|The opening screen from the C64 version.|
I've always had slightly different tastes than other people my age, even as a kid. I listened to Frank Sinatra instead of Michael Jackson, read Raymond Chandler instead of C.S. Lewis, preferred Casablanca to E.T. And I never got into three things that always seem to grip every kid: dinosaurs, giant robots, and cool cars. Even today, their appeal is lost on me. I watched Mad Max: Fury Road and thought it was a fun action movie, but when people start going on about, "Did you see how he'd tricked out that V8 StreetRacer 880 with a mag suspension and mounted HK 550s?!," I start looking around for the nearest cocktail.
I'm not sure why souped-up vehicle fever hit America in the 1980s, but you couldn't flip through three television channels without hitting upon a show--Knight Rider, Viper, The Highwayman, Street Hawk, The Dukes of Hazzard--in which some kind of conveyance was the real "star" of the show, and the writers had to come up with the most tortuous reasoning to keep all the action set on a roadway. If the bad guys ever thought to, you know, walk into a building, the hero had to resolve the issue without his car, and no one wanted to see that. Even as a kid, I thought these shows were just too goofy to exist.
|New York City in the C64 version (top) versus the DOS version (below). This strikes me as at least one rare case in which the DOS version of a mid-1980s game is manifestly better.|
AutoDuel is a fairly unusual RPG, but it is very much within the tradition of the shows named above, in which the hero is nothing without his car. In this, perhaps this game's closest analogue is Starflight, in which the only equipment that matters is that attached to the ship, and the only characteristics that matter are those that help the crew pilot it. In the case of AutoDuel, those characteristics are driving skill, marksmanship skill, and mechanic skill. Your character does have hit points--between 0 and 3, plus extra protection afforded by body armor--but he isn't really important as a character, since almost all of his methods of combat, quests, development, income, and even personal danger occur solely in the car.
|After a couple of disastrous starts, I decided to let money save the day. This was my first car after winning a bundle in Atlantic City.|
All of this makes for a somewhat absurd setting, in which society is depraved and lawless--but only in their cars. Pedestrians are perfectly safe, and apparently nobody owns a handgun. The game begins on January 1, 2030, in a post-apocalyptic northeastern United States. (Washington, DC is the furthest point south; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the furthest point west; Boston, Massachusetts the furthest point east; and Watertown, New York the furthest point North.)
|The extent of the game. I look forward to visiting the Origin Systems headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire.|
The nature of the apocalypse isn't explicitly stated in the AutoDuel materials, but in the Car Wars tabletop game (on which AutoDuel is based), the timeline talks about oil shortages leading to food shortages, civil war, and societal collapse. Civilization is consolidated into a handful of perfectly save "fortress" cities with unpatrolled roads in between, overrun with gangs and sociopaths. "Autodueling" arises in this society as the most popular sport, and the American AutoDuel Association is formed to help keep things regulated.
|Truck stops in the post-apocalyptic future somehow have less sordid options than truck stops in the modern era. Unless "get batteries charged" is a metaphor.|
The character starts as a novice in this setting, but through guile and luck makes enough money to start outfitting cars, competing in tournaments, and accepting missions to courier goods between the fortress cities.
|Competing in the arena.|
For this re-visit, I started with the Commodore 64 version, but I didn't like it. No matter how much I tried to practice, I couldn't master the joystick or keyboard commands, and I couldn't find a good speed to set the emulator. If I set it at 100%, it gave me enough time to react in combat, but loading screens and just walking around the city took forever. At higher settings, the latter annoyances abated but I didn't have the reflexes to react quickly in combat. Also, I kept getting a bug by which my arena battles started with my car stuck on top of a fence. Hence, I switched back to the DOS version, which has better graphics, no disk-swapping, and a more palatable overall speed. I also found that the mouse control worked better for me than keyboard or joystick.
|Auto-dueling on the road between New York and Boston.|
Character creation consists of giving a name to the character and assigning 50 points among three attributes: driving, marksmanship, and mechanics. The former two skills increase as you drive and fight; the latter can be increased by purchasing $500 training sessions in each city's garage. The character starts with $2000 cash and no car.
Starting out is the hardest part of the game, since you're both trying to build the character and get used to the odd controls associated with vehicle combat. A new character has the option to compete in "amateur night" at the arena, where they'll lend him a car. He has to destroy 5 enemies with the ammunition available to win the tournament, at which point he gets $1,500. The problem is, if he loses, death is permanent and the game is over. Once you have enough money, you can buy a clone of your character for $5,000 and keep it updated with a periodic $3,000 "brain scan" that stores your current skills. I do like games that integrate "saving" with game elements and make death have some consequence. But early in the game, these options aren't available and a new player burns through a lot of characters just trying to figure out how to move.
|Very few games make "saving" and "reloading" part of the game's universe--something the character does instead of just something the player does.|
I was able to win several amateur nights in a row after a bunch of practice sessions, and then the game told me I was no longer enough of an amateur to compete in "amateur night." This seems to happen when your "prestige" score hits 6. Prestige increases as you win tournaments and complete missions.
The amount of money I earned wasn't quite enough to afford a decent car, so I took a bus from New York to Philadelphia and then another from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. I spent a while playing blackjack with the Martingale system, won about $50,000, returned to New York, and outfitted what I thought was a decent pickup truck with various types of armor and laser canons.
|Chester circumvents the intended difficulty of the game.|
At this point, I was where I was in 2010, and the same thing happened: the moment I left the city, I got trashed in a battle on the roadway. I said that I found the mouse easier, but not "easy." Fortunately, this time I had just spent $5,000 of my earned money on a clone. (I also wasn't above backing up my character file, but this time I didn't have to use it.)
I don't know whether the keyboard and joystick controls in AutoDuel suck universally or just for me, but they simply don't do what I expect them to do. I feel like pressing the "forward" key (or pressing forward on the joystick) ought to move you forward whatever direction you're facing, accelerating the more you hold it down. Then, moving right and left ought to turn you, but maintain the same rate of acceleration. Instead, moving forward on the joystick points you north, and the left and right keys immediately point you in those directions and all previous acceleration stops. But hitting the key opposite the way you're currently facing doesn't turn you in that direction--it reverses you in that direction. In short, everything is unintuitive and inconsistent.
After some practice, I found that mouse control offered in the DOS version is a lot more natural (when I previously played the game in DOSBox, I used the keyboard only). You move the mouse around the car to change directions, and the farther you move the cursor away from the car, the greater the acceleration. It's not as good as a key configuration that makes sense, but it's better than nothing.
|Destroying an enemy with a rear flamethrower after my forward armor and weapons were destroyed.|
Even as I got more experienced with the controls, all went to hell in the combats. Trying to turn so that you're actually pointing at the enemy can be a difficult maneuver. The temptation is to keep your weapons on continuous fire and hope that the enemy runs into the stream, but this just wastes ammo (one of the reasons that the laser cannons, with unlimited ammo, are a good solution). Meanwhile, enemies all seem to want to crash into me rather than stay at a respectful distance and shoot at me. So almost all my gun battles are fought fender-to-fender with my foe. Such crashing quickly destroys both your forward armor and forward weapons, forcing you to pay for expensive repairs in between missions, usually costing more than you made from the mission. If not for Atlantic City, I'd be broke most of the time.
|There's no way that traveling all the way to Dover is worth it for a $600 payment.|
Eventually, I stopped trying to improve my skill and relied on money to save the day: frequent repairs, frequent brain scans, supplemented by visits to Atlantic City whenever I got low. My abilities slowly increased, but so slowly that it was hardly noticeable. I guess "mechanic" ability just influences how much salvage you get from defeated cars. I've been improving it occasionally.
|Fixing my car's armor after a successful mission.|
I've solved about half a dozen courier tasks at this point. I realized that you want to look for well-paying missions on easy routes that minimize your travel effort. It's better to take two missions from New York City to Boston than one mission to Boston and one mission to Scranton. When I haven't seen any missions that I like, I've been competing at whatever tournaments are available in the cities. I guess that the "division" you can enter is limited by how much your car is worth.
|My reputation slowly improves.|
My understanding is that the overall goal is to get your reputation high enough to attract the attention of the FBI and get some missions that help take down the notorious "Mr. Big," believed to be the leader of the outlaws on the roads. So I'll keep trying to get to that point and get another "win" in my column. But I don't think my final rating is going to please fans any more than my original review. I hope those fans can agree that while the game is technically an RPG, it's not a classic example of one, and you really need to like cars and the action-based combat to enjoy this game.