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Wot I Think: Convoy

Maddening Max

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Convoy is a vehicular roleplaying/adventure game set in a procedurally-generated sci-fi wasteland, whose perma-death, random disasters and pew-pew combat owes a very heavy debt to FTL: Faster Than Light. It’s out today.

First things first:

No, I have not got that out of my system now, for your information.

OK, that’s better. Wait…

Right, yeah, that’s done it. Better do this now though:

I’d like Convoy a whole lot more if it just played that in the background. A thundering, rolling sense of purpose; a distraction from the frustrating random acts of cruelty and irritating reference-strewn writing (says the guy who just embedded the same 70s music video three times), something to make me daydream of the game this might have been rather than the one it is.

On paper, Convoy’s exactly what I want. It’s the top-down, pixel-art, vehicular roleplaying of FTL on wheels and with the brakes off, with choice of movement across a procedurally-generated world that’s littered with choose-your-own-adventure vignettes and almost certainly fatal exploration and combat. It’s even set in a colourful wasteland rife with bandits, robomen and freak weather. The core of Convoy is great, actually: you’re choosing where to go, you’re fighting these little battles where rattly future-buggies shoot each other with lasers and pew-pew guns, you’re on this crusade to find parts for your downed spaceship, you’re gathering a small force of vehicles…

Then boom. Random sandstorm destroys one of the three buggies who protect your MCV, which must be kept alive at all costs (otherwise it’s game over and perma-death). Then boom. You’re so caught up in combat that you don’t manage to move another buggy away from an obstacle in the road on time. Then boom. Because you only have one buggy left you’re as good as defenceless in the next fight. Then boom. There goes the convoy. Game over.

Clearly, FTL – which this borrows from extremely and obviously heavily – is a merciless game too. Most times you try it, you’ll get yourself killed. The difference FTL and Convoy, I think is that a) there are often ingenious ways back from a tricky spot b) most catastrophes stem from active risk-taking and c) you don’t often find yourself in a game-ending situation because of one mis-timed action.

In striving to not be like FTL despite very clearly wanting to be like FTL, Convoy throws in a few curveballs of its own. Combat involves your auto-piloted main vehicle, which has only very slow-firing manual weapons (if it has any at all), and one to four smaller buggies with auto-firing weapons but which must be told who to target and where to go.

On its own, it’s a cheerful and exciting piece of often high-speed micro-management – close on this enemy, block this one from being able to target the MCV, soften everything up with one big missile or EMP from the MCV every 30 secs, that sort of thing. It’s analogous to herding the crew around your rapidly disintegrating ship in FTL, only in this case everything serves a pure combat purpose, and rather than your craft being divided into rooms and facilities, you’ve got multiple cars to worry about. It can be thrilling, especially when you’re franticlaly circling the wagons in order to try and protect one critically-damaged vehicle or to stop a mega-enemy from getting in range of your MCV. But as part of Convoy combat’s wider tapestry, it’s both repetitive and a bit of a headache.

In addition to targeting the right enemies or trying to lure them away from eroding your main vehicle’s health, you need to keep an eye out for icons warning of a roadblock ahead. Fail to get a buggy out the way in time and it will be insta-killed when it collides with said obstacle, and any expensive weapons it was carrying will also be lost forever. In other words, miss or react too slowly to one icon on the right side of the screen – which will happen often, because you’re busy directing a fight in the more central area – and your best or only defence will be instantly lost forever. In other words, it’s a recipe for rage-quitting. Dying because you lost a fight feels like a justified defeat; dying because your lifeline vehicle didn’t respond to your order to move downwards quickly enough just feels like a slap in the face.

Edit – I neglected to elaborate that there is an active pause function, so you can hit Space at any point to freeze proceedings and give orders to get your vehicles out of the way. However, in my experience of larger fights, I was often so busy orchestrating combat on an already very busy screen that I’d not always spot the icon on the far right of the screen: even with pause orders, it’s a far twitchier discipline than than the tactical combat itself, and I thought it an uneven mix. In addition, your buggies are slow to respond and move: in many instances, not pausing and ordering the split-second a warning icon appeared meant there simply wasn’t time for my vehicles to get out of the way. On the plus side, judicious use of stun weapons can be used to make enemies collide with these obstacles too.

I can see why this mechanic’s in there – it wants to make combat feel like a high-speed pursuit rather than just space battles with a tarmac texture, but it feels like a different, reflex-based discipline shoehorned into an otherwise tactical (if simple) affair. When coupled with Convoy’s propensity to outright remove buggies in pop-up text events or spam you with multiple random bandit encounters while you’re trying to limp back to a camp for repairs, the tone of the game shifts from rough’n’tumble tactical survival in a hostile world and into arbitrary acts of cruelty or simple annoyance. Where FTL’s mercilessness felt like a desperate space-race against time, Convoy’s a slow trek in a desert bus which keeps breaking down for no clear reason.

It might get away with it other aspects were stronger. Unfortunately, it’s got a repetition problem: the same quests popping up over and over, the same lines of dialogue to announce an enemy encounter or stick a random knife in your side again and again, cyclic fights whose drama depends almost exclusively on how much health you go into it with… It’s more trudge than thrill, and while there are secrets waiting out there in the desert, they’re badly outweighed by grind.

It’s a garrulous game too, but the writing is repetitive and overly-dependent on trite references to Back To The Future, A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max and pretty much any other cult film or show that a hundred thousand people use images from as their Twitter avatar. This is a game in which you’ll read about Flux Capacitors every single time you play, and without zingy new gags of its own attached. Clearly there’s an old precedent for this sort of stuff in post-apocalyptic games, from Fallout to Borderlands, but to simply quote with satire or subversion comes across as tired.

I like the basic setup here a lot. Rocking into a fight against four or five bandits with my pack of (usually) three vehicles then working out how to best manage them without getting killed is, in itself, a solid good time, especially if you get deep enough into a campaign to have some more fearsome or specialised weapons and equipment installed. Limping back to safety before fuel expires or another pack of evil cyborgs ambushes you in the hills is an inherently appealing co-opting of FTL’s structure, embellished enormously by getting direct control of your fleet’s movement rather than just clicking a button to reach a new area. It looks cute too, with its faux-retro style and wash of colour. It’s onto something, without a doubt, and I do keep finding myself going back to it, but when I’ve had enough the cause is annoyance rather than feeling it bested me or vice-versa.

Importantly, many of Convoy’s shortcomings could feasibly be addressed in updates (in fact it’s already improved and tightened up across the couple of weeks I’ve been sporadically playing it for). Tuning the random encounter frequency, mixing up the battle backdrops a bit, injecting more flair and variety into the writing: it’s surely do-able, but whether the will and the resources are there I can’t say.

I’m frustrated that there’s a great game here, laid a little low by grind, by sub-racing game insta-death factors and irritating, quote-drenched dialogue. This is, at heart, a small and simple game which tries to make itself bigger with unnecessary frippery rather than expanding its worthy core. It’s perfectly serviceable as a land-based remix of FTL, but your next great, chaotic adventure Convoy is not. Yet.

Convoy is released today.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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