|Both covers by Jim Burns|
Freeway Fighter, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by Kevin Bulmer, is the thirteenth book in the Fighting Fantasy series. It's set in a lawless post-apocalypse, where society has completely collapsed except when it comes to cars: yep, we're in Mad Max territory here. This is an area that gaming explored very thoroughly in the 1980s, but I feel like this is one of the earlier examples.
I've developed a theory about Ian Livingstone's later books. It's more of a gut feeling than something I've tested, but I'll lay it out here anyway. Basically, it goes like this: if you're on a path where you're not getting many fleshed out encounters, or adding things to your inventory, you've probably gone the wrong way. If you're finding lots of stuff, and the encounters are interesting, you're on the right track.
The reason I'm bringing this up now is because I'm seeing the first signs of it in Freeway Fighter. This is Ian's seventh book in the series, and his second-last as the primary writer of Fighting Fantasy. After the next book, his entries become much sparser: two in the 20s, one in the 30s, and one in the 50s (we won't count Legend of Zagor). I do wonder if perhaps he was starting to get a little bit of burnout at this point, after a pretty prolific writing stretch (with Games Workshop duties on top of all that).
If you map out Freeway Fighter, there are two main parallel paths, one heading east from the beginning and the other heading west. Both of these paths are done well at the start - and either one can lead you to victory, at least initially - but after a while it becomes obvious that the western path is where all the good stuff is at. And sure enough, that's the one you need to take to win the book. I'm not sure that this is entirely an Ian Livingstone thing; it could be a problem with gamebooks in general. I could maybe be talking out of my arse. I'll try to keep an eye on it in the future to see if I have any idea what I'm talking about.
Back to more relevant topics, the main plot of Freeway Fighter sees you on a mission to get a tanker of petrol from the town of San Anglo and bring it back to your hometown of New Hope. Along the way, you'll meet all manner of crazed individuals, most of whom will try to kill you or rip you off. It all culminates at San Anglo, where you have to take on a gang known as the Doom Dogs, before a quick return journey to New Hope.
For the most part, Ian manages to keep things entertaining. The encounters can get a little bit repetitive - there's only so much interest in being attacked by different types of cars - but when the encounters are good they're very good indeed. The blitz race is the absolute high point, and might be one of my favourite encounters in all of Fighting Fantasy.
The adventure is certainly packed with incident, and that might be one of my biggest complaints about it: it feels like you can't drive a mile without being attacked, to the point where I started to feel like I was being specifically targeted. The attacks are so frequent that it feels like there should be some sort of overarching plot, like maybe the Doom Dogs got wind of your journey and are trying to take you out. It never eventuates though, and as such the setting feels a little too much like it's out to get you, and doesn't quite feel real because of that.
In terms of difficulty this is one of Ian's better efforts, with no super-difficult combats and little needed in the way of inventory. There is a lengthy gauntlet of Skill checks at the end though, so you still need good stats. Plus there's the constant need for petrol, which is going to spell the end for most players in their early attempts at the book. It makes sense for the setting, but it's pretty anticlimactic to have your adventure end because of an empty gas tank. I've always wondered why the mission was set up the way it was; why not have San Anglo send the petrol to New Hope, rather than have it fetched by a guy in a car that definitely doesn't have enough petrol to make the trip?
The illustrations by Kevin Bulmer are pretty good. Aside from having the ability to draw cars (which can be a bloody nightmare), he has a lot of fun throwing in cameos by movie stars. I could be misinterpreting some of these, but Chuck Norris, Mr. T, Bennett from Commando, and Clint Eastwood all make cameos. The crossbow guy kinda looks like Armand Assante, and I've seen other people say that Michael J. Fox is in here as well.
On the whole, Freeway Fighter has a lot of great moments, and there's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there are a number of very minor things that stop it from becoming a classic. Even so, it's definitely among the best of the sci-fi books in the Fighting Fantasy series.
COOL STUFF I MISSED
In my ten attempts, I covered most of the encounters to be had in Freeway Fighter. Probably the major one that I missed was the Ratman in the motel at the end, which is an almost certain death sentence. If you meet him you're almost bound to get bitten by a rat and contract the plague. You can still finish your mission, but you have to go off into exile to die, while the people of New Hope build a statue in your honour. To be honest, it's a better ending than you get from beating the book.
Other than that there are some wild dogs you can fight right at the beginning after meeting Johnson, an Outlaw who tries to kill you if you drive over his mines (I managed to avoid them every time), an encounter with a guy who tries to throw molotov cocktails at your car after disabling it with iron spikes, and a jeep full of Doom Dogs that you might meet if you're unlucky on the way to their camp.
MISTAKES AND RED HERRINGS
There are very few outright errors in this books that I could find. The only one that jumps out is in the encounter with the barricade and the two bikers. You can avoid getting your wheel blown off with a mine, but the end of the encounter assumes that you have to spend time changing your spare tire.
There were a bunch of items I never found a use for, though: a chain, a pair of handcuffs, a grenade, and a throwing-knife.
Freeway Fighter has 27 instant death entries. From playing the book you'd assume that around half of these would involve running out of petrol, but that's actually just a single entry that gets used multiple times. Most of the deaths are clustered towards the end of the book, from the Doom Dogs' camp onwards. My favourite comes from a little bit before that point.
This is what happens if you try and fail to escape from Leonardi and his goons after losing the drag race. It's makes me laugh, because it's such an overreaction. Like, what are these guys even doing there? What do they get out of forcing people to drag race them? It's probably the most nonsensical encounter in the book.
Story & Setting: The plot is a decent one, but that's because it's pretty directly knocked off from Mad Max 2. Likewise the setting (although I gather this book is set in the US rather than Australia). That said, it's not like originality has ever been the major drawcard for Fighting Fantasy: pretty much all of the books are drawing heavily on pulp literature, TV and movies, so Freeway Fighter is in good company. What really counts is how those settings are brought to life, and this book does a decent job. The wasteland here feels perhaps a little too lawless, with what feels like one lunatic after another packed into a pretty small area; with a little more work tying things together it might have felt a bit more well-realised. Even so, it holds together pretty well. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Toughness: On the Ian Livingstone scale this one rates pretty well, without a single unavoidable high-Skill encounter. It's still difficult though, and you'll need high scores to get through: the final stage of the book is a gauntlet of Luck and Skill tests, and if you fail any of them it's game over. The main path to victory isn't too difficult to discover, but it's a bit more linear than I'd like. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Aesthetics: The writing is good here, and you can tell that Ian is having a good time writing something different. He almost comes across as though he'd welcome the civilisation-ending plague, as long as it gave him the opportunity to drive really fast without fear of the police. The cover's good, and I like Kevin Bulmer's illustrations; it's fun trying to figure out which movie stars he's based the various characters on. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Mechanics: There's quite a bit going on in this book, with rules for melee combat, shooting combat, and vehicle combat, but it's all kept simple and fits pretty well into the FF system. I can't think of anything in the rules that annoyed me here, so I have to give it pretty good marks. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Innovation: It seems weird to be praising a book for ripping off Mad Max, but this is the first gamebook to do it, so it gets some kudos. There's also a bunch of new stuff going on in the rules. Rating: 5 out of 7.
NPCs & Monsters: Being set in post-apocalyptic America doesn't give Ian much scope for using monsters, but there are plenty of crazed humans along the way, most of whom want to kill you and/or steal your car. There are certainly some memorable encounters - the guy in the gladiator helmet springs to mind - but a few too many of them boil down to being attacked by a different type of vehicle. Now it's a motorbike! Now it's an armoured car! Now it's a Ford! Now it's a motorbike... with a sidecar! The best encounters are very good, but there are a few too many of the same type. Rating: 3 out of 7.
Amusement: I've never been one to love the books that aren't set on Titan (House of Hell excepted). Freeway Fighter is among the better of them, but it's still not a favourite. At it's best - the blitz race - it's extremely good, but nothing else in the book matches that level of excitement. Rating: 3 out of 7.
The above scores total 28, which doubled give a score of 56. I won't give it any bonus points, which gives it a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 56. That puts it 15th out of 21 adventures so far, sitting just below Scorpion Swamp and above Caverns of the Snow Witch.
NEXT: I'm taking a detour from the main series to tackle The Dark Usurper, a Fighting Fantasy adventure from White Dwarf magazine, from back in the days before it became a glossy advertisement for Warhammer.