I’ll be honest and say that I’m a man who generally hates surprises. Surprise parties, surprise dates, surprise pregnancies, I’m not a fan of any of them. That being said, Mars: War Logs was not only a surprise, but a pretty pleasant one. It won’t make any Game of the Year lists, and it certainly won’t change the landscape of video games, but for a mostly under the radar downloadable title, it certainly stands out more than it looks like it should.
First off, no, this game is not about martian beavers stuck in a monumental turf wars. The title War Logs refers to the diaries kept by characters within the game, but come on, how many other words are there for “logs” that would have worked infinitely better?
From the outside, this is a game that doesn’t have much going for it. A cyberpunk RPG developed by relatively unknown foreign developer Spiders in which certain choices affect the world of the game? It already sounds like a cheap Mass Effect rip-off, and we haven’t even pressed start yet. Not that that helps much, since the game begins with a young man named Innocence almost getting raped in the showers by a fat guy fittingly named Fatso. Strike two, Spiders.
But trust me when I say that once the first few minutes play out, Mars: War Logs greatly improves. Sure, it’s full of flaws, laughable dialogue and a poorly-written story, but it’s a surprisingly lengthy title with more depth than meets the eye.
The story revolves around two of the many factions on Mars, Aurora and Abundance, fighting for water, which has become a sparse resource. Stuck in the middle of this conflict is the “stranger with a mysterious past” Roy, who brings the aforementioned Innocence under his wing after saving him from the grips of the portly rapist. Together, the two set out to overthrow those in power and set up a government of the people in hopes of bringing peace to Mars.
Much of the plot is incomprehensible due to the poor writing, even though it’s plain to see that the writers put a lot of thought into the history of Mars. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to bring the player into that, though, because I felt like an outsider throughout. Most information is contained within the war logs themselves, meaning that a full understanding of the game comes from a good, long reading session rather than exploring the world. What should be a seamless blending of plot and gameplay is broken into two different sections, and it hurts the game in the long run.
As usual in western RPGs, players trek through different locales, scavenging bits and parts, defeating enemies, leveling up and talking to various wooden NPCs. The combat begins simple enough, with a block, light attack, evade and guard break attack. Weapons are formed from base objects such as poles that are modified with different scavenged pieces from throughout the world. Armor is handled in the same way, and items such as ammunition for guns and health packs can also be crafted at any time. Upgrades are broken into three groupings: combat, stealth and Technomancy (which isn’t available until the second chapter).
The combat and the mechanics surrounding it are what made Mars: War Logs shine when I least expected it. Attacking enemies head on will get you killed in most situations, and some form of planning is needed to survive bouts. Since Technomancy is off limits until later in the game, the first section is much harder than the rest. Rolling around enemies makes Roy look extremely goofy, but so does getting killed by a pack of irradiated space moles. Weapons and armor have various stats that are affected by the modifications made to them, adding a surprising amount of depth to choosing your loadout.
Once Technomancy is introduced, new attacks are unlocked, which can be assigned to different buttons. Combat is at its best when you’re electrocuting enemies, rolling behind them and then smacking the crap out of their buddies from inside your temporary shield. The stealth is extremely limited, and dumping any upgrade points into that skill tree is as effective as giving them to charity.
For a downloadable title, Mars: War Logs has a lot of content to sift through. I clocked in at a little over ten hours on my first playthrough, which is more than some triple-A titles can offer. The game is broken into three chapters, with the first two taking up a bulk of the time. Surprisingly, the third, anti-climactic chapter flew by in a little over an hour. If you’re looking for a mind-blowing ending, don’t get your hopes up. Everything ends with a “meh.”
Completing quests is the name of the game, and boy are there a ton of quests to sift through. Most of them revolve around running to opposite ends of the map and either beating someone, talking to someone, or doing both. There’s not much variety, but sometimes the plots are interesting enough to be entertaining. There are a few romantic subplots to choose from, but all they involve are talking and then a quick, cheesy cutscene. Nothing in the game world is affected by your choice. In fact, hardly any choices have any sort of effect, aside from a few towards the end.
A cheap morality system is added for kicks, providing perks that depend on whether you’re good or bad. However, partway into the first chapter, you’re provided with a gun that takes currency out of the bodies of defeated foes, killing them and making you more “bad.” Take enough of it, and there’s no coming back. I swear I emptied maybe fifteen bodies, and I was labelled bad for the rest of the game. Luckily, none of the NPCs were likable enough for me to treat any of them well.
As fun as combat and upgrading is, speaking to other characters can be a bit of a chore. In traditional RPG fashion, everybody and anybody is ready to sit down and pour out their life story in a moment’s notice. Nobody talks like a real person and everybody is too wordy to help. Luckily, dialogue can be read and skipped, which might cut a few hours off of your play time.
Mars: War Logs has the same problem as other games with conversation branches in that the cues it lets you choose from sometimes don’t match up with what is said. For example, at one point an ally asked me if I was going to steal the money we were transporting together. I tried to back down, choosing the least confrontational option. Instead, Roy called the guy the equivalent of a douchenozzle and then killed him, leaving me powerless to choose the opposite. I know that’s not what’s supposed to happen because I failed part of the mission at that point.
But you know what? Despite all of the flaws and shortcomings, Mars: War Logs has a huge heart beating inside it. It’s a lovable underdog, one that’s easy to root for because it’s simply so much fun to play. If you don’t take it too seriously, the story is cheesy enough to keep you going to the end. But the meat of the game is found in the combat and questing, which, though repetitive, is addictive as sin.
For a good comparison, think of Mars: War Logs as a game like Deadly Premonition, albeit with a control scheme that won’t leave you in tears. It’s quirky despite its gritty tone, it’s a blast to play, and its ambition makes up for a majority of its flaws. It might not seem like much, but I promise that this is a surprisingly good RPG worth playing despite itself. The fact that it’s a downloadable title just makes the surprise even sweeter.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided for us for the Xbox 360.
Despite a myriad of flaws, Mars: War Logs is a surprisingly fun, worthwhile downloadable RPG.