Mars seems to be the big thing these days; mankind is exploring it with robots, there have been a handful of games this gen that involve being on it, and I’m totally reading a great book by Alastair Reynolds that involves something hidden on our red, dusty, neighbour. It’s no surprise, then, to see it used as the title for a recently released videogame.
Set on Mars, the story takes place a century after a great upheaval. Two powerful guilds, Aurora and Abundance, are battling over remaining resources and Roy Temperance, an escaped prisoner of war, is caught in the middle. The story itself is told from the eyes of another POW by the name of Innocence who is introduced to Roy at the most crucial of moments. You see, the POWs in Abundance’s camp aren’t overly nice, and as media often suggests, prisoners need to assert their dominance on others with man-on-man rape.
Mars: War Logs pulls no punches when it comes to grit and violence, and nothing showcases this more than the language used and the incredibly visceral melee combat. There’s something about swinging a nail embedded stick at the skull of an oncoming threat that will make anyone wince. You have your standard attack, shove, dodge, and block/counter options, as well as the ability to bind three special moves (out of a rather impressive list of abilities) to other keys/buttons - and let’s not forget the ability to give orders to anyone who happens to be alongside Roy throughout the game.
So yes, Mars has a combat system, as you would expect, but it also has a lot of everything else. Skill trees, the ability to upgrade/forge weapons, dialogue options (with decision making that matters), side-quests, guns, and a rather Mass Effect-style skill wheel you can bring up at any point. In fact, the whole game has a Mass Effect vibe to it, and if the Turians had shown up to start a fight mid-game you’d almost be forgiven for thinking it was Mass Effect 0.
The last sentence of that previous paragraph is actually deeper than it may initially appear, as it’s both a compliment and an insult to both games at the same time. You see, Mars: War Logs feels like it should’ve pre-dated the first ME by a year or two, and that in an alternate world, BioWare saw what had been done by Spiders (the dev team, not actual spiders) and created something much more fleshed out.
The annoying thing about Mars: WL is that Spiders have tried to do everything at once instead of delivering a smaller, more polished game. Everything feels half done. Environments look as though they were made at the start of the 360's life cycle, NPCs stand about in what seems like suspended animation, one of the main voices just wasn’t cast well, and the combat system is so clumsy and unresponsive that restarts and frustration are all but guaranteed. What makes all this so annoying is that the game has so much promise, and if there had been a bigger budget, or a smaller concept, it could have been something quite fantastic.
Another example of the title's numerous frustrations is in the way you navigate the world. Quite often a mission or side-quest will involve you having to get somewhere in particular, and Mars does something most games haven’t for quite some time: it makes you find that location. Instead of hitting a button and seeing an icon or a flashing trail leading towards your destination, it’s up to you to use the static, roughly drawn map - as well as small signposts style boxes - that feel like they were put in there because their focus testers got lost without them. It’s a new (old) feeling to actually get lost in a videogame, and it felt more like an issue with level design than something intentional.
That’s not to say everything in this title is bad. It’s still, for the most part, playable purely out of wanting to know what happens next. What happens when you finally escape the camp? What will the Technomancer do when she finds Roy? How will those decisions you made earlier come back to haunt you? With all of the faults, I can still imagine someone - who doesn’t consume games in the manner I do - falling in love with the game. Whether or not they can hold that love until the end is another thing altogether.