Written by: Rik

Date posted: July 1, 2001

The game's introduction is reminiscent of a 70s tv show. Which is kind of the point, I guess.

Let’s get things straight first: I’m no great fan of the 1970s. For one thing, I wasn’t around when they happened, and for another, I haven’t spent any great portion of my life watching repeats of Starsky and Hutch. It’s important to get these things out of the way, especially when we’re talking about a game like Interstate ’76, which relies as much on it’s seventies cop-show feel as much as anything else. That it does so probably explains the mixed response the game received on release. Some felt that I76‘s overriding sense of ‘cool’ was enough to lift it from the midsts of mediocrity; others just saw it as an uninspiring driving/combat compromise with a clunky engine. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that at least some of those reviewers who liked it might well have let their love for the game’s influences impair their judgement; a condition which sadly resurfaced following the release of PSX ‘classic’, Driver.

So, you might reason, those unafflicted by muscle-car-chase nostalgia won’t be very impressed with Interstate ’76. Well, not quite. Because, um, I quite enjoyed it actually. It was a few years ago now, and I was quite pleased if I could buy anything that ran on my P133, and I got hopelessly stuck on the last level and never completed it, but I had a good few weeks of fun with it while it lasted. It’s something that’s not especially easy to rationalise. Essentially there’s not very much to I76: you drive around, you get issued orders (which usually involve shooting things), then you shoot things, and then you watch a cut-scene and do it all again. What’s more, the ‘driving/combat compromise’ is a fairly accurate description: the driving model is very basic, and the only driving you have to do is to get to a fight. In turn, the combat is made challenging only by the fact that you have to drive at the same time. Interstate could be described as a simple version of Mechwarrior 2 (in fact, they use the same engine), echoing the latter’s mission style without the flight-sim controls or missile configurations to worry about.

The barren landscapes hint at the game's use of the Mechwarrior engine.

The game is set in an ‘alternative’ version of 1976, which basically means very little apart from an excuse for the outlandish plot: the world is in crisis…blah…disorder…blah…the desert…blah…vigilantes…guns…violence… and so on. Despite all this, we’ve still got afros, flares, funky music, and big cars with ridiculous fuel economy, and everything remains recognisably seventies. You play Groove Champion, brought out into the desert to following the mysterious murder of his sister and thrust into the lawless world of auto-combat by her ex-partner, Taurus, equally desperate for revenge. As a mild-mannered novice, you begin the game receiving a little bit of training from Taurus, a good way of easing you in gently, before progressing to the missions themselves, which largely involve destroying a large number of vehicles with your machine gun.

Graphically, the game was always somewhat on the ‘iffy’ side. Certainly, if you were to boot it up now you would be less than impressed, even with the the 3dfx patch. The landscape consists entirely of spartan desertland, with the only other objects being the vehicles themselves and those buildings and locations relevant to the storyline. This wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself if the game was silky-smooth as a result, but in fact the opposite is true. The game chugs along in software no matter what speed your computer, and when you’re faced with a large number of enemies it’s jerk-o-rama. If you turn the detail right down you can get by, but generally there’s a rather unpolished feel to proceedings.

This is what it's all about, really - blowing stuff up. And driving around a bit, obviously.

The Mechwarrior 2 engine doesn’t really lend itself too well to a driving game, and this is obvious too from the driving itself. Like most racers that aren’t entirely devoted to driving (GTA, Driver, Carmageddon), Interstate ’76 doesn’t really feel right. Although you only stay on the road for a small proportion of the time, and the highways are pretty straight, the car does misbehave and can be awkward to handle, which is especially frustrating during combat. Missions generally take longer than they should to finish because you have to wrestle with the car to turn it around and get rid of that final enemy.

And, er, that’s about it. The cut-scenes have a retro, un-textured look to them, which helps them blend into the game well, and the story itself is quite an enjoyable yarn (even if I never did see the ending). And while it’s not especially taxing, the game’s simplicity is part of its appeal, with a well-judged difficulty curve into the bargain. What is most disappointing is that there are hints of something bigger here: the game arenas themselves are huge, but there are usually only a few routes you can go down, and often the game coaxes you down the ‘correct’ one. It seems as though the developers had plans of including vast road networks with various settlements scattered around, but then decided not to go through with it and plump for the mission-based alternative.

This looks pretty cool; I can guarantee you won't ever need to use this view during the game, though.

It’s a shame, because while games like Midtown Madness, GTA and Driver all claim some form of freedom, it’s all within the claustrophobic environs of city life. There’s something quite liberating about driving at high speed through the desert with very little traffic to worry about; it would have been nicer without the knowledge that it’s usually a linear path to another 15-minute shoot-out with some other cars. More driving, more exploration and a bit less combat is what I’m talking about.

But never mind. Linearity in games has unfortunately become a bit of a cliche – it seems everything is now dismissed because it’s not ‘free-form’ enough, even though arguably the greatest game of all time, Half-Life, is also one of the most linear. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mission based blasting fun – witness my ramblings about Wing Commander elsewhere on this site – and, flawed though Interstate ’76 is, it’s still a decent game. If you want a driving game that gets you out of the city (which doesn’t have an invisible barrier surrounding the road, Need for Speed fans) and you don’t mind a bit of mindless and occasionally repetitive combat, you could do worse than give this a whirl.