MINI REVIEW: Highway Holocaust

Before Joe Dever’s untimely passing in late 2016 he completed revised editions of his post-apocalyptic series Freeway Warrior for Swedish publisher Åskfågeln, updating the original timeline to the year 2033 (rather than 2020 as in the 1988 edition) and changing some aspects of Cal Phoenix’s story to better match the expectations of a modern audience. In Highway Holocaust, the first of four attractive hardcover volumes, you play as Cal Phoenix, the Freeway Warrior, attempting to protect the people of Dallas Colony One as you lead a convoy across the wastelands of Texas in the first stage of a life-and-death road trip to the Californian coast. Mad Dog Michigan, the leader of a murderous motorcycle gang known as ‘the Lions’, will hound you throughout your long journey, waging all-out war to take possession of your food, weapons and fuel, and to recapture something previously lost – a resourceful girl named Kate Norton. 

STORYLINE: A survivor of the nuclear explosions triggered by the clandestine crime syndicate HAVOC, Cal Phoenix and the other residents of a fortified settlement 30 miles north of Dallas now face a new crisis: failing crops and a drying artesian well – your only source of uncontaminated water. As attacks from desperate local gangs increase, radio contact is made with another colony in Big Spring, 300 miles to the west, who have plenty of food and water, but little remaining fuel. They also tell you of reports that southern California is still widely populated, having been spared the worst of the devastating radioactive blizzards. A plan is formed: escape an eventual death by remaining where you are, and try to reach California after a rendezvous at Big Spring. Cal drives a powerful, customised roadster, and will act as scout for the convoy, which also includes a school bus (to transport the colony) and a tanker carrying over 5,000 gallons of petroleum – the most valuable of all commodities in this ruined, fuel-starved world. The formidable bike-riding clansmen that track your journey will stop at nothing to gain what they seek – can you hope to reach your destination intact?

Highway Holocaust quickly creates an authentic and exciting Mad Max-inspired world of limited resources, motorcycle thugs and brutal violence. Although old-school in some aspects due to its age, the Freeway Warrior concept mixes all of the expected tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre into an enjoyable gamebook experience, allowing you to impressively outwit or overpower your opponents with triumphant manoeuvring, careful evaluation and daring exploits of sheer survival.

GAMEPLAY: Action-packed adventuring that uses the setting well. As already proven in the pages of the Lone Wolf series, Dever’s storytelling is unfailingly engaging and lively, drawing the reader into the shoes of the main character as you’re presented with short- and long-term decisions that directly affect how you’ll experience his gamebooks. The numerous characters you meet, fight or befriend have individual personalities and desires, which then gives them a genuine purpose and identity – even when they’re only minor players within in a relatively brief encounter. This creation of relatable and believable characters is a constant strength in Dever’s writing, building vibrant, living environments that realistically surround you and rarely feel like staged pathways.

The game system is functionally similar to Lone Wolf, with added Close Combat and Missile Weapons (including ammunition requirements and restrictions), a Medkit and Water Canteen. Two randomly generated attributes represent your fighting prowess and health: Close Combat Skill and Endurance. Five basic Survival Skills support these two characteristics: Driving, Shooting, Field Craft, Stealth and Perception. Each of these Survival Skills are allocated 3 points, which can then be individually increased by up to 3 additional points from a total pool of 9, giving you the ability to personally shape Cal Phoenix’s skill set as you wish. Interestingly, this extra points total has been adjusted from the original edition’s quantity of just 4, allowing for higher skill totals to better meet the endless challenges you’ll face during your adventure. Resource management can be difficult at times if you’re not following the optimal path, so it’s essential to plan ahead to only use precious resources when it’s a compulsory requirement or you believe it to be absolutely necessary.

PRESENTATION: Åskfågeln have created a high quality, visually impressive gamebook, complete with a full-colour route map by Francesco Mattioli on the inside of the wrap-around dust jacket, two coloured ribbon markers, and luxuriously thick paper. The book design and page layout is excellent, making it a great collectible for those either familiar with or completely new to the series, particularly as the original paperback editions from the 80s usually sell for a premium, even when only in ‘average’ condition. Åskfågeln rightly deserve praise for the presentation and finish of the overall product.

The cover artist, Lukas Thelin, who is a master of composition, colour and character design/pose, has also produced a number of small page vignettes, and the full-page interiors are by Ryan Lovelock, the illustrator for the new Italian Editions. I’m yet to see a Lukas Thelin image (in either colour or b&w) that I didn’t like, and Ryan Lovelock’s line illustrations perfectly capture the various rough-and-ready inhabitants of this American wasteland, as shown in the images seen above and below.

REPLAY VALUE: It certainly isn’t one of the longest gamebooks available, and many of the options presented during moments of conflict are only there to test your skills and/or judgement and whittle down your endurance or resources, but Highway Holocaust does feature alternative routes and other worthwhile events to experience during further readings. As with any gamebook that’s written to tell a specific story, you’ll always be brought back to the key points of the unfolding narrative, regardless of which options you choose to take. This is not a criticism of Highway Holocaust’s structure or content, however, it’s replay value is a little limited due to this format, and as it’s the first part of a four-book series, you really wouldn’t expect anything too different anyway.

Review by Michael Reilly

1 thought on “MINI REVIEW: Highway Holocaust”

  1. Pingback: Joe Dever’s Freeway Warrior: The Omega Zone – Gamebook News

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