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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Radiation as a Gameplay Mechanic

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You can’t have a post-nuclear setting without radiation. Many films overlook this crucial aspect or at most offer a token Geiger counter scene (She Wolves of the Wasteland). This is largely because radiation cannot be seen, felt, or heard and special equipment is required to detect it. Despite this, radiation serves as an important gameplay mechanic in the majority of post-nuclear video games, but with gamification comes new challenges. In reality, radiation does not kill outright, even several lethal doses will not result in immediate death. Because radiation attacks the body slowly, game developers have approached this mechanic in a variety of ways.

To further explore this mechanic, we’ll be analyzing three game series that make extensive use of radiation.

  1. Metro 2033
  2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  3. Fallout

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The Geiger counter in Metro 2033 is primarily used for immersive world building. Small set pieces such as bioluminescent mushrooms or pools of bubbling green slime will cause the Geiger counter to tick. These pockets of radiation are mostly harmless, though Artyom can die if he stands in a radioactive hotspot for a few minutes. Although subtle, this gameplay mechanic immerses the player into the setting. Without radiation, the world of Metro 2033 could be mistaken for a sci-fi setting similar to Gears of War, especially since Moscow’s surface is considered poisonous rather than radioactive. This is why so many post-apocalyptic movies have an obligatory Geiger counter scene: it puts the audience in a survivalist mindset. The Metro games take this a step further, subtly reminding the player that the world above the tunnels is not like the world in the postcards.

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Though technically not post-nuclear, fans of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise are constantly aware of their radiation exposure. Contrary to handful of contaminated puddles and mushrooms in post-nuclear Moscow, the Zone is positively covered with fields of radiation. Players who wander into these hot spots will find their vision distorted by grey TV static.

Radiation damage is pretty simple: the more radiation you’ve absorbed, the faster your health decreases. Radiation can be removed either with a radiation absorbing artifact or a dose of anti-rad. Because artifacts drain radiation slowly and anti-rad is somewhat rare, players are forced to respond quickly after absorbing deadly amounts of radiation.

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Although the Zone’s radioactive hotspots (and anomalies) seem like a nuisance, they actually encourage exploration. Artifact hunting aside, anomalies and pockets of radiation act as landmines, encouraging the player to take the long way (usually ending up at a lootable location), rather than risk wasting resources or instant death.

Moreover, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. encourages a high risk/ high reward style of gameplay when dealing with artifacts. Although artifacts grant stalkers special abilities, they emit large amounts of radiation. Before obtaining high tier anti-radiation artifacts, players will occasionally be forced to balance their health, elemental resistance, carry weight, and radiation levels. Having artifacts emit radiation was a brilliant idea and one that makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series all the more satisfying and rewarding.

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Finally, there’s the Fallout franchise. Radiation sickness has been a gameplay mechanic since the first Fallout, but originally it didn’t effect much. In the first game, there were only two ways to get irradiated: Get smacked by a glowing one or wander into The Glow.

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Lets cook some hot-dogs!

The original Fallout has the most complex take on radiation sickness, requiring a chart to fully understand what it does. Every part of the character is effected: HP, healing, and SPECIAL (with skills as a result). If either HP or any S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute drops to zero because of radiation sickness, the character will die. However, as I said previously, I don’t think radiation was used to its full potential in  the original Fallout. Two doses of Rad-X makes the player completely immune to radiation, giving them 24 hours to explore The Glow without worrying about any side effects. Even if the player took a few points of radiation damage on arrival, they can use a single Rad-Away to instantly cure themselves. Allowing the player to reach 100% radiation resistance detracted from the danger of The Glow as the lore (and environment) shows that even Brotherhood Paladins have died due to the intense radiation exposure.

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Fallout 3 streamlined the mechanic of radiation sickness. Instead of effecting several variables, radiation sickness only lowers endurance (at minor sickness), agility (at advanced sickness), strength (at critical sickness) and finally caused death at 1000 rads. Additionally, radiation was far more present in Fallout 3 than previous games in the franchise. The Lone Wanderer could not eat or drink  without absorbing at least a few rads. Additionally, radiation resistance was capped at 85%, making it challenging to approach areas like Vault 87.

With Fallout 3 and New Vegas came special perks associated with radiation sickness.  These perks are often overlooked as the majority of players want to keep their rads as low as possible. However, the brave few who uses these bonuses will find their gameplay dramatically shifts toward min-maxing.

  • Rad Regeneration: Offers the player free healing of crippled limbs in exchange for advanced radiation sickness (-2 EN, -1 AG). This perk comes free with the “Wasteland Survival Guide” quest, but is lackluster compared to admantium skeleton, which decreases limb damage by 50%. Perhaps this perk was ahead of its time. It would have been great for survival mode in New Vegas (as rare doctors bags are required to heal limbs), but in a game where a single stimpack instantly heals crippled limbs, this is a useless perk.
  • Rad Child: This perk is where high risk/high reward should shine through. Each level of radiation sickness increases health regeneration. In exchange for minor radiation sickness (-1 EN), player are treated to +2 health per second. At advanced sickness, players receive +4 health per second. Again, this is often overlooked simply because it relies on radiation, which brings S.P.E.C.I.A.L. penalties. However, by utilizing Wasteland outfits (which provide +1 EN, +1 AG) the effects of advanced sickness are practically nullified, while the player still benefits from extreme HP regeneration. Although for balance purposes this perk should be risky, it actually provides far more protection than power armor or a higher damage threshold while still allowing players to travel at maximum speed.
  • ATOMIC: This perk grants players a faster run speed, +2 strength,  and+2 damage threshold while being irradiated. Additionally, action points regenerate much faster based on level of radiation sickness. This synergizes amazingly well with Rad Child. The challenge is that the best parts of the perk are only available while being irradiated.Luckily, New Vegas has coyote steaks, which irradiate the player over time and whose effects stack. If the Courier should buy coyote steaks at every opportunity, they will become more powerful than any wastelander could possibly imagine.

Although overlooked, New Vegas’ radiation perks are definitely worth the penalties they bring, especially when combined with wasteland outfits and the Travel Light perk.

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Most recently, there is Fallout 4 and Fallout: Shelter where the mechanic of radiation sickness was streamlined once again. Radiation sickness now merely reduces maximum health by 1% per 10 rads (making 1000 rads still lethal). This eliminates the complexities of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system as a whole and reduces roleplaying opportunities.

At a first glance Fallout 4 seems like it moved away from the aspect of radioactivity. Although the game moved away from player interaction with radiation, it expanded on NPC interaction in the form of weapons that utilize radiation damage. These weapons reduce the max health of an enemy, making it more difficult (if not impossible) for them to heal. What I find interesting in this new gameplay element issome enemies are immune to radiation while others are highly resistant. This is a big shift from Fallout 3, where all NPCs were immune to radiation and could approach the door of Vault 87 without any trouble.

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Gamma Guns are fun

Overall, each game (even within the same franchise) deals with radiation differently. It’s a difficult feature to include in a game and it’s even harder to get right. There’s no right or wrong answer to the inclusion of radiation sickness in a video game or movie. Metro 2033 uses radiation merely to set the tone, while S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses radiation to make players think about resource management and navigation, and the gameplay mechanics of the Fallout franchise continue to mutate in entirely new directions. Radiation is a necessary part of the post-nuclear atmosphere and I hope game developers continue to experiment with this genre specific gameplay mechanic.

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How would you like to see radioactivity and radiation sickness used in video games?  Tell us in the comments!