Wot I Think: Convoy

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.

46 Comments

  1. jrodman says:

    The genius of the “roguelike model”, that FTL mines regardless of its exact pedigree, is this:

    Players will hang themselves.

    You don’t need to make the game difficult, just put in a bunch of rope and they’ll take needless chances and get themselves killed. Permadeath and intentional twitchy challenge aren’t a good mix. IMO at least.

    • SquidgyB says:

      There’s a lot to be said about the “goguelike” mechanics, or at least the many different aspects which make up what most roguelikes are…

      A lot of it to me comes down to a comparison to solitaire – the deck is dealt and your choices early on determine how far you may get later (do I drink this unidentified potion/scroll etc), and the fine balance of items throughout which should allow for completion but punish wastage/misuse of items.

      I’m not even sure what my point is now, other than I definitely like the “genre” if you will.

      Personal favourite right now – simple but straightforward, a perfect “on the throne” game…

      Pixel Dungeon on Android. Lovely little game that’s filling up my time as I fill up the porcelain.

      • SquidgyB says:

        Damn you RPS and your “thou shalt not edit” choices!

        (seriously though, upgrade the server if it can’t handle eidts or, god forbid, even jump to Disqus)

      • ironman Tetsuo says:

        Pixel Dungeon has remained on my phone since I first downloaded it over a year ago, it’s a great little game made with love and passion and receives plenty of updates, you couldn’t make a better recommendation!

      • wu wei says:

        I’m finding I’m spending far more time with “magoguelikes” lately.

    • Viroso says:

      FTL’s greatest triumph is boiling absolutely everything down to risk. Risk is the game’s main resource.

    • Walsh says:

      Here’s the problem, you are required to take risks in order to outfit your ship to survive the stupid boss fight at the end. Specific things REALLY help out with that boss fight while others kinda help.

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        To be fair, pretty much everything that can help you against the boss, will also help you kill anything you meet up until then.
        I know what you mean though, it does prescribe that by the end you must have a way of causing damage, capable of reaching through four shields and a defence drone, and you also have to be able to avoid or tank a lot of incoming damage.

        • twaitsfan says:

          Yeah – I didn’t have enough of any of those so I was fubar. The fact that you were racing across the galaxy steps ahead of the enemy fleet and then when you finally delivered the secret plans you were sent back to kill the flagship was unacceptable. It made no sense and was unfair. There was no reason for them to do it that way. At least let you retrofit your ship for an all out attack instead of a race against time.

          I never played again after getting to the final boss.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            You never played again after reaching the final boss, and for that reason, you honestly have no idea how fair FTL actually is. And it is.

          • rabbit says:

            he made it to the final boss and his opinion still isn’t valid ? do you only get to comment on the design / balance of a game when you’ve replayed it the whole way thru several times?

  2. Oakreef says:

    I basically just backed this game on Kickstarter because it used the word MCV a lot. I may have a Command & Conquer problem.

  3. seroto9 says:

    I’m still waiting for a decent version of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars on PC.

    • Philopoemen says:

      I’m still waiting for a decent Ogre game, but Car Wars deserves some love too.

      I’m surprised GW has licenced a Gorkamorka game yet seeing as everything else has been done.

    • Lionmaruu says:

      yep, oh boy that would be soooo fucking great! I actually enjoyed the old one… but I was young and probably stupid…

    • Joshua Northey says:

      I am still waiting for a good Steve Jackson board game period. Every single one I have tried out despite good reviews has been half complete garbage with a rule set that is both incomplete and inconsistent. Never understood what his rep was about. 5 minutes of play testing reveals numerous problems with the games of his I have tried.

  4. frymaster says:

    I opened this in a tab from twitter and read a few other things before getting to it. It was only when seeing the first youtube embed that I realised I’d been singing the tune under my breath every since just reading the word “convoy” on the link :D

  5. James Allen says:

    You can pause the combat at any time by pressing spacebar, which helps you issue move orders to get out of the way of the obstacles.

    • Ashrand says:

      cheers for saying so! (the review didn’t and i was concerned i would be asked to manage my convoy without pause)

    • Xzi says:

      Seems like a big omission for the review. How hard can it really be to pause every time there’s an obstacle indicator?

      • Bernardo says:

        Yes! I had seen it on Steam, remembered the mention on RPS a few months ago, and bought it on a whim because, well FTL and Mad Max. Then read the WIT (still at work) and thought shit, this is why I should wait for reviews before buying. Next thought was “Wait, wasn’t there mention of an active pause?”. Now I’m home from work, fired it up, am having fun and really can’t see what’s the problem. And I’m not playing on easy. This is important information, and it needs to be in the review.

    • EhexT says:

      Yeah complaining about twitchyness when it’s a real-time with pause game is odd as hell. It’s like saying FTL was too quick or Pillars of Eternity was too quick. They have a pause at any time button for a reason.

      • SlimShanks says:

        I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Games journalists have a “unique” way of playing games.

    • Alec Meer says:

      I should have mentioned the pause – was well aware of it and used it often. Have added an edit in. Genuinely don’t feel it redeems the obstacles mechanic.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    A bit of a disappointing impression, but I backed this already so I should be able to draw my own conclusion soon.

  7. ribby says:

    I remember seeing this AGES ago and thinking it looked amazing. A little sad to hear that it’s flawd

  8. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    CONVOY

  9. barelyhomosapien says:

    So, is there a reason to get this instead of Death Skidmark which despite the name does something very similar, but better from the sounds of it. Despite it’s name.

  10. Flappybat says:

    That reminds me of Jim Stirling’s rant on games constantly referencing pop culture as a crutch for a lack of anything original or creative to say themselves. It’s something that needs to stop.

  11. MasterBoo says:

    This reminds me so much of the Convoy UT2004 map.

  12. DoomBroom says:

    Looks Fantastic! I’ll buy this!

  13. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Interestingly, a patch today says, among bugfixes : Scenarios causing insta-death to units have been adjusted to occur less often and feel less punishing.

    • April March says:

      Nice, but the wording makes me think “To make it feel less punishing, events will be written in a rounder font, and read to you by a sensuous voice while soft jazz plays in the background.”

  14. SlimShanks says:

    Looks rad!

  15. ravencheek says:

    I’ve been playing a lot of this after insta-backing the kickstarter. I feel like this review does a bit of a disservice by not mentioning the pause function in combat. Or perhaps you were not aware that you could pause during combat?

    The instadeath obstructions during combat are only really unfair if you didn’t notice them coming and didn’t pause when you see them. There are great big warnings that they are coming (which can sometimes be missed and I have lost lots of vehicles too them) but are still avoidable with a quick pause.

    Not mentioning it makes it seem like there really is no possible way to avoid them, which is not true.

    It’s like how I played FTL pause, go, pause, go, pause, go. Trying to play it ALL in real time would be almost impossible through to completion.

    Some of the random events do seem unfair but the same could be said about FTL at launch. How many times did you run the HELL away from the Giant Spiders random encounter? It was almost a guaranteed loss of crew (something stupid like 80% mortality I’m sure I read on a forum).

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      One annoying thing about getting your vehicles out of the way of things is they often won’t change speed whilst changing position. You can brake and steer at the same time, guys! Being able to make enemies smash into obstacles makes it all worth it, though.

      Another annoying thing is your MCV won’t steer to avoid mines. Grr!

      • Bernardo says:

        I find it incredibly satisfying to hit enemies at the exactly right time with an emp, so that they crash into the obstacles. And the vehicles do more easily change lanes when moving forward instead of backward, so accelerating works, braking doesn’t (which might have been a conscious design choice, so that your vehicles can’t move out of frame during combat).

        Right now, I don’t mind if the MCV takes most of the fire. It can take much more than the smaller vehicles, and repair cost is the same for every vehicle, so I find it useful for the MCV to attract enemy fire.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      I never paused in FTL, then again I couldn’t beat easy with all the ships and am not sure I ever beat normal.

  16. frightlever says:

    Anyone else remember Roadwar 2000? Which apparently came out 28 years ago, so that’s why my knees are sore I guess. I’d play a new version of that. Convoy actually looks to have some similar ideas so I might check it out. Too many games.

  17. Maksa says:

    The very first encounter in game:
    link to i.imgur.com

  18. RegisteredUser says:

    The thing about the instadeath obstacles is that they can make a really tough enemy just one ram away from death as well, which is something the tutorial alludes to. There’s a 30 screw cost “AID” for ramming that soaks up to 50 HP (at the start, basically all damage of your own) you can get or loot that basically makes your jeep into a mean smash and mash machine, able to take out shielded superbaddies with one bump of the rump..as long as there’s an obstacle.

    This shouldn’t be overlooked, although I agree its painful if your own car gets lost. You can always cheat around permadeath with saving often and ALT+F4 if you do die in a way you don’t want to.
    You can also plain cheat your screws/fuel higher with a simple text editor in the savedata xml file.

    Since people argued for a “storymode only” Banner Saga, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be something akin to this in Convoy..(..through these manual helpers)