Review by Pluvius

"Bidi-bidi-bidi... This game does justice to the license."

For much of the 80s and 90s, after its founders lost control of the company but before it was bought by Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons creator TSR was owned by a woman named Lorraine Williams. Williams purchased TSR for profit motives and had nothing but disdain for the gamers who were its marketbase, but despite this fact (which would end up killing the company), TSR was wildly successful at first because of the wide variety of products it released at the time. Williams also happened to be the granddaughter of John Dille, the man who invented the comic strip that started the franchise of the first great spacefaring swashbuckler, Buck Rogers. It only made good business sense to create a tabletop game based on this royalty-free license, and in fact TSR made three. The second one was a full-fledged RPG based on second-edition AD&D rules with modifications to fit the setting. TSR also decided to make use of the popular Gold Box engine created by SSI in order to make a Buck Rogers video game based on this tabletop RPG, which resulted in Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday. Though it's not as well known as the other Gold Box games, and though the EA-published Genesis version is quite different in some ways from its PC progenitor, Countdown to Doomsday is still a worthwhile experience for any oldschool Western RPG fan.

The universe seen in Countdown to Doomsday will probably be a bit unfamiliar to those more used to the TV show or serials, since it is taken from the "grim and gritty" conceptualization of the tabletop RPG. While Buck Rogers is still a man from the 20th century stuck in the 25th, and the other quintessential characters of the franchise such as Wilma Deering and Ardala are present, the similarities end there. Anthony "Buck" Rogers was an ace US military pilot who in 1999 was tasked with destroying the Soviet satellite MasterLink, the hub of the USSR's war machine, using an experimental spaceplane equipped with a cryogenic ejection system. Buck was partially successful in his mission, but was forced to eject and wait for recovery. Unfortunately for him, the USSR decided to destroy civilization with a "last gasp" of nuclear weaponry, and thus Buck was left abandoned in Earth orbit for four-and-a-half centuries. During that time, humanity recovered and reformed its flawed nation-state system into a hopefully more perfect system of blocs, with the three major alliances being the Russo-American Mercantile (RAM), the Indo-Asian Consortium (IAC), and the Euro-Bloc Faction (EBF). They eventually terraformed and colonized the inner solar system, with RAM taking Mars, the EBF taking Luna, and the IAC taking Venus. RAM, being more of a profit-driven and impersonal megacorporation than the other blocs, took over Earth a couple of hundred years before Buck Rogers' awakening and exerted its hegemony over the colonies, with refugees from the resulting war colonizing Mercury and various factions taking advantage of the asteroid belt's resources and remoteness. In 2456, Buck Rogers is recovered by the New Earth Organziation (NEO), a revolutionary force trying to retake Earth from RAM. With his help, they are soon successful, with RAM deciding it's not worth the money to control Earth overtly.

Countdown to Doomsday takes place shortly after this victory. Repelling RAM from Earth has resulted in a huge propaganda boost for NEO, and shiploads of people wanting to fight for freedom and glory are recruited. Your party consists of six of these people, who are forced to fight a bit earlier than expected when the arcology of Chicagorg is attacked by RAM forces before the next recruiting class can leave Earth. After your party discovers a derelict RAM ship filled with genetically engineered monsters and gains the confidence of the ship's artificial intelligence who wishes to defect, it is revealed that RAM is trying to retake Earth by means of genocide. From there, your party must search the inner solar system for clues as to how RAM plans to accomplish this and then stop them. Along the way they'll have to deal with the diverse denizens of the colonies, including space pirates, the Desert Runners of Mars, the Lowlanders of Venus, and the bourgeoisie of the extravagantly wealthy Mercurian Mariposa satellites.

When creating your party in Countdown to Doomsday, you can choose from three races (humans, Desert Runners, and Tinkers) and four careers (Rocket Jock, Warrior, Rogue, and Medic). As one would expect from a game based on D&D, the races have different strengths and weaknesses and the careers fill different roles. Three of the careers are self-explanatory, while the Rocket Jock is the only career capable of piloting a spaceship, which is very important from early on in the game. There is also a skill system where points can be spent after gaining a level. Each career has a special exclusive skill: Rocket Jocks have piloting ability and the ability to juryrig improvised repairs during space battle, Warriors have leadership skills allowing them to take control of NPCs and gain bonuses in combat as well as the ability to specialize in one type of weapon, Rogues can bypass anti-intrusion security in any form, and Medics can treat wounds after battle. There are also ten general skills, ranging from basic first aid and searching library archives to being able to fight well in a zero-G environment (a must) and perceiving subtleties in the environment. The more points spent on a skill, the more likely the character will succeed when he uses it. A couple of skills are kind of useless, but a smart player (or one equipped with a FAQ) can figure out which skills to focus on and which to avoid. The PC version has more races, careers, and skills, but the Genesis version does a good job in reducing these to what is necessary to make a fun RPG.

Most of Countdown to Doomsday is played from a third-person tile-based isometric view, whether moving within dungeons and installations or fighting monsters and RAM forces. This is an improvement over the PC version, which like other Gold Box games forces you to play the exploration sections either in a low-res first-person view or on an overhead minimap that has no details aside from the positions of walls. A generic spacesuited sprite represents your party in the exploration sections, while in the combat sections the six characters are represented individually by an assortment of player-selected sprites. Combat is fairly simple compared to the PC version; your characters can move into position and attack their enemies with a variety of melee and ranged weapons, while those trained in first aid can use it to stabilize fallen allies. You can also turn over control to the computer, which is a fair choice for easy random encounters. Probably the most obvious omission in the Genesis version is the jetpack, which an equipped character can use to fly anywhere on the map; there are also various tactics (such as sprinting and guarding) that are not explicitly in the Genesis version. Since it would be boring to fight nothing but humans in a game like this, the game universe provides a variety of non-human creatures through the conceit of genetic engineering; the process of terraforming required humans to artificially adapt Earth organisms (including humans themselves) to the different demands of the other planets, resulting in such things as acid frogs, desert apes, and the dreaded xenomorph-like Experimental Combat Gennie. There are also robots, which tend to be the deadliest of foes due to their advanced weaponry and armor.

Moving between planets requires you to maneuver a spaceship on a map of the solar system, much like Star Control II. Randomly on your voyages you will be accosted by RAM ships, pirate ships, or Mercurian cruisers. If you can't intimidate, bluff, or flee your way out of these encounters, you will enter ship-to-ship combat, a turn-based affair controlled entirely through menu icons. Each character has control over weapons systems, while the pilot is responsible for moving closer to or farther away from the enemy as well as giving the weapons an advantage in aiming. Both your ship and the enemy have hit points for controls, engines, and the hull, as well as various weapons ranging from the weak laser beam to the smashing K-Cannon. You can aim at these four areas if you wish; taking out engines or controls stops the ship from moving while taking out the hull blows it up. The enemy can do the same to you, which makes juryrigging a must to repair damage; the pilot can only juryrig each system once, however. Once you get close enough, you can ram the enemy ship (doing heavy damage to the enemy and moderate damage to you), and if the enemy is disabled, you can board. Successfully boarding a ship (which requires you to move through the ship like any other dungeon and take control of engineering and the bridge) results in salvage pay, which is deposited into your expense account and can be used to rearm and repair your ship. Unfortunately, the Genesis version does not require you to buy fuel, and since repair and resupply is free at NEO headquarters, this expense account is pointless except in severe emergencies. Scout vessels are fairly easy to destroy or board, while capturing a RAM heavy cruiser is suicidal unless you have a very good pilot and a smart strategy.

As with other Gold Box games, the real meat of Countdown to Doomsday is in the plot and quests, including all of the exploration those involve. In addition to the main quest line, there are a number of sidequests that remind you that there's a universe going on outside of your attempts to save Earth from destruction. Sometimes there are little bits of realism that don't even really count as quests; for example, if you harass enough RAM scout ships, RAM will eventually get fed up and send out a scout filled with elite assassins to trap you. This gives the game a lot of life that you don't always see in RPGs from that period, even Western ones. All told, there are around ten unusual situations you can get into outside of the main quest line, some of which you'll have to go searching around to find. The main quests themselves also often have a lot of ways to go about them, such as figuring out whether to go through the front door guns blazing or sneak around the back. Except for a couple of unimportant cases at the end of the game, there is no such thing as an unwinnable battle. Not to spoil anything, but an example: In an attempt to gain money and experience, I refused to surrender to a certain group of people. Though the plot required me to eventually lose, Countdown to Doomsday did not take the unrealistic route of sending endless waves of enemies after me. Instead, after I defeated three of these waves, my opponents tired of their game and knocked my party out with stun grenades. In another example, you have the choice to fight the leader of this group of people in unarmed single combat; though it's essentially impossible to win without cheating or leveling up and training a warrior specifically for the purpose, if you do, the leader lets you go as a reward.

The most unfortunate disadvantage to the Genesis version of Countdown to Doomsday is that things had to be condensed a little. In addition to what I've already mentioned, some areas were made smaller, and the text had to be cut down. The reason for the latter is due to a quirk of Gold Box games that allowed them to have much more text than other RPGs of the time; the largest bits of text were printed in a book that came with the game, and the game would refer you to entries in the book at certain times. This saves on disk space, but it's not the sort of thing that console gamers were willing to put up with, so a sacrifice had to be made. On the bright side, the programmers again did a great job; just about every bit of plot and just about every encounter or event was preserved in some way in the Genesis version. This allowed for the aforementioned graphical improvement in the exploration view as well as the game's really groovy (though repetitive) music, most of which is centered around jazz instruments; it kind of reminds me of the music in a much more popular futuristic Genesis RPG, Phantasy Star II.

It's hard to argue which version is better between the PC and the Genesis, but what's not hard to argue is that Countdown to Doomsday is good regardless of what platform it's on. Especially if you're a fan of better-known Gold Box games such as Pool of Radiance or a fan of sci-fi, you will likely find this game to be one of those that cause you to wonder how it's possible that you started playing at 10 in the evening and stopped "an hour later" when the sun began to rise. And if you do like this game, there is also a more obscure sequel called Matrix Cubed. It only came out on the PC, unfortunately, which can make the transition between the two kind of jarring. However, this should be a minor impediment to enjoying a series that probably should've gone on longer.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/27/10

Game Release: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (US, 12/31/91)

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