Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Game 42: Futurewar (1977)

The square in the centre shows one of a few different 
images each time you start.

Ah, the warm orange glow of PLATO.  On the one hand, I spent so much of my gaming time a few years ago playing PLATO games that it has a certain nostalgic factor. On the other hand, I spent far too much of my gaming time on PLATO during those years.  Those of you who've read the blog from the beginning will know what I'm talking about. Games like Moria and The Game of Dungeons took me roughly a year each to complete, and as historically interesting as they were I'd rather not get bogged down in a similar scenario.

That brings me to Futurewar, a game that I wasn't entirely sure qualified as a CRPG, mostly because when I googled it I saw it described as a primitive 3D shooter.  Which it is, sort of.  But it also has randomly generated statistics that affect your chances of success at various activities, experience points, level advancement, turn-based combat, and the explore/fight/loot/return game loop that is the bread and butter of the CRPG genre.  A part of me want to say "alas, it qualifies as a CRPG", but really I started this blog to play more games of the genre (and more adventure games, of course).  So instead I will give a tentative "huzzah, it's a CRPG!" and hope that I can finish it in a matter of weeks rather than months.  Or god forbid, years.

The first version of Futurewar, created by high-schoolers Erik Witz and Nick Boland, was made available to play circa 1977, and it was updated a number of times between then and 1980.  The version at Cyber1 (the PLATO emulator that I'm using) is based on a printout dated December 1979.  If I'm reading the intro correctly, the game code is the same as that used in 1979, but some of the graphics had to be recreated from memory.  Apparently there are still some bugs, and it doesn't run on Cyber1 exactly like it used to on PLATO, but it's the only version out there so it's the closest I'm going to get.  It was re-released for the game's 40th anniversary in 2017, which is why I didn't cover it on my first pass (and presumably why it doesn't seem to have been covered on other chronological CRPG blogs).

A brief history of Futurewar.

Futurewar has a first person view and grid-based movement, and in those respects it's similar to  other PLATO CRPGs like Moria and Oubliette.  I was pretty delighted to discover that I'd be breaking out the mapping tools for this one.  Hazards and monsters are scattered throughout the mazes, along with treasure, and aside from some aspects of its combat it feels much like many other first-person CRPGs I've played.  Although Oubliette was the obvious primary inspiration for Wizardry, I wouldn't be shocked to discover that there's a bit of Futurewar DNA in the mix as well.  It's also similar to Moria and Oubliette in that it allows for players to team up in multiplayer parties. On PLATO, it seems as though the multiplayer CRPGs outnumber those that are designed for single players.

The backstory begins in 1978, with the player as a member of an elite SWAT team sent on a secret mission to infiltrate the lair of the evil Doctor Brain, who is gathering an army of mutants from Earth's post-apocalyptic future.  Before he can be stopped, Doctor Brain escapes to the future in his time machine, and the player is caught in the time warp as well.  In the far-flung future of 2020 AD (gasp!), a nuclear holocaust has devastated the Earth, and the remnants of humanity live in the mutant-infested underworld.  It's up to the player to navigate to the lowest depths and thwart the plans of Doctor Brain.  It seems that Futurewar does have an endgame, although what exactly that entails isn't elaborated upon.  What it does mean is that, even if it ends up being geared more for multiplayer parties, I won't be abandoning it as lightly as I did Oubliette, which had no goal.

It also appears that Futurewar might be the earliest sci-fi CRPG.  It's certainly the earliest one I've played for the blog.  The previous holder of that title was Space for the Apple II, which was released in 1978, so Futurewar definitely beats it.

The game begins with a poem, of all things.  It's called "Monstrosity", and it's by an actual poet named Steven Curtis Lance, who seemingly gave his permission.  It's a little overblown for my tastes, but by the standards of 1970s video game writing it's tremendous.  Too bad that the cursive font makes it hard to read.

More like Fontstrosity, am I right?

Following that there's a short animation that shows your character being caught in the time warp, then it's on to the title screen and character creation.

The first step in character creation is to pick a team.  Humanity has banded into five distinct groups: Americans, Guerillas, Barbarians, Martians, and Cyborgs.  The Americans are a mixture of patriotic rednecks, bikers and ex-convicts.  The Guerillas are what remains of the police and the military.  The Barbarians are those humans that have returned to a more primitive state.  Martians are the remnants of a Mars colony that have returned to Earth, and teamed up with the last nerds and dorks, apparently.  Finally, the Cyborgs are those that have been enhanced using the latest cybernetic technology.  The group you pick determines which zone of the underworld you start in, and seems to affect your starting stats as well.

Character stats are randomly generated, generally ranging from 5 up to the low 20s.  These stats are Strength, Quickness, Endurance, Technology and Intellect.  I'm not entirely sure what these all do, and there's no explanation of them in the game's Help file. I'm pretty sure that Strength helps with bashing down doors, and Quickness with running away from monsters.  Endurance seems to affect the player's resistance to damage.  I only know these because the stats increase with use, and I've occasionally seen them go up after certain activities.  I haven't figured out what Intellect and Technology are for yet.

Characters also receive scores in Power and Hits.  Hits are just hit points, while Power is your ammunition.  Weapons use up power when you fire them, so you only have a limited number of shots before you have to return to base and recharge.

The character status screen.  The image of the character in the middle
revolves with a pseudo-3D effect.

There are eight occupations to choose from, although the ones offered are dependent on the character's stats.  The occupations are: Leader, Techno, Soldier, Hunter, Spy, Medic, Assassin, and Holy Man.  Hunter is the occupation that I've qualified for most often, so I suspect that it's the one with the lowest stat requirements.  I've also played as a leader and a medic, though I didn't notice much of a difference in gameplay.  Then again, I didn't survive all that long with either.

Each of the human groups has it's own zone, a 20 x 20 dungeon level that's populated with weaker mutants.  These are the levels where I've been doing most of my exploration so far.  Below those is the War Zone, which is said to be the place where players will most likely meet members of the other groups.  Players in Futurewar can meet each other in the underworld, and form teams if they want. I haven't encountered anyone else so far, and much like my experiences with Moria and Oubliette I suspect that my time with Futurewar will be a solitary one.

Below the War Zone are fourteen more levels, each with its own title.  The lowest level shown in the Help file is "The Pits", but it mentions that there's rumored to be another level below that.  Perhaps I'll never see it, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

"The Lethal Zone."  Don't beat around the bush, then.

There are lots of hazards throughout the dungeon levels, including the human zones.  Sewage, fire,  and radioactive waste all deal damage to the player, but they're visible and easily avoided.  Sometimes they block passages though, and there are certain areas that I've been unable to map because of this.  Mines can't be seen, and will simply explode when stepped upon.  I've had some deal 1 or 2 points of damage, and others deal as much as 20.  Characters begin with around 15-20 hit points, so they can be deadly.  Pits will drop the player to the level below, but they're also visible (even though the Help file says they aren't).  Apparently there are transporters as well, but I haven't encountered one yet.

I think that's fire ahead of me, but I haven't walked into it to make sure.

The squares where mutants are lurking are also visible, so it's rare that the player will be taken unawares by an encounter (it basically only happens when going through a door).  Opponents range from humanoids, to mutants, to robots.  I've even encountered groups of R2-D2s, and some skeletons.  So far I haven't met any groups with more than four monsters, but I expect that will change when I delve deeper.  I also haven't met any creatures with special abilities, like poison or breath weapons.  The Help file has warned me to expect this kind of stuff, so I figure the game's been going easy on me in the various Human Zones.

There's a combat encounter in the square ahead of me.

Combat is turn based, although opponents vary in quickness.  Against some foes, I've been able to make four or five attacks before they can act.  Against others, I've had to wait while the enemy attacks me four or five times.  The player begins the game armed with what appears to be a rifle.  It sticks up from the bottom of the game window, which is part of what makes Futurewar feel like a 3D shooter.  When it's your turn to attack you press 's' to shoot, and a tiny bullet can be seen before your informed whether you hit or not.  I assume your stats play into this process somehow, but your gun's positioning is important as well.  The monsters move about during their turn, and you have to reposition your gun in order to have a better chance of hitting and doing the most damage.  Like a lot of games of the era it boils down to hitting the "attack" button repeatedly, but the importance of gun positioning does make it a little more engaging.

I should mention here that, like every other PLATO CRPG before it, Futurewar has perma-death.  If you lose a character, it's gone for good.  So far this game has been a little more forgiving than its contemporaries, but I suspect that won't last.

Aiming my rifle at a "Bone".  You can see on the right that my Endurance
just went up to 23.

The Help file has a list of technological devices that appear to be usable in combat: things like sleep canisters and thermonuclear warheads.  They appear to be the game's equivalent of magic, but I haven't found any yet so I don't know how effective they are.  The Help file also says that only Technos and Holy Men can use them, but I've yet to qualify for either occupation, so I may never actually get to try them out.

Killing monsters earns you experience, which can be used to gain levels when you return to base to recharge.  Gaining levels increases Hits and Power, and also grants the occasional boost to your stats.  Some monsters I've fought only grant a single point of experience, while others are worth hundreds.  My current character, an American named Chuck, has 34,726 experience and has reached 6th level.

Some monsters also guard boxes or chests.  Some of those explode and deal damage (because of course they do) and others contain money and items.  I'm not sure what money is used for.  I've found thousands of dollars, but every time I go to recharge it disappears.  I'm not paying for the recharge, because you can do that when you have no money at all.  I've also found one weapon (a rifle) and two pieces of armour (a baseball cap and a ballistic vest).  The only other item I've found is a flashlight, although I haven't found a use for it yet.

One nice touch that makes exploring the game a little more interesting is the graffiti that's scattered around the dungeons.  I'm pretty sure it's made from combinations of stock words, but I haven't seen a duplicate yet. They look cool, and some of the are quite amusing.

They can be a little hard to read, though.  I think this one says "end of burn".

My progress has been reasonably slow.  I started playing on Sunday night, and I have mostly complete maps of the Martian Zone, the Guerilla Zone and the American Zone.  I suppose mapping three out of twenty dungeon levels isn't bad, but I expect that my mapping progress will get much slower when I hit the actual dungeon.  I'm on my ninth character, so the game hasn't been overly deadly, but I've also been exploring what are effectively the town levels.  Most of my deaths have come at the hands of super-fast enemies, especially ones called "Worleymen".  That changed when I found my first piece of armour; somehow wearing a baseball cap made me impervious to all damage.  It ain't logical, but I'll take it because I just know that this game is going to get much harder in the War Zone and below.  My hope is that it's doable for a single player.  If the game difficulty is geared for multiplayer parties, I'm going to have to abandon it eventually, and I'd really rather not do that.

Either way, it looks like I'm sticking with Futurewar for a while.  My current plan for as long as I'm playing it is to post about Futurewar on Wednesdays and whatever other game I'm playing on Sundays.  The next game on my schedule is Mystery House, the first graphical adventure from Roberta Williams, and the first adventure game on my priority list.  Looking further ahead, I can see that my next priority CRPG is Rogue, which is somewhat daunting.  I could get into a situation where I'm alternating between Futurewar and Rogue for weeks on end, which could destroy my sanity.  Still, I got through Moria.  I got through The Game of Dungeons v8.  If I can beat those games, I'm ready for just about anything.


  1. 2020? I'm sure the world will end long before that...

    The whole story of Plato is a neat one. I need to set up on Cyber1 and give these games a look over!

    1. Going out right now kinda feels like I'm venturing forth from my base to brave the dangerous mutants, so Futurewar has captured at least some of the feel of 2020.

  2. Oo, hadn't heard of this one. Neat!

    Good luck on Mystery House! I pulled through without hints, somehow, but y'know, Sierra games. I was going to loop back and try out the French version sometime.

    1. It's maybe my one chance to document a game that hasn't been blogged about yet, so I'm going to give it a proper go.

      As for Sierra, their brand of difficulty has never particularly bothered me, at least from King's Quest onwards. Hoping that's true of their earlier games as well.