Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed is based on TSR's Buck Rogers XXVC setting created in the late eighties and based on the character whose exploits had been seen in nearly every medium and through several revivals since his debut in 1928. It is the second adventure from SSI set within the campaign setting (the first being Countdown to Doomsday), but playing through the first game is not an absolute requirement.
As with the first game, SSI adapted the Buck Rogers setting (another TSR property using the same rules) using the Gold Box engine that they had pioneered with its work within the Forgotten Realms campaign setting via such titles as Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.
Based as it was on the "Gold Box Engine," players interfaced with the game via a grid-based, 3D system wherein the world is viewed from a first-person perspective with 90° turns and movement spaces. Party members were displayed in the upper right hand corner along with hit points and armor class. Random enemy encounters would provide combat opportunities within the game against mixed groups of foes, providing experience.
The game is a sci-fi role player, although it uses the same rules as AD&D (which was the case with its tabletop original). Classes and weapons are analogous to certain aspects of the system, but it is firmly rooted within its high-tech setting.
The packaging, as was typical of SSI's attention to detail as exemplified by their treatment of the Gold Box series of games, took this opportunity to immerse the player within the fiction of its world via an included booklet outlining its history and systems.
- The Rule Book (manual)
- A logbook containing the history leading up from 1990 to 2356 (the date the game takes place) and describing the systems that it uses as well as text paragraphs describing different areas of the game
- And a data card (a quick-start card on how to get started with the game on specific machines)
The main disks of the game could be freely copied, although players would be challenged to find certain words within one of the booklets that the game had come with in order to proceed as a test. This mechanic would also be used in a variety of other games within SSI's RPG lineup.
The logbook doubled as a key part of the game as it contained dialogue, scene descriptions, and maps that it would reference. This technique was also used in several other RPGs such as Wasteland and Dragon Wars. As with those titles, Countdown to Doomsday's paragraphs also contained several red herrings designed to mislead players who chose to read ahead and potentially spoil the story for themselves.
Players could also transfer their characters over from Countdown to Doomsday.
One of the restrictions of the creative credo governing the franchise is that the realism of Buck Rogers' world had to be based on what could be scientifically plausible and possible - hard science as opposed to more fantastic versions. As a result, the series was focused more on the Solar System and the problems associated with terraforming its planets as well as traveling among them.
As another result, the history of game reflects this within its protagonists. In 1999, the United States and the Soviet Union engage in a final war, exchanging blows via nuclear weapons. As a result of this terrible conflict, conventional warfare is abandoned and the survivors band themselves into large alliances. The Russo-American Mercantile (RAM) forms out of an alliance between what is left of Russia and the United States, for example. The Indo-Asian Consortium (IAC) and the Euro-Bloc Faction (EBF) also form and become the pre-eminent superpowers of the day.
Over the next few centuries, these superpowers form an alliance of their own to expand their efforts into space and colonize the planets. RAM colonizes Mars, the Moon (Luna) is colonized by the EBF, and Venus is colonized by the IAC. Fusion rockets transport men and materials to their destinations throughout the Solar System.
In 2275, RAM revolts against an increasingly oppressive Earth government. Venus signs a nonaggression pact with Mars and ten years of war follow. Battered, broken, and cut off from its colonies, Earth starves allowing RAM's forces to dominate what is left. The colonized worlds continue to grow on their own, developing their own unique socieities thanks to the success of their terraforming efforts. for example, Mercury develops a thriving industry based on mining and solar power.
Humanity has also changed with its expansion into the Solar System. Earth is still home to those now known as the Terrans. Mercury's people have become strong and powerful. The Martians have become prideful with their successes, and the Venusians have focused more on matters of study and of the mind.
However, in the first half of the 25th century, the New Earth Organization is set up by Terrans (Earth natives) that seek to overthrow RAM and restore Earth to its former glory. With the revival of Buck Rogers from cryogenic sleep and with his daring leadership and heroic exploits across the Solar System, NEO manages to thwart RAM's attempts to stop them.
High technology has also enabled the construction of robots and Digital Personalities, programs that emulate human thought and emotion but think at the speed of a computer. Genetic engineering on a vast scale has also created tailored creatures found on specific worlds, each made to fulfill either a specific purpose during terraforming or as part of a new product line. As another example, RAM makes use of Combat Gennies, disposable soldiers bred and equipped to fight their wars.
This is the world that the player will be caught up within as they do their part to stop RAM and its allies.
The player's party is invited to attend the coronation of a new Sun King on Mercury. Sun Kings are the rulers of the Mariposas; titanic solar collector satellites that orbit the planet and beam energy back to the surface. They rule them like royalty and these are often set up like palacial estates as a result. The newest Sun King, Lord Berkeley, is being feted by NEO (New Earth Organization) in a gesture of friendship. However, RAM (Russo-American Mercantile) doesn't want NEO cozying up to a potential ally, and the party will have to deal with assassins as well as a little intrigue with Buck Rogers' help.
The Sun King narrowly escapes death thanks to the party's actions. They also meet up with a certain Dr. Romney who explains that he has discovered a way to create an incredible source of free energy, one that has the potential to rebuild Earth and challenge the power of RAM. Called "the Matrix Device", it could be the salvation that NEO has been looking for.
But another group, called PURGE (Prevention of Unwanted Research and Genetic Engineering), wishes to use the device to destroy all gennies...genetically enhanced humans, such as Desert Runners and Tinkerers. Sid Refuge, their leader, kidnaps Dr. Romney, and Buck informs the team that they have to assemble the needed scientists first and build the device before anyone else can. The race is on.
Visiting Venus to investigate a gravity research facility, they manage to befriend the initially hostile Lowlanders by rescuing their leader from a mining accident. Grateful, they lead the party to the laboratory where the scientist they need is working. They discover that the earthquake that had threatened their leader's life was caused when PURGE soldiers damaged a gravity generator. Fighting them off along with Sid Refuge who has undergone cybernetic enhancements, they rescue the scientist who players may recognize from Countdown to Doomsday.
The next scientist they recover is on Earth where they witness its devastation first-hand. They visit Losangelorg where, after several adventures, discover that Professor Chade and his daughter have fled to a museum in the desert. RAM is also on Earth for the same reason and in the shootout that follows, discover the Chade is really an android and that his daughter is the real professor. They rescue her from RAM and successfully bring her back to safety.
Before leave Earth, however, Buck also asks them to investigate a PURGE base which may be responsible for research pertaining to a new, explosive gas weapon that they intend to use. RAM slavers are also operating in the area giving the player another opportunity to test the party's skills.
On Luna (the Moon), the team arrive at Copernicus station to find another scientist: Dr. Coldor. Unfortunately for them, the station is filled with corrupt officials and a major weapons manufacturer is also involved. In order to find the professor, they are forced to deal with Lt. Jenner who wants their help in bringing several high profile criminals to justice. Once they do so, they are free to do what they want without interference.
Once they have collected the necessary evidence for the Lieutenant, they are free to enter and deal with their enemies at Tsai Weaponry Labs where the professor is held. What they don't know is the Dr. Coldor has been convinced by PURGE that working for them is the better option and she does her best to help them keep the party at bay. Using a mutagenic gas that turns plants into carnivorous, and mobile, creatures, the party is forced to hack their way through only to witness Dr. Coldor's escape on a rocket. Although the launch kills most of the enemies facing the party, Sid Refuge manages to leap onboard and hang onto the back fin where he is later picked up by PURGE forces in space.
Leaving Luna, the team discovers that their ship has become sabotaged, filling it with radiation, and are forced to evacuate using escape pods. Pirate "Killer Kane" is in the vicinity and offers to help them with information pertaining to a RAM installation on Mars, but only after they help destroy the RAM Battler, Deimos.
Once the party performs this favor and go to Mars, they are knocked out by RAM and captured. Killer Kane, along with Buck Rogers, are also captives of RAM within the installation that they discover to be an unusual prison. There, they also meet with Natbakka, a Stormrider.
Convincing the inmates to work together in order to escape, the team wreak havoc on the prison and eventually make their escape with the help of NEO operatives. At the installation, they soon become wrapped up in another plot to uncover a hidden spy. Natbakka arranges transportation to Jupiter where another scientist, Makali, awaits them. He had left to join the Stormriders in their fight against the Amaltheans.
The Amaltheans are the descendants of the original researchers that had developed the genetically engineered Stormriders to live in floating cities above Jupiter's turbulent storms. As a result, they demand 100,000 years of slavery from the race they had created as repayment, something that has sparked rebellion among the Stormriders.
Natbakka's ship, a living vessel, is soon hijacked by pirates. The team can either destroy all of the pirates, or negotiate an alliance between they and the Stormriders to attack the Amaltheans. The best course of action would be to unify both sides against a common enemy and together, they make their way to Jupiter and Dr. Makali. At the Stormrider University, however, he refuses to help saying that she must stay to assist her people.
The Amaltheans stage an attack which the party manages to stave off and the leader of the Stormrider rebels approaches the team with a plan to destroy the Amalthean Genetics Foundation. Once they succeed in doing so by infecting the genetic tanks with a gennie developed by the Stormriders, Dr. Makali agrees to assist them in building the Matrix Device.
They take Makali to an orbitan gas mining platform deep within Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere where the Matrix Device is about to be ignited within the Crucible, thus, marking the start of a new age. Before the party can witness its startup, RAM attacks along with an insane Sid Refuge who appears to seize the Device for PURGE. After fending off these final attacks, the scientists manage to activate the Matrix Device, thus, ensuring the resurrection of Earth an the eventual downfall of RAM.
The game is a party-based RPG using the same engine that SSI had initially built for its Gold Box titles such as Pool of Radiance. As a result, it has many visual cues that make it appear very similar to its more fantastic cousins, but the differences lie mainly within its gameplay conventions.
With the use of more conventional armaments, such as laser guns and plasma throwers, ranged attacks have a greater emphasis in this game. The use of grenades and other explosives are considered key to winning many battles quickly. As it is also space-based, the use of that medium has also opened the door on opportunities to attack and board enemy spaceships, often giving them a great deal of loot to recover and sell if need be.
Limited dialogue with NPCs, puzzles, and the exploration of bases, secret laboratories, caves, and a variety of other venues are also found throughout the game.
Gender is treated only as a cosmetic choice, but race plays a major part in determining what career a character may be restricted in playing as.
There are six races that players can choose from in order to build their party. Four of these are considered "human" types while two others are "gennies", those that have been bred to include certain other attributes that lie outside of the human gene pool. No new races have been added with Matrix Cubed.
- Terrans - These are unengineered humans. They can be a part of any career path and have no distinct weaknesses with fairly average statistics across the board.
- Venusians - Venus' civilization is a diverse mix of cultures and are often involved as traders, farmers, or herdsmen. They can also be a part of any career path.
- Martians - They are the oldest and most advanced civilization in the Solar System having benefited from RAM's continuing work there. Because of the lower gravity on Mars, they are slightly weaker than Terrans but equal to most everyone else. Any career path is open to them.
- Mercurians - Mercury is ruled by the Sun Kings, those descended from the original owners of the great Mariposa solar satellites that orbit the planet, holding court within their palaces. Three other cultures live on the surface of Mercury, descended from the refugees that had fled the chaos of the rest of the Solar System. They can be a part of any career path.
- Tinkerers - These were bioengineered with lemurs and gibbons to be able to work in small spaces and maintain machinery. As a result, they are very good with technology, but they are restricted to only to careers: Engineer and Medic.
- Desert Runners - One of the oldest bioengineered races, they were bred to survive on the harsh surface of Mars during its latter terraforming years. They bear feline features from the genetic stock they were mixed with, can run long distances, and fight with their own claws if need be. They are great fighters and good with their hands which help considering that they are restricted to the Rocketjock, Warrior, and Engineer career paths.
Each character has a set of basic attributes that affect various abilities, such as combat prowess and how many spells a magic user can memorize before they must rest and re-acquire their spells once again. During character creation, the player may re-roll as many times as they want. Prime requisite attributes are those that are a requirement for certain classes. For example, Warriors must have a good Strength score in order to be effective in melee combat.
The natural maximum for any attribute is an 18, although it can go higher depending on factors such as race. Throughout the game, unless it is due to an outside intervention such as with a piece of equipment, these attributes never change even when a character levels.
- Strength (STR) - determines physical power and damage with weapons; also affects encumbrance in combat
- Dexterity (DEX) - reflexes and the ability to remain hard to hit in combat; affects ranged weapons such as laser rifles, bolt guns, and even their ability to pilot a rocketship without crashing.
- Constitution (CON) - a character's health is determined by this and hit points are derived from this score and a bonus calculated against it with every level. Sheer physical toughness.
- Charisma (CHA) - affects the perception that others have of a character, especially the leader. Helps with Intimidation and Acting.
- Intelligence (INT) - This is required for most of the careers in the game and reflects wit and memory. Still prized in the 25th Century.
- Wisdom (WIS) - Common sense and important to Medics in their practice, Rogues in keeping them from robbing the wrong people, and aids in certain skills.
- Tech (TCH) - Technical Knowhow that determines a character's affinity for machines and equipment. If a character has a high Tech skill, they have a better grasp on fixing things as well as people.
Attributes, such as Strength and Dexterity, are also affected by the selection of race and certain bonuses and minuses are allotted across them as a result. For examples, Desert Runners are inherently stronger than the other races and, thus, have a bonus to their Strength and Constitution scores.
This game does not use an alignment system. The party is expected to be on the side of "the good guys".
Instead of classes, Buck Rogers' uses a system based on careers instead with a series of skills associated with each one. No new careers have been added with Matrix Cubed.
- Rocketjocks - They are the pilots of the Solar System, the daredevils that can drive anything as long as it can move.
- Warriors - These are seasoned fighters dedicated to the arts of combat. Every second level (2nd, 4th, etc..), warriors also earn a specialization bonus to their weapon of choice up to a maximum plus of 3 for each one.
- Medics - Advanced technology only means that medics can work their miracles even better than before. They can use onboard Medical Centers, cure poison, and otherwise bandage everyone back up.
- Rogues - No security system can stand in their way for long and they can also stay out of sight when someone comes looking for something they may be missing.
- Engineers - If it's broken, they can fix it. Not quite as much of a braggart as a Rocketjock, but they're close.
Matrix Cubed, as with Countdown to Doomsday, also uses an extensive skill system based on what career a character has chosen along with a number of general skills that each can also develop, roughly similar to that used in Interplay's post-apocalyptic RPG, Wasteland.
These represent a character's expertise with a particular field. Every new character gets an allotment of points to distribute among their career's skills and every level-up awards them with 40 points to distribute among their abilities. A maximum total of eighty points can be assigned to any one skill which translated as a percentage. Ability skills, such as those under the heading for Dexterity, also benefit from its score.
For example, if the Pick Pocket skill has 20 points allocated to it and the character's Dexterity is 16, the end total for the skill would be 36 which translates into a success percentile of 36%.
Skills marked as not being used in Countdown to Doomsday are now capable of being used in Matrix Cubed.
- Acrobatics - The skill of balance
- Climb - The ability to scale over obstacles without equipment
- Drive Groundcar - Anything on the ground is fair game
- Drive Jetcar - Ability to use a car powered by jets. Not used in the game.
- Hide in Shadows - The ability to stay out of sight
- Maneuver in Zero-G - Important when fighting without gravity; characters will a low skill level will be penalized for every action they take
- Move Silently - The ability to slip through terrain unnoticed
- Pick Pocket - The five fingered discount
- Pilot Fixed Wing Craft - The ability to fly jet or propeller powered machines
- Pilot Rocket - A rocketjock's bread and butter
- Plot Rotorwing Craft - Ability to fly a helicopter-type machine
- Use Jet Pack - Ability to fly with a jet pack and not crash
- Bypass Security - The ability to disable security systems
- Commo Operation - Being able to repair and use communications equipment with ease
- Demolitions - Being able to place and defuse explosives without turning into little pieces
- First Aid - With this, you might not be able to fill in that hole in your leg, but you can bandage that cut next to it
- Jury Rig - The skill to quickly patch fix equipment; requires Repair Mechanical and Repair Electrical skills at 10 each to use
- Open Lock - Self explanatory, although electronic locks are covered by Bypass Security
- Repair Electrical - Can be used to make field repairs to a ship after combat
- Repair Life Support - A ship without an atmosphere is not a safe ship; requires Repair Mechanical at 25 and Repair Electrical at 30.
- Repair Mechanical - Anything mechanical can be fixed with a high enough skill
- Repair Nuclear Engine - Can be used to fix ships after combat; requires Repair Mechanical at 10
- Repair Rocket Hull - Another skill to help fix a ship after combat.
- Repair Weapon - Even the the future, weapons break. Useful to fix ships as well.
- Sensor Operation - The ability to use sensors and fix them; useful for getting an estimate on just how strong that rocket you attacked might be
- Diagnose - Knowing what ails you is just as good as knowing how to cure it
- Life Suspension Tech - Allows you to use and fix life suspension equipment
- Treat Critical Wounds - Severe injuries are treated with this; requires Treat Serious Wounds at 40
- Treat Disease - Allows you to treat diagnosed diseases
- Treat Light Wounds - Field aid
- Treat Poisoning - Allows a character to heal poisoned party members
- Treat Serious Wounds - Can only be used after combat
- Treat Stun / Paralysis - Can help members hit by sonic stunners
- Astrogation - Can be used to track and find places in space; requires Astronomy at 20 and Mathematics at 25
- Astronomy - Working knowledge of space; a prerequisite
- Battle Tactics - Allows the party to become more efficient at combat in knowing what to expect; bestows bonuses
- Disguise - Need a new face on the fly? This is what you use.
- Library Search - Allows you to find whatever you want in a library, no matter how obscure
- Mathematics - It's math. Prerequisite only.
- Mimic - Copy the voice of others. Great at parties.
- Navigation - Helps steering your rocketship; requires Astronomy at 15 and Mathematics at 25
- Planetology - Understanding of planets
- Programming - Ability to program both planetside and shipboard computers
- Act - The ability to perform as someone else
- Befriend animal - Relate to animals
- Distract - Determines how well you can divert someone's attention
- Etiquette - Understanding of a culture's social norms without embarrassing anyone
- Fast Talk/Convince - The ability to make others see your idea as the best one before they can think twice about it
- Intimidate - How well you can scare others into believing that you're the only one they should be afraid of
- Leadership - The ability to tell others what you need done and how to do it; with a high enough rating, you can take control of NPCs to help the party
- Sing - How to sing without breaking glass
- Notice - Careful observation reveals many things and at higher levels, nothing stays hidden
- Planetary Survival - How to survive on a planet
- Shadowing - Ability to follow others without being noticed
- Tracking - Ability to follow tracks in the wilderness
Over the course of the adventure, the player will be visiting several locations.
- Venus - Barely terraformed, a genetically modified jungle inhabited by gennies known as "Lowlanders" inhabit this inhospitable world. Lowlanders produce a valuable commodity, Gravitol, that is essential to space travel as it aids in surviving long periods of weightlessness. The humans of NEO are allied against RAM although the Lowlanders are more neutral.
- Earth - Humanity's homeworld left in ruins after RAM's revolt centuries earlier. It is treated as a dumping ground for anything that RAM finds undesirable. NEO, with the help of Buck Rogers, have wrested it from RAM's tyrannical control although the battered planet have left them with little but a wasteland to work with. Still, the victory has set RAM on edge and while they haven't tried to retake it by force because of NEO's presence, they take any opportunity they can to reduce it to ashes in order to stop the rebels at any cost.
- Mars - The homeworld of RAM. The loss of Earth hasn't hurt their profit margins as much as it had actually freed them from any obligations that they may have had to its people. This, more than anything else, has kept them from launching an expensive offensive to retake the planet. Mars is also shared by gennies known as the Desert Runners. Primitive and far from their centers of power on the Red Planet, RAM sees them as little more than a nuisance to be ignored.
- Jupiter - Rarely visited by others, it is home to the Stormriders who are genetically engineered to survive in Jupiter's harsh atmosphere in floating cities. The Amaltheans, those who had created the Stormriders, see themselves as the rightful rulers of this small system and demand that their creations serve them for 100,000 years as payment for having made them what they are.
- Luna - Isolationists to the extreme, RAM's recent mistakes in dealing with them have pushed them into supporting NEO in the last great battle. This hasn't helped to change their disposition towards outsiders, however, and most can expect a chilly reception when arriving.
There are five different difficulty levels that determine the initial toughness of the combat encounters. They are, in the order of easiest to hardest:
The game is preset at "Trooper" difficulty which is considered the average, or median, range of difficulty that is not too hard for newcomers yet not too easy as to present little challenge.
The party-based Gold Box series of RPGs had standardized themselves on the engine that was pioneered with this game for both exploration and combat explaining the similarities between each one. Although each subsequent game would feature tweaks and modifications as a result of further gameplay enhancements, the basic structure and approach within this formula was always the same.
As it is also based on AD&D, concepts such as THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) are used to determine how easy it is to hit a character with an attack depending on how low their armor class is.
Fighting in the game continues to be handled through random and set encounters wherein experience, items, and gold are earned. When combat begins, an isometric view (the combat map) is presented with every member and attacker shown as an icon.
It is a turn based system with each side taking their turns to maneuver and issue commands. This tactical approach, in conjunction with the obstacles present onscreen such as walls and doorways, allowed the player to create their own strategies.
Initiative played an important role in determining who goes first. Each round is divided into ten segments and every character and foe act on a specific segment determined by their initiative. Actions can be delayed and held until the end of round and the computer can fight for the player using the Quick command.
Although each planet within the Solar System has its own currency system, the universal standard is the "credit".
With rocket ships and pilots, the game also involves space combat which is handled both from the pilot's perspective and that of the crew's. From the Pilot's Menu, the player can fire its weapons, target specific systems on the enemy ship, ram the enemy vessel, or even board it once they have pummeled it to the point where it can no longer move. This is not in real-time.
During combat, the player can also give orders to the crew to help repair the ship, jury rig systems to get them working again, boost the engines, use sensors to probe the other vessel (thus revealing additional information), or administer aid to those injured.