Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Mars: War Logs (PC, 2013, France): A Massive Heart
November 18, 2013, 2:22 am
Filed under: Mars: War Logs (PC, 2013, France)

I guess there’s an inherent danger when a small studio with a big idea wants to create a game that might echo an existing monster-sized title. And I’m not talking about lack of resources or time or creative energy. What I mean is this: Let’s pretend Inky-Dinky Game Developer wants to make a cooperative first-person-shooter-RPG-hybrid with cel-shaded environments, tons of acerbic wit, dozens of humorous characters, and branching narratives which takes place in a sci-fi-desert-in-space. Of course, Inky Dinky is more than welcome to do so, even if it takes a lifetime. But any consumer approaching Inky-Dinky’s final product will be doing so with the specter of “Borderlands” in the background. There’s no escaping it. And the chances of Inky-Dinky Developer being able to create a similarly massive, polished, Pandorian experience is highly unlikely.

The scenario I just described is exactly the sticky issue revolving around the ambitious RPG “Mars: War Logs” (originally just called “Mars,” by the way). Only the developer’s name is Spiders (probably best known for the downloadable mini-hit “Of Orcs and Men”), and the monster-triple-A-title inspiring them is Bioware’s nebula-sized-mega-hit-trilogy “Mass Effect.”

Well…sort of. But not really. Okay, this requires clarification: Like “Mass Effect,” Spider’s “Mars: War Logs” 1) Takes place in space, 2) Involves a stratified society of humans and aliens (well, at least one of each), 3) Contains both main and side missions, 4) Has a tiered skill tree with specialties, 5) Allows for upgrading and crafting of both armor and weapons, 6) Is in third-person-perspective and made with an in-house engine, 7) Includes branching dialogue-trees, 8) Presents the protagonist with moral choices which can alter the story, and 9) Includes various cohorts with different specialties (that  you can choose amongst) who can follow orders and fight alongside you (not efficiently, but that’s their problem).

But here’s the rub: With approximately 800 employees and a net worth of at least $860 million, when the name “Bioware” is on the label, the game is expected to have a certain gravity, a certain heft, a certain polish, a certain…MASSiveness…to it. But in the case of Spiders—a French development team of 20 folks with an operating budget of…well, something considerably less than $860 million—the very idea of trying to create a game that even dares to stand in the giant shadow of “Mass Effect” is incredibly brave…or batshit crazy.

Of course, as underdog gamers, we know this. We understand the dynamics; we understand the difference of scale. Even as intrepid players who like to give the little guy a leg up and play games that most people have never heard of (or would dismiss in disgust), we could never expect a small labor-of-love like “Mars: War Logs” to even approach the awesomeness of Captain Shepherd’s trilogy. But…the comparison, and the desire, is there nevertheless. Even though we know better, we still want to discover “Mass Effect” all over again for the first time, right? We want to feel those same feelings, and have those same adventures, that we had with Bioware’s epic. And it is for that reason we so desperately want to give a game like “Mars: War Logs” (regardless of its terrible name) a try. For those reasons, we desperately want it to succeed.

And, thankfully, it does succeed. But it succeeds on its own terms. This game isn’t in the same league as Bioware’s epic trilogy, this much is clear. Within minutes of booting the game up (and upon seeing the ho-hum graphics come to half-life on the screen), reality taps you on the shoulder, and you know it is time to pack your high-falutin’ desires away and to let this little game be what it is, and to play it honestly. And if you do that, it is a damn fine game, an intriguing game, and a surprising achievement for such a small group of developers.

Fortunately, there are concrete ways to “properly orient” your expectations prior to playing in order to get the most out of the game. I’ll get to that in a moment. But one element that requires no such rationalization is the game’s backstory; “Mars: War Logs” is complete with a compelling universe and mythos. At the outset of the game, Mars has been colonized for 200 years by the people of Earth. Some of the planet has been terraformed—for example, a few cities have been built, as well as some agricultural areas for growing food and producing breathable air. Some research centers have been established too, and some livestock are successfully bred on the planet. But terraformation, in large part, has not succeeded across the entire planet, and little more than enclaves actually exist.

FB7To further complicate this half-successful colonization of Mars, 70 years into the project, an event known as “The Turmoil” occurred—Mars tilted on its axis, affecting the entire solar system. Many of the half-completed cities were destroyed by exposure to solar radiation, and communications with Earth were permanently disrupted. Over time, some of the original survivors of The Turmoil mutated due to the radiation (they sort of ended up looking like walking-talking prunes), and the next generation of offspring eventually became known as The Dust. Water quickly began to dry up in the wake of the catastrophe, and in no time several warring water companies (all trying to control the limited supply) overtook the Mars government.

Now, approximately 130 years after The Turmoil, the mutant Dust co-exist uneasily among normal humans (who survived the cataclysm unchanged), and all of them have gathered under the banner of one of four rival water companies—each having different philosophies, armies, and histories. In essence, the water companies are like tribes, or different religious sects, who are at war with one another. Technomancers are Nazi-like electric-magic-wielding overseers who run each of the water companies and are feared by most of society.

The story begins in Camp 19, a war prison tucked between the red cliffs of Mars. Roy, the dark-haired, 30-something, swashbuckling protagonist (who himself is a rogue Technomancer), and his teenage sidekick, Innocence Smith, were both soldiers for the young, upstart water company named Aurora. (By the way, if you are wondering about a name like Innocence, all citizens of the Aurora water company have been given “virtue names” to replace their regular names [it’s just part of the culture], so you’ll regularly encounter folks with monikers like Courtesy, Sobriety, Tenacity, and Honesty. While most of these “virtue names” befit the character [Innocence, an inexperienced teenage idealist being one of them], some of these names are obviously ironic in nature. For example, Charity and Faith are hookers, Humility is a pervert, and Serenity is a drug dealer. Being a nonconformist and heroic outsider, Roy has forsaken his virtue name, which is Temperance. He says very early on in the game, “It doesn’t suit me.”)

Just a quick heads-up: As usual in my game-narrative discussions, there will be some PRETTY SERIOUS SPOILERS here and there, so read with caution if you’ve not played the game are and planning to do so. Anyway, Roy and Innocence have both been captured by rival army/water company Abundance. Roy first meets the new arrival, Innocence, just as he is about to be raped in the prison’s “sand” showers. (This is the opening cinematic, actually; while it is not explicit, it is attention getting to the say the least. This is certainly an “M for Mature” title, if you were wondering.) Roy clobbers the would-be rapist, rescuing Innocence, and he quickly becomes Roy’s companion. This dynamic duo and their many counterparts assume they will all be released once the war is officially declared over—but no one knows when, or if, that will ever happen.

And Roy doesn’t want to wait around to find out; this is why he has devised an elaborate escape plan, and he needs Innocence to do some of the footwork and fetching. This is where the typical RPG objectives come in: Find a way to divert some weapons, find a place to hide them, help to create a diversion for the guards, obtain some precious water for the upcoming trip…you get the idea. Along the way, there are numerous side-quests, such as helping a more friendly prison guard obtain a medical leave, solving a little infection problem with the alien guard dogs becoming rabid and attacking everyone—and other nice-guy duties.

The next chapter takes Roy and Innocence to the town of Shadowlair, Innocence’s hometown where his parents still reside, and where Roy once lived as well. As wanted men, the two are attacked by every soldier they encounter, and much fighting ensues—although the locals leave them alone. Upon entering town, the two discover that Innocence’s parents’ house (and place of business) have been razed to the ground. Since both of Innocence’s parents were past member of the anti-government militia, Roy assumes that they were killed for their political beliefs and actions against the water companies. Amidst doing a number of side quests—solving some serial murders, helping a hooker make a bank deposit, clearing a storefront of junkies for the owner (and other even-nicer-guy duties)—the ultimate goal is to find and meet the organizers of the resistance, who may know something of Innocence’s parents’ demise. Eventually the game asks you to make a choice between joining the resistance or joining a rogue faction operating secretly within the government. Both groups have the same goal in mind, and that is to declare war on the Technomancers. These electricity-wielding neo-Nazis were originally put into place as war officers, but over time they gained too much control and are now threatening everything. Unfortunately, the two groups vying for your attention are also at odds with one another, and the game does force a choice on you. This choice, I imagine, is a major branching in the narrative and action, and adds significant replayability here. (I only played the game once, so I can’t say for sure how much it all changes depending on the choice you make.)

And like any good play (and many good games), “Mars” is divided into three distinct acts. Part three occurs in a heavily-fought-over hydroponics plant called Green Hope—which is just as dusty-brown-red as the rest of the game regardless of the name. The site of a historically bloody battle, Green Hope is really just a mass grave with a farm on top of it. But an enclave of rogue Technomancers have congregated here, and they are employing massive earth-moving machines to dig a giant crater in hopes of uncovering…something. Roy’s job is to find out what by infiltrating their headquarters. Though I’ve already revealed some spoilers, I’ll leave the finale for you to discover on your own, but as you can imagine it involves a lot of fighting, a sudden (and not so surprising) change of loyalty, and some pleading for leniency. As Roy heads out of town and away from all the mess, the game ends on a tentatively positive note; while there is some tense hope for the future, Roy faces the gritty reality that Mars—and the men inhabiting it—are extremely broken.  I liked it.

Now, I feel inclined to help any readers who may not have had the chance to play the game by making some suggestions. Specifically, there are several concrete ways to check your Mass-Effect-influenced expectations in order to get the most out of this game. The most prominent is scale: The play spaces in “Mars: War Logs” are smaller than you’re probably dreaming of (if you are using third-person-shooter-RPGs like “Mass Effect” as a yardstick, that is). The developers attempt to suggest spaces are bigger, and this is especially true if you look upwards to see man-made structures in the distance spiraling towards Mars’ red skies or downwards over cliffs to see gargantuan waves of dust blowing across the planet’s surface miles away.

But these are for effect only; when you get right down to it, the actual “walkin’ around spaces” your character occupies, loots, and fights in are on the small side. Fortunately, there are many of them, joined together with doors, ladders, or scalable barriers that separate the spaces, which don’t require any significant loading times. (There is a “door-opening/ladder-climbing/barrier-mantling” animation accompanying each a one of these transitions, but it can immediately be skipped with the press of a cancel button—a button you will eventually be using a lot.) But a word of advice before playing: Scale back those larger-than-life expectations of strolling across an endless Mars landscape completing quests—that’s not happening here. Instead, generally speaking, you’ll find yourself running back and forth between lookalike, town-square-sized areas, rooms, hallways, and the random tunnel, to meet your objectives.

Next, while there are a very nice number of cutscenes (which are expertly framed and professionally paced–moving the narrative along superbly), the animations suffer either from budget or technical constraints. Mouth animations during conversations, in particular, are on the rough side. Body movements are correspondingly stiff too. On a positive note, speaking of dialogue, there are a decent number of well-written conversations (with choices of response) which helps to immerse you in the world and helps to build characters’ personalities and your relationships to them. The game boasts upwards of 50 different NPCs to interact with in some way. (Some of the characters are dismissed as soon as you talk to them just once, while others have deeper dialogue trees associated with them. Also, sometimes the dialogue choices don’t keep pace with the narrative of the game—for instance, at one point after some characters in the game had died, I was told by someone who knew they had died that I should speak to them to find something out. Roy isn’t a ghost-whisperer, so this made no sense at all. Fortunately, it didn’t affect the game, but it shows the technical complexities involved in constructing a game of this type.) Some reviewers have said that while the number of NPCs to interact with is nice, none of it matters since you will not really make a serious connection with any of them. Again, if looking at this title through Mass-Effect-goggles, yes you will be sorely disappointed. However, take those glasses off for a minute and you’ll see there are at least some distinct personalities (if even clichéd) on display here, and the main characters all have some tales of woe worth hearing.

And since I’ve mentioned the voicing, apparently the voicework included in the first version of the final product was less than stellar (which became especially apparent in the English translation of the game, where dialogue choices and subtitles were not matching with characters’ poorly acted spoken words—as well as general translation errors). A number of the extant English reviews of this game that you’ll find on the net cry out in horror over the awful voice acting. Consumer complaints about this came to Spiders’ attention, and the development team immediately hired English voice actors in the UK and had many of the 90,000 words in the game re-voiced.

This reworked version was the one I played, and I have to say that I found the voicework quite superb, really. The voices are distinct, they all sound age-appropriate (especially Roy’s teenage sidekick, Innocence), and the spoken words matched the on-screen text about 90% of the time, with little or no translation errors. There are exceptions in quality: Mary, a Technomancer who eventually joins your troupe (and is one of the romance-able characters– Yes, romance abounds on Mars!), sounds unbelievably braindead [which is sort of explained by the story]. Regardless, if you play these types of underdog games, you know how horrendous the acting can get. And this game earned an “A” in my book regarding all facets of the dialogue.

Alright, the next element of the game that requires realistic expectations is the combat. (No surprise there, right?) If you have typical third-person hack-n-slashers in your repertoire (“God of War” maybe, or “The Witcher” maybe), some of this will feel familiar. On the surface, fighting sounds like it would be great, especially considering the variety of approaches you can take. For instance, you have a choice of melee weapons that are upgradeable in several ways. You also have a nail gun. You also can shoot an electric arc out of a wrist mechanism you steal from a Technomancer you defeat about one-third through the game. This is also upgradeable. With this same device, you can create a temporary shield-bubble to enclose you on all sides when in combat and also create a shockwave to push enemies away. This gismo can also electrify your melee weapon, making it deal significant damage. (I used this often.)

Likewise, Roy has a handful of physical moves—a combat roll, a parry, a kick, a guard break…and he can even grab a handful of red Mars sand and toss it in an enemy’s eyes! Ow, scratchy! Most of these weapons and maneuvers are accessible via an extensive radial menu that, when accessed, slows the on-screen action to a crawl. (More “Mass Effect” influences.) If you want to creep up on enemies for a douchey backstab and deal extra damage, there are upgradeable stealth options too. Nice!

Uhhh…but not so nice. Targeting an enemy with any of these attacks is hit-and-miss; like many third-person slashers, aiming (in the traditional third-person-over-the-shoulder sense) isn’t how this game operates. Enemies (both humans and monsters) are typically encountered in packs of three to five—and in some cases six or seven in later chapters. You can target any single enemy in the group with a key/button push, and a red ring appears around that enemy (which is moveable from one target to another). Your attacks will focus specifically on that individual. But targeting also limits your movement and can lock the camera view, which can seriously hinder a quick escape in case you are being walloped—so I generally avoided it and went swinging and shooting wildly into the crowd without targeting anyone specifically.

Maybe this was not the way Spiders wants players to approach combat, but generally, battles felt like a random, super-chaotic button-mashing affair; I rarely felt like I was in any kind of control while fighting (regardless of the radial menu slowing down time). All I eventually came to know is that after getting in ten or so whacks among the bunched-up pursuers, I had to begin rolling about the place like an insane gymnast because my health-bar was depleting. And then I would continue to roll in a large circle for a while (with the pack of dudes in pursuit) as my health s-l-o-w-l-y regenerated before continuing the battle. Much later in the game, after Roy leveled up considerably and applied a variety of perks, running away became less essential, but still. Eh.

One aspect of combat I came to despise: Although you may be standing right in front of a door you’ve opened a dozen times before, when enemies in an area are alerted to your presence, all the doors suddenly lock, and you can no longer run (you can suddenly do a combat roll instead). Yes, with each encounter, Roy is essentially locked into an arena until all foes are defeated. I understand that if Roy could simply leave an area (that the enemies cannot), the player might run full-tilt through the entire game without ever engaging in combat. But still…magically locked doors are irritating. The fact that many of the areas respawn entire troops of foes every time you travel through them doesn’t help much either–and, yes, backtracking is a regular necessity in this game. (One note: I learned this too late, but I believe that in some chapters, you can obtain certain clothes/disguises [like a soldier’s uniform] which will stop many of the constant attacks and help move the game forward a bit more quickly. But of course, this also means less looting of downed enemies.)

One combat-related aspect I appreciated though: After an enemy is down and writhing on the ground, Roy can drain all the water from the foe’s body using a handy extractor, hence killing him. (Water, known as Serum, is essentially the in-game currency.) Doing so basically gives Roy negative karma, and this can change some minor story and skill elements of the game. Otherwise, you can leave enemies wriggling on the ground and just take their stuff, if you want to be a “good” guy. But again this still doesn’t stop them from magically regaining their footing the next time you pass through the area to repeat the same old dance.

One more expectation to check at the door: Graphically, the game does require your kindness. In his review, Jim Sterling at Destructoid described the look of the game by simply saying “Well, it’s a Spiders game.” I guess if you’re hip, you’re supposed to know what that means. But I’m not, and I don’t, so here’s the skinny: The game is competently drawn, but the in-house Silk engine is not capable of giving us the Grade A textures, lighting, and animations that other blockbusters do. Colors can be sort of harsh and heavy at times—and most of those colors are, not surprisingly—very, very rust-colored. After all, we’re on Mars, so you get a lot of red-brown-brown-red dusty environments, with some blacks and greens thrown in for measure. At least we’re not dealing with the typical sci-fi uber-gray-blue palette, right?

Needless to say, the textures and colors of the environs get quite samey. The special effects are fine—wind blowing the red-brown dust across the landscape, the white electric arc from the Technomancer’s attacks, smoky haze in the tunnels–but it’s all clearly done on a tight budget. Again, it’s a small game trying to do big things…and it only sort of reaches the finish line graphically. The game ran like a champ, saved and loaded quickly, never froze, and I can’t imagine it requires too much horsepower to run even at the highest graphical settings. Oh, and I wanted to mention the game’s length: Some reviewers (who shall remain nameless) state that the game takes about six hours to beat. As I’ve said before, I am certain these mutant videogame reviewers  live in an alternate universe where the planet spins at a different speed. But for a screenshot-taking, nook-exploring, completionist like me, it easily took 15 to 20 hours to reach the end.

Because this is such a scrappy little game with such big intentions, I want to end on a positive note: The title “Mars: War Logs” (which I always thought was ungainly—maybe downright ugly) actually fits the game perfectly in the end. During your entire playthrough, your sidekick, Innocence, is keeping a journal which chronicles all the major events in the game. (And depending on your in-game choices, Roy himself may take over as the journal’s author.) The journal itself—the war log of the title—is accessible via the pause menu, and it is updated as you finish objectives. You are not forced to examine it, and you might even completely miss it if you don’t spend some time fiddling around in the menus. The log basically recounts what you’ve already done, and includes some snazzy little drawings and screenshots of items encountered and narrative descriptions of situations resolved. I looked at it from time to time, but thought it was nothing more than a way to keep a player up to date—especially players who might have longer absences between playtimes and might need a refresher on the narrative.

But to its credit, “Mars: War Logs” actually makes the log part of the narrative itself. In the end, the journal is handed over to another in-game character for safekeeping, as a kind of leverage against certain powerful people doing questionable things. In a sense, the power of the war log is used as a means to keep certain individuals in check, lest their bad behavior chronicled in the journal is released publicly—which would most likely cause chaos. I liked that meta-rhetorical move a whole lot (maybe it’s the English professor part of me), and it gave the game some interesting gravitas. Worth playing for sure, as long as your expectations are realistic.