CONVOY Game Review: Frustration Road

Managing your own War Rig isn’t as much fun as it sounds.

We’re at the height of apocalypse mania over here, and rightly so - Mad Max: Fury Road is a towering achievement of action cinema. So when the new indie roguelike Convoy hit recently, it seemed like the perfect game to accompany the madness.

Obviously, it’s unfair to compare Convoy to a Mad Max film, as it’s in a different medium with a much more deliberate pace, but one comparison point that is appropriate is FTL: Faster Than Light. The spaceship power-maintenance and crew sim gained a lot of fans when it came out a couple years ago. I was one of them, and apparently Convoy’s developers were too, because it takes after it in many ways. (Its website also states as much.) Sadly, it doesn’t measure up to FTL’s sublime mixture of strategy and genre tropes, even if it does have a few innovations of its own.

The basic setup is instantly familiar to lovers of post-apocalyptic road movies - and FTL. You’re in control of a convoy of vehicles (with amusing, randomly-generated names) travelling across a wasteland in search of spaceship parts. Your convoy is made up of a primary truck and multiple support buggies that defend it. In your heavily-armed motorcade, you roam around a world map dotted with radio signals to investigate, populated by factions of variously-motivated raiders analogous to FTL’s alien races. This world map is freely navigable, however, and some types of terrain take more fuel to navigate than others, turning shortcuts into dangerous gambles. The writing in the random encounters found in the desert is pretty fun - you meet all these people who have lost their minds in the desert; do you risk helping them or leave them to die? I do wish the humour came from a more original place, though; ceaseless references to Back to the Future, Star Wars, and Breaking Bad get pretty tiresome when there aren’t actual jokes attached. The wrong lessons from the Fallout games have been learned here.

Combat is where Convoy both comes into its own and falls irritatingly short. You’re not the only road warrior in the desert, and you’ll frequently be dropped unceremoniously into combat situations with other kitted-out vehicles, driven by types less savoury than you. That combat takes place while in motion is the key here: the desert can ruin your vehicle just as bad as enemies can, and manoeuvring around obstacles (or running your enemies into them) is vital for survival. You’ve got a range of weaponry too, and as you upgrade your vehicles, they’ll become more adept at wrecking Convoy’s answer to War Boys or Smegma Crazies.

But Convoy’s vehicular battles lack depth. With few gameplay elements to keep track of and manage, it becomes a competition of who has the biggest guns. Aside from the occasional times you might ram an opponent into a rock, there’s little opportunity to emerge feeling you won through sheer cleverness. The vehicles don’t handle particularly well either - it’s very much a game of grid positioning than a driving game - and for a game that’s trying to emulate high-speed pursuits, combat feels sluggish. It’s also incredibly easy to flat-out lose. Once your support cars are annihilated, there’s no escaping - your main rig quickly gets overrun by better-equipped enemies, largely unable to fight back. I guess that’s in-genre, but in a roguelike like this one, you should end a run wanting to go again. Here, you’re left with a sour, sandy taste in your mouth.

It’s not something I often mention in reviews, but Convoy’s user interface is one of its weaker elements. The pixel art is great, but what it actually does needs work. In-game, it’s often inconsistent - why put health/action bars perpendicular to each other on different units? - making it difficult to get information at a glance. The interfaces at the shops and garages you come across are also confusing. It’s not clear at first how to actually repair your vehicles; nor is it clear what upgrades and purchases will actually do to your rig. In combat, there’s supposedly a “tactical view”, but it doesn’t have functionality beyond pausing the action. And as a personal note, there are no graphical options for colourblind (or colour-impaired) players, which makes some UI elements difficult to discern. This is mostly stuff that can be fixed in patches, but it’s irritating nonetheless.

Convoy is a great idea executed with mixed success. Visually and aurally, it’s pretty gorgeous, but the gameplay feels too unpolished and simplistic to do justice to its scenarios. In affectionately aping FTL, it sets up the basis for what could be a great game, but also sets up expectations that it can’t quite live up to. A couple interface patches and additional gameplay mechanics, and it’d be the wasteland vehicular micromanagement sim we never knew we wanted.