REVIEW: Highway to Hell

You just can’t stop the zombie advance as they determinedly shuffle their way into every single corner of modern print and electronic media. I’m not a major fan of these decomposing antagonists, but they’ve certainly found many friends who enthusiastically enjoy their gruesomely destructive ways. Thankfully, Highway to Hell joins this wealth of current material with something worthwhile for all gamebook enthusiasts – a high-action tale where the stakes simply couldn’t be higher.

You’re Jimmy El Camino, a hard-drinking fortysomething with a long and troubled military history – a dealer of death and destruction on the world stage. You’re also a skilled driver, a racer, and a junkie for the speed and danger of a fast-moving vehicle. Locked up by the CIA in a New Jersey prison complex for nearly five years, you’re unaware that hell has arrived on earth. The zombie apocalypse can only be stopped if you accept a vital escort mission to cross the US by car and deliver a precious 20-year-old girl, named Iris, to scientists waiting in San Francisco. Why? Because Iris offers hope to humanity in the form of a vaccine: she’s resistant to the zombie plague and therefore holds the key to stopping the advance of the undead.

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Firstly though, to gain your freedom and start your mission, you must prove your worth as a skilled driver by competing in a ‘Death Derby’ – vehicular combat in the vein of the PlayStation game Twisted Metal. Featuring outlandish car/character combinations and plenty of undead roadkill, this short introductory sequence sets up ongoing adversaries for your cross-country mission.

You’ll drive your beloved ’67 Chevy El Camino along the broken and zombie-infested highways of post-apocalyptic America – now fully equipped with numerous non-standard additions: steel plating, bulletproof glass, roof-mounted mini gun, rocket pods, nitrous tanks, machine gun and a spinning ‘thresher’ wheel at the front of the hood. And you’ll certainly need all of this firepower as we’re talking about all sorts of undead opponents: giraffes, priests, Confederate soldiers, rhinos, tourists, horses, congressmen, sorority girls, elephants, Klansmen, alligators, clowns, tigers and Green Bay Packers.

In Highway to Hell you’ll meet, crush, shoot, slice and otherwise dismember hundreds of zombies whilst attempting to save the world and regain your own life. It’s a viscerally madcap spectacle where the path to becoming a hero is regularly obstructed by unforeseen insanity.

The pacing is fast and furious, with ample gore, destruction and black humour, and features plenty of tough guy moments reminiscent of every cool 70s and 80s horror/action film you’ve ever seen. The pulsating action and drama rarely slows throughout your chosen route, and the entire book is never dull. Brallier’s style is rapid, sharp and intelligent, with breathless sequences of gory madness. It’s all highly entertaining, particularly when flesh is tearing and bones are breaking – which happens a hell of a lot!

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As this is a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style of story, where the continuation of the plot is the main focus, you’ll be presented with a choice of actions or directions to progress the story as you attempt to deliver Iris to your final destination. I personally prefer to read gamebooks that include a substantial ‘game’ component – ie, dice rolling, battle mechanics and a character sheet to record your changing stats, equipment and items – however, Highway to Hell presents an excellent adventure regardless of it’s limited format and structure. Many options will challenge your moral beliefs and sense of justice, and you’ll often find yourself internally debating the merit of choosing one particular action ahead of another.

There’s plentiful violence, ample swearing and graphic, brutal bloodshed here – ingredients that if not carefully added with the required wit and style, could easily result in a story that relies solely on a disproportionate amount of extreme content. In Brallier’s skilled hands it pleasingly maintains an entertaining and enthusiastic attitude, that although completely over the top on many occasions, never reads as anything other than high-quality survival drama with a massive helping of chaotically disgusting zombies. I was constantly entertained by Highway to Hell, and I’d be bloody surprised if you weren’t too.

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STORYLINE: Take on a nation of zombies with all of your strength and cunning – and add a car packing a powerful punch. There’s plenty of story depth beyond this simplistic set-up though, so you’ll discover numerous situations where difficult decisions will test you. There are many fantastically macabre encounters, a succession of memorable opponents and a variety of different ways to succeed in your mission or die horribly – it’s a strategic high-octane adventure with the soul of classic genre entertainment.

GAMEPLAY: The CYOA format is at its best here – meaningful options generate new travel paths and amusing consequences. There are a number of obvious choices that lead only to a grisly death or minor diversion, but this is understandable and ultimately fits the style and humour of the book. Iris – your assignment and travelling partner – is a notable highlight, providing great company and real purpose to your decisions. Without her welcome presence, your undead adventure would have little meaning or substance.

PRESENTATION: Book design and appearance is very good with nice comic-style text accents highlighting the sound effects emanating from weapons and violence. Alejandro Colucci’s cover image is suitably heroic in a B-movie style, and the expressive graphic novel interior illustrations by Chris Mitten visually resonate with all of the undead chaos and horror found within the adventure.

REPLAY VALUE: Your adventure will begin to take shape when you follow one of two different directions, with further alternative routes then appearing as a result of your choices. These options for pursuing individual actions and reactions, which then open up new circumstances and additional travel routes, provide significantly different outcomes that add great value to the book and encourage future playthroughs.

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Review by Michael Reilly

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