Reviews

Mars: War Logs – Review

MARS_logo

Platforms: PC , PS3 and Xbox 360
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Spiders
Publisher: Home Focus Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Mars: War Logs has clear and lofty ambitions, containing the player-driven narrative decisions,  moral system, intractable party members and crafting system that have become some familiar within the RPG genre. It has all these things, the very things that Mass Effect, Dragon Age and more have used to ensnare their audiences, and yet it only has the at the most fundamental level, failing to flesh them out properly. The systems are there, but their still in a skeletal state, awaiting completion. This is pretty much Mars: War Logs in a nutshell.

First, though, let’s start with the game’s narrative: your journey begins in a prisoner of war camp where you take on the role of gruff anti-hero Roy, who takes under his wing a young lad by the name if Innocence. Innocence, the game informs me, shall have his personality altered and shaped by how I interact with the world. It’s a promising beginning that’s for sure, but things begin to fall apart far to quickly, mostly become the narrative rushes through the things, creating some jarring storytelling. After trudging through the prisoner of war camp and partaking in a variety of bloody dull missions which involve even more trudging the war is suddenly over and am evil dictatorship is introduced. When did that happen?

Roy, being all tough and stuff.

Roy, being all tough and stuff.

As the game progresses a woman who vowed revenge upon Roy for reasons I won’t spoil suddenly ceases trying to kill him and joins him instead. This miraculous shift is done in just a few lines of terrible dialogue that utterly fail to explain her change of heart in any way, and you’re left to simply accept that this once enemy is now your chum. Likewise a dreaded bounty hunter paid to kill Roy goes from trying to kill Roy to being his best mate in the space of about 30-seconds, once again through the wonders of fucking terrible writing. These are just a few examples of Mars: War Logs jarring plot problems – everything feels rather rushed. The game takes no time to attempt to flesh out any of the characters along the way, and the dialogue is flat and lifeless, bringing to the table about as much personality and warmth as a piece of dry bread. There’s the occasional voice actor who attempts to work as well as could possibly be expected with the writing on offer and therefore manages to produce something decent, but the rest of the acting is pretty bad.

It’s a shame, too, because several of the stories the game tries to rush through could have been very interesting if more time and care had been taken. The setting and the backdrop that Spider have craftted is rather intriguing, but the plot just fails to go anywhere and the dodgy writing coupled with boring characters ensures that to get invested in the story at all you’re going to have to very, very drunk.

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The world is as grimy, red and dusty as one would expect from the Red Planet. The buildings are cobbled together from a variety of rusted scrap-metal, water is a highly prized commodity and people are desperate, scratching a living where they can and how they can, barely surviving the harsh environment. Especially for a game released on Xbox Live Arcade there’s actually some solid texture work on display and a fair amount of detail within the environments. Truth be told I’ve seen a lot worse in some full retail releases that cost £40 to purchase.

Mars: War Logs manages to paint a fairly convincing portrait of an unforgiving, alien world. It’s a portrait only tarnished by poor animation work, especially in character’s faces, and the absence of intelligence AI scripts driving the worlds inhabitants who mostly just stand around and do nothing. Without NPCs actually doing something or acting in a more convincing manners Mars: War Logs falls into the same trap that many games have before, creating a world that feels oddly hollow at times.

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The other downside, of course, to have such a realistic world is that scrap metal buildings begin to looking rather samey pretty quickly, a problem that the art team don’t manage to combat well. The various areas you travel through begin to blur together, and there’s few compelling landmarks or environments of note.

As you explore the world there’s a variety of crates and piles of junk that you can search, each one usually rewarding you with bits and bobs like leather, scrap metal and more, all of which can be used to upgrade your existing armor and weapons. The problem is that none of the armor, weapons or upgrades are actually very interesting, and trawling through garbage for, well, garbage becomes tedious very quickly. The good news is that junk is so plentiful that you’ve rarely got to worry about running out of the stuff providing you occasionally remember to rummage around. Mostly you’ll just upgrade your stuff because it provides some small stat boosts, but it’s something you do merely because you have to in order to increase your changes in a fight, rather than because you want to. The best crafting systems work well because the items are cool and interesting as well-being potentially life saving.

There’s also the occasional vendor to be found moping around whichever area you’re in, and they usually also sell all of the junk you can find in the junk heaps strewn around, which is sort of daft when you really thing about it. They also sell new armor and weapons, but better stuff than what you’ve got is so damn rare and money so plentiful then I was a fairly rich bugger by the end of the game and had barely changed my gear.

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Like with many RPGs Mars: War Logs developers have chosen to go down a fairly heavy combat route, focusing on the use of melee weapons far more than ranged. A tap of the X button swings whatever stick thing you have equipped, while B parries attacks, Y breaks an enemy’s defenses and A sends Roy rolling around to dodge enemy blows. LIke the rest of the game combat works, but that’s about it. There’s a hefty flaw  in that combat is slow and cumbersome. Press the attack button and Roy will ponderously swing his chosen weapon, while the parry button is far too unresponsive, forcing you to rely more on the dodge mechanic and roll around like a retarded version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The camera quickly proves to a pain in the backside as well because it remain entirely under the players control, so while you’re frantically trying to deal with a crowd of enemies you’ve also got to deal with the camera, otherwise it will inevitably become lodged in a piece of the tight environments and make it nigh on impossible to see what’s going on. Enemies also have a nasty habit of launching attacks just outside of the camera’s view and as mentioned the controls are responsive enough to deal with such sudden strikes.

Meanwhile attempting to deal with enemies wielding ranged weapons can be a pain, because you’ve got to roll to get close to them, and by time you’ve gotten a blow in the other enemies in the group have caught up with you and the camera isn’t far enough away to let you see the incoming attacking again, and so you’ve got to madly roll away and repeat the process.

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There are ranged weapons to be found and used during combat, but like the rest of the combat there’s a hefty delay between you pressing the fire button and Roy actually pulling the trigger that makes using them in a fight frustrating. Actually using a ranged weapon during a battle requires you to try and get away from the action so that you’ve got time to use it before the enemy close the distance, but even then the targeting system is so unpredictable that it will often fail to target the enemy until they’re too close for you to successfully blast them.

The same problem which befouled guns also effects Roy’s Techomancer skills, which are essentially Mars: War Logs form of magic, albeit with an actually technological explanation. You can create shields around yourself, electrocute foes, charge your weapon and more, but the abilities are rather uninteresting, and once again take bloody ages to actually use. The results of your Technomancer attacks usually aren’t all that potent, either, and so between the delay and the lack of any real impact it generally feels easier just to hit things with a big stick.

Combat, then, isn’t exactly graceful. Roy is often described and viewed as something of a badass, but it’s hard to take that claim seriously when he’s rolling around the environment like a lunatic and fumbling with a gun.

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During combat you’ll find that the single AI partner that you’re allowed to have tag along with you is almost completely useless. You can issue them with some basic commands but it doesn’t really matter as they serve only as a brief distraction for enemies before they go down under a flurry of blows, leaving you to contend with the remaining foes. Don’t worry, your partner does get back up again once the fight is over. I’d also like to point out a very serious flaw that comes of teaming up with your fellow Technomancer: her attacks frequently effect you as well, tossing you backwards or interrupting your own strikes, leaving you vulnerable. It’s incredibly frustrating, which is a shame as some of her abilities can be useful in a fight.

Outside of combat your AI partners don’t add much to the game. You can chat to them and learn a bit more about their backstory, but as mentioned previously there’s really not much to them. They’ll occasionally interject in conversations with others to offer an opinion. Sadly there’s no way of outfitting them with better gear to try to make them a little more combat effective, either. After a while they begin to feel more like loyal puppies that just follow you blindly, although to be fair I would never take a cute and innocent puppy onto a battlefield.

One good idea does come from being able to spare enemies or finish them off for Serum, which is the game’s force of currency. After a battle when everyone’s writhing on the ground and you merrily steal all their stuff, but you can also choose to use a special device which extracts Serum, killing the person in the process. This changes your reputation, which in turn will slightly alter how some people deal with you. It’s a pretty neat idea, but let down by the fact that there’s not much to spend money on anyway, and Serum is fairly easy to acquire, so why bother?

As you take down enemies and complete quests you’ll gain more and more experience, in turn allowing you to allocate points into one of thee skill trees , but the selection on offer is about as straightforward as you can get and it never really feels like Roy is getting all that much better at what he does. Levels are gained at a fairly rapid rate in keeping with the fairly short storyline which can be completed in about 6 or 7 hours, plus a few more for side-quests. One of the trees laughably allows you to increase your stealth skills, which would be fine if stealth was actually a viable gameplay option, which it’s not. Sneaking around is incredibly slow and guards are set up so that you can generally ambush one, but after that a full-scale fight breaks out.

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But the biggest problem is that the mission structure relies heavily on you getting into fights with a lot of people for a lot of the time. The rest of the time is spent trudging around the environments, a tactic which frankly feels like it’s used to increases the lifespan of the game.  The average main mission, or side-mission, involves patiently wandering through the world until you get to a certain point where you beat up some people, and then you have to trudge all the way fucking back again to turn in the quest. In fact several missions deviated from this formula by making me trudge to several different locations all the way across the map from each other one after the other before finally getting to hit someone in the face with a stick. Navigating the world is made even more boring by frequent doors, ladders and pointless climbable walls that activate a brief cutscene that can actually be skipped, leaving me to wonder why they’re even here in the first place.  Suffice to say it becomes incredibly annoying very quickly and the game’s mission design will not be winning the developers any awards for originality. It’s the final mundane nail in the mundane coffin.

And that’s the thing about Mars: War Logs: it’s not a terrible game. It doesn’t do anything truly bad or horrendous, it doesn’t do anything that makes me want to curse it to the lowest pit of hell, it’s just completely mundane from start to finish. All of the staple mechanics seen within the genre are present, but they’re only very basic and straightforward. There’s just nothing remarkable about this game, and that makes it hard to truly recommend. It exists and its serviceable, and if you really need an RPG fix then you’ll find some slight enjoyment out of it.

The Good:
+ The setting.
+ Some interesting plot ideas.

The Bad:
– Rushed story.
– Poor writing.
– Mundane gameplay.

The Verdict: 2/5 – Okay
Mars: War Logs does nothing to stand apart in a genre filled with quality titles. It’s merely okay, and is thus worth picking it up should it ever get a  discount during a sale.

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