"It's the 25th century, and as you would expect, much has changed. Space travel is a reality, and the Earth's surrounding planets have not only been terraformed, but found supporting their own respective lifeforms and even the various groups of asteroids that float willy-nilly around the solar system now have established colonies springing from them. Humanity has grown beyond the boundaries of the Earth - which is just as well, seeing as it is close to uninhabitable, thanks to the toxic dump it h..."
It's the 25th century, and as you would expect, much has changed. Space travel is a reality, and the Earth's surrounding planets have not only been terraformed, but found supporting their own respective lifeforms and even the various groups of asteroids that float willy-nilly around the solar system now have established colonies springing from them. Humanity has grown beyond the boundaries of the Earth - which is just as well, seeing as it is close to uninhabitable, thanks to the toxic dump it has become (and people laughed at Greenpeace - laughed, and called them hippies.) However, even in such an age, an evil terrorist faction threaten to decimate all.
Always one, isn't there.
In an effort to stop these fiends. you play the role of a group of NEO cadets [NEO being that which is good and wholesome]; six of them to be precise. Your rookie group start off life in your training academy, happily procrastinating and no doubt engaging in student-like hijinks and shenanigans, when suddenly, the dastardly RAM attack [RAM being the evil intergalactic meanies].
Things move at a pace that mocks ordinary and expected things like learning curves: your former home is quickly overrun by the enemy, and you and your fellow cadets must fight them off; thus starts your rather rushed career in NEO. From there on, you are given mission after mission, each more important then the last as the game progresses. The good thing about this is that although you have to complete certain set missions to finish the game, there is a great wealth of side-quests to be completed along the way. These have no bearing on the actual game, but when combined with the sense of freedom you get blasting your shortly-acquired rocketship around the open-ended universe, it truly gives the whole experience a non-linear feeling.
A feeling that isn't shared by the assembled cast, who are basically generic shells. You create them from scratch, using a D&D like die roll statistic determination system, name them, give them a sex, race (Human, Desert Runner or Tinkler) and a class (consisting of Warrior, Medic, Rogue and Rocket Jocks), choose from the limited body pallets, and away they go. You will not find the usual ragtag group bound together by a common fate or such rubbish, not here. What you will get is a faceless cast of do-gooders who only want to help, bless their innocent and persona-less hearts. This helps keep things simple, but a sad side-effect is that the character interaction is zero. This soon becomes forgivable, as Buck Rogers moves things smoothly around them. NPCs will join you in battle at points and at plot elements will even join your wary band of generic NEO warriors for a limited time. The plot, and execution of the plot, is solid, even giving way to a good level of replayability, as you might wish to return and complete some of the branches you failed to do so in previous attempts; it's hard to do them all in one swoop - especially on your first try.
Despite the complete lack of character interaction or growth (outside of their given stats, that is), the plot is a strong one that tells of NEO's struggle to stop RAM's advances. The missions are varied enough, taking place in a wide variety of environments, and you can slowly piece together RAM's ultimate plan as the game goes on. It's pretty much void of a deep, twisting story, but does well building up what it has, and shows it isn't afraid to be a little more mature then the usual fare.
The bones of this game is that of a turn based strategy. People who have played turned based futuristic strategy games (such as either early X-Com) will feel right at home in Buck Rogers. Indeed, it often feels like a stripped down simpler version of games of that ilk. For players, like myself, that are existing fans of this genre, it can only be a good thing, and for those who perhaps are not familiar, this is simple enough to be an excellent starting title.
The game is split into the ground based missions, and the transportation that occurs in space. Both contain their own turn based combat system, so whilst on foot, you can make use of various weaponry and armour you can collect or purchase throughout the game, whereas in space combat, you are asked to man the futuristic gun turret, and rain down laser fuelled doom on the opposing spacecraft.
How good your party is at such actions will depend on their chosen classes; Obvioulsy warriors can hit hard and often, while medics need to be protected from harm. Rogues live tio sneak around, and rocket jocks is someone's idiotic name for pilots. Each have their own little bonuses, like the medics obvious healing talents, and the rogue's knack for bypassing security. Giving yourself a well-balanced team is a must for anyone wishing to do well!
And unless you take the pre-rendered squad, it is your choice in how your team of six shape up with the classes, plus you also have race to chose from, which makes for a decent level of customisation. What also adds to this, is that in true D&D form, level ups take the form of statistical point allocations, giving you total control on the growth of your little team. You can have one warrior perhaps excel at zero-gravity movement, and another just bulk up on leadership and tactics, whilst you make your rogue more proficient in the ways of security bypassing, and so on.
It's a classic formula that has aged well, rather unlike certain aspects of the game like the music. I'd like to able to say that the sound had stood the test of time. I'd like to say that despite the leaps in technology, the music is still enjoyable. Hell, I'd like to say that the music was good for its time. It's not; it's just.... not.
Most of the tunes are repetitive, and drone on in a rather awful organ effect. This is not pleasing to my ears, which is a pity, because BGM aside, the rest of the sound is acceptable. The weapons will buzz and sizzle happily, the rocket pistols sounding different to the laser pistol, for instance. A brave attempt is even made at digitised speech at points of the game, but still, the music plays on mercilessly. I could only really put up with it for a while, and by my second playthrough, I played in mute. There were complaints that the blood dripping from my ears were causing stains, and that no normal cleaner could remove it.
But not even this can put a damper on thinsg when they finally heat up. The battles in both scenarios are fought using the age old sub menu, which is positioned at the bottom of the screen (or on the ships dashboard in the spacecraft battle mode.) It's just a matter of choosing the option you want, and going with it. In space, you first take the turn of your pilot, who can choose to man a gun like the rest of the crew, or to manoeuvre the craft; getting closer to the enemy meaning a better chance to hit your intended target, and the use of more powerful weaponry. Of course, your foes will benefit in the same way too. After the pilot's guaranteed first turn, you then get to work through the list of your team, where you select which piece of artillery you want to use, and where you want to aim it. You are presented with several targets, each with distinct advantages to being singled out; you can try and blow up the hull, destroying the ship, take out the oppositions weaponry, stopping them from shooting back, or attack the engines and controls to disable it. Once disabled, you can board and capture the craft by taking control of an area like engineering or the bridge if you like, which is always fun. It's all as simple as select the option you want, and do it.
The main meat of the game, the ground battle, is just as simple. Again, you chose options from the sub-menu, and carry them out, but this time, you can move individual members of your team around the battlefield to gain better angles or shots on your enemy; you can also break out handy little items like grenades, lasers and rocket launchers. To attack someone, you position a crosshair over your chosen target, and the hit percentage is displayed (this happens in both forms of combat), then you shoot them, in the name of great justice. Easy, right?
Well, yes it is, but it has problems. Scrolling through weapons, for instance, is a chore. You need to go through three screens to get to the item window, change your equipped weapon for a grenade, then flick back through the aforementioned windows. Doesn't sound like much, but say in your next turn, you want to use your gun once more - you go all through it again. It just could have really done with a quicker way of achieving this - perhaps a shortcut that went straight to the equipment window.
And while it does make some strides to displace itslef from the norm it's sad to say that the graphics within are nothing special. You basically fight the same sprites throughout the game with different uniforms, broken up by the odd environmental horror that the current landscape you are exploring serves you up. It does have some nice touches though; each weapon projectile looks different to each other, and you will be treated to a still-frame scene at plot elements that are pretty impressive considering age. It's just such a shame that the choice of your teams sprites is so low on both number and quality. The graphics here are ... functional. Nothing staggering, but they strain to serve their purpose.
All irksome in theiotr own ways, butcomplaints that can be placed on the back-burner once things get underway. Once you get to travel around on your intergalactic rocketship, the game really comes into its own right, and any sense of force-fed gameplay is forgotten. It's easy to get into, and even now, can keep up with a high number of TBSs. Quite the feat!
It's just one of those games that can be happily replayed every now and then. Perhaps giving the cast a sense of personality could have helped, but it doesn't much overly suffer because of it. If you enjoy TBSs, or would like to see if you could enjoy them, then you may want to look Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday up.
Community review by bside (August 18, 2005)
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