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Interstate '82

Listen, and hear it. There is a deep rumbling under the hood of the computer, like approaching thunder. It is growing closer, louder, and the Spice Girls CD on the bureau is shaking from the uproar. You peer into the monitor, and see it approaching fast, hard-fought lines of code bathed in fire and blood. It is Hell on Wheels, and it is getting closer, looming larger. The smell of burning oil and scorched tires fills the air, and it grows closer, nearer, jarring the walls with the deafening roar of internal combustion.

The screen explodes in a brilliant torrent of sparks, and from the other side, from the funked-up edge of the digital realm, a thousand pounds of steel plating pierces the air like liquid lightning, and screeches to a halt in the center of the room. The smoke clears, and it sits there, hissing, sneering through its chrome-plated grill. Someone is going to be pissed about their Spuds Mackenzie carpet.

No problem. You smile, full-faced and corrupt, and regard the steaming hulk with purile glee. You step closer, run cold fingers across the burning surface, fondle the mirror, inspect the guns. The aching begins. This girl is going for a ride. Nothing beats jamming the hammer down on a four-wheeled custom, and feeling the rumble of top-mounted twin-50s ripping a hapless opponent into swiss cheese. If the bullets tearing past his cranium fail to connect, the bumper will do just fine.

Burn up the road doing 120 miles per hour on the wrong side. Unleash hellish weapons on enemies and innocent pedestrians. Shrug off concerns about hard time, and cellmates with strange tendencies; instead, recite the anthem of this decade: "Just do it."

Forget the hot-button rhetoric of the '90s for a moment; I want to hit on the '80s. Each of us holds different memories of that era, depending on our age. For some, including me, it was a time of uncertain direction, spent wondering when all those riches would trickle down and fund our college education. For others, it was a time of adolescent glee, of wonder, anticipation, and neon clothing. No doubt, the decade is a teeming pop-culture carousal, though in hindsight, as seen through our present filter, most of it seems rather absurd. After all, the '80s gave birth to MTV, new wave music, breakdancing, and, if that were not bad enough, Reaganomics. More like pop-culture retch.

John Harris, one of the car-funk impresarios of gaming, thinks so. He and his colleagues are gearing up for Interstate '82, a sequel to their smash hit car-combat game. Based on a grim alternate '70s universe, the original was all about lead-filled dogfights, fuel-injected graphics, and hip vigilantes out for requital. It was satire at its digital best, but most important, it was a fresh take on gaming. The action and simulation aspects fit together like disco and bell bottoms, and the game, with its slick radio interface and cop-flick inspired cinematics, had more funk than Rick James, and more groove than the Bee Gees. This time through, though, the team has put up their bell bottoms, and are dressing up in the cool colors of the '80s. If the original wore sequined bells, the sequel dons fluorescent orange parachute pants and hits the dance floor spinning.

What about the '80s fails to inspire and feed the imagination? Harris, a member of the design team, quips. "I mean, the '80s were all about greed, excess, and most of all, me, me, me! The '80s gave us Knight Rider, Airwolf, Miami Vice, and the A-Team. It was all about action films, car chases, explosions, and bigger and better stunts. If that isn't perfect fodder for a game, I don't know what is. It's a perfect fit. "It's fun looking back and seeing the '80s from a whole new perspective," he muses. "So much stuff we thought was cool back then has been revealed, through the magic of time, to be pure cheese. For instance, feathered bangs. Heavily made-up guys in Michael Jackson-wannabe clothing. Val-speak. But so much about the '80s has remained cool. I still listen to Devo, for instance, and they still rock." Harris also confesses to showing up at work looking like a blue-haired Magnum P.I., complete with a blooming Hawaiian T-shirt, though, he is sad to report, sans the Ferrari. And his thin tie is still lurking somewhere in the dank recesses of his closet, waiting for Kate Moss or that Hugo dude to bust out onto one of those not-so-dank catwalks in Paris. The point? "I believe gamers will discover the same thing we did," he smiles. "The flash, greed, and fast pace of the '80s is just as cool and fun to inhabit as the funk, soul, and muscle of the '70s. This game incorporates the best of both."

Zack Norman, project director, is proud of his first-born game. Coming to its creation like a feature film, he created brilliant, off-beat identities and a full-length scenario. He then cut it to fit the technological parameters and budget, rather than filling it out with half-baked characterizations and a weak plot. Like its predecessor, the sequel will not perpetuate the narrative standard, but challenge it.

For starters, there are 40 minutes of cinematics Norman claims "rock like limestone." The game opens in 1982. Groove Champion, the main auto-vigilante protagonist and spiritual core of the series, has gone solo, and is in a heap of trouble. As fate would have it, he stumbles upon a group of creepers running a ton of do-re-mi south of the border. After infiltrating their ranks, he finds that each villain's car he searches is crammed with more bills than a duck souffl‚. He also learns the US government is engaged in the affair, as are the Contras -- remember them? Having lost a leg from the knee down in a harvester combine incident, he is too over-the-hill to bust up the Contra-cash circus himself, so he attempts to slip off into the great desert wasteland. Still, once in, the creepers refuse to let him out. The gang tracks him down and nabs him, but not before he gets a call off to his sister, Skye.

This mohawked biker hottie decides to adopt the auto-vigilante selfhood of her dead sister, Jade, and becomes the new Vixen. She then enlists the aid of Groove's one-time partner, Taurus, an African-American, Jerri-curled car warrior with a bitchin' wardrobe. Taurus is the bad-ass hero this time, and players buckle up as him. Throughout the course of the game, you'll kick the creepers' butts, save Groove -- who will disclose a nefarious plot Norman prefers to keep secret -- and go kick-ass to the side and through the middle from behind the wheel of whatever car you feel like jacking.

Much like its predecessor, Interstate '82 will wallow in fun and compelling characters, and the rather straightforward premise will sink, with gradual purpose, into the absurd. As fresh obstacles and challenges are presented, each character will react in a unique, and genuine, manner. Some will weep, some will laugh, some will lash out with humorous remarks, and the rest will go flat out insane. Best of all, the strong, well-fashioned characters will have a genuine impact on the action. Imagine fighting creepers bumper-to-bumper with a computer-controlled partner who starts tripping, and screaming something about giant squid-headed creatures crawling all over his dashboard. The challenge here is three-fold: fight the creepers; keep them from taking out your deranged cohort; and at the same time, dodge his misguided gunfire.

If the characters are the spiritual core of the series, the car combat is its thumping pulse. The fast-paced, lead-pumping, flame-tossing action of the original might be hard to top, but the team is doing it. The group is adding to the concoction more leaps, rolls, and spectacular stunts, and sifting in a scorching arsenal of weapons. Before tearing into Las Vegas, though, gamers will need to forge a killer set of wheels. The selection process will be tormenting, since there will be a large selection of '80s sports cars and other means of transit from which to choose.

According to Brian Jennings, who also hails from the design team, the car customization model has been stripped and rebuilt from the first bolt to the final spit and polish for the sequel. Cars are adjusted on a visual grid that represents the space in the auto. Components all take up a specific amount of space, as well as require a certain amount of cash, and add weight to the car. This includes weapons, such as machine guns and industrial cutting lasers, special items like fire extinguishers and car-launching gadgets, and shielding. To lug the huge, turreted acid thrower, gamers will need to set aside ample space, and expect the car to perform a little sluggishly. When coupled with the combat, this tactical approach will generate some great customization dilemmas, such as speed versus armor, and the number of weapons against the caliber of the gunfire.

This degree of customization is important in order to keep a diversity in vehicles and playing styles on the field - Jennings explains. "One player might want a smaller car, even though it has less space, because he can zip out of trouble fast, but another might want a humongous truck with the four forward-facing rocket launchers. Sure, he can hit anything with a solid hit, but not if it's behind him."

As great as the car combat is, the team is broadening it to include air and on-foot modes. Hitting the action button will get gamers out of their autos and fleeing in short order. The one problem is, being on foot. Pedestrians retain a hand gun, but a car might be hauling linked gatling guns, and what good are a shirt and pants against a thousand pounds of steel plating propelled at 120 miles per hour? Still, there will be times when the gamer must get out of his or her car to perform specific tasks. Good thing the dude can dodge and roll, and jack the nearest car in times of trouble. Motorbikes are quick, but have no armor. Helicopters hold a small arsenal and are hard to hit, but the irksome rotors fold from the slightest gust of gunfire. Decisions, decisions. The point is, there will be options, and gamers will need them all to survive in both the solo game and deathmatch.

The burning question, then, centers on the instruments of destruction. Sit back, because the designers are plugging in some terrific stuff. In addition to the usual selection of slug-tossers, cannons, and rocket launchers, a ton of cool accessories are being added, including an entire class of weapons that is going to translate into big fun for vigilantes-at-large. Called the Karpoon, it is a high-tech, car-launched harpoon that sails through the air, penetrates the target, and performs a mean-spirited number on the recipient. The kind of damage is dependent on the harpoon launched. For instance, the MaGMA Karpoon causes all airborne, guided missiles to acquire that car as the target. As one can imagine, this is quite bad for the dolt driving the car into which the Karpoon is stuck. The HaVIK Karpoon will disrupt a car's engine and electrical structure, transforming a car into a huge paperweight on wheels for a short period of time.

 

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