Mars: War Logs is described as a cyberpunk role-playing game. Though I’m having trouble understanding why it’s described as a cyberpunk game (I don’t think I’ve seen a single computer), it’s definitely a role-playing game. In fact, the game is a lot stronger as a role playing game than plenty of action RPGs nowadays. Its difficulty and production value reminds me of old school RPGs, and it’s nice getting back into that old familiar feeling. War Logs has plenty of faults, but it also has a lot going for it, and at £14.99, there’s about 10 to 12 hours of good content here that you can sink your teeth into.
Opening M:WL for the first time, I was a little wary. Our editor had played an early build of the game, where things were much cruder; there wasn’t any indication of the polish the launch product had seen. I was preparing myself for a game that I wasn’t going to enjoy. But, as I started fiddling with the video settings, a great musical score started playing and as soon as I finished adjusting anti-aliasing, I was surprised to find a first class ticket to the hype-train.
Starting a new game treated me to a stylish, well narrated introduction to the story and the universe that Spiders has developed. Not 10 minutes later, I am greeted to M:WL‘s most blaring weakness – voice acting and script (or perhaps merely translation). I’m going to give you a little background on the game; it’s a French game. You can really see the French underneath most of the dialogue, and you can tell the voice team was under a pretty tight budget. The game is littered with a bunch of characters that don’t understand how punctuation works in speech. To some, this will complete damage the immersion. To others, it gives the game a certain charm and some of the characters become legitimately hilarious by accident. I suppose it all depends on your mood. Don’t worry, though, there are a few characters who do not sound so off-putting, but I would say the ratio is split 50:50.
The plots execution is much better than how it sounds on paper. It’s actually pretty good. You play as a man named Roy Temperance, stuck in a POW camp on Mars. There, he meets a young boy, and the both of them attempt to escape the prison and find freedom. That’s only the tip of the iceberg; Roy and his young friend get involved in a plot far greater than themselves – but don’t worry, it’s not a save the universe kind of thing (the Europeans can’t be bothered with all that!)
Unlike Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard – who, if you pick a mix of good and evil options over the course of your playthrough becomes a completely inconsistent and unbelievable “neutral” character – Roy Temperance’s different dialogue choices are all quite consistent and you won’t second guess the dialogue options you make. AAA titles could actually learn from this game, some side-quests can have drastically different endings. Get your escort killed? It won’t give you a giant “Quest Failed” option, you complete the objective regardless, get your experience reward and you’re put on your way. Want to start a riot in the prison to help you escape? Or do you want to prevent the riot to gain favor with the guards? While some of these choices aren’t so lasting, some make quite a bit of difference to how some characters view Roy and they even change his young friend’s attitude to life as well.
Characters are not so cut and dry and easy to predict. There is no “up is good, down is evil” choice here. You have to think about what the character you are speaking to is like and it’s up to you to try and be respectful or harsh. Picking certain topics first and saying things in certain orders can, for some NPCs, mean joining up with you, or going their own way.
On the other hand, the quests are pretty typical. Run here, fight these guys, run there, bring an item to so and so – but the stories behind them are believable despite the fact that maybe that one guy’s Brooklyn accent sometimes changes to an Australian one… for some reason. Another downside is that the different quests around each chapters hub involves you running from district to district constantly. Sometimes I don’t even feel like handing a quest in because I have to walk all the way back to a certain area and sometimes fight the exact same spawn of enemies every now and then. Honestly, if human beings have found a way to terraform Mars into a habitable landscape, I would assume they would at least have ways to communicate over long distances! Each chapter has 4-5 explorable areas, all about the size of Mass Effect 2‘s Omega.
Roy is naturally crafty
The game has an interesting crafting mechanic that has you making things from scratch or upgrading weapons and armor. This isn’t quite your typical crafting and upgrading, however. The crafting involves taking scrap and junk you can find during your journey and using the parts to adjust how your armor handles during fights. If you find yourself falling victim to a lot of electricity damage, you can add leather armor upgrades to increase electrical resistance. If you want to make your opponents bleed, you can put nails or spikes on the steel pipe you picked up before. My only problem with this system is that the game menu is very stiff and unresponsive. You also can’t craft or buy things in bulk, which makes building things like nailgun ammo a little bit of a chore.
Gameplay is chunky, in a good way. Landing a solid hit on an opponent feels great and critical hits slow time down, letting you see each blow send your opponent to his knees. The animations are slick and realistic, especially when you knock another human being out of a fight or when you bleed him out or blind him with sand. Fights are also challenging and rewarding. You start off being able to fight 1-2 guys at once, but eventually you’re able to take on more opponents. This isn’t your typical RPG, though, there aren’t a lot of dice rolls that determine dodge chance. Combat is pretty similar to The Witcher 2, the combat rolls will not net you invincibility for a short time and you only have a limited amount of ranged and magic attacks to . Funny enough, the enemies actually have combat advantage over you. Not only do they come in large groups, but they also have complete invincibility during their dodge animation. While you are able to prevent this by shooting them in the face with a nail gun, you can also use a block breaking attack to mix up your offence.
Gameplay is mostly melee despite the option to follow two other paths, renegade (read: stealth) or technomancy (read: magic). During the first act of the game, I maxed out stealth first. It’s become an old habit of mine to always make the most out of stealth during all RPGs before progressing into either a fighter or a mage that wields a melee weapon. To my disappointment, I found that stealth was ineffective outside the first act and I had little reason to attempt to do things with a little bit of shadowy finesse. Beating enemies up seemed to work just fine. Similarly, when the magic skill tree unlocked after Act 2, I could not justify using it because the tight corridor and high enemy ratios made spellcasting difficult.
It should be noted that this is not a game for kids. Think about the crass sense of humor in The Witcher series, then multiply it by 5. This is a title full of rape, sex, murder, and violent references. It all has a narrative reason, and it doesn’t necessarily lack nuance, but you might be taken by surprise at just how gritty this game is. If you were expecting something more Dragon Age oriented, think again. Beating up pimps, rapists, and with a bad attitude and foul mouth is Roy’s prerogative.
Additionally, your party members are unable to hold their own in most fights. I’m pretty sure the AI of party members are exactly the same as enemy AI, meaning they don’t adjust their strategy if there are too many opponents on the field. Most battles end up with you fighting half while the other half beats on your poor comrade until he or she gets knocked out. Hopefully, you defeat the half that attacked you, then have to deal with the half that remains, helping your poor defeated teammate up on their feet at the end. Because of that, your teammates feel like a mannequin designed to keep the enemies off your back for a few seconds of each fight.
Graphically, I was impressed. The animations and lighting look great for the most part – there are a few clothing and background textures that look quite poor and while some of the action sequences have great looking motion capture, others have really awkward animations and camera angle choices. The art style is moody and pronounced, but not quite fitting of the cyberpunk genre because it looks more like a post-apocalyptic story (it’s very Red Faction). I was wholly impressed with the sound and music, though, which stayed steadily strong throughout my experience; from the sounds of bashing different armors and hides of different materials to the subtle score that plays while walking around the different areas really added to the experience.
I think Mars: War Logs is a good case study for RPG design and should be explored if you’ve got 10 hours to spare and can appreciate both indie and classic role playing games. While I don’t believe the it should have had voice acting at all (perhaps placing the budget into things like translation and quest content would have been a better choice), Spiders have managed to produce a game with a lot of things that plenty of popular RPG titles are missing: charm, love, and a good focus on both combat and branching story. While it may be hard to get used to the iffy translations and voice acting, you’ve got an action RPG that has a great brawler/beat ‘em up foundation. What you have here is a game that was made with a lot of love and passion, but was cut quite a bit short of perfection due to budget restraints and the need to please fans.