Desert Law: School Bus Mounted Howitzer

desert-law_w1010.pngMy Steam library is filled with post-apocalyptic games. Generally, I’ll pick up (or at least wishlist) any apocalyptic game I come across. Desert Law has been in my library for about two years. I picked it up on sale, played it for 10 minutes, and then uninstalled it. However, enough time has passed that I thought the game deserved another chance. Unfortunately, the game aged about as well as a bloated corpse in the wasteland sun.

Desert Law’s narrative makes Wasteland Angel look complex by comparison. After the apocalypse, tribes of road warriors kill each other over booze and car parts. What kind of apocalypse is this? We don’t really know. The entire world is a desert and some places are populated by angry sentient zombies napping beneath the sand.
Here’s the story: Generic wastelander Brad wants to woo a girl for mating season, but rival tribes of gangsters and pre-apocalypse military keep mucking up his plans. Brad convinces his tribe to kill everyone in their way until Jane (the love interest) notices him.

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The Postal Dude shoots Gengis Khan

The story is told in comic-book format. Make of the art style what you will. Speech bubbles appear and pages turn automatically. I personally found the speed of these sections to be a little too fast. I wasn’t able to read all the text before the page change. However, considering the prevalence of misused and misspelled words, it’s clear the game doesn’t care about the story and the player shouldn’t either.

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Gameplay revolves around commanding a handful of buggies and armored hotrods with swivel turrets. In an interesting twist, drivers can exit vehicles and continue on foot. Hero units drive standard cars, but grant slight bonuses to different vehicles. Like Starcraft, there are a few infiltrator style missions where you abandon your convoy and explore ruined settlements on foot.

Unfortunately, Desert Law is difficult for all the wrong reasons. A great source of difficulty comes from bugged pathfinding. Without micro-management, units will drive directly into scenery. Exciting chases are impossible because cars regularly bump into each other. Destroyed units act as physical barriers. Although the monster-truck unit can smash through concrete walls and small buildings, it cannot drive over destroyed cars. This makes defense missions incredibly difficult as your army is quickly boxed in.

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See the one car facing the opposite direction? The pathfinding made it crash into friendly units.

Units disobey orders and tend to chase enemies, making command options (stand ground, ambush, etc) completely useless. There’s no UI feedback to indicate you’ve given a unit orders. On multiple occasions, I’ve set up a defense line around a stationary turret. Despite being set to “stand ground” my weakest unit rushed into the fray before enemies entered the turret’s range. Even worse, this was a hero unit.

The game enters a fail state whenever a hero is killed. This wouldn’t be a problem in most RTS games, but in Desert Law hero units make up the majority of your army. Take, for example, the first real mission of the game. You start the quest with five units, three of them are heroes. As you progress through the quest, you’ll pick up another three heroes. You have a total army size of eight, but only two of your units are permitted to die during the quest. In most RTS games, hero units are exceptionally powerful, giving them enhanced survivability. In Desert Law heroes grant slight bonuses to standard vehicles. All these problems are only exacerbated by generally squishy units.

Enemies are comparable to player units, but are far more numerous. Units can be repaired by the mechanic hero, but there’s a catch. First, the mechanic doesn’t appear in every mission. Second, reflecting the post-apocalyptic setting, every unit has a set amount of ammo per level. The mechanic has no guns, but uses ammo by repairing vehicles.

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See the tiny health bar under the monster truck? That’s a foot soldier.

Just to recap, Desert Law is a strategy game where you instantly fail if any hero unit dies. The majority of your army is comprised of heroes who are only slightly better than standard units. You’re outnumbered 5:1 by enemies who are just as powerful as you. You can repair your vehicles, but can only make 3-4 repairs per mission. The game has no base building, but reinforcements occasionally appear after completing objectives.

There’s not a lot to say about Desert Law. It’s a single player blitzkrieg-style strategy game with an irrelevant story, no voice acting, and poor optimization.  Fortunately, the game is only $2.99, frequently goes on sale, and includes 29 missions. If you’re looking for a cheap distraction or compulsively buy post-apocalyptic games, give it a look.

If you’re interested in Desert Law, you can get it here

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Gunman Taco Truck: Refreshing!

gmtt-4.jpgAfter the monotony of Wasteland Angel and the abject failure of The Underground Man, I was delighted to learn of Gunman Taco Truck from Romero Games. The ultimate surprise came when I looked at the game on Steam and found that it was designed by a 9-year-old boy. With that said, Gunman Taco Truck is an addictive arcade game with a great sense of humor and a steep difficulty curve.

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The premise is simple. Scientists accidentally set off nuclear bombs, killing or mutating almost everything in the United States. One mysterious food truck driver must embark on a cross country trip from San-Diego to Winnipeg, Canada. Gasoline is expensive in the apocalypse. To make ends meet, our hero must slaughter mutants, harvest their meat, and sell delicious tacos.

The gameplay is a nice balance of resource management, lane defense, reflex based shooting, cooking games, and memory. It sounds like a mess of parts, but combined with a powerful premise, it all fits together quite nicely. In fact, I haven’t seen a game that flawlessly pulled together so many elements since Sunless Sea.

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To get meat, you’ll find yourself in a lane based arcade shooter, where you simply have to kill enemies before they get to you. Along the way, you’ll also need to shoot road signs for scrap metal (to upgrade your vehicle) and un-mutated animals for specialty meats. To pay for gas, you need to sell tacos. Here’s the catch: You need extra ingredients (cheese, salsa, cilantro, mold, etc) to fulfill the orders. Each gas station has either a grocer or a mechanic. Prices of items vary at each location. You never really feel safe because no grocer sells every kind of topping. On the one hand, this ensures that you can’t grind tacos. On the other hand, if you run out of toppings, you’re going to have a bad time.

That leads me to the next area: difficulty. Though the game starts out simple, the difficulty curve pulls up so hard it’s almost at an overhang. If you fail to upgrade your vehicle (or can’t find enough scrap metal) you’ll be eaten alive by super-mutants and giant frogs. The farther you go, the more enemies you face. In other words, the late-game quickly becomes bullet hell.

Now I mentioned that nobody sells every kind of taco topping. That turns out to be a major downside in this game. Some ingredients (salsa especially) are included in almost every recipe. Unfortunately, I found that (because the game uses RNG) some ingredients are incredibly hard to find. I’ve had at least seven “Game Over” screens simply because no one was selling salsa.

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Though difficult, the visuals make gameplay rewarding. There’s a huge number of mutants, meats, and weapons in the world. Sprites are fun, colorful, and cartoonish. Great feedback, colors, and “hurt” sprites help the player navigate harder levels. Close ups of customers are charming and invoke an art-style similar to Papers, Please.

It’s also worth noting that the game is honestly funny. After feeding hungry customers, you receive reviews. There’s a lot of flavor text and references that contributes to the tone and humor, without distracting the player. Finally, there’s the kid friendly “pinata mode”. Instead of exploding into a thousand bloody bits, enemies will explode into candy and stuffed animals. This is a great extra addition and highlights the care that went into this project.

I love games that you can jump into and play for 30 minute sessions; “Gunman Taco Truck” is no exception. From its fast gameplay to its charming premise, this is a welcome addition to your library of post-apocalyptic games. My one caveat would be price; Gunman Taco Truck sells for $11.99. Regardless, when compared to other post-apocalyptic indie games, this is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in Gunman Taco Truck, you can get it here.

The Underground Man: Smoke and Mirrors

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I’ve played a lot of AAA games and I’ve played a lot of indie games, but I’ve never played a game quite like The Underground Man. The game is tagged as a “story rich RPG.” Although the character creation screen is reminiscent of old pen and paper sheets, this is most certainly not an RPG. The Underground Man relies on an old school vibe, similar to Kung Fury or Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Don’t be fooled, this game is a far cry from those it tries to imitate.

The best way to explain my frustration with The Underground Man is to describe my experience. The game’s store description reads:
Moscow: Sometime in the near future. The city and perhaps the Earth’s surface has turned into a radioactive ash. Those who decided that they could not exist in such conditions began to live under the ground.
The unusual wording of this description should have been an early warning, but I initially assumed that since the developers are independent and from Russia, that the game might have some other merit.

As the game boots up, you see the logo “Mehsoft.” That turned out to be a fairly appropriate name.  The music is an oddly good throwback to early SNES games and reminiscent of Kung Fury.

Moving on to character creation, the player is treated to a whopping 36 skills including “sexuality”, “sence of humor”, “mental complexity”, and “kindness.”  The player is given an enormous number of points to distribute, but all this is an exercise in futility.  None of these skills do anything, they have no effect on the game. Finally, the player cannot proceed until they write a character bio at least 140 characters long.

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Don’t be fooled. This character creation screen is a waste of time.

If you manage to make it past the character creation screen, you are treated to a picture of an atomic explosion that has been distorted to look authentically 80s. Without any further introduction, you are then dropped into an underground cave opposite a robed figure. Now begins a lengthy unskippable dialogue establishing your goal.

The player is told that the people of the underground have been harvesting potatoes for years, but that the crops are starting to go bad. Therefore, the titular Underground Man must go to the surface and find corndogs as they are “food wrapped in food” and therefore safe from radiation.  Should the Underground Man recover the corndogs, his people will scientifically analyze them to produce their own potato corndogs.
I actually don’t have a problem with this quirky and memetic dialogue. Not every post-apocalyptic setting has to be dark and gritty. Humor can serve as contrast to a setting’s gloom and despair.

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Notice that the first line spoken to the player is “Hello there, shithead.”

The dialogue system here is somewhat interesting. There are no dialogue options, you have to type out your answers. If you have no idea what to type, you’re allowed 3 hints that will show you the possible responses for the conversation. In the tutorial this amounts to “Yes,” “No,” and “____”

Over the next five minutes, the player is told that the last person sent to the surface went crazy from the radiation sickness and returned wearing women’s underwear. The tutorial NPC goes on to say that after trying to kiss another man, the previous explorer was beaten to death with shovel before the tribe urinated on his corpse. This is real. This is actually in the game.

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After 10 minutes, the player is finally given a sense of control. They’re told to move to the right side of the room by holding “D”. If you fail to do this or if you press any button other than “D” the tutorial NPC will call you a failure and you’ll be sent back to the main menu.  There’s no save system (though you do periodically receive checkpoints if you pass the tutorial), so although you can ignore the useless skills, you still have to write 140 character bio before starting again. Once you start over, you’ll have to wait through another 10 minutes of scrolling text before you can reattempt the tutorial. If you manage to pass the movement challenge, you’ll be asked to jump. You’ll be asked to jump over a dozen times. If you just mash the spacebar, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.

Should you pass the movement section, you’ll be allowed to fight a radroach. If you lasted this long, you’ll realize that the game is merely a 2D beat ‘em up. Your health bar is represented by three hearts in the top left corner of the screen. After the fighting tutorial, you’ll learn how to pick up items. Again, if you don’t perform perfectly, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.

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Empty screens just provide filler, rather than enhance the setting.

In the unlikely event that you pass the tutorial, you’ll find yourself walking across a few dozen empty wasteland screens before meeting the game’s only companion. Trap is the female(ish) sidekick whose dialogue consists almost entirely of rumors about what’s between her legs. So long as Trap accompanies the player, she will shoot at enemies with an energy weapon.2016-12-01_2324

The further you get into the “story”, the more reminiscent the gameplay is of NES shovelware. Everything that touches you removes one of your three hit points. Getting pooped on by a bird does the same damage as being punched by a zombie. Toward the end of the game, the player must engage in precision platforming across a lake of instant-killing green slime (filled with leaping piranhas). Additionally, there’s a short 2.5D driving section in a hovercraft (with holographic legs).

Despite its large number of locations, The Underground Man is horrifically padded. Much of the game is simply walking across multiple empty screen. Although this makes the wasteland feel big and empty, it doesn’t accomplish anything. The original Fallout didn’t make you walk across a dozen screens of wasteland, but it still gave players a sense of scale. The Underground Man could have relied on in-game cutscenes to transition between zones. Instead, they made the game longer. This is especially horrendous near the previously mentioned platforming section which requires the player not only to get across the acid lake, but then travel back in a single attempt. As it stands, the game is about 5 hours long (mistakes included). If you could skip the tutorial, fast forward through dialogue, and never made a mistake the game would probably be about an hour long.

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There’s nothing wrong with a joke game (even one that relies on memetic humor), so long as it has some redeeming quality. Even silly nonsensical games can be fun. Adult Swim’s Jazzpunk is an incredibly simple game, but it knows how to entertain. Steam reviews suggest that this game was made for the purpose of trolling and that an understanding of Russian humor is required to understand the dialogue.
I just don’t understand why The Underground Man was made, especially since most players will immediately request a refund. I’m reminded of Penn and Teller’s: Smoke and Mirrors (you may know it as the infamous Desert Bus), a fake game that only exists to frustrate. The difference is that Smoke and Mirrors was a multiplayer game meant to annoy and confuse your friends. The Underground Man is a punchline without a joke.

If you’re still interested in The Underground Man, you can get it here.

Wasteland Angel: The Mad Max Arcade

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Wasteland Angel is a post-nuclear themed vehicular arcade shooter from indie developers Octane Games. I like to pick up any post-apocalyptic games I can find, especially indie games, just to see how they use the setting. With that in mind, Wasteland Angel is a serviceable top-down arcade shooter, though not an especially great post-apocalyptic arcade shooter.

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Although an arcade shooter, Wasteland Angel boasts a story, told in comic book form, about the titular Angel (essentially a female Mad Max) driving across post-nuclear America to find an old acquaintance. In her quest, she will pass through a number of villages, each of which is being attacked by slavers with either a generic raider, Russian militant, or super mutant theme.

There are six chapters in Wasteland Angel, each of which is split into four levels. The first two levels always consist of slaughtering wave after wave of enemies as they try to abduct settlers from the local village. The third level is a boss battle in which you must “trick” a super vehicle into running over a napalm trail or land mines. The fourth level is a bonus round in first person, either a rampage mission or a race (against time, not AI cars).

Unfortunately, this formula gets old very quickly. There’s just not enough variety, either in enemies or gameplay. Once you’ve played the first two chapters, there’s really no reason to continue unless you want to finish the story.
The first two missions of every chapter are incredibly tedious as you must fight off hundreds of vehicles across 20+ waves. Worse is that there’s little variety in enemies. Even the boss battles are recycled.

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Same boss fight. New coat of paint.

There are three enemies in Wasteland Angel with a different coat of paint for each faction:

  1. Vehicle that only attacks you
  2. Vehicle that either attacks you or collects slaves
  3. Vehicle that only collects slaves

Occasionally, enemies will use your own items against you (some will leave a trail of napalm behind them), but between monotonous waves and little enemy variation, there’s not a lot to see here.

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It’s fun to make enemies SPLAT!

All this isn’t to say that Wasteland Angel isn’t fun. Although fleeting, there is some fun to be had with the vehicular aspect as well as the wasteland motif. Being that you’re in a car, your car makes wide, realistic turns. Guns only point toward the front of the car, meaning that players who adopt naval strategy will find themselves with more health and more time. Interestingly, cars react somewhat realistically to bullets. If bullets only graze your target, no damage is done and the player is treated to a metallic ping.  When a car is satisfyingly destroyed, it will often leave a driver in its place who will either shoot at the player or run away. Bonus points are granted for splattering raiders with your car. There’s great combat feedback and the car controls feel like Mad Max, albeit with more bullets, rockets, and mini-nukes.

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Challenge me! Show me your high score!

                Wasteland Angel’s tone and art style lies somewhere between Mad Max and Fallout. Small details, such as kneecappers, were added to enemy cars to make them look more wastelandish. The bandit character models are surprisingly detailed in a classic Road Warrior style. However, the Fallout art style shines through in the titular Angel, who wears a pink skirt and a pink bow-tie in her hair.  The opening menu and the post-mission score card both take on a 1960s pinup motif, adding to that Fallout feel. Additionally, Wasteland Angel includes super mutant rip-offs for its final act. Unfortunately, because the game chose a middle of the road approach to its art style, it inevitably comes off as generic. There are hundreds of pictures of post-apocalyptic cars on Deviantart, but many of them are drawn in the same style, a style which Wasteland Angel followed as well.

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You only see enemies up close in bonus missions, but they’re surprisingly detailed!

Finally, I’m not sure that the post-nuclear atmosphere was the best choice for this game.
I enjoyed it, but there’s a dissonance between the setting and the action. The post-apocalyptic genre is always about scarcity in one form or another, but Wasteland Angel has the player firing hundreds of bullets per second while facing off against hundreds of enemies in a single battle. Infinite ammo and near infinite enemies don’t really reflect the setting Octane Games has chosen.
This game would have worked better as the story of a sci-fi bounty hunter saving planetary settlers from space pirates. Such a narrative would have better connected with the gameplay and could have improved review scores.

As it stands, Wasteland Angel is fun for maybe an hour. There are some fun aspects with the car controls, bonus missions, and weapons, but they don’t make up for the long and tedious missions or the copy/pasted boss battles. Although I always try to recommend a piece of media to some specific person, I can only recommend Wasteland Angel for 30-45 minutes. It’s forgettable

If you’re interested in Wasteland Angel you can get it here.