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Before FTL: Megatraveller 2

Well, FTL's out and I enjoyed the game about as much as I thought I would.  Sure, some people complain that the game is hard, or that it has permadeath, but unlike them I knew what I was getting into from the start.  Apparently there's already memory hack trainers out for it whose use is being bandied about as tactical advice.  Pathetic; anyone feels they need to use a memory hack or save scumming to play FTL is not worthy of the title of Federation captain. People with real scruples do not fear their ship exploding many, many times!

But I'm not here to talk about FTL - honestly, it may be a difficult game, but it's still simple enough that there's not a whole lot more to say about it than I've already said before previous entries.  No, I'm here to talk about Megatraveller 2: Quest For The Ancients, a game I revisited while waiting for FTL's release as a decent substitution.  It worked out only slightly better than AbysmalOrganism's Let's Play run:
AO, I love that you made an effort here, but seriously, just how desensitized would you have to be to 
think nothing of including an exploding head in an intro reel that you play on every single episode?

Development on Megatraveller 2 started with an absolutely marvelous premise: lets take one of the most detailed, mind-bogglingly epic pencil and paper RPGs in existence, Traveller, and make a computer RPG out of it.  Holy shit, that sounds awesome, I could play that until my fingers fell off!  To developer Paragon Software Corporations credit, they were no slouches in that they included cutting-edge MCGA 256 color graphics and actual digitalized sound samples.  Hey, as far as a 1991 technology is concerned, this game was already better than most people's computers can do justification to.
Glorious 256-colors!
Unfortunately, something had to go wrong with the game, or else we'd probably all still be playing sequels of it.  In Megatraveller 2's day, reviews were mixed.  Some even praised the interface, but clearly we've made giant leaps in user friendliness since then, as this GUI is so obtuse that it thinks an heavy-inventory management game can do with showing three items per screen.  Apparently somebody said it was "a boring implementation of an interesting story" which is a vague but accurate blanket statement about where Megatraveller 2 went wrong.

I think perhaps the worst problem that Megatraveller 2 had, and one I cannot blame on technology alone, was just how non-interactive it was.

Combat, which was the primary challenge you had to overcome in the game, basically involved sitting and watching while your party had all the fun.  Aside from inventory management, your ability to influence combat is pretty much limited to using medkits, toggling which enemies need to be attacked (they're all toggled on by default, which is fine), and toggling who among your heroes needs to avoid getting into combat.  Space combat was even less interactive than the ground combat.

Throughout the game, your role as the player was ultimately just to steer the party from location to location, read NPC dialogue, and manage all the inventory bloat you'll accumulate from useless junk left behind by the enemies and quest-related bric-a-brac.  If you're a determined hands-off macro-manager type, this might be a dream come true, but I wager not a whole lot of players were hot on the idea of kicking back and waiting whenever there was a conflict to resolve.  I think the player's influence would matter more if they were playing Pong.
Abysmal Organism does his best to salvage a fight going poorly but finds it
impossible to do so in a game that defies being played.

Funny enough, I like Megatraveller 2's character generator more than the game itself.  Traveller is notorious for a character generation process that basically involves simulating your character's life, progressing term by term through that character's career, choosing what they learned along the way.   It's actually fairly exciting to see if the hidden dice rolls will give your heroes-to-be a promotion and greater opportunities, or if they'll just be dumped unceremoniously from their career track, bringing about a premature end to character generation.

Yes, in a departure from most RPGs, here is a game where the greater bulk of your character's skills and wealth are earned before you even start the adventure.  It's not uncommon for your established group of heroes to be a bunch of retired ladies and gents in their 50s and 60s toting around a lifetime of career skills and benefits.  This is a Traveller hallmark that the developers remained completely loyal to.

Too loyal, in fact.  A really weird thing about Megatraveller 2 is that they included, in this computer RPG, 64 skills that only work in the pencil and paper game.  This is out of about 135-something skills, so there's almost a 50% chance that, when you pick a skill that looks good in the Megatraveller 2 character generator, you're picking a skill that will do absolutely nothing for you in the game.  They actually included an explanation for this in the manual:
Although there are 135 total skills in the character  generator, not all of them are necessary for this computer game.  The non-essential skills have been left in the character generator for three reasons.
First, the skill system in the character generator is the basis for the pen-and-pencil role-playing version of MegaTraveller.  Some skills are not necessary to solve the computer adventure, but they were left in for completeness.
Second, the non-essential skills were also kept for those who wish to develop characters for Traveller role-playing adventures.  This compatibility would not exist if skills were eliminated for the sake of the computer game.
Third, some skills that are not necessary in the MegaTraveller 2 computer game may come in handy for future MegaTraveller computer adventures.  This is useful if you are planning to use the same characters in future MegaTraveller computer games.
They're not very good reasons.  The first reason and the second reason are pretty closely related (it's being done for Traveller RPG completeness) and the third reason turned out to be moot (there was no third MegaTraveller computer game).  However, even if these reasons were great, it would have been nice if they had the common courtesy to mark which skills were useless within the game itself rather than requiring consulting the manual.

I could almost forgive the dependency on the manual because, the further back in gaming history you go, the more the game developers of a given game decided it would be easier to include something in the manual than include it in the game.  However, by the year this game was made, the practice was getting just a bit tired.  Megatraveller 2 does not even tell you how much damage your weapons do without that trusty manual but, seeing how the game allowed you to pull up a detailed textual explanation of any item in your inventory (weapons and armor included), there's no technical reason why this could not have been included.
The item examination command apparently has number and punctuation support as well as plenty of space
(some of the items you can examine, like the Trow Beckett diary, have multiple pages) so there's literally no excuse
why they could not have put the weapon and armor stats in the game.
About the only reasonable explaination I can come up with for this omission is wholly as an attempt at copy protection to punish those software pirates who could not be bothered to photocopy the manual.  If so, it was redundant, as they already test you by making you enter the distance between two of the stars every time you launch it.  More likely, it was just plain naivety coupled with the lower standards of 1991 game design.

Even the very skill ranks you earn in the game are needlessly ambiguous.  Presumably, the more ranks you have in a skill, the more competent the character is at doing a thing.  However, exactly what does one rank difference do?  How much is a reasonable bare minimum to perform a given task?  Nowhere does the game tell you, not in the manual, not in the game itself.  To be fair, the exact mechanics of a character's points actually do is a common omission in even modern computer RPGs, but it's unforgivable when it comes down to the player being unable to fathom how to create effective characters for lack of definitive reference.

A lot of the supposedly "useful" skills included in Megatraveller 2 were supported rather hastily, making the skill system even more muddled.  Consider "tactics" and "leader," which the manual states have an influence in combat, but not how or by how much.  If you want to do some trading, the manual says you will derive benefit in the description of a number of odd skills such as "admin," "broker," "persuasion," "liason," and/or "trader," but how many ranks you'll need and why is not explained.  I hope you got a rank in "forensics," the game manual says it may come in use somewhere... why no, I don't know how many ranks you'll need for that, how could I?
One of the pencil and paper RPG's books Megatraveller 2 was based on.
Heck, they didn't even bother to put a fancy illustration on the cover of the rulebook.
To an extent, it's a stylistic choice that reflects your imagination needs no such trapping,
but simultaneously it can be taken a reflection of just how crudely-wrought it was.
This is not completely the fault of Paragon Software, as I think the source material's skill system is rather haphazardly assembled: you don't just throw skills at a system until you think you've covered anything, that's sort of lazy game design.  The inclusion of skills like blowgun, bayonet, axe, sword, cutlass, foil, sling, cudgel, pike, polearm, and spear just screams, "unnecessary skill redundancy!"  No doubt the later editions of Traveller (which have had lead to more than one complete RPG system overhauls) have addressed the issue in some way or another.
A supplement from the 2008 Mongoose Traveller revival.
Now, that's more like it!  Apparently, they actually felt confident enough about
their fantasy universe to have some idea of what it would actually look like.
Progress, my friends.  (Incidentally, the rules are completely different.)
Megatraveller 2's manual was even wrong in places, claiming that there was a "navigation" post on my ship.  Nope, just helm, medbay, engineering, and two turrets.  Too bad I put my navigation skill on the wrong character but, like most skills, it made apparently no difference whatsoever.  But then, as far as I learned, the only skills in MegaTraveller 2 you need more than one skill rank in are your primary weapon skill (to facilitate hitting more often), stealth (to facilitate smuggling larger guns), and interrogate (since some goons will resist lower ranks of that).  If you just have one rank in everything else, that's probably enough to beat the game - you may even be able to get through it without.

Oddly enough, many of the quests I ended up doing just wandering around turned out to be later stages of quests I had yet to be assigned; there's really nothing stopping me from stumbling upon the last stage of a side quest at random.  Megatraveller 2 does not have a quest journal so, like most games of the day, you have to keep track of who you talked to and what they wanted you to do with your own notes, and failing to do so means lugging around a lot of useless junk and having no idea who wants it.

The bounty hunting system - essentially another kind of side quest - was a wreck.  You access a list of fugitives from any police station, and that tells you the bounty they're worth and what planet they were last spotted on.  However, all the fugitives I've found were nowhere near where the police thought they were.  Moreover, I stumbled across many hostile fugitives that  were not actually in the bounty database!  They shouted something about being the greatest fugitive in the universe or how I'll never take them alive, attacked me, they dropped ID tags on death, but the cops never heard of them.  I suspect that they're supposed to be replacement felons for when I kill the ones already wanted, or else there were several hostile NPCs scattered around that they never got around to assigning to that database.
Having started off with three ships, this party sold off the two extra and had 5,000,000 credits.
Kinda defeats the point of earning more money when I've got all I'll never need this game.
Come to think of it, the entire economy of the game is a rather odd duck.   If you start off with no money and no ship, you'll have to crawl your way up from the lowest weapons and armor, paying for passage on other ships, and look forward to one day scraping together enough credits to earn a ship of your own.  I should have done that, that sounds interesting.  Instead, I did what most parties will do, and started off with not one but multiple ships, sold off the extra, and had more than enough money to last them the entire game.  One quick stop to a planet with open black market transactions of high tech military hardware, and I could easily have everyone decked out with the best armor and weapons in the game before my first fight, leaving most of the things sold in stores to be as useless as gold watches and pocket computers (also being sold there).

In these ways and others, hidden beneath Megatraveller 2's stunning 256-colors and digitized sound samples and sophisticated character generation mechanic is a game that is weirdly, even lazily, incomplete.  Was it rushed to market or something, and they had to throw out an incomplete game hacked together to playability by an arbitrary deadline?  Actually, that seems fairly probable, because of two factors.  First, because the company was apparently developing several games concurrently between 1989 and 1991, including several Marvel titles, and I imagine that stretched their work force out quite a bit.  Second, because the company was acquired by Microprose in 1992, just the year after Megatraveller 2's release, and such company acquisition is often (but not always) due to financial issues.

Whatever; that's enough tearing into the noble endeavors of people using the developer tools of 20-years-ago.  They probably had to write the damn thing from the ground up in C++, and that deserves some respect.  Suffice to say, if I think I can do better, I should probably spend less time whining about how MegaTraveller 2 had a shot at but ultimately failed to make my dreams come true, and more time trying to make it happen myself with the incredible technology from the far-flung future of two decades later.


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