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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Early Access Review: Jalopy (Steam)

Jalopy’s another fine title riding the commie wave of nostalgia…and I’m not being sarcastic at all. There’s a palpable need for games to fill up that niche and at the same time, offer something entirely different from most simulators on Steam. Released almost one year ago (and still in Early Access) by an enthusiastic developer that has kept supporting and updating its first Steam project, Jalopy excels in recreating the hardships of moving from point A to B, in a beater that belongs in a museum if not directly in a junkyard.

Coincidentally (or not), your nearly literal nostalgic trip starts in a garage next to a junkyard. It’s June 1990, you’re in the GDR (German “Democratic” Republic) and just several months away from the official Reunification of Germany. As you can imagine that’s not a topic or set of locations used often in video games. Yet, you play as a nameless and silent protagonist whose job is to help out his Uncle with certain errands which shall eventually culminate in a journey all the way to Turkey. The latest update for Jalopy allows players to reach Bulgaria, so the final destination has almost been implemented.

There’s not much in the sense of a storyline, but you won’t really have time to bother about that anyway since the true protagonist in this game is none other than the titular jalopy, “Laika 601 Deluxe”. In real life this would be the Trabant 601, if not for some truly ironic twist through which using even the name of a defunct Soviet Bloc brand in a video game, somehow represents copyright infringement. Isn’t capitalism nice, comrades? So yeah, it’s a Trabi. A real cult classic of a car that became a symbol of the GDR, simply because it was the most affordable car around and there weren’t many alternatives, in terms of personal vehicular means anyways.

Also known as the “Spark plug with a roof”, its chassis was the only part made of actual metal. The rest of the components were a mix of plastic and recycled materials. It would have been a green thumb/hipster dream car if not for the notoriously underpowered two-stroke engine. Fun fact: that’s same motor which had been used to rotate panzer turrets, two decades before the Trabant was first manufactured. Yes, East Germans fitted a car with the shoddy engine of a tank’s main gun. It’s no surprise that reaching 80 km/h (49 mph) is gonna be a rare sight. Don’t expect 100 km/h, except when going downhill.

Unity Engine assets which are skillfully used in conjunction with a minimalist aesthetic. You might say Jalopy has a “large pixel” graphical style to it, yet the shapes have been streamlined enough to bare no resemblance to Minecraft on wheels. Performance was mostly as expected. No problem running the title maxed out, 4K and stable 60 frames per second. A couple of crashes to desktop were encountered when exiting the game and the only texture glitch I found, was related to the rare occasions of gathering dirt as the car passed pot holes and puddles. Dirt texture for the Laika’s grille would “float” behind the car. It’s a title still in its Early Access stage so I won’t judge it too harshly from a technical perspective.

Jalopy sadly lacks severely in the sound department. No voice acting whatsoever when interacting with NPCs and not even a lot of background sounds either, apart from the engine noise and other mechanical auxiliaries. The Laika’s radio plays a repetitive tune and no options there, other than to switch it on or off. Silence is not golden when you’re driving down the highway. A retro soundtrack comprised of German songs if nothing else, is in dire need of being included in Jalopy.

You might mistake Jalopy for a car repair/assembly simulator in the vein of My Summer Car or Revhead. It’s true that repairing the vehicle is an integral part of the gameplay, yet the journey and the efforts undertaken in reaching your destination, are far more important than the car maintenance aspect. No matter how careful you might be driving, there won’t be a dull moment in Jalopy. Something shall break down like flimsy clockwork and since this shall happen in the middle of the road most of the time, be prepared to pull over frequently. It goes without saying that carrying spare parts in Laika’s trunk is crucial to your success. Buying car components and even upgrades, won’t be as straight forward since the in-game economy can be abused to the point at which your errand runs become unnecessary.

The lack of a proper progress saving system means that no matter when you quit the game, Jalopy shall take you back to your home garage where stock car parts are always re-spawned. This might have been a good thing for players still getting accustomed to the fail rate of Jalopy’s components, yet the fact that these parts can be sold for a hefty sum, translates in economic imbalance and outright cheating. The wares come in many shapes and sizes (they occupy vital space in your car’s trunk) and can be also found along the highways, for some reason. Booze, sausages, cigarette packs and several other commodities which are your main source of income, depending on where you buy and sell them. Contraband is simulated in the sense that as you pass through the borders of certain Eastern Bloc countries, some goods are prohibited over there.

Curiously, no matter what route you pick up on your map and even what direction you choose to drive towards, you always seem to reach your objective. It’s like the proverb: “All roads lead to Rome!” except that instead of Italy’s capital, you go from one gloomy communist scenery to another until you shall reach Turkey and Istanbul in a subsequent update, I presume. Some landmarks are included already and they offer the needed visual diversity that is not present in the towns and roads themselves. Motels, gas stations and shops are a lone driver’s best friends and you can bet that they’ll offer you the needed support since Uncle is mostly used as a guide and tutorial more than anything else.

The car repair segment is not as fleshed out as in similar simulators mainly because the Laika 601 Deluxe isn’t a complex car to begin with. You won’t have any trouble learning the ropes in half an hour or so. From there on, it’s gonna be a smooth ride. Or not, since you will constantly compromise between the wares you need to sell and the spare parts you need to carry for emergency repairs in the middle of nowhere. Driving & fixing the Laika is easy and the dashboard is richly detailed but still missing the option of manual transmission. In the Trabant’s case, the stick shift would have been placed next to the steering wheel. Automatic transmission in this particular car model is both anachronistic and technically infeasible. Alas it’s being used just for the sake of simplicity and I understand it but I still hope the dev team shall include a proper manual gearbox method eventually.

Jalopy is decently priced for the unique experience it offers but I agree it needs Achievements and Trading Cards as well. A quality indie title on Steam deserves nothing but the best support from its developer and growing fanbase. If you want a small taste of automotive communism minus the real life downsides, grab Jalopy now or wait for a Steam Sale if you’re a stingy would-be comrade.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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