Review: Mars: War Logs
Mankind’s obsession with the red planet hardly needs introduction, with it being anything from a desolate rock, to the next frontier, to a hive of aliens intent on destroying us for undisernable reasons, depending on the fiction. For Spiders and Focus Interactive though, it’s recently become the staging ground for a new science-fiction roleplaying game, Mars: War Logs.
Sci-fi roleplaying goodness has been a bit thin on the ground, especially with last year’s culmination of the Mass Effect trilogy, and the game does indeed take a few cues from modern roleplaying tropes. Expect dialogue with multiple options and decisions that will shape the storyline in Mars: War Logs, though nothing with as far-reachng ramifications as Bioware’s efforts. Comparisons are also likely to be made with Red Faction, given the whole Martian-colonisation-gone-awry-through-overbearing-imperialistic-governments thing. But don’t be fooled, since despite a similar gritty industrial design and a focus on life on Mars, War Logs aims to stand on its own two feet.
Alongside his various incidental companions, chief among which is spindly POW Innocence Smith, you play the role of Roy Temperance, established badass and, at the start of the game, disgruntled prisoner of war. Roy himself benefits from some spot-on voice acting, but for the various other characters you’ll meet this can vary. Those used to motion-captured AAA blockbuster games will also be a little jarred by the lack of true lip-synching in speech and the clunky animation throughout. Nevertheless, Mars: War Logs paints the canvas of its world and the twists and foibles of Martian life with impressive confidence, with plenty of its own in-world slang, terminology and interesting Martian fauna. That is, if your definition of ‘interesting’ is ‘wants to eat you, then cough you up just so it can enjoy killing you again’.
The game has a robust crafting system, with the various salvaged things you find during your sojourn through point-A-to-point-B missions being crucial in upgrading your equipment and weaponry. Nicely, these changes are reflected in the weapons and armour themselves, and Roy levels up with a diverse skill tree that allows you to tailor him to your play style.
Combat itself, however, is a bit of a sore point. When it’s good, it’s great, but other times the player might just be experiencing some unpleasant Risen 2: Dark Waters swordfight flashbacks. Roy will happy thwack at his enemies with some form of implement, but there’s no dynamic Zelda-style lock-on or other assistance to help position you. Allies are also tremendously good at falling over and being incapacitated for a fight, especially when a ton of enemies barge in all at once. Expect to spend a lot of time running around with Benny Hill chase music ringing inside your head.
The good news is, this is mitigated by some neat tricks. There’s a gadget-like focus on combat that feels like a lighter version of the Engineer playstyle in Guild Wars 2. We particularly love the Nailgun, the ammo of which can be constructed from the various bits of metal you’ll rustle up in your travels. What’s more, anyone who’s ever travelled Tyria flinging grenades or laying landmines will appreciate the explosive traps and powerful throwing bombs in Mars: War Logs, though don’t expect the same complexity as ArenaNet’s masterpiece.
All in all, it’s an ambitious game. The fiction itself is very compelling, even if not always vocally delivered with the aplomb a modern gamer’s used to. There’s also the Technomancy to get into, which alters the repository of tricks up Roy’s sleeves even further. This is good, as the fun toys are limited and bopping foes with a lead pipe can soon get stale. Nevertheless, with the thumping music and the constant necessity for movement, combat can certainly feel tense.
For all its B-movie production values, there is no denying that a strong heart beats at the core of Mars: War Logs. The setting is rich with well-designed aesthetics, and though NPCs are prone to stand around doing very little, there’s a deep backstory and a sense of lore to the world as a whole. It’s clear that the developers are seeking to establish a franchise. Likewise, although your protagonist is the average modern day gaming gravel-voiced sarcastic badass, Roy is genuinely likeable and the game itself enjoys a grey morality that doesn’t feel too forced. Having said that, the swearing and insistence on adult concepts right from the game’s beginning does smack somewhat of trying too hard to be mature.
As far as the interface goes, there’s little to fault here. As a whole, everything from the skill wheel to the scavenge-punk weaponry and funky Technomancer zapping is inherently user-friendly and functional. There is no doubting that the core mechanics of Mars: War Logs are not just sound, but admirably pieced together and downright efficient. The only niggle we had was that pressing the ‘M’ key on the PC version we playtested brought up the area map, which is just jolly sensible; yet pressing it whilst on the map screen doesn’t close it again. Your gamer instincts will constantly tell you this makes sense, and Mars: War Logs will cheerfully and consistently ignore you.
But it’s nevertheless a short game, divided into a trio of acts constructed of several missions. There are side-missions to discover too, which help flesh out incidental characters or provide diverting fetch-quests, but ultimately it’s something of a linear game. Yet for all its constraints, its lack of a coherent vision and its inability to quite pull the tricks it undoubtedly could have had up its sleeves, given a little more polish, there is one thing that this game’s meticulously crafted world and sense of place does have, and that’s heart. In today’s world of big-budget titles and shameless cash-ins, seeing a game invested with this degree of tangible passion by its development team is certainly commendable.
Mars: War Logs is a game with big dreams and a grand vision, but just falls short of realising them. Nevertheless, it’s far from an atrocity, with several great ideas and a very interesting, surprisingly self-assured voice on what life is like on the red planet. Tromping around as Roy Temperance and bashing things with various bits and bobs is all good fun, and we’re especially fond of the Dogs; that is to say, Martian dogs. You’ll know them when you meet them.
There’s fun to be had in the wartorn frontier of Mars, but plucky explorers-to-be are nonetheless warned; it’s not as big a journey as the game wants you to believe, and there’ll be moments along the way where you’ll wonder why you bothered. But then all of a sudden, you’ll get a new toy, a new trick or an idea how to defeat the mouth-on-legs that just ended you, and you’ll go bounding back to Mars for another go. You’ll brandish your pipe and you’ll ready your Nailgun and you’ll watch Roy’s hands fizzing with the power of purest Technomancy.
And then the fight will begin and the Dogs will come and Innocence will flail ineffectually and fall over.
Version tested: PC