Thursday, 14 August 2014

#22: Robot Commando


Steve Jackson (II)

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Bearing similarities to 2000AD’s Flesh and borrowing very liberally from the Transformers and Zoids crazes of the mid-80s, this book has to have the most ridiculous plot of any FF release ever: YOU are a dinosaur herder on a planet (called Thalos) that uses big manned robots to do basically everything; one day the Karosseans (bad guys from another planet) release a sleeping agent across your world that sends everyone except for you to sleep (even the book says you are immune “for some reason”) and you decide to save the world singlehandedly by either waking everyone up to start a revolt or by defeating the head Karossean (called Minos); before heading off in a robot to save the day, you make a point of collecting your sword from your parents’ house in case you get into any personal combat situations, and off you go to explore your homeworld which, from the way the book unfolds as a voyage of discovery, you don’t seem to know very much about. Before going any further, let’s just recap that:

1. Dinosaurs are alive and well on your planet, but, as it’s the future, big robots are used to herd them. OK, it’s meant to be diverting Sci-Fi, so let’s accept that for what it is: a ludicrous concept, yet oddly charming at the same time

2. A sleeping agent has put the entire population of your planet, other than you, to sleep and we have no idea why you are unaffected. Presumably this is to suggest you are some sort of chosen one, otherwise SJ(II) just couldn’t be bothered to try to justify this very important plot loophole/aspect

3. You make a point of taking a sword with you – why? The robots have lasers so why do people defend themselves with something as ancient as a sword? Do people not have guns on Thalos? The intro explains that the Karosseans have avoided attacking in the past and need to use toxic sleep warfare as Thalosians are “brave warriors” (who only seem to use swords) so what the hell weapons do Karosseans normally use? Has the most non-lethal planet in the universe invaded the most technologically confused or something? Genuinely inexplicable!

4. As you farm dinosaurs you must be assumed to be a small-town hick who never leaves the farmstead. BUT, at least this makes an adventure of it all and the idea of a voyage of discovery is a pivotal part of adventure gaming, so this is about the most sensible part of the plot premise!

However, in spite of all these barmy and conflicting ideas, the primary reason we play FF books is for the sheer fun of it and no FF book is quite as fun, in the simplest sense of the word, as Robot Commando. Effectively, the mission involves you wandering/flying around (depending on what type of robot you are in at any particular time, or if you have one at all) from city to city trying to discover a cure for the sleeping sickness and/or infiltrating the invaders’ HQ and killing Minos. The cities offer various areas of exploration with some being more interesting than others:
  • ·         City of Knowledge gives you many useful clues and acts as a good overall indication of what the game is about (facts, dinosaurs, combat)
  • ·         City of Industry is more technological, as you’d expect, and focuses more on robotics
  • ·         City of Worship is basically a stat boost or penalty zone, depending on which temples you visit (the Temple of Fear is especially disturbing, the Temple of Peace is pretty intriguing, whilst the Temple of Nothingness is just odd) and what choices you make in them
  • ·         City of the Jungle is a strange idea as it is mostly just the jungle part and is not really a city, but does allow the dinosaurs to get a look in
  • ·         City of Storms is self-explanatory
  • ·         City of the Guardians (which can only be accessed with a secret paragraph number) is a place with otherwise very inconsistently sketchy security where you can get new robots including the ultra-powerful Robotank (of which there are three available to you)
  • ·         City of Pleasure is not as lurid as it sounds but gives you access to useful kit
  • ·         The Capital City (catchy name!) is where the Karossean HQ is and is the final stop if you are playing to destroy the Karossean threat

The City of Knowledge in particular suggests that this book might be plagued with secret numerical references but this quickly ceases and, once you’ve played through a decent amount of the book, it becomes apparent that there are actually three separate (quite straightforward) adventures going on here: 1) cure the sleeping disease, or 2) destroy Minos in robot-on-robot destructive combat, or 3) defeat Minos in a face-to-face personal duel. Number 3 is the subtlest as there are occasional mentions in the book of the importance of duelling for honour on these planets and of the fact that Karosseans immediately submit to anyone who kills their current leader so this is the outcome that you need to pay attention to reach and is the most satisfying in terms of the development and presentation of SJ(II)’s otherwise rather illogical setting. It’s also the only one where personal combat really comes into play as it is otherwise largely overlooked in this book in favour of outcome Number 2’s robot combat. Number 3, the curative outcome is the quickest and leaves you feeling a little underwhelmed as to how short that particular route is and also how very simple it seems to be to achieve it, but the sheer entertainment value will probably leave you wanting to revisit the book to find the other endings or just to explore everything on offer here.

Indeed, exploring everything is one of this book’s biggest draws as you are free to travel in any direction, going back and forth between places you may already have visited in search of things you now know you need, retrieving abandoned robots that you might want to use again, or just trying to go to every place you possibly can so as to get the most out of a playthrough. Some areas do reset themselves, but many have a “have you been here before?” section that may have you face the consequences of a previous visit, or restrict your second time of being there in some way which makes the plot flow better and adds variety. This is probably the most non-linear FF ever as it is, by all accounts, not linear at all and gives you relative freedom somewhere approaching full RPG freedom (within the confines of what options the book gives you, of course.) Due to your freedom to roam, there is also no true path which removes the usual frustration of failure by taking one wrong turn somewhere and/or by not having 25 essential items. Two of the outcomes do involve key items - the cure obviously requires an antidote and a second ingredient, whilst the duel can only be reached if you have a special weapon – or you can go for brute force by trying the robo-battle ending. All three are fun and, as was the case in SJ(II)’s earlier #8 Scorpion Swamp, there are effectively three adventures on offer here, although Scorpion Swamp handled re-visiting areas more thoroughly overall and almost totally avoided re-sets.

Another similarity to Scorpion Swamp is that none of the three missions in this book are especially difficult, although the sheer novelty value of Robot Commando raises it considerably above SS in the quality stakes. To allow players with weak stats to stand a chance of winning, there is very little personal combat involved here, instead your Skill usually dictates success in robot combat (both with robots and dinosaurs) – a measure of your robot piloting ability then, presumably, which raises Skill above the one-dimensional fighting and leaping-about prowess marker that it usually is in FFs. In fact, it is robot combat that really makes this book an interesting ride as each robot has a Speed and many have Combat Bonuses. The slower robot in a battle fights with a Skill penalty, the faster fights with enhanced Skill. This is very clever as it adds realism to these battles as a slow robot would always be at a disadvantage when compared to a faster one and flying robots, in particular, tend to be the fastest. The Combat Bonus stat means that (logically) robots designed for combat have far greater firepower and therefore can do more damage than those designed for farming, etc. That aside, there are generally a lot of other opportunities to gain stat bonuses of various kinds and there is a nice feature to help weaker characters whereby, if you have an Interface Transponder and your Skill is lower than 11, you get a +1 Skill bonus. It’s not often you see such conditioned bonuses as this in FF and it is good to see that you are not expected to be superhuman to win this one. Similarly, it is quite rare for you to personally get injured (which is good as your 5 Medikits only give a rather stingy +1 St increase), unless you get attacked directly or your robot gets trashed/destroyed. The instructions tell you that the result of your robot losing a combat is specifically given in the text and that death may not be the outcome in all cases. In fact, your death is hardly ever the outcome of robot destruction, unless you are in a flying robot and fall to the ground or get eaten by a dinosaur that has beaten your robot. Luck tests are rare for once, and instant fails are used very sparingly and at logical moments. My only real criticism of the way this book finds very much in the player’s favour is with the fact that there are THREE Robotanks in the City of Guardians which allows you to wreck the first two and still have one left to take on Minos’ very similar Supertank, which makes victory highly likely (in fact, it makes getting to either of the Minos outcomes pretty straightforward.)

The robots are, overall, by far the best thing about this book and they are very imaginative and inventive, and even the ones that are basically just Transformers are fun. Some change between being robots and planes, some are two-legged walkers, some have wheels and trundle along the ground, there are tank types, there are some construction/mining plant equipment types, at one point you find an experimental prototype one that has particularly good Skill in battle due to its very high speed (although you need prior info to be able to fly it, which is another neat inclusion), at least one is almost totally useless, there is a snake one that moves along on its base (with a great name – Serpent VII), and you can even commandeer a Karossean Decepticon equivalent. All in all, there is so much variety of types and what they can do, that you will probably spend as much time changing robots and trying them all out as you will visiting everywhere and trying to win one way or another. To add colour to the playability, some areas can only be accessed safely on the ground or in the air and there is no obvious advantage to having either a flyer or a ground robot and their effectiveness depends on where you are at any given moment. If there is one slight issue with all the options to chop and change robots, it’s that the player is expected to remember what robots they’ve left where, make notes (or have a good memory) and adjust the text mentally to say that another robot is now where the one you are in was found. It’s a little distracting but as long as you don’t double-back too much it is probably fairly unlikely to have much of an effect on the flow of things.

Unfortunately, the dinosaurs do not have anything like as much impact on events and it is quite easy to forget that your planet is supposed to be crawling with them. Only very occasionally do you encounter one (although they do tend to be the bigger and stronger types) and, whilst they make robot destruction all the more perilous, they don’t really add any substance to the proceedings and come across as something of an afterthought where they should play a large part considering the emphasis on them in the premise (and on the book’s cover.) The best dino-related moment is probably early on when you meet a Pterodactyl if you are in a flying robot, but the rest are far from memorable unless you get trapped on foot in a dinosaur enclosure. The fact that you can meet a Robot Tyrannosaurus that bears a striking resemblance in its accompanying picture to both Zoidzilla (from Zoids) and Mecha-godzilla (from several Japanese Godzilla movies) does betray SJ(II)’s obvious theme preference in this book. OK, it’s a neat “missing link” between robots and dinosaurs, but it just seems very forced. Equally, Minos’ total lack of any substance makes the all-important end baddie seem pretty irrelevant too, although he is still quite tough to fight in a duel as he has Sk 12 St 12 (in fact, all the Karosseans have stats in double-figures if you ever actually have to fight them face-to-face, that is.)

Structurally, the lack of linearity makes a real change in the context of FF and makes for a very different FF gaming experience, although there are a couple of moments where you can find yourself stuck in endless loops (the City of Worship once the storm hits and the tunnels/lift under the City of Industry) which may or may not be deliberate, it’s hard to tell. There is only one correct way to negotiate the storm, but the tunnels seem to be evidence of the book getting bored with the player if they insist on going in such an obviously wrong direction too much. The obvious emphasis is on free exploration and robot experimentation and, in these two areas, the book is a design success, especially given the effects that the robot you are using can have on how events progress.

Steve Jackson (II) (the American one) has taken a lot of criticism over the years for not being as good a writer or gamebook designer as the better-known Steve Jackson, but I don’t think this is necessarily fair. SJ (II)’s ideas show great originality (at least in the gamebook sense) and his efforts to subvert the linear approach and inject ways to deal with potentially illogical area re-sets should be welcomed. His writing is entertaining and definitely suits the idiom of this book, as there is a definite element of this not being intended to be taken too seriously. It is far from the satire of #27 Star Strider, but it is also a million miles away (pardon the pun) from po-faced Sci-Fi FFs such as #4 Starship Traveller or the serious Sci-Fi drama of #18 Rebel Planet. SJ(II) never tries to make out that this is high art of any kind by being over-pretentious, but he also never falls into the trap of being off-hand or lazy with his writing, even when you do something particularly stupid. The whole book is delivered in a consistent tone and there is balance throughout (even the two looping sections try to maintain reader interest) that very few FF writers can sustain.

I personally love David Martin’s vivid and colourful cover with its Transformer fighting a Tyrannosaur. FF covers often veer on the dark and brooding side and it’s nice to see an upbeat image that reflects the contents very well in its general cheeriness, whilst also presenting the rather odd dichotomy of a world that it is set on. The title literally flashes off the page at you and it is definitely a book where the cover alone should be appealing enough to move units (it worked for me as I generally hate Sci-Fi FFs but I had to have this one as soon as it was released, based purely on the advert in Warlock magazine!) Gary Mayes’ internal art has a suitably shiny and metallic feel in general which does match the subject matter, although there are a few curious images here and there – in some places you seem to be ex-robot or witnessing things from a 3rd party perspective, and I have no idea what paragraph the picture facing sections 221-223 is meant to go with.

Robot Commando, for all its conceptual derangement, is great fun to play and is, along with Rebel Planet, easily the only other genuinely worthwhile Sci-Fi FF, albeit for very different reasons. RP is a tough book set in a well-designed “serious” Sci-Fi universe. RC, on the other hand, is an entertaining romp, kept constantly varied by allowing you to pilot different robots that do all sorts of different things, as well as being three adventures in one. Yes, it’s unusually easy, but that does not matter, as the sheer appeal of being able to play a gamebook that is this unique both structurally and in gameplay terms, makes this one a real winner.