Tuesday, 19 May 2015

#13: Freeway Fighter



FREEWAY FIGHTER

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

I know exactly where I got this book (and more or less when too – it was certainly in Summer 1985.) It’s the only FF I ever got from what was then the huge Games Workshop in Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. We were there for some reason and I got the book and then walked down to the banks of the River Trent and played it for the first time on a gloriously sunny day. Since then I’ve probably only played it four or five more times because the Sci-Fi books never really caught my imagination in the same way the Medieval fantasy entries did. From what I can gather, this one doesn’t get played all that often by many FF fans which is both unsurprising in some ways, but also a bit of a pity.

On first opening the book, this has to have one of the most intriguing Adventure Sheets of all the FFs. Firstly, there are four pages of it which suggests a pretty elaborate system. Secondly, there is a schematic of your car with little pictures of rockets, iron spikes, oil canisters, and spare wheels for you to mark off as you use them. There is a box to record any custom Modifications you do and a Fuel tracking box too. On your personal stats page is a Med-Kit checking-off box, a box listing 200 Credits and even a box to name your character! Then there’s a page for Enemy Encounters followed by a final page for Vehicle Encounters. All looking pretty exciting really. A read-through of the rules tells us to roll-up Skill and Luck conventionally, but you get a remarkably high Stamina of 2d6 plus 24 (more on this later), then there’s additional generation of stats for your car – Firepower (ie Skill for your car) is calculated the same way as your own Skill, then Armour (car Stamina) is 2d6 plus 24 (the same as your own Stamina.) So you seem to be pretty tough with an equally tough bit of hardware to cruise around in. Furthermore, there are three sets of combat rules – Hand Fighting (combats where you are armed with any non-ballistic weapons or your own fists) which is basically standard combat but with two key differences, one being that fists only do damage of -1 St on a successful hit, the second being rather more unusual which allows for a very realistic element where the first person to lose 6 Stamina will lose consciousness (at last, on book number 13 we have the first FF that allows for this rather obvious feature, rather than just letting you take a relentless pummelling with no pre-death consequences); Shooting is similar to normal combat but damage is calculated by rolling 1d6 and deducting whatever number is rolled from the injured character’s Stamina – even the rules tell us that this reflects the variable damage from a bullet of anywhere from a flesh wound to outright death (another realistic touch); Vehicle Combat is the same as Shooting but is for, erm, vehicle combats, so Skill becomes Firepower and Stamina is Armour with the added proviso that anyone in a destroyed vehicle dies too (again a nice realistic touch) – you also have the equally logical option of firing one of your rockets at an enemy vehicle and decimating it on the spot without having to roll any dice. I love these rules for their realism and variation in cause and effect and, on playing the book, it becomes apparent that the balance of their deployment is generally equal which is unusual in FFs with loads of combat rules where one is normally favoured at the expense of (usually) the more interesting rules. We are also told that we have 200 Credits to use as money, but that a system of bartering for medicine (your Med-Kits) is favoured in this particular future which is, again, an interesting and quite realistic idea for a post-apocalyptic future (and it actually happens in the game!)

...A future which, now, is not all that far off given that the book is set in 2022 as the well-written and actually quite exciting introductory back-story tells us. Basically, one day (21st June 2022 to be precise) a virus somehow broke out in New York City which rapidly spread globally and had wiped-out 85% of the world’s population within four days, leaving a desolate future wasteland where society rapidly degenerated into anarchy remarkably quickly (don’t they always in these futures!) Fuel is a valuable commodity, as are medicine and seeds (presumably to grow food crops?) and YOU come into the equation by being selected to drive a mercy mission from the hackneyed-named New Hope to San Anglo to trade a cart-load of seeds for 10,000 litres of fuel. YOU drive a Dodge Interceptor tricked-up to the teeth with weapons which you will then leave at San Anglo and drive a fuel tanker back home again. Reading the Intro really makes this seem like a fun thing to do and the two aspects that really make this book work are the sheer fun of it all and the pacing of the plot and text.

Rather than going into long descriptive sections the fast pace is maintained with short and snappy paragraphs giving just enough detail to allow us to visualise this future. And this is the big feature of this book as everywhere you go and, in particular, everyone you encounter, are pretty one-dimensional caricatures that mostly exist just for you to destroy or acquire stuff from. In typical IL style, even in a Sci-Fi book we still get a companion at one point, but the equally one-note Amber is just a plot point rather than the usual die or run way side-kick. Similarly, almost everyone you meet is either psychotic or wants to rob you but that works for me as this is a dystopian future where society has disintegrated and it’s every man for himself in a bid for primeval survival. It’s a nice antidote to the usually quite intense FF material purely because this book is so fast-paced (you can really feel the adrenalin pumping as you speed across the desert roads), is action-packed, and is totally mindless fun for the sheer hell of it. It asks very little of the reader, but I don’t have a problem with that as it just really works and is very charming in its simplicity. Blowing up cars and buildings with various weapons makes this feel like a video game, but there are nonetheless a few clever moments, primarily the Blitz Race where you really do have to fully exploit your car’s arsenal to win the race (and any false move will blow it for you), even if the prize of a canister of fuel in return for wasting a load of fuel in the race seems a little peculiar and illogical.

The Blitz Race itself is one of the few tough moments in what is largely (and unusually for IL) a fairly easy book to beat, but there are three aspects that must be overcome if you are going to win. A high Skill and Luck are essential as there are umpteen Skill tests (mostly testing your driving credentials) as well as many Luck tests. The difficulty of the frequent Skill tests is compounded by the frustrating (but very realistic) fact that you lose 1 Skill point every time you are wounded more than once in Shooting combat. The real killer in this book though is regular checks on your Fuel. Again, this makes perfect sense but you will almost certainly lose a few times just by running out of fuel. This is another rare mechanic for IL as instant deaths are few and far between, whereas failing due to either running out of fuel or just losing your car and having to trudge back home to try again are the far more likely outcomes of playing this and this does make re-playing a logical plot progression. On top of this is the fact that there is a non-win ending where you die but still achieve the aim of just about getting the fuel back, plus there is a “double-win” ending where you return with the fuel and also rescue Sinclair who you are told in the Intro has been abducted. Lots of re-playability here then.

The curiously high Stamina score that your character has here suggests that you are pretty tough (potentially stronger than your car, in fact) but this acts more to balance out the potential 6 points of damage you can take each time you are shot and reduces the likelihood of you getting knocked out, making things a bit fairer on you. Human and vehicle foes are often quite strong (especially other vehicles’ Armour which also makes sense given the context of carnage) and Vehicle Combat can be quite hard so a high Firepower is also going to be necessary if you want to avoid trashing your car too quickly. To keep a futuristic context and also stay within the FF idiom, Provisions are replaced by Med-Kits which, as before, restore 4 Stamina points each time they are used, plus you can sleep and occasionally eat too so your chances of staying alive are generally good. An interesting feature is that you cannot use Luck in combat, but I doubt you would want to given how many Luck tests there otherwise are in this book, so this exclusion is probably in your favour too. If there is one problem with the design of this book it is that IL cannot avoid his habit of writing very linear books with strict true paths, and that is certainly the case here as the correct route where you have enough Fuel to get to San Anglo is tight and does not allow for any real digression.

There are a few textual inconsistencies to be found but they don’t detract from the enjoyment of the game itself and can be overlooked. What is impossible to ignore is the striking (almost plagiaristic) resemblance to Mad Max 2 The Road Warrior – basically the entire general concept is lifted from this film and there is even a gang to be contended with (The Doom Dogs) with a hard-nut leader called The Animal (read, The Toecutter, minus Mad Max’s personal dead family interest plotline which is absent from Freeway Fighter so at least it’s not a 100% rip-off!) This book will never win any points for originality and there is nothing here that had not already been done in the Mad Max franchise, but I don’t think that’s the point. The emphasis here is on sheer simplistic fun and the frantic pacing alone is enough to carry it very well.

Some fans of FF have expressed disappointment over the relative shortness (in section count) of this book. At only 380 paragraphs you could be forgiven for expecting it to be quite short in adventure terms, but it is not actually that noticeable. You are on a desperate mission and the ongoing impulse is to get to San Anglo as quickly and safely as possible, so I personally think this works in the book’s favour and it is still satisfying and eventful all the same, plus it will take a couple of hours to play through which is the average for most early FFs so nothing is lost in the 20 less sections.

The cover by Jim Burns is a real draw with its bright colours and imposing-looking combat-ready car (a Red Chevvy, incidentally) crewed by more extras from Mad Max! The title font is almost computerised and sets a nice Sci-Fi tone. The internal art, however (by Kevin Bulmer) is a big let-down and does not do the setting or incidents any favours at all. It is all bordering on line drawings with no depth or background, plus some illustrations totally contradict their descriptions in the text. I gather that different art was originally created but not deemed suitable so apparently Bulmer only had nine days to throw this together, which is very obvious unfortunately. After a while, though you can just ignore the art and hurtle through the text and frequent incidents that keep this moving so nicely. I was disappointed when the Wizard re-issue appeared which replaced the very effective Puffin cover art with a much more modern image which, to add insult to injury, was stolen directly from the cover of IL’s Battlecars ZX Spectrum game. Not only was art that I liked replaced, but it was replaced with something we had already seen twenty years before. Harrumph.

For a Sci-Fi FF this book works because it is set on Earth so it avoids the boring space opera approach of FFs like #4 Starship Traveller but is never as bonkers as the other silly end of the Sci-Fi spectrum  of worlds that all but ruined #12 Space Assassin and #33 Sky Lord. This was never going to be a great high-brow gamebook, but it is great fun to play for sheer entertainment’s sake (just like the Mad Max movies then, really) and it never claims to be anything more than fast-paced, violent fun. The realistic system and additional rules work very well and add to the overall experience in what is a fair, generally logical, and balanced adventure overall. I marginally rate #22 Robot Commando above this offering as it is less bloodthirsty and more varied, but there are many much worse gamebooks in the FF series than Freeway Fighter. Turn your brain off and just enjoy this for what it is: dumb energetic fun.


2 comments:

  1. very specific memories there !... I was just thinking about this book due to its similarity to mad max and with the new movie just out. I'm really enjoying this surge of new reviews. Bravo !

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  2. I too am enjoying the surge of reviews. I'm glad that they're not in series order, it's more of a surprise. There's a less thoughtful but very funny review of this book on the Turnto400 blog.

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