Welcome to the year 2025, where America has transformed into a corporate hellscape of twisted capitalism where gangs roam the streets and private law enforcement gears up to take them out in the middle of a worsening fuel shortage. Maybe we’re six years away from just such a future in our own world, but as with all things dystopian and 80s, Auroch Digital have been able to blow the dust off Games Workshops’ niche Dark Future board game and make it feel about as relevant in our climate crisis present as it’s ever been.
As the US slid into isolationism and corruption in this alternate history universe, the Enderby Amendment privatised law enforcement, putting Judge Dredd-style judge, jury & executioner justice in the hands of ordinary citizens taking on corporate and state Sanctioned Ops. Anyone can take these contracts on, even a literal brain in a jar. Yup, the starting character on offer to you is a brain on life support, capable of driving a car and earning a paycheck, but little else. It’s a fitting initial analogue for this unusual car combat game. Instead of having direct control over the car, you’re instead issuing orders to your vehicle to speed up, slow down, change lanes, boost and, of course, unleash every weapon at your disposal on the gang cars that you’re battling.
It takes a bit of getting used to, as you try to learn how best to position you car, whether you want to be in front or behind the gang cars on the road. Thankfully, you have a Command Mode that slows the game down to a crawl and lets you issue and execute your commands exactly when you want, and that’s especially useful if you hire a second character to join you on a mission, as you then have two cars to manage. It shouldn’t be long though before you’ve learnt the keyboard shortcuts and found a style of play that suits you.
It’s at its best when missions have you going full tilt, gunning down enemies, shunting them of the road and ramming them until they turn into fireballs, but it’s too easy to drag the pace all the way down to nothing. If you want to keep enemy cars in front of you, perhaps because that’s where your best weapon is or because your rear armour is shot to hell, it’s all too easy to end up slowed to a crawl as the AI is flummoxed by your apparent desire to simply sit there and shoot it.
Thankfully missions are short with a 10 minute limit and relatively varied. A basic Quota mission simply has you racing and killing, Blockade Run has you outracing enemies as you pass through blockades, Data Heist is about getting near to armoured robotrucks and staying within the hack zones, and so on. You’re given a small selection to choose from each time, at varying difficulty levels and with some modifiers that shake things up a little. If you’re not prepared from the higher difficulties, where gangs are more numerous and come with punishing laser beams and grenade or rocket launchers, you’ll be in a world of hurt. When death can simply end your particular run, it’s a lesson you won’t need to learn more than once!
The Brain in a Jar is just the starting character, its one quirk being that death simply won’t end its run, but for the others it’s slightly more permanent (unless you choose the Second Chance perk). Each run is only a couple hours long, at most, and completing one with a character unlocks further characters and vehicles to play with. Each has their own story and gameplay quirks, like the gambler whose debt is being used to push him to certain acts and can gamble on not using a weapon to earn more cash, all the way through to Gloria & William, a pair of old age pensioners who’re sick and tired of all the yobs racing around and whose Command Mode isn’t as effective at slowing time.
Between missions you can check out the incoming Z-mail for their continuing stories (and humorous spam that you tune out as quickly as you do real spam), and improve your car with the earnings. Each has got a front and rear weapon, sometimes with a turret as well, and then upgrade slots to boost damage or armour. Progression is fast, with a randomised selection to choose from each time you can get to the shop, but it gets tricky to judge how best to spend your money and manage your car’s weight from the increasingly heavy weapons.
In truth, if you spend a little time taking on regular missions and not fulfilling story objectives, the game can be a bit of a breeze. That’s not a bad thing; there’s a good balance between difficulty, relatively bitesized campaigns and it being quite light fun. What’s not so great is that repetition soon sets in, as you learn the tricks to best get through the half dozen mission types. More bespoke missions do exist to cap off the stories – one had me chased by dozens of gang cars, just trying to survive until the boss appeared – but even those are leaning on the same handful of ideas.
The game looks pretty good in battle, with several different wasteland environments and dozens of miles of road to race through that don’t really feel like they’re repeating, but the retro pixellated green UI will be a more acquired taste, slathering a healthy dose of Teletext on top of Unreal Engine 4. It’s an odd one, but kind of works. What doesn’t work (on rare occasion) is the game, which has crashed on exit for me several times, fully crashed my PC mid-mission on one occasion, and had an update a few days ago that wiped any incomplete runs. It’s a good thing each run is so short!