Sunday, August 7, 2022

Deathtrack (1989)

Another one of these fancy animated title screens, this is the only interesting bit

Name:Deathtrack
Number:138
Year:1989
Publisher:Activision
Developer:Dynamix
Genre:Racing
Difficulty:4/5
Time:3 hours
Won:Yes, I think (46W/48L)

We're finally back with Dynamix for the American version of SeeNa, racing meets early FPS, and this time, I'll actually be able to shoot something. Damon Slye doesn't have much to do with this game, but Dynamix co-founder Jeffrey Tunnell is directing and Dynamix veteran Dariusz Lukaszuk is programming and designing the tracks, so I think we're in good hands.
The manual does a good job of explaining the game, but not so much its backstory. Society has failed, so let's have a bunch of races where people shoot each other across America. Nothing terribly complex. So much so that its practically just an afterthought. I do question why its across the country and not centered in one city though. Doesn't really matter since its not supposed to be important. What is important, is that this has a MT-32 soundtrack.

Spoiler alert, you don't get three machine guns
Once you pick a name you can select one of three cars, a fast one, a balanced one, and a fighting focused one. (screenshot is of the balanced one) This technically doesn't matter since you can upgrade the cars, but in practice I used the fighting one. Worked out best for me. You get three options for the various parts, from the usual engine, armor and tires, to brakes and transmissions. Weapons are run in three options, but curiously, with the higher quality options you get less ammo for them. You're possibly paying for a single shot of ammo, so those missiles cost at least $1000 a pop. Either way you get a full loadout of all weapons with each car, just probably without ammo.
There are a lot of things going on in one screenshot, but the most important bit is I'm last
I start the game with the single race mode...and its crap. Think of Outrun, a game where you're not really controlling something in a 3D space as much as moving left and right on a treadmill. Now add awkward controls to that, where it doesn't feel like moving to the left or the right is actually working. Now add to the fact that you have to shoot at things that shoot back at you. Its not any wonder that this game fell through the cracks, even for 1989 it plays poorly.
Playing through the opening track several times with a variety of vehicles and settings its abundantly clear that I'm not getting any better at it. I don't feel like I'm in control of the car and I consistently end up last or next to last. There's an autopilot mode mentioned in the manual, but that's actually off, turning it on makes it all worse. So much worse. You can also screw around with the amount of laps each race takes, but I never messed with the default setting of 5.
The sound is interesting. The music isn't some kickass tune you'd expect to hear in a racing game. The menu theme is a dark, melancholic thing, while the in-game music seems like something an action movie would play as a variation of the title theme during a minor scene. I quite like it, but it doesn't quite feel right. It lacks the energy it needs for what is supposedly a hi-octane racing game. Its pleasant enough to listen to a few times, but it seems short for a game of this length. There are only two tracks. Sound is typical PC speaker, and doesn't feel objectionable.
The tires are 500 new, so I'm really lucking out by only paying 60
After a few more tries, I decide its time to test my hand at what passes for a career mode in this game. Its a simple drive through the various tracks the game has, only with a persistent state for your car and money. Make no mistake, while its entirely possible to survive a race without issues, lasting through the campaign is a challenge in of itself. Nobody dies for real, but running out of money will render you unable to race. Repairs of parts costs practically the same as those parts.
I feel bad for the guy they hired, if I ever saw him again I don't think I could unsee him as the creepy guy from Deathtrack
In addition to placing higher to earn money, you can get challenges by a strange man to take out a specific driver. Taking them out otherwise does nothing but free up the road. He claims to be upset should you lose, but he's not too broken up about it to not offer you another challenge. Whether or not you can take these vehicles out depends on what they are. The faster opponents are all but impossible to catch up with. Well, I'll explain what I'm missing in a bit.
So, its clear that I'm missing the strategy of this game. Even if its crap there must be one. Over the course of my first few playthroughs of the career mode, which usually end in my demise, I put together a few points that improved my chances, and possibly yours.
The different cars have different interiors, which is nice
Despite the absolutely awful-feeling control scheme, you can stay on the track surprisingly well assuming you master when and for how long you turn. Do it right and you'll remain on the road despite barreling through at high speeds. This assumes its not one of the tracks with a very twisty road, as opposed to long single turns or the odd turn.
There's one other guy on the road, and of course he shot me from half the track away
If you're getting hit by a missile, go off road, or stop. It sounds silly, but slowing down works in some cases. Terminators seem to almost always get dodged, but the regular kind are more of a question. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. If I cared more about this game, I'd try to work that out.
I wonder how many of these references are to military gear
The machine gun is a pile of crap at its lowest level, so don't ever buy ammo for it. What are useful as front-facing weapons are the lasers and the particle beam. Both are very effective against opponents, while they don't cost ammo. While lasers are limited in shots per track, that's not too much of a problem. Similarly, the ram and wheel spikes are worth upgrading, since its free damage, more or less.
More expensive items like the missiles do take out enemies, but aren't really worth the price. Two missiles take out one enemy, but that's 2k down the drain, minimum. The terminator missile might even hit you if you aren't careful.
Basically how most races go
Because you have to pay considerable sums on repairs, its a wise idea to not upgrade ahead of your capability to pay. The maximum you can reliably get from a single race is a little over 13k, which would have paid my repair and rearming bill with a little extra. I never got the most expensive engine or really focused on upgrading anything besides durability and endurance. From my single track runs that seemed a quick ticket to running out of money.
See? So powerful everyone is using them!
Caltrops are immensely useful. More so than mines. The literal first time I started using them I actually placed. I was actually winning. I would have survived a full run of the tracks if I didn't try this at a time when I was already on the road to failure and then landed on a stray mine. I tried these on a single track run and got 4th first try, and then 2nd. You get the most bang for your buck with these things. Buy as many as you can, and whenever you see some poor fool behind you, drop a couple and see how they become a dot in your real view mirror. Once I figured this out, everything fell into place.
Just be warned it can happen to you too. These things have deceptively wide range, so even if you think you've dodged one, you'll still get hit. As such, it can be a tricky thing dodging them. Slowing down doesn't really work.
Its seemingly a good idea to do a combination of playing the race seriously and placing caltrops to take out the fast drivers to win. Advancing past the more combat-minded ones tends to result in them taking each other out, so that even I could lap them.
Slow and steady wins the race is a good saying when surviving is lucky
As you can see, I won the career mode by placing consistently, but often not in first. This gives me all the usual simple "you won" stuff you'd expect from a game of this era. But then it gets interesting, I advance to the next skill level with the gear and cash I got from the previous tier. (I started on 2 and I assume this sent me to 3) Its not that impressive a haul as you'd think. Despite doing that, I spent a lot more on repairs and ammo than upgrades.
Its at the higher difficulty where this strategy starts showing cracks. I'm no longer consistently placing in 1st or 2nd, only rarely do I manage to reach there. Often, I end up losing my car. Primarily to missiles. Missiles can supposedly be dodged by slowing down, but it rarely seems to work.
Still, I manage to make it through with the highest placements of anyone. With the caveat that whenever my car was destroyed I quit and reloaded. I never won enough money for this not to be my default behavior. In this case it often seems like simply finishing every race is enough to win. Is the final section considerably more difficult?
I swear I've seen this screen cracking effect in a different game
Yes, by now it seems rare for me to actually finish a race. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, missiles are sent straight to me, even if I'm in absolute last at the start of the race. Making it feel random if I win or not. Still, I manage to slowly slide up to first in a lot of races, thanks to having a mostly high-end car with the mid-range engine. Even losing on the last race I get a circuit champion thing...and there's another circuit...? This makes me question if the game has an end, as such, or merely loops around indefinitely. Either way I'm going to count having won multiple circuits for my own win column.
In addition to ones in the manual, opponents have in-game profiles, including the only international competitor
Weapons:
With how the game is set up, selecting a good majority of the weapon options is simply unfeasible except as single shots in a single track run. Even discarding that, there's a very clear advantage to using caltrops every race, since otherwise its very tricky to actually race past opponents. 2/10

Enemies:
I recognize that there are several different racers, all with different parts and weapons, but its hard to tell who is who. When they're crusing past you at 300 MPH, you can't see them except as a brief flash of color. When you're smashing into their backside...well, it doesn't matter anymore. 3/10

Non-Enemies:
None.

Levels:
Because of the control issues I had with the game, it was sort of hard to see the tracks all that distinctly. Some tracks are straighter, some are twisty and turny. They try to make them feel distinct, but because of the way the game is designed they don't feel that way. 1/10

Player Agency:
There's this feeling of constantly driving on-top of a super soft substance like butter or something. Its okay when you're going at a certain speed on a certain section of it, but if you're not going that speed it feels like you're stopping dead in your tracks. 1/10

Interactivity:
None.

Atmosphere:
This game feels like a mess of contradictions. A dark, dystopian world that can't commit to being that. A 3d game that still feels firmly stuck in the past. A combat racer that doesn't really want to be a combat racer. It just feels like a strange mesh of ill-formed ideas. 2/10

Graphics:
Its okay looking for 1989 3D. 2/10

Story:
Suddenly, there are a bunch of racers shooting each other across America. Not lethally, because that would be bad. I'm used to excuse plots, but there's basically none, it just happened. 0/10

Sound/Music:
Music is decent, somewhat ill-fitting, but not enough for the game's length. Sounds are PC speaker and unobjectionable. 3/10

That's 14.

What's holding this game back is the strange driving scheme. Racing games took a while before figuring out how to work in 3D, but this isn't that. This is Outrun in overglorified 3D. There's no excuse for it. Seeing as this is one of those titles that was alleged to be on the FPS side of things I'm quite disappointed in it. It hardly fits that genre and even feels like it had a insignificant influence on car combat games later on. I'm disappointed in Dynamix too, since they're supposed to be the gold standard for vehicle simulations of the time, and this doesn't meet that standard.

The final game I've put in the '80s FPS pile is Sleeping Gods Lie, which has been described as that at times, along with adventure and RPG. The latter by a Russian source that is nearly always right on these things.

2 comments:

  1. Well, from your description I still want to give the game a chance and see if I outperform you. Not any time soon, sadly.

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    1. I suspect you could do a lot better in the first circuit just by applying the caltrops only against racers who have a shot at passing you, plus getting the mid-range engine sooner. Getting to a higher circuit, on the other hand, is very doable, but probably not a lot of fun.

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