Reviewed by Mark Lain
Originally advertised in Warlock #3 as FF#13 Assassin, the second Sci-Fi FF (eventually #12 in the original series) had very little to live up to given how dull the first effort in that genre (Starship Traveller) had been and was a chance to instill renewed faith in Sci-Fi FFs into fans of the series.... and it failed miserably. In fact, after these two outings, it’s a miracle any more futuristic FFs ever got green-lighted and, indeed, very few would be.
The premise of this book revolves around your being the titular Space Assassin who is sent on a mission to bump-off a crazed scientist (Cyrus) who has been abducting alien species to conduct hideous experiments on. Not content with that, he now intends to use your homeworld for a more ambitiously-hideous experiment which will have disastrous effects on everyone/thing that lives there, so the Assassins’ Guild have decided he needs “terminating with extreme prejudice” (to quote Apocalypse Now.) The plot involves you having to find your way onto his ship, the Vandervecken (pretty good name actually), and make your way through whatever obstacles you find, eventually tracking Cyrus down and killing him. The plot sounds quite intriguing when you first read the introduction and there is some motivation to play this (which, sadly, fades very quickly once you get into the mission.)
The mission itself does have a logical flow inasmuch as there is a limit to how tangential wandering through the corridors of a spaceship can realistically be, so most of the decisions are of the turn left or right, open the hatch/don’t open the hatch, pull the lever (normally disastrous), or open the door type. So it’s a dungeon in space then, really. The direct route (up the corridors) is, understandably, very linear, but there is an alternative route that you can find yourself taking (and most likely will as there are numerous ways that you can inadvertently end up on it) and this is one of the ways in which this book totally beggars belief – somehow Chapman thought it appropriate to put an entire planetscape on the ship with forests, ravines, rivers, plains, etc. What the hell is that all about? There is just no context to this idea at all. The first time I ever read this, I thought there’d been an error at the printers and that my copy had got jumbled into some other FF – sadly, this was not the case and SA really is meant to be like this. If you can manage to stay on the corridor route, the book is bad, but at least it makes sense. If you find yourself on the “planet” deck you are sent on an endless catalogue of North-South-East-West junction choices that eventually loop back on themselves so you can end up just going round and round forever until you either get lucky and find the way out, get even luckier and get killed by something (not that there’s much there, by the way), or decide you’ve had enough and bin the book. All this stupid section achieves is eating up loads of paragraphs that could have been put to better use writing a decent FF book.
There is a mercy in that you are saved having to waste too much time playing this as the linear corridor trawl is quite short and it does not take long to reach Cyrus, but I’d much rather have seen a longer and more immersive mission, rather than pathetic excuses to flesh the pages out. Not only does the “planet” use up loads of sections, there is also an (admittedly fun, given what else is on offer here, but it comes very late on and you won’t care anymore by then) tank battle game where you are forced to play one-on-one against the book – this eats into the paragraphs as well, as you chase each other around. Added to this is a feature that seems like it should be useful but that, again, just pointlessly wastes sections – you can acquire various guidebooks along the way that advise on things like robots or alien species. Sadly, the “advice” tells you nothing of any use eg: “this creature is very dangerous” just as said dangerous thing attacks you.
This book would have some saving grace if it was at least well-written, but it is not. The text is very informal, almost jocular and, at times almost seems smug and sarcastic (as if Chapman knew this was poor.) This has to be one of the worst-written FFs ever, both in terms of the prose itself and its dull/ridiculous structure. The few aliens you meet seem to be small and cute (there is a particularly bizarre encounter with some space squirrel things) if at times aggressive, and the NPCs are all one-dimensional. Plus most of what/who you meet seems to be more than willing to give you advice or surrender equipment to you (unless everyone hates Cyrus, but can even androids have emotions?) than you’d normally expect (or, at least, than would present any level of challenge.) There are so many stupid episodes in this book that it’s impossible to list them all, but, notwithstanding the planet debacle, amongst other encounters we are offered a philosophical droid that is becoming obsessed with the meaning of its own existence, a room that can only be described as the Vortex in The Adventure Game, three ship’s cleaners that seem to be felines and instantly attack you for no apparent reason (why are cleaner cats psychotic?), and a robot that asks you gibberish questions that you are somehow expected to be able to reply to with similarly partisan twaddle. To boot, this all may sound whacky in a satirical way (like Star Strider manages to achieve), but it’s not – it’s all just desperately uninteresting due to the slapdash way that it’s written and put together.
...And it’s a shame because, on reading the rules, the unique game mechanics could have led to a really well planned and varied adventure. Firstly there is the Armour stat – this represents the battle suit you are wearing (which can be swapped later on for an even better stat-boosting one) and adds a bit of realism to your ability to take hits from lasers etc. There are rules for dealing with Gunfire combat which are basically a prototype of testing your Skill, but they do add variation from traditional hand-to-hand combat rules. You can also sometimes throw a grenade before combat if (realistically) there is time and/or space to do so. There is a futuristic version of Provisions (Pep Pills) that restore a more “advanced” 5 Stamina points (health technology has logically improved.) My favourite rule is the fact that you can roll one die and use the number to “buy” various different weapons that have various different damage levels – I always like to see modifiers being applied for weapon size/power and this is a nice realistic feature. It soon becomes apparent that there is no point in choosing an assault blaster as you can often pick these up by destroying robots, but at least there are choices and realistic variables here. If only these rules had been used in a better book!
The problems don’t just amount to bad writing and stupid game design. Assuming you don’t fall into one of the many traps and die instantly (including a self-destruct function on the ship that you can accidentally set off, leading to an unnecessarily protracted death as the book counts down to self destruction by eating up even more paragraphs!), this book is actually very easy. As with most Sci-Fi FFs, there are hardly any items to collect and most of those that you can find (including a squirrel that I have no idea what you are supposed to do with) rarely if ever serve any useful purpose. The combats are all fairly easy with low stats (even Cyrus himself only has Sk 9 St 12 and you don’t need anything special to be able to fight him), you quickly learn to avoid levers and buttons so it’s easy to see through what is meant to catch you out, most of the rooms you can visit offer nothing other than something to do if you’re bored with walking down corridors, and the book is so linear that the true path is difficult to avoid (even if you end up on the stupid planet deck.) Add to this the fact that it’s not worth even rolling up a Luck stat as Chapman seems to have all but forgotten that there’s such a thing and, all in all, you get an adventure that you can complete in comparatively few sections with very few rolls of the dice (especially if you’re trigger-happy and take the often available option of just blasting whatever you meet without even getting into combat.)
All these shortcomings ultimately amount to one massive failing on this book’s behalf – it is very difficult to not lose interest part way through and there is no feeling of immersion or intrigue, you just want it over with one way or another. If you die it’s a relief, if you win you just don’t care – and neither does the book with its perfunctory three sentence paragraph 400!
You could get some mileage out of the art which is futuristic looking and is fairly weird to suit the weird things that are going on on the ship, but even this makes a basic error as the images are cropped wrongly and don’t fill the full frame – in most cases they are almost square-shaped leaving several centimetres of blank page under them. The cover has an air of mystery to it (and is by the always great Chris Achilleos), but the scene depicted is just one short cameo that offers no challenge (hardly surprising) and is instantly forgettable, but the cover is at least atmospheric and dark (which is more than can be said for the contents.)
So, there is little to recommend this book. It’s not as dull as Starship Traveller but it’s much stupider and is designed even worse than ST. The writing is appalling and it’s hard work sticking with it, even when it’s as short as it is. It’s a real surprise that the FF selection committee let this one get through. In a word: Rubbish.