Remember Starsiege: Tribes

The launch of Overwatch got me thinking about first person shooters that I have enjoyed over the years, a list that is pretty short relative the number of titles in the genre.  In fact, I can only really come up with four titles that I was ever really into in any significant way.

At the far end of the list is Marathon, the classic from Bungie, now more than 20 years old, which we used to play on the network at the office after hours… back when companies let you play video games after hours and issued employees machines capable of running them.

Maybe I just work for the wrong company these days.

At the near end is the Desert Combat, which isn’t even a game, just a mod for Battlefield 1942, which is more than a decade away in time.  Yet it was a hell of a mod.  Just listening to the music from the opening credits brings back memories.  That is not the last FPS I played, but the last one I really enjoyed.

And then there were two just about in the middle of that range.  One was Nova Logic’s Delta Force, which I have written about already.

And the other was Starsiege: Tribes.

Tribes

Tribes

The problem is that Tribes came out during a time when I was playing a lot of memorable games.  Diablo and Civilization II were still hot properties, while their successors were being actively discussed.  I loved me some Total Annihilation back then.  We were playing StarCraft and Age of Empires at the office a lot.  Sojourn MUD had become TorilMUD and was about at its peak.  The aforementioned Delta Force was on the scene and we were trying to play that using Roger Wilco, and early gaming voice coms package.  And, of course, EverQuest was looming, soon to launch and steal away all my play time for a year or two.

And in the midst of all of this, I played Tribes.

I cannot recall considering buying it or having somebody suggest it to me.  Some part of me thinks I must have read about it over at Firing Squad, the gaming site of Dennis Fong, who later went on the create XFire and then Raptr, but only because I used to read the site regularly.  I could have heard about it on GameSpot for all I know.

I cannot even remember if I actually bought the game.  I don’t have the box any more, but I have tossed most of my game boxes over the years.  I have an old Memorex CD-R with “Starsiege Tribes” written on it in Sharpie, so I suppose I could have pirated it.  But that would have been unlike me at the time as I had a good job and the mortgage on my soon-to-be wife’s condo was what one would call laughably cheap these days, so I wasn’t skimping on expenses.  That would come later when my wife stopped working and we bought a house in a good school district.

Besides which, I used to make backup copies of most of my game CDs back then.  I still have copies for StarCraft and Diablo II along with the original disks still in the jewel cases.

And I can barely remember the game itself.  On the list of things I don’t have left from the game is any screen shots.  Looking at the Wikipedia linked article above yielded several, “Oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.

At one point I was convinced that Tribes was the reason that I bought that Voodoo2 3D graphics acceleration card for my computer.  I had the card when I bought EverQuest at Fry’s back on March 16, 1999 (that disk I still have, along with the receipt) so something prompted me to buy it.

But then I found the specs online and saw that it didn’t actually require that.  Plus the name “3dfx” sparked a memory about Blizzard’s early announcements about Diablo II saying that to get the full graphical experience, players would need a card that supported 3dfx’s Glide API.  I am pretty sure that is the reason I got the Voodoo2 card, though by the time Diablo II came out 3dfx had ceased to be the dominate player in the 3D accelerated video card market and Blizz was obliged to support a more universal API. (Open GL if I recall right.)  That is all pretty fuzzy though, and I could have bought the card to speed up Delta Force, only to find out that its voxel based engine could not/would not take advantage of 3D acceleration.  Maybe.  Or maybe that was something that annoyed me later, when Delta Force 2 came out.  Getting old and the persistent march of time sucks.

So what the hell do I remember then?

I remember the rattle of the Gatling gun as it spun up when you tapped the trigger.

I remember the 3D terrain with low res texture mapping, though that memory starts to bleed in with EverQuest memories a bit.  Am I imagining Tribes or West Karana in my mind?

I remember shooting the disk launcher into the fog where I had just seen somebody disappear, hoping for a lucky hit.

I remember the idea of “skiing” as a scout, using your jet pack to essentially glide at very high speed if done right.

I remember that map with the bridge overhead between the two bases, the distance being shrouded in mist.  Though, if I concentrate, I can’t really tell you if that was Tribes or Tribes 2, which I remember even less of, aside from the vague sense that I owned and played that as well.

Mostly though I just have this feeling that it was a really good game for its time.  But then EverQuest came out and eclipsed it.  Was it as good as I remember it, as good for the time?

I suppose I could grab the game and find out.  Hi-Rez Studio made it and its companion games available for free on their Tribes Universe site.

However, I suspect that doing so would burst the bubble.  It is difficult to bring your 2016 sensibilities back in time to look at an older game.

Starting the New Year in the Age of Kings

The so-called Strategy group finally came back from its nearly three month hiatus and actually played a game together last Friday night.  Well, at least three of us did, but that was still two more than most of our attempts to play since mid-October.

In something of a step back to our roots of nearly a year ago, Loghound, Potshot, and I got out Age of Empires II – The Age of Kings again.  It was a nice return back to a good old game that we had not played for many months.

AoK450I actually had to install it right then, but even the HD edition isn’t that big, relative to modern titles at least.  And then we had to remember how to get a game started.  Of course, once in the lobby, everybody seemed to remember the number for the “Start the game already!” taunt. (14)

We set up a game of four random civs, the three of us and a computer opponent.  In this case we set the cpu to hard and used what was billed as the “Conquerors AI,” which I guessed was the slightly smarter AI from the expansion.  We also set ourselves on different teams and locked that so there would be no alliances, and off we went.

Back to sheep again

Back to sheep again

Then we all had our moment of “What do I do?”  Fortunately, years of playing the game has at least instilled the first few steps permanently in my brain.  I think, on my death bed, if somebody asks me for my Age of Kings build order, my final words in life will be, “queue villages, build house, gather sheep… arrrgh…” followed by the machine making that flat line noise.

Anyway, I started down the path towards an economy of some sort as my scout began poking about.  In a classic AoK situation, I didn’t managed to locate all of my own sheep until the very end of the game, but I managed to steal a few of Loghound’s sheep.  Must be some of my Scots ancestry showing through.  I also managed to kill his scout.

The map, which we had set to full random, turned out to be a good one for us.  I think it was the “Rivers” map, where each player ends up on their own island of sorts with rivers dividing up the map and a limited number of crossings for choke points.

The game itself shook out into two parallel battles for a while, with Potshot and Loghound laying into each other while the computer AI, which had drawn the Mongols, came after me.

That turned out to be fortuitous, as I managed to get walls up at the crossings and the AI did not feel like an amphibious assault.  So the AI spent a long time going after my walls in its obsessive compulsive way, where it keeps attacking them even after it has a path through, while I was able to build up a small army and some defenses.  A strategically placed castle and a host of pikemen and skirmishers proved deadly to the Mongol horse archers.

Carnage before the castle

Carnage before the castle

Once I had slaughtered the attacking forces, it was time to go on the offense myself.  I pushed the computer back a ways and took out some of his buildings while breaching his wall, during which time I restored the walls at the crossing between us.  However, the cpu was also coming around via the crossing to Loghound’s island.  So after my frontier with the Mongols was momentarily secured, I pushed my force across into Loghound’s territory to clear out any buildings the CPU might have established.

While I was there I took a quick detour to kill a bunch of Loghound’s villages, destroy some of his buildings, and generally mess up his economy a bit.  Then I turned north to confront the Mongols again.

My foray into Loghound’s empire appeared to take some pressure off of Potshot.  As I was rampaging into the Mongols’ base with trebs and rams and a host of pikemen and skirmishers, with a few villages and priests in tow to repair and heal, I actually ran into a force Potshot sent in to attack the Mongols as well.  Between us the Mongols withered and ceased to be a force on the map, surrendering soon after.

There I was facing Potshot who had mounted his expedition using what I might generously call “economy of force.”  I outnumbered him heavily and started pushing into his lands.  Getting a ram up to his gate at the crossing, with my troops crowding the ford, was my most immediate problem, and soon I was into the midst of his economy.

Burning him out there, I returned to Loghound’s lands.  He had rebuilt quite a bit and had a force of Samurai, maybe the best melee unit in the game, waiting to oppose me.  But my mass of cheap pikemen and skirmishers, fully upgraded by this point, were able to defeat his force with minimal losses.  Then it was time for the siege engines to come up and to chase down the villagers.  I also caught up with Potshot’s last little outpost as well.  So I was the only force in being.

Timeline of the conflict

Timeline of the conflict

All good fun.

Well, probably more fun for me thanks to a couple of lucky breaks.  If the CPU had been set to hardest or if Potshot and Loghound hadn’t decided to go after each other things might have ended up differently.  But still, a good set of pitched battles and it was fun to get back together and play again.

But while AoK was fun, and will likely remain so for a couple more sessions, it does have a limited shelf life before it starts to feel repetitive.  Patterns will begin to develop and we will start looking for another game.

Recognizing that, we started the “next game” discussion immediately, but have not yet come up with a title.  We could always go back to Total War: Rome II, which was where we left off back in October.  There is probably a little life left in that, though it was starting to get a bit repetitive itself.  I am also concerned that, after the great Thanksgiving power supply blow-out, that my video card might not be up to the task.  With my last video card dead, I had to go back to the 2010 vintage backup card, an nVidia GTS 450, to achieve stability.  It was a modest but capable card back then, and hasn’t gotten any faster sitting on a shelf for a while.

Though if we really wanted to repeat history, we could go for another epic, multi-week Civilization V conflict while we wait for the expansion that will make Civilization: Beyond Earth worth picking up.  My video card could handle that, and my new CPU is a generation or two better than the old one.  Maybe we could beat Mattman this time around.  He won the previous two games.  And I am sure we would have a very different set of views on what options we would select. (Raging barbarians? I think not.)

Anyway, we are sort of where we were last summer, when we were looking for a new game for the group during the Steam Summer Sale.  I suppose the options I listed out in that post are still on the table, but has anything new come out since then that might be worth considering?

Savior of Blaugust – That Video Game Questionnaire Thing

In which I again prove I am old and grumpy.

Blaugust is past the three week point.  You can see all the posts piling up over in our little corner of Anook, with more than 500 submitted at this point.  People are putting in the effort.

Blagust_No_BR

For somebody like me with a routine,a  pattern, a plan (I already know what I am posting 5 of 7 days next week, even if I haven’t written more than a title for most of them yet), and incredibly low standards (I’d rather write something than write something good as I theoretically get better with each post, right?), the addition of a few more posts in a month isn’t such a big deal.  Go look down the side bar to the archives menu.  I already effectively write one post a day most months as it is.  It is just a matter of spreading them around.

But the strain is beginning to show for some.  Somebody without a plan, for whom each day is a blank slate and an empty text editor, and who has standards they feel they need to maintain, this sort of sustained effort can be a trial.  Or so it seems.  I’m the guy with a plan and no standards after all.  Anyway, it has been a voyage of discover for some and a pain for others.

But a lifeline has been thrown to the Blaugust team, in the form of a video game questionnaire.  Jaysla over at Cannot Be Tamed has put together 21 questions for people to answer on their blogs, and the Blaugust team has gone for this like a drowning man grabbing for a… lifeline… I already used that metaphor, didn’t I?  See, complete crap.

Anyway, in the spirit of community spirit… or something… I too shall take the quiz, as well as linking out others who have taken the quiz in that community spirity spirit thing which I mention so recently in this run-on sentence.  Also, it allows me to be grumpy, pick nits, write about stuff as far as 40 years in the past, link back to a bunch of old posts where I covered bits of this in detail, and generally ramble on in my accustomed Friday fashion.  My previously planned Pokemon piece will be moved out to next week.

Others who have taken the quiz, some of whom aren’t even in Blaugust, but I am feeling expansive today:

And that is surely not all, just the ones I could find easily.  I will add more as they pop up.

As for my own answers, I am hiding those after the cut.  The whole thing is kind of long, there are pictures, I get a bit testy about a couple of the questions, there is a moment of sexual innuendo, and the whole ends up being something best hidden in the back room so that random passers by don’t inadvertently see it.

This is a choice, what will you choose?

Continue reading

Spacewar! for the PDP-1

Spacewar! for the PDP-1 is now officially the oldest video game I have ever played, thanks to it being brought back to life in an emulator over at the Internet Archive.

The great-grandfather app of many games, including the Space Wars arcade game from the 70s, the emulator simulates as much of the PDP-1 experience as possible, including blinky lights.

Spacewar! Loaded!

Spacewar! Loaded!

Of course, it is raw… and the gravity is brutal.  I am doing all I can just to not crash into the sun in the first 30 seconds.

Boom! yet again!

Boom! yet again!

But when you consider the time frame… this was done in 1962… it is nothing short of amazing and a pretty good glimpse into the future.  It even has something of an Easter Egg.

Another addition to the Internet Archive’s Historical Software Collection.