Magic, mayhem, swords, and sorcery dominated CRPGs. But occasionally, sci-fi would buck the trend. Origin’s 2400 A.D. was proof of that.
Released in 1987 for the Apple II and IBM PCs, 2400 A.D. drew comparisons to Ultima for the layout of its GUI and basic mechanics with a number of differences that made it stand apart from the high fantasy of its peer. Not the least of which was because this took place in the future and pit the player against evil robots.
The manual was typical Origin — it was crammed with basic information on how to play the game and what the stats meant, but it also immersed the player in plenty of atmosphere with a chronology of how things got to where they were in the game along with background on the resistance trying to save the planet.
Everything takes place on a planet called XK-120 which was renamed Nova Athens in 2213 when it was colonized by the United Stellar Council. It was a fringe world that soon became a mecca of learning and industry. Scholars and scientists flocked to the capital, Metropolis, while miners continued to reap the riches beneath the surface. Society on Nova Athens flourishes over the next several decades as music, art, and science continue to produce wonders on the planet.
That is, until the Tzorg Empire invades in 2335. Although the United Stellar Council and the Tzorg had been on icy, if not friendly, terms, relations deteriorated between the two in the preceding years eventually exploding into war. The utopia of Nova Athens is laid wasted by the Tzorg who impose brutal laws and require everyone to report to local tracking centers. Dissenters simply disappear.
Over the next few decades, the Tzorg Empire begins feeling the pressure that the United Stellar Council is putting against them on multiple fronts. They leave Nova Athens but install the Robot Patrol System in Metropolis to maintain control. In the shadows, however, an underground resistance continues to flourish and work to destroy the system and free their planet. A secret way into the central system has finally been discovered, but who has the technical expertise to make use of it and bring it down?
That’s where the player comes in as one of several replacement miners brought in from offworld to replace those that have ‘disappeared’. The difference is that you also have computer skills — and the resistance have gotten wind of that little fact.
The system in this game is stripped down in comparison to other CRPGs, particularly Origin’s own Ultima. A number of the usual stats are bundled up into new, sci-fi friendly ones, like Energy which combines strength and stamina or Agility which combines “manual dexterity and skill”. There are no experience points or specific skills for your character to earn. Instead, stats improve with use. Running, for example, improves Energy.
Currency-wise, the game also does something interesting to heighten the atmosphere of scavenging for survival against the legions of robotic watchdogs oppressing the populace. Destroying, or immobilizing, a ‘bot allows you to search for its power unit. You can’t use it, but underground merchants will trade for those creating a secret economy fueling your personal revolution.
But the bots also come in several classes. Class 1 robots are relative pushovers while the Class 4s include ones like “tanks” that can crush your unshielded corpse like a potato chip. There were even bots that followed you around everywhere you went. Fortunately, this is the future, which means there are lots of neat things that you can find, or buy, to help out from personal shields to pulse lasers and detonators. Healing potions are called “plastiform” and you can even fly about, square by square in this top-down game, with a jet pack.
Players also have to report in every now and then to avoid having robots sent out to find them. And they also have to make sure that they avoid getting caught where their Zone Authorization Card doesn’t allow them to be seen at. An onscreen timer ticks down when the player needs to report in at while getting about the city may require a bit more effort — especially when you’re trying to avoid getting busted by illegally using a robot recharge station to juice up your gear.
Limited conversations with NPCs was also part of the gameplay using key words to dig into topics and the game also had a “social demerits” system for every infraction you were caught at. Fail to show up, and that’s an SD. After you get too many, every robot in the game will attack you until you surrender and get sent to jail from which you can actually escape with a clean record — something that would be seen in a few other games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion nearly two decades later.
Everything was also seen in a top-down view with grid-based movement and it also incorporated climbing over items seen or even moving a few around, something that made the game’s environment more interactive than the usual CRPG backdrop.
The game isn’t available on digital download services and generally exists as abandonware today, which is too bad. Although it’s not as well known as Origin’s other products, 2400 A.D. had one or two neat ideas that other CRPGs continued to promote such as skills or stats that are improved through use as opposed to a flash of changes that occur only when you reach a leveling milestone. Titles such as SSI’s Buck Rogers to Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series would make use of the same and, in some ways, it’s a system that I’d like to see more of.
But more importantly, it was one of the few sci-fi CRPGs that made it into retail from a development studio making it its business to create worlds. 2400 A.D. may not be as intense an experience as other crunch heavy CRPGs of the day were, but it boldly strode into an area few others did.