I have a considerable amount of respect for the studio auspiciously known as Spiders. Its games are not the prettiest, nor the most technically sound, and they're far from the best. They do, however, possess a certain tenacity in ambition, bound by the neither the realities of budget and ability.
Spiders' games are games of stunted vision. It's clear to see what they want to be, but it's obvious they fall far short of the lofty goal.
Mars: War Logs continues this tradition. I'm sure, in the heads of those bringing it to life, this was an intrepid tale of war, rebellion, and the juxtaposition twixt life and death. I'm sure, in design notes stacked high as a man, the foundation lies for a complex role-playing game that gives BioWare a run for its money.
This is, sadly, reality -- so Mars: War Logs is but another Spiders game.
Mars: War Logs (PC)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Released: April 26, 2013
Rig: Intel i7-3770K @3.50 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, GeForce Titan GPU
Mars' biggest problem is that it presents a selection of genuinely good ideas that never get taken to their conclusion. An action-RPG with player-driven narrative decisions, interactive party members, and a crafting and morality system, War Logs boasts all the comfortable trappings of such games as Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but only at a fundamental level. The result is a structurally sound skeleton of a game, bereft of much in the way of flesh.
The rushed narrative highlights this issue perfectly. It starts in a prisoner-of-war camp, where a freshly captured soldier named Innocence meets a gruff anti-hero by the name of Roy. After some trudging around in the prison, the next chapter jarringly ends the war and introduces an evil dictatorship that does very little in the way of visible villainy. Along the way, a woman from the prison, furious at Roy for killing her mentor, stops being furious, while a bounty hunter, paid to kill Roy, stops trying to kill Roy. The adventure takes about six or seven hours to beat, and in that time, it charges blindly through about three stories, any one of which could have lasted an entire game, and none of which are given any adequate sense of pace and build.
That's Mars: War Logs in a nutshell. A headlong sprint through established RPG tropes and character-building systems, with barely any time to stop and develop a single one of them.
Leveling systems involve a quick and dirty skill tree with three paths, all of which get pretty full pretty quick. There are also separate character abilities allowing for passive crafting and experience perks, though it's a brief list containing little to be excited about. The game's reputation system is influenced by whether you choose to harvest fallen enemies for serum (which acts as both a craftable healing item and currency), and influences a few dialog options, but generally adds a few extra combat buffs or reduces merchant prices, depending on your choice.
Similarly, the crafting system floods your inventory with items to the point where you don't have to think very hard about what you make, while you enhance your one armor and one weapon slot with items that enhance a handful of bonus statistics. You meet various characters who join your party, but you only ever take one on as a follower at a time, and they can't be upgraded in any way. You can also build relationships with followers, though it involves scrolling through some basic dialog and, again, rushes the process (you can start trying to romance at least one female character literally within minutes of meeting her).
It's not like Mars is bad at what it does. All of its ideas are as competent as they are rudimentary, but the rudimentary nature of them fails to make any of it exciting. Upgrading weapons, leveling up, and building friendships are all so simplistic, so straightforward, that there's no satisfaction to be gained. It's difficult to maintain interest in the game, not because it's bad in any way, but because it's so utterly lacking in interesting player agency.
The combat system is the same way. It functions perfectly well, it's just not very remarkable. You can whack stuff with a big stick, you can block attacks, you can roll around, and you can break guarding foes with a swift kick. Each encounter revolves around using each of these abilities in fairly predictable ways -- enemies that block need kicking, enemies with shielded fronts need to be rolled behind. As the game progresses, Roy will access "Technomancer" abilities that give me electricity-based powers, but they're fairly muted attacks that aren't as reliable as the trust melee weapon, especially since they can be broken by enemy attacks easily.
During combat, one finds that their allied partner is almost entirely useless. Commands (again, very basic ones) can be issued to one's follower, yet it matters not, as they have zero survival ability and deal generally mediocre damage. Their job seems to be that of a temporary distraction. They break up the enemy's attention for a minute or two, before they're knocked out and you finish everybody off. Just be warned that, if you pair up with the fellow Technomancer character, she proves herself terrific at hitting you with her attacks, breaking your attacks and dealing damage. Sadly, she's the only NPC actually worth a damn in a fight.
Combat mostly involves rolling around, smacking things, and rolling some more. The block function is too slow to be of much use, and enemies have a tremendously irritating habit of evading attacks with a dodge move far superior to your own, before counter-attacking. Like any good Spiders game, the adventure is imbalanced in favor of enemies at the beginning, before becoming pitifully easy toward the end once you level up far beyond the capabilities of the opposition.
At the end of each combat round, one can begin a looting process that is, to say the least, fairly arduous. Looting anything involves an unnecessary rummaging animation, while harvesting serum from unconscious enemies initiates a cutscene every single time. The scene can be skipped, but doing so is still a pointless waste of time. There are also skippable cutscenes for every single door opened or small box climbed, and it never stops feeling like a waste of time with absolutely no contribution to the experience.
Due to the real-time nature of combat and the lack of keyboard control customization, I've found a controller is a better input method, though sadly Spiders neglected to include any form of automatic camera movement. So it is that the player is caught between a control scheme inadequate for combat, or one inadequate for navigating the narrow corridors that make up the game's small, maze-like maps.
Graphically, this is a Spiders game, so you should know what you're getting into. Visuals are basic, animations stunted, but altogether it's not an ugly game. It's worth mentioning that, during my playthrough, I didn't notice any bugs or glitches, with the game seeming a lot more stable than I've come to expect from this particular sector of development. As far as sound goes, there's a nice subtle soundtrack punctuated by absolutely awful voice acting -- a problem not helped by a generally laughable script that tries to sound grown up by casually tossing vulgarity and rape references around, but just comes off like childish rambling.
Mars: War Logs is the kind of experience one can only call serviceable. It exists, it does what it does, and it performs its job suitably. It doesn't do anything terrible, but it never once goes above a basic standard of acceptability. It's very clear that it wants to ape the best action-RPGs of the genre, but its too basal and hurried to pull off a single remarkable thing. It's a shame because Spiders' last attempt -- Of Orcs and Men -- was genuinely great, a game that similarly failed to be all it wanted to be, but at least had an interesting story and some wonderful presentation.
War Logs, by contrast, simply exists.