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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Cult Classics: Warriors of the Wasteland

Following the success of Mad Max 2 was a handful of post-apocalyptic B-movies. Among those was The New Barbarians (aka Warriors of the Wasteland), a dirt-cheap Italian knock off. Despite a slow start, this movie actually isn’t terrible, it just has low production values. However, I noticed a lot of similarities between this film and She Wolves of the Wasteland. Both have alternate titles. Both have promising, but underdeveloped plots and concepts. Both suffer from poor editing and a lack of closure. For that reason, let’s use a similar four points system as She Wolves, with one exception.

  1. The Plot
  2. Interesting concepts
  3. Editing
  4. Characters

The Plot: The year is 2019. It has been 9 years since the nuclear holocaust of 2010 (Thanks, Obama). The film begins by focusing on a small caravan who has just discovered “The Signal” a mythological radio frequency which supposedly leads to the last civilization on Earth. Unfortunately, before the tribe can decipher the coordinates, they’re attacked by a rival tribe of motorized marauders called “The Templars” whose only goal is to destroy all human life because reasons.

Carnage

The Templars crush their enemies with a mixture of explosives and laser guns. That night, timid humans wrapped up in white cloth (with a strong resemblance to Mad Max buzzards) loot the destroyed caravan. They run for cover when a muscle car (with a glowing green roof) appears form the darkness. Now we meet our hero, Scorpion.

Buzzards

After looting the scene and killing the buzzards, Scorpion meets with his friendly wasteland mechanic, a 10-year-old boy. With his car repaired, Scorpion drives off to save a van under attack by the Templars. The only survivor of the attack is a woman who Scorpion saves in the nick of time. Scorpion confronts Templar lieutenants, revealing he is an ex-Templar and wants to send a message to the Templar leader, One.

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Scorpion’s car has a neat chrome skull hood ornament, but that bubble dome is way too much.

Scorpion drives off with the woman, attempts to bandage her wound, and then immediately has sex with her. Meanwhile the Templar lieutenants plan to ambush Scorpion against One’s wishes. The ambush turns into a counter attack when Scorpion’s best frenemy Nadir fires on the Templars with exploding arrows.

End

 

Scorpion, the woman, and Nadir then travel to a caravan of peaceful religious people who have also found “The Signal.” The woman decides to stay with the caravan, while Scorpion drives off only to be immediately captured and anally raped by One. The Templars attack the caravan as well, killing the entire tribe almost immediately. Meanwhile, Nadir rescues Scorpion and trains him alongside the child mechanic. Finally, the three return to the religious caravan, rescue the survivors just before their executions, and defeat the Templars.

Interesting Concepts: Although Warriors of the Wasteland uses more sci-fi elements than Mad Max, there are only two truly interesting concepts in this film.

Radio

The Signal is a great idea. A legendary radio signal that will lead those who find it to the last civilization on Earth. To complete the motif, the leader of tribe looking for the promised land is named Moses. The true nature of The Signal is left ambiguous. Both tribes who discover The Signal are immediately attacked by the Templars. However, even the Templar lieutenants believe The Signal to be real.
Apparently, the source of The Signal is only 10 miles from Moses’ camp, but we never learn what happens to it. At the end of the movie, Moses’ tribe is wiped down to three people. The movie ends with the mechanic child grabbing Scorpion’s hand. The audience never learns if The Signal actually led to the promised land or if there is a last civilization at all.

Warriors of the Wasteland is clearly a Road Warrior knockoff, but it builds on car combat. Cars are armed with drills, flamethrowers, laser cannons, missiles, spinning blades to decapitate pedestrians, and laser cannons. Perhaps one of the best examples of car combat in this movie is when a Templar drills through an armored fan, then uses his flamethrower to burn the target from the inside out. Warrior’s car combat relies more on mechanical weapons while Mad Max (especially Fury Road) relies on projectile (thundersticks) and passive (kneecappers) weapons.

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The fanblade of death!

Editing: Each action scene in Warriors was filmed at three different speeds. Whereas Mad Max has fast paced action scenes where you can feel the wind, the danger, and the tension, Warriors of the Wasteland suffers from slower action. Many of the action scenes are purposely slowed down which destroys any sense of tension. This is especially true in the first battle, just five minutes into the movie, where it feels like the Templars are driving at 15 MPH. Additionally, many of the battle scenes have choppy editing which breaks the narrative flow.

Characters: The characters here are totally hit or miss.  For every interesting person in this movie, there are three with no characterization.

Not-Mad-Max

Scorpion can best be described as Not-Mad-Max. He’s a scavenger who shows up to loot a burning caravan. Other than that, he really has no character, he’s just a nice guy who knows how to fight. The woman sleeps with him because he’s nice to her. The child mechanic helps him because he’s nice. Scorpion even refuses to attack Templars because his real qualm is with One. The result is a boring lead.

Woman

I honestly could not tell you the woman’s name in this movie. Scorpion saves her, sleeps with her, and for the next 45 minutes she patiently waits in his car (even during action scenes) until finally deciding she should follow Moses’ tribe so she can be captured for the finale. Where was she going before Scorpion saved her? Who was she traveling with before they were attacked by Templars? We never find out.

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One is a weird guy. He’s the leader of the Templars, but he only ever fights Scorpion. In the beginning of the movie he rips a bible in half and says “books started this whole apocalypse.”  Maybe Warriors is a sequel to the Fahrenheit 451 movie?
One is a standard bad guy. He kills his own men when they disobey and he whispers to himself before getting into a shouting fit. Whenever a Templar asks him a question, the answer is always some variation of “kill them.” However, there is just a glimmer of extra characterization. During the previously mentioned rape scene, it’s established that all Templars are sodomized by One as an initiation ritual.

Nadir

Nadir should have been the star of this movie. There’s two posters for this movie, one portraying Scorpion, Nadir, the child mechanic, and the woman and another portraying Nadir as white accompanied by the woman. Fred Williamson plays Nadir and uses his natural charisma to create a character who is funny, stern, and perfectly hammy. Williamson’s performance makes the character far more interesting than he actually is. Without the performance, Nadir’s character is a barebones warrior who always appears just in time to save Scorpion from certain doom, which causes Scorpion to resent him.

Although it suffers from slow pacing, Warriors of the Wasteland has some neat ideas. The film takes a few tentative steps toward expanding car combat and it features an interesting religious concept. Unfortunately, the film ends without any real resolution. Once the bad guys are dead, everyone gathers around Scorpion and the movie just ends.

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The Complexity of Lord Humungus

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 The Lord Humungus is a perfect example of how an outwardly one-dimensional villain can become human through small details. Looking at The Road Warrior’s script, one would get the impression that Lord Humungus is just a means of creating conflict, but the visual medium of film allows this character to become two dimensional. Cleverly, director George Miller planned for this from the beginning and wrote backstories for all of the characters in the Mad Max franchise.

The complexity of Lord Humungus shows itself in four key ways.

  • Appearance
  • Personal Effects
  • Minions
  • Speech Patterns

The best ways to make a villain memorable is in their appearance. The best way to make an appearance memorable is to obscure someone’s face. This simple act does two things: It makes the viewer want to know what’s under the mask and the viewer more easily recognizes a specific mask than someone’s face. These are just a few of the reasons why Star Wars’ Darth Vader instantly became a culture icon.  Lord Humungus is instantly recognizable as well. Humungus’ hockey mask is iconic and noticeably different from Friday 13ths Jason Voorhees.

Humungus’ mask serves a purpose. It is hiding something. Director George Miller went out of his way to get a shot showing Lord Humungus has no ears, his head is sickly (with visible veins on the scalp), and his hair is wispy (outwardly looking like radiation sickness). Notice we see Humungus’ scars just as he says “We all lost someone we love”. This leads the audience to wonder if the two are connected, if somehow Humungus got his scars while trying to rescue someone he cared about and it is because he failed that he became a monster.

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From the standpoint of art direction, the genius of Humungus’ appearance is more than a mask, it is also his clothing and physique. Notably, Humungus wears a large rubber collar which enhances the size of his neck, giving him a more masculine and intimidating appearance to match is already intense muscle-mass. It is also worth mentioning that during the final battle, Humungus wears a fur cloak. A large fur coat in a post-apocalyptic setting is an obvious sign of wealth and power, solidifying Humungus as the marauder king.

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They say you can tell a lot about a person by the contents of their wallet. In Mad Max 2, you can tell a lot about a bandit by the contents of his gun case. In a world where everything is decaying, Lord Humungus has a beautiful case for his .44 revolver. The chest contains a few pins of the Australian army, a WWI-era military photograph, many missing bullets, and most interestingly, a Prussian Totenkopf (more on that later). Just by looking at this case we know a lot about Humungus. Primarily, we are led to believe he was once a soldier (which may explain why he has so many cops in his tribe). In a 1984 interview, George Miller confirmed these suspicions, saying that Humungus was written as having been a “military man.”

When Humungus actually uses his revolver, notice he fires into the engine block, rather than taking aim at Max. This seems to reinforce the idea that Humungus is willing to compromise and wishes to avoid violence and pain in possible. It’s a subtle touch, but an important one.

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Humungus’ vehicle also says a lot about him.  The marauder king’s truck is like a mobile throne, adorned with tritons, nitrous, and hides. The two prisoners strapped to the front of the vehicle have always captured attention and been a landmark of the Mad Max franchise. It is especially interesting that Humungus singled out Pappagallo (the leader of the opposing tribe) and killed him personally. A killing spear thrown from a moving vehicle shows Humungus’ immense strength and demonstrates why he is in charge.

The minions of Lord Humungus are reflections of the man himself. Toadie (the herald) shows his leader’s dramatic side, building him up as a prophetic figure of the wasteland. Wez (the warrior) represents the insanity of the post-apocalyptic world, where men chase their desires without any forethought to their consequences and devolve into animals.

The relationship between Humungus and Wez is perhaps the most interesting. Wez is his master’s Id, desperate to slaughter and get his revenge, but he is physically kept in bondage by Humungus’ chains once he is revealed to be too bloodthirsty.  Wez is Humungus’ last resort, a true dog of war who is unleashed only for the most desperate situation.

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Finally, there is Humungus’ speech style. Whenever Humungus speaks, the audience gets a glimpse at an educated man in great pain. Though his followers are primarily ruthless vultures, Humungus offers Pappagallo a chance to “just walk away”, stating that there has been too much violence and too much pain. Whether or not this was a genuine offer or a trap only George Miller knows, but it shows that Humungus is cunning, intelligent, and perhaps even merciful.

Also noticeable about Humungus’ relationship to his soldiers is the use of homoerotic undertones. In once scene, the warlord can be heard calling to his “Gayboy Bereserkers” and “Smegma Crazies.” This throwaway line combined with Wez’ relation to the Golden Youth raises questions about the tribe’s role in a post-society world. Certainly the marauders aren’t exclusively gay as there is the infamous”tent scene.”

Finally, in Lord Humungus’ gun case we find a Prussian Totenkopf which is combined with a small detail that greatly expands the bandit king’s character. During the night torture scene, where the marauders wave fire sticks and rev their motorcycles, Humungus can be heard reciting “Mein Sohn, mein Sohn” and “Mein Vater, Mein Vater”. These are lines from the Prussian philosopher Goethe’s (pronounced Ger-ta) poem “Der Erlkönig”. The poem describes a child who cries to his father that he is being attacked by unseen forces. The father ignores the boy and when he finally looks down, the child is dead (perhaps Humungus is using this is a metaphor for the collapse of society). What’s more impressive is that Humungus (presumably an Australian soldier) delivers this in the German tongue. From this tiny quote, we know Lord Humungus is tremendously well educated as he is able to recite an 18th century Prussian poem without any scripture to read from.

The character of Lord Humungus shines through in the visuals and movements. The little details about this antagonist tell the audience everything they need to know about the marauders without any exposition. Subtle characterization is best achieved by knowing your characters before putting them in a situation. For over 30 years, George Miller has been a master of this subtle character development starting with The Road Warrior and showing that he still has it with the characters of Fury Road.

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