Loadstar, an interactive movie from Rocket Science Games, is all about the trials and pitfalls of interplanetary trucking. It follows the story of one brave king of the proverbial space road, Tully “Iron Dog” Bodine, as he’s looking for one last haul so that he can retire and settle down with his sweetcheeks. He’s approached by a shady Irishman who gives him a load of cargo that naturally turns out to be quite illegal, so Tully must make the delivery fast and escape the law. Now despite all the futuristic talk, and the fact that it’s set on the moon, let’s not lose sight of the main idea of Loadstar:
This is a game about truck driving.
Few developers could pull off a game where you drive a truck around, because honestly, that’s all you do. Rocket Science Games is not one of these developers. It’s true that you are chased by the space-cops the whole time. It is true that you have to show swift reflexes to attack them and deflect their shots. It is true that you have to pay attention to where you are going, or else you’re treated to a video of Tully crashing where his skin is comically ripped off during the explosion, revealing his screaming skeleton. But let’s remember the one challenge, the single goal of Loadstar:
You’re driving a truck and you have to make sure you keep driving in the same direction. I don’t care if it’s a moon truck. I don’t care that there’s moon-cops you have to shoot on the way. It’s still stupid. And it brings with it all the baggage of an interactive movie to boot.
Rocket Science needed some SAG for the movie parts of this project, and two intrepid actors answered the call: Ned Beatty and Barry Primus. You might remember Ned Beatty from his appearance on Roseanne as Ed Connor. You might not remember Barry Primus, which I chalk up to bad luck and not his acting chops. He plays Tully well, and seems quite at home in his role as “intergalactic space trucker” – which helps the whole goofy concept feel plausible. He also gets some good banter in with his cybernetic co-pilot, and is generally a likeable character all around. Ned Beatty plays his role as the backwater moon sheriff as if someone told him specifically to “act like Boss Hogg on the moon.” He does, and doesn’t add much else. He gives the appropriate menacing/disgusted squints, pats his dopey nephew on the shoulder when needed, and saunters around while hitching his belt over a not insubstantial beer gut as required. The manual makes him out to be more than a simple villain, but you’d never know that from just the game.
In fact, the best parts of Loadstar are actually contained in the manual. Ron Cobb (not the Hollywood concept artist) has come up with a reasonably interesting universe, and the idea of blue-collar work in a sci-fi world is worth exploring. The fault is that none of this backstory really comes across in the game. The Loadstar cabin could have used a more lived-in look, like the Millennium Falcon, but is mostly barren and awfully blue. The police are simple robot drones that shout useless commands and lifelessly explode when zapped. You only meet your other truckers through cutscenes, and honestly, barely even at that. And sadly, the majority of your exposure to Cobb’s world is in the repetitive, bland gameplay.
Driving the truck around endless, identical tracks gets old fast. Numerous detours and track closures are probably designed to shake things up, but really just frustrate – especially when you have a time limit, but no real indication of how far away you are from your objective. Cops do show up and force you to swat their gunfire away with a directional shield, but this is more of a distraction – something to do while you drive around – than an integral part of the experience. And MY GOD do these levels drag on! There are only three acts, and so, only three levels. To cover this, each driving section lasts around ten minutes, simply for the sake of extending the limited gameplay. And there’s the disconnect – I was actually somewhat interested in seeing what was so special about Tully’s cargo, and seeing how Cobb’s story played out. But I was already tired of the scrolling tracks halfway through the first level, and by that time, I’d already seen all the gameplay had to offer.
Graphically, this game is hurting. I suspect this production fell into the same camp as Night Trap, with designers who were all super-excited about having a game that looked like a movie, weren’t expecting the Sega CD, and weren’t prepared for the Cinepak hammer. This was made on the razor’s bleeding edge of video compression technology, and it shows. Video is horribly grainy, and you’ll be able to see the pixels on every scene. Remember dot matrix printers? If the pictures they printed out could move, they’d look like this. The actual truck tracks when driving looks like it was shot inside a miniature model and then compressed the same as the cutscenes; so it looks like it could pass as real and believable if you could see through the mess. It’s pixelated, slightly choppy, and colors shift as the screen moves. Though to the game’s credit, you can usually tell what everything on the screen is supposed to be, and the video only steps on your artistic sensibilities, not the gameplay. But even back when it was first released, compared to even VHS, this video quality was not impressive a’tall.
Sounds aren’t entirely on the ball. The effects are decent enough, and the voices on the movies were recorded cleanly, but sometimes the audio is not synchronized with the movement of the actors’ lips. The music is bleeply bloopy fare that doesn’t really match the concept or tone, and adds nothing to the experience.
Controlling the Loadstar isn’t much of a chore, though aiming its weapons definitely is. The ship more or less drives itself, but you need to steer it for track changes. Some of these come fast – usually you’re barreling down on the scene of an accident and have a second to make the detour. The D-pad controls the cursor, and moving the cursor to the edge of the screen when a turn is available makes the turn. Meanwhile, the cursor also targets enemies – who can also appear on the edges of the screen – so expect a LOT of accidental turns as you’re trying to target a foe. These foes are robot cops who threaten you with citations before crashing into you and causing damage. You must target and shoot them with C, or target the shots they fire and deflect them with B.
This means the screen gets hectic fast, and pretty much ensures that you can’t shoot a drone and deflect some shots at the same time. The cursor is also pretty slow for such a challenge, and this is definitely a game that could have used a mouse. Combinations of buttons will activate super shields and a screen clearing attack, and these are pretty easy to pull off. Still, the unnecessary confusion with targeting an enemy and turning instead happens so often that it makes the controls overly frustrating. It would have made so much more sense to have a separate button activate the turns.
The game itself is completely about driving around the rails, avoiding blocked tracks, and trying to use your compass and landmarks to get to your next destination on time. Throw in defending your ship, and that’s it. It seems intentionally a lot like Sewer Shark, but more hectic and less enjoyable. The movies are barely interesting, and the story is bland and clearly only serves as a thin excuse for the lackluster gameplay. At least the idea of interstellar trucking as shown seems believable, but if there was anything interesting in the world Cobb created, it didn’t get fully translated into this game. Thankfully, someone else in power agreed as this is the first and last episode in the “epic story of Tully Bodine.”
Primus acts admirably, even as a character named “Iron Dog.”
Detailed, clever backstory doesn’t translate to a thin plot and a flimsy game. Awkward and sluggish controls. Compressed video does no favors.