Tactical vehicular highway combat in a satirical and cartoonish post-apocalyptic America! What’s not to like?
I’m familiar with Games Workshop’s Mad Max-inspired Dark Future setting from a bunch of secondhand paperbacks I read as a kid in the 90s; the franchise endured longer as a narrative setting than it did as a tabletop game. I can’t speak to Auroch Digital’s 2019 video game version’s proximity to the original, but given that it was released over thirty years ago there can be few with strong feelings on the matter.
The core mechanics of Blood Red States feel solid. You’re always on the highway and you’re always in or between one of four lanes. Your car has three weapons: front-mounted, rear-mounted, and a 360 degree turret weapon. You can switch into ‘command mode’ at any point, slowing time immensely and allowing you to carefully plan your moves and then click to execute them. Target an enemy with your turret, speed up, slow down, brake or switch into reverse, hit the afterburners, match a target’s speed, and so on. You’re generally going to always be moving forwards, and as you do so enemy or allied vehicles will merge onto the highway or appear up ahead. All this works nicely and is fun, with a few exceptions, which I’ll come to shortly.
Between missions you spend your hard-earned cash. You’re a ‘sanctioned operative’; a mercenary for hire. You’ll need to spend cash on fuel, which isn’t cheap, and the price escalates as a run continues. The campaign structure is a bit like FTL or Convoy – the latter a much closer comparison for Blood Red States – in that you need to complete your overarching objectives and final mission before you literally cannot afford to go on, but it’s otherwise fairly open-ended. Cash you don’t spend on keeping your motor running goes on upgrades: more armour, new weapons, modules that provide buffs, and more powerful engines supporting heavier and better upgrades. A nice dollop of narrative flavour comes in the form of emails, of which you generally get one ‘fluffy’ email after each mission, in addition to any communiques directly related to accomplishing objectives.
A major weakness of the game is repetition. There’s a bunch of randomisation in the enemies you’ll be up against, mission difficulty, the level layout and scenery, but ultimately there are a limited number of mission types that cannot vary too widely. Quota has you straightforwardly killing enemies. Intercept is the same, but after a certain number of kills a ‘boss’ enemy appears. Gang War sees you killing enemies again, but this time there are allied cars on the road too. Escort requires you to protect an unarmed friendly until you’ve gone a certain distance. Blockade Run sees you fending off enemies and swerving through single-lane gaps in a set number of blockades. Data Heist has you driving close to large ‘robotrucks’ whilst a progress bar fills up, and there’s another mission type I forget the name that has you killing robotrucks. On paper it’s quite varied considering the core mechanics; in practice it boils down to whether or not you add an additional consideration alongside exploding enemy cars. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but with similarly-structured games like MechWarrior 5 I’ve found myself getting a bit bored as progress through the economy feels slow compared to my desire for novelty, change or a sense of progression.
Maybe I’m just impatient. I’ve only played four hours of Blood Red States, and I enjoyed them. I found myself getting frustrated by the random and limited selection of upgrades available between missions. I spent an entire campaign seeing the same tier 1 items appearing and sticking with my starting loadout almost the entire way through. It was only after the final mission unlocked that I saw different items appear – predictably, right after I had spent almost all of my money on an engine and extra armour, on the basis that I hadn’t seen anything more interesting appear. It’s random, I guess, but it’s still frustrating.
The game’s not without other problems. If you drop your speed to almost zero the game kinda breaks as the enemy AI doesn’t really know what to do. Hiring a second merc to help you out makes everything much harder and less fun; you may assume as I did that they’d act like an AI car, but nope, you need to issue commands for them. This more than doubles your cognitive load. It could be worse, I guess, because when you do see allied AI cars they are as dumb as bricks and will repeatedly crash into you and drive into your line of fire.
If you’ve got more time on your hands than me and don’t mind a bit of repetition and randomness in your action-tactical games I do recommend giving this a shot. The narrative flavour is great and the core mechanics are mostly solid. But I’m unconvinced that I’d get much more than I already have out of further enduring Dark Future’s foibles.