Monday, 24 June 2013

#17: Appointment With F.E.A.R.


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

It was almost inevitable that a superhero FF would emerge sooner or later and it was equally inevitable that the series’ main boundary-pusher, Steve Jackson, would write it. It is more of a surprise that no further superhero FFs would be attempted (other than the short-form sequel to this book, Deadline To Destruction, that was published in Warlock #12) and opinion is certainly divided over how successful AwF really was. Indeed, my own opinion is torn between admiration and derision!

As an adventure, this often borders on the cringe-worthy with silly in-jokes (there are so many supposedly witty comic book and popular culture references that they become unbearable after a while) and barrel-scraping attempts at creating super villains to face off against. As all the good baddies had already been used up by Marvel, DC and 2000AD, Jackson is left to invent a crowd of villains that manage to sound like they are from classic comics, but that are actually far too crappy in terms of their concepts and make King Tut (easily the most desperate idea for a baddie that the ever-campy and inherently ridiculous 60s Batman series would conjure up) look like quite an intriguing and well thought-out idea. Only the main arch-villain, The Titanium Cyborg, is even remotely intimidating, and that’s more due to the mystique of his appearance on the cover as only the FEAR group actually really gets any proper coverage so that any kind of sense of foreboding surrounds them. Most of the villains just play support roles and give you something to apprehend as you hunt about for evidence of what FEAR are up to and how to track them down.

...Which brings us to the plot. You play Jean Lafayette aka The Silver Crusader, who due to being the product of a genetic experiment, has one of four special abilities (more on these later) to help you fight crime in Titan City (just to throw in a tenuous link to the FF series.) You have to make your way around the city, collecting clues as to the whereabouts of a top secret FEAR (the Federation of Euro-American Rebels) meeting so that you can capture the evil genius that is Vladimir Utoshki aka The Titanium Cyborg and thwart FEAR’s evil plans. And that’s pretty much it for the storyline. As it’s basically a comic book plot, anything can happen really, not that much does other than a few crimes being committed, your getting berated by your constantly fuming boss (very comic booky), a bit of optional shopping, museum visiting, going to the funfair or visiting your Aunt (again, a comic book cliché, but that actually fits in well and adds a bit of warm humour), with the occasional run-in with a super-villain from a list of fairly hopeless baddies that don’t really have many super-talents and are very easy to beat. The real point is that you are trying to find numerical clues (and you start with two from the outset) that you have to use your intuition when to use.

The clues are the crux of this book’s structure and, in spite of being fairly pathetic as an adventure, this book has one of the best and most intricately planned designs of any gamebook. Jackson expands on the ideas he introduced in #10 House Of Hell where you need to decide when to use the mathematical clues that you are given in return for defeating certain baddies. Sometimes the book drops hints, but more often than not, you are left to just guess when to do some sums and move to a secret paragraph that’s where you are plus 50 or some such number-crunch. Needless to say, this makes actually defeating the book incredibly difficult and you can be led into a false sense of security as a play-through literally only takes about 30 minutes leaving you none the wiser and making this also one of the briefest and most unsatisfying adventures to play as there just isn’t enough material of any substance here to keep you interested (another reason why it is so disappointing overall as a game.) You will find yourself often just going endlessly through the book trying to find something different from what happened to you last time, until, that is, you manage to beat it (or come close to beating it) at which point it dawns that there is something very unique about this book – it is actually four different missions. OK, none of them are especially involving and they are all over before they’ve started, but this is a brilliant piece of design that offers ample re-play options should you feel inclined.

The four different routes to success (each of which ends with the FEAR summit being in a totally different place – another bit of excellent design) are dictated by which of the four super-powers YOU have: Super Strength (giving you a permanent combat Skill of 13 and, less explicably, the ability to fly), Psi-Powers (self-explanatory, and Jackson is fond of ESP and mind-control as his books where you can use Magic demonstrate), ETS (the ability to build gadgets in a Batman-stylie), and Energy Blast (where you can fire a bolt from your hand, but it does come at a cost of 2 Stamina every time you use it so, whilst sounding good, is probably the least likely one you’ll pick to avoid killing yourself) and each comes with two clues out of a pool of six. The adventure plays out differently based on your super-power, but you still need to find the correct hidden path based on your clues and failure is highly likely as there are so many red herrings along the way such that this book is probably even harder to navigate through than the similarly-designed House Of Hell was. Granted, none of the other lethal obstacles are thrown at you (Fear, lack of weapons, etc) and staying alive is extremely easy (there are very few instant failure sections in this book), but finding the true path(s) is inordinately difficult as there is simply too much guess-work involved which, combined with the lack of anything to get your teeth into, results in a fairly poor playing experience, other than the possibility of replays via other routes (which you probably won’t find.)

Defeating FEAR is not the only written-in reason to play this book. The concept of Hero Points is included here where, in return for doing something heroic, you get what are effectively Experience Points. Whilst it is purely an aside, you are supposed to try to beat your previous tally of Hero Points to add extra playability, but this stat does nothing other than to make you feel good or bad about yourself. Your score has no bearing on anything – it would have been better if a higher Hero score made you more persuasive or allowed your reputation to precede you (like Nemesis points do in #52 Night Dragon, for example) just to make it meaningful. An interesting point of note on this subject is the fact that you are discouraged from killing any baddies by reducing their Stamina to zero. If you do, you lose Hero Points (not that you really care) and once an enemy’s Stamina has dropped to 2 or less they will surrender to you. This is very logical and fits the concept of this book, but, if you do kill someone, the book has no mechanism to deal with this and the baddie comes back to life and blabs some information to you. A bit more thought could have allowed you to turn people in dead or alive and the book could have penalised you for killing by not revealing a clue. As it stands, it makes no difference whether you kill baddies or not as the outcome is always the same either way. Plus, most of the encounters are fairly easy, bar The Titanium Cyborg himself who has Sk 18 St 20 (but you don’t fight him with those stats as success is dependent on a Circuit Jammer which halves his stats, instantly making him no different to any other slightly above average encounter) so combats are almost irrelevant here.

One very noticeable thing about this book is its sheer length in terms of paragraphs (440) which belies its briefness in playing terms, but, as so much intricate structure is built-in, as well as it being effectively four inter-linking adventures, the extra length facilitates this instead. Normally a very long FF book makes for a very long adventure (eg: The Crown Of Kings or Howl Of The Werewolf), but the paragraphs are used differently here, which is quite intriguing an idea, if ultimately an unsatisfying one in playing terms and you find yourself wondering exactly what all the sections are being used for (until you work it out, that is.)

Artistically, a decent attempt has been made to make you feel like you are in a comic-book, as all the illustrations are in multiple panels that show progress of a plot thread, which is a neat idea to create some (much-needed) atmosphere. Of considerable interest to me personally is the cover which is drawn by one of my favourite Judge Dredd artists, Brian Bolland, and really looks the part in trying to make this look like a graphic novel. The Titanium Cyborg is suitably evil-looking with his manic grin and bizarre super-villain outfit – it’s a shame Bolland didn’t do the interior art as well which is crying out for the depth of detail that his work always has, but I gather that Bolland takes a long time to produce his drawings so that may have caused problems with meeting publishing deadlines at a time when FF was commercial hot property and something of a cash-cow for Puffin. Incidentally, this is one of the rare occasions where Wizard Books chose not to change the re-issue cover for something wildly inferior, which speaks volumes about how good, not to mention still contemporary-looking, the cover is.

This was a wasted opportunity. In terms of its design this is one of the best books in the series with its four distinct true paths and its very complex and unusual mathematical, clue-based reader intuition structure. Sadly, it fails miserably by simply being a risible adventure with hardly anything to keep you interested, that is far too short and, worst of all given how little you get to do, ridiculously hard to figure out given how much unfathomable (and impossible) guesswork is involved on the players’ behalf. Yes, it’s certainly playable (unlike the worst FFs like #30 Chasms Of Malice or #12 Space Assassin that are so unbearable you aren’t likely to return to them even if you can be bothered to finish a first playthrough), but it leaves you baffled and short-changed by ending too quickly with almost inevitable failure. At one point your character can buy a copy of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain as a peace-offering to your perpetually apoplectic boss – I’d suggest you do the same and get yourself a copy of WOFM as, as an enjoyable adventure, that book is a million times better than Appointment With FEAR which, other than being a novelty, is pretty forgettable.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently the reuse of the original cover illustration was at Steve Jackson's insistence.

    I enjoyed this book more than you did, but I can't argue with a lot of your criticisms.

    There is a second sequel to AWF in issue 8 of Fighting Fantazine. I haven't played it enough to know how it compares, but given how rubbish Deadline to Destruction is, Vengeance at Midnight doesn't have that high a bar to clear.