Mars: War Logs Review (PC)

I utterly respect developer Spiders’ ambition in creating Mars: War Logs: an epic RPG for a reasonable price. Mass Effect on a budget. Yes Star Trek and Star Wars are great, but now and again a nice Starship Troopers 3: Marauder hits the spot. And why not? RPGs shouldn’t just be the realm of big-budget extravaganzas and 2D indie titles. A straightforward, well told, imaginative, 3D action RPG for a modest price – all too rare and that’s what Mars: War Logs is meant to be. I applaud that vision, but Spiders haven’t quite nailed it yet.

First of all, the title. What the hell were you guys thinking? What about Mars Wars, Martian Warfare, or Resistance (okay, that one’s taken)? The only other game that had such a bad title I felt the need to bring it up in the review was Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, where I noted it was going to cost them sales – and we know what happened next.

This is Roy. Hi Roy.

Still, Spiders at least have kept their vision small so it shouldn’t cost them too much. On the other hand, at least Amalur had a very good game behind the crazy name. Mars doesn’t have that complete luxury, although it’s not too bad either. That’s the second comment I’ve made about the game’s quality and I haven’t even started properly talking about it yet, so let’s get on to it at last.

A fully colonised future Mars is plagued with civil war. The story is told through the titular logs of a boy called Innocence as he tells of his friendship with player character Temperance (all the people on Mars have virtues for names), otherwise more simply known as Roy, and their escape from a P.O.W. camp.

Mars begins with Innocence arriving at the camp and nearly getting some hot rape action from a local fat slob, only being saved from this horrible welcome party by Roy and his incredible powers of staring (and the more useful skill of beating them up). Roy then decides to enrol Innocence in his escape plan from the camp and the game begins in earnest.

The world of Mars (which is Mars, I guess) that Spiders have envisioned is a neat mix of Dune, Chronicles of Riddick, Equilibrium, and Total Recall (the original). Mars is not a pretty place, full of rust and ruin and the majority of the population living in slums underground, with the electricity-fighting priests called Technomancers being in real charge of the planet.

Roy will go from prisoner to rebel to hero, should you so choose. Mars attempts to change based on your actions and reputation, with the “War Logs” altering to take into account optional side quests and your reputation going downhill should you kill downed enemies for extra Serum (which is used as money on Mars, as well as to craft health and power potions).

That said, while a few lines of dialogue change and a select few minor characters treat you a bit differently there isn’t a massive change in experience whether you murder everyone you see or leave them alive (to maybe fight you later). Still, the option is nice even if the payoff isn’t huge (although some characters can live or die based on your decisions).

Lovely, naïve Mary. She’s been watching Dune too much.

More disappointing though is that Mars consists of a series of dusty brown corridors – it’s hard to tell a prison from a farming community and both need much wider areas. All of Mars really looks the same, and there’s a lot of pointless wandering back and forth down those identical corridors to go between quest location and quest giver, not to mention the masses of utterly unnecessary doors that are scattered over the place to break up sections.

It’s good that the door-opening animations can be skipped, but why are those doors there in the first place? I’m sure even the Xbox 360 can handle a few corridors, and yet there’s still loading screens between sections anyway so why make these small parts of Mars even smaller (and more tedious to traverse) by throwing in doors or climbable barriers all over the place?

The story can be quite interesting and I like the ideas Spiders have going with the world (the Technomancers are just plain cool, for example) but the player never quite sees the full picture. This isn’t really a bad thing, Half-Life 2 for example only really hinted at much of the Combine conflict, but a few more hints in this case wouldn’t have gone amiss.

I liked the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay feel to the beginning of the game but after Roy and Innocence’s escape I never felt like they were desperate fugitives on the run. This feeling wasn’t helped by 90% of the game’s NPCs not talking to me or even looking in my direction while I was caving in the heads of local policemen with a giant electric hammer-knife. Building a world is crucial for RPGs, as is keeping the player’s suspension of disbelief, and I don’t feel Mars is quite there despite promising beginnings.

Also not quite there are Roy’s companions. There are only a few as you might expect who can actually join and fight with you, and they generally have interesting backstories. My favourite was easily Mary, the young slightly out-of-it Technomancer girl. The first problem with these associates though is that in combat they are at best distractions. They’re too weak, attack too sporadically, and I never once saw them defeat or even stand up to a single opponent. Apart from a few orders you can’t upgrade them, control them or change them in any way. And what’s worse, you can only have one companion with you at any time, which is absolute rubbish.

The second major problem, not just in the companions but also in the whole game, is the writing and voice acting. The acting is not the worst I’ve seen in a game (Game of Thrones: The Game had worse voice acting for starters), but never gets better than “okay” and veers into “terrible” too often for comfortable storytelling – too many lines are told without any emotion whatsoever, even if a character’s just found out their parents are dead.

Mary and I against the world. Or a big mole thing.

I quite liked Mary being unemotional about everything as it suited her character, but in Roy or Innocence it just came off as bad. Furthermore very often the writing in the game was just plain off, as if the English hasn’t been translated properly from Spiders’ native French. Sometimes the dialogue between characters also occasionally doesn't match up, not to any serious degree but enough (along with the acting) to dent the storytelling, like a character will act if Roy mentioned something important but he never actually did so.

Combat is the main focus of the gameplay, and it veers between fun and aggravating – which is apt, since the fighting system (and the upgrade system) is identical to The Witcher 2, which had a similar problem. On the other hand Witcher 2 didn’t have as many cases of blows not connecting or attacks being interrupted, and also even though you can assign attacks, defences or potions on all ten number keys it’s baffling that only 1-4 appear on screen at all times.

There’s a Nail Gun with extremely limited ammo, hand grenades, traps, and Technomancer powers which are less useful than they should be, but most of the time you’ll be bashing enemies, blocking their attacks, and occasionally throwing sand in their eyes (if they have eyes). Enemies consist of soldiers, Technomancers, weird insect-like dogs, and strange Mole creatures. As you level up battles become more bearable, but still veer into irritating far too often.

Weapons, armour, and of course Roy himself can be upgraded. Weapons and armour can have upgrades crafted for various bonuses, either offensively or defensively, although you never really get any impressive new weapons or clothing during the game – there’s no point in going through the crafting rigmarole again just to get +1 Damage from a suit that costs 250 Serum.

You might as well do what I did and spend the cash on health potions, Nail Gun bullets, and hand grenades, and suddenly every battle becomes a lot more bearable (and easy). Roy himself can be upgraded in the categories of Defence, Offence, and Technomancer skills, along with the occasional Feat for small bonuses like extra crafting options, although the menus are all so clunky I wouldn’t be surprised if some players didn’t realise this option existed.

Mars is just a bit too dull for my liking...

Missions mostly consist of going somewhere, hitting a few things and then returning for a reward, but side missions can be more inventive. Some can be succeeded non-violently, and a murder investigation shines a light on some dark corners of this Mars universe. In terms of actual play time there’s about 10-12 hours of game here, which isn’t huge but as mentioned this isn’t meant to be a gigantic RPG.

More disappointing is the lack of a decent end section – a final assault on The Source, the home of the Technomancers, is hugely anti-climactic and doesn’t really offer any special challenge (and certainly not a final boss or anything). The ending’s pretty good I suppose, and I presume changes based on which faction you backed and your other choices, but I don’t think I’ll replay it to find out.

In attempting to create a short, affordable RPG Spiders have made a few good choices but also a load of errors with Mars: War Logs. Taking the combat system from The Witcher 2 was a good step, as was creating an intriguing vision of a Mars torn by civil war with no mention of Earth whatsoever.

Where it falls apart however is in the repetitiveness of the environment, the uselessness of Roy’s otherwise interesting companions, the regularly frustrating combat, and the mostly poor writing and acting. Mars is a fairly interesting action RPG with a cheap price on its side, but in all honesty it could do with being even cheaper. A nice attempt guys, some improvement is needed. And a bigger colour palette. And a better title.

Top Game Moment: Convincing the naïve Technomancer Mary to join your side, and that sleeping with you isn’t a requirement.



By Gale47 (SI Core) on May 08, 2013
Yes, this review is nicely written.
Altough I mostly liked the combat system.
We need a Dune RPG, stat.