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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The Little Details That Make Mad Max Great

The Mad Max game (2015) is loaded with small details that make the world feel like a living breathing entity. The wasteland is full of lore and history which shows in every area. Everything in the environment was placed with gentle care. Quest items are hinted at through decorations in the world. To illustrate this, I’ve collected the top five small details that make Mad Max great.

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  1. Thrall Rustlers: Slavery plays a big part in the wasteland. A handful of main characters are slaves. Nearly every camp has slave cages. The player hears a lot of discussion about the slave trade, yet there aren’t slave caravans or opportunities to free slaves in the game. What there is however, is a very interesting idea.
    They only appear in one mission before Max wipes them out, but the Thrall Rustlers have a very cool concept. A slaving guild that only kidnaps people with strange deformities or useful skills. Had this been developed a bit more, this could have been an impressive faction.
    For the Thrall Rustlers quest, I would have enjoyed seeing Max use Chumbucket as bait (since he is a renowned mechanic with a deformity), then follow the slavers to their hideout. This would also better establish the relationship between Max and Chum. There was a lot of opportunity in this quest for something really interesting, if only it had been given an extra push.

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  1. Christmas in Underdune: Upon driving into the legendary Underdune for the first time, I was floored by the amount of detail. The player is tasked with getting a garland of electric lights from this buried airport. What’s impressive is that it’s not without reason. There is a logical explanation as to why there are electric lights in Underdune.
    It was Christmas time before the fall. The player can recognize this as soon as they enter the airport’s largest cavern. The lobby is decorated with hanging metal wreathes, long ago stripped of their leaves, but still identifiable because of the ribbons hanging from their bases. There’s also a large golden star hanging from the ceiling in that same cavern.
    It’s one thing to send players into a deathtrap for a McGuffin, it’s another to let them know why the item is there. This is great environmental storytelling.

 

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Most toilets are situated on a ledge, adding to the realistic feel.

 

  1. Livable Camps: Every camp in the wasteland looks like a place that people could realistically live in. Care was taken to add animals cages, beds, toilets, and knick knacks to every single location. Again, the world doesn’t just feel lived in, it feels alive. At certain locations (specifically scavenger locations in Dump), Warboys can be seen gazing upon the landscape or resting in their beds. Unlike the raiders in Fallout 3, who are on constant patrol for enemies, the Warboys in Mad Max have duties (though small and scripted) beyond waiting for the player to show up. It’s a small detail, but it brings the world to life.

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  1. Max’s Leg: You can’t have Mad Max without his iconic leg brace. Avalanche took great care with this seemingly tiny detail. When Max falls from a great height, he struggles to walk for a few dozen steps. The farther Max falls, the greater his injury. During my last playthrough, Max fell down a slope somewhere in Gutgash territory. When he finally stood up, I realized he was actually holding his brace and was unable to move for a few seconds. This tiny detail adds a lot of character, separating Max from other generic characters. Knowing that someone took the time to animate Max holding his leg, the player can tell that a lot of love went into this game.

 

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5. Language: I’ve often thought what separates good fiction from great fiction is in-universe language and phrases. Tolkien created the Elven language for the world of Middle Earth. Frank Herbert included a glossary with Dune. Likewise, the Mad Max game reflects a world where society has collapsed and formal education is a myth. Phrases become muddled. Letters and numbers disappear as tribal cultures takes over the wasteland.

Occasionally while passing a balloon, Chumbucket will say (and this is reflected in the subtitles) “Look! A Hoddarballoon!” This is a great and subtle example of a fluid wasteland language. Chumbucket has never seen the words “hot air balloon” in writing, he only imitates what others have said until the three words become one muddled idea. This is just one instance of how the developers changed language in Mad Max; combined with other terms like “Kamakrazee” and “Lighties,” the player understand that this world is not the same Max was born into.

Furthering the collapse of the English language in the Wasteland, the player will notice that written language has been replaced with hieroglyphics. Carved into a flatscreen in Deep Friah’s temple is a sacred location described through pictures. This is the first of several treasure hunts involving pictures. During other quests, Max will hunt for treasure using images of the old world, rather than specific locations. Written English only exists on crumpled photographs and weathered road signs. This is surprisingly effective in building the theme that the civilized world is gone forever.

Did you see know any other small details in the Mad Max game? If so, please share in the comments section!