Welcome to Mars, the greatest place in the galaxy to set up a dystopian failure of mankind’s progress. It’s about 200 years after the planet was first terraformed for human habitation and things aren’t going so well. After four water corporations went to war for supply and market share the top two: Aurora and Abundance rise to duke it out for the top spot. Formerly a member of Aurora and now in an Abundance prison camp you find yourself with nothing to do but think of a way out.

The introduction follows a young inmate named Innocence who, shortly after arriving is about to lose his innocence when your basic mad max rebel type shows up to lend a hand. That is Roy, the main character who has dropped his “virtue” name Temperance. Part of the culture in this game is that normal folks are given these virtue names and rebels who wish to buck the system or big shots within the system get to take regular Joe names like Roy, Bob, Sean, etc. That’s not really important but it is an example of the fact that the developers have taken a great deal of care when crafting the setting and lore that is the backdrop for this adventure. That care shows through and hardcore sci-fi fans will appreciate it.

Complicating the whole war issue is the fact that an unfortunate event tilted Mars on its access and plunged it into its horrible state, thereby creating the Dust out of many of the citizens. They will be your resident mutants. They look like radiation victims and aren’t too bright, which means they will serve as the social commentary of the planet’s oppressed class.

If it sounds like a SyFy channel movie don’t worry, this budget title is actually a lot better than one of those. Due to the overuse of the setting and its accompanying feature set I think it’s hard to make a good piece of Mars based entertainment these days. It either clicks with the audience or comes off generic and poorly exploitative. I think all the hard work that Spiders put into War Logs comes through and elevates it into “pretty darn good”, if not quite great, territory.

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The visuals were a surprise for me. For what you’re paying for the game I expected them to be less detailed and more prone to bugs. While it’s true that everything has that Mars orange and red tinge that tends to marginalize the overall graphical presentation the fact is this world does have a look of its own. The textures are a step back from the bigger games but the graphics engine handles them so well that unless they are quite close up they have parity with the average game running Unreal 3. War Logs runs on something called the Silk engine, which must be proprietary.

Things are very gritty and industrial in this game, and it works well. The animations are a highlight. Again I expected to see more shortcuts but Spiders rose to the task. That’s not to say there aren’t shortcuts taken or some repetition going on but just watching the character movements in battle shows attention to detail. It’s usually a very stable experience except for when the screen gets crowded with enemies, then you will encounter some frame rate slowdown. It isn’t crippling though, or even that bothersome as I’ve seen its like in AAA games as well. It might knock your gameplay off by a step though, and that’s a bit of a problem because the gameplay is usually pretty smart.

The combat is a high point. It’s not anything flashy that is going to blow you away; if you prefer action games it will probably bore you to death, but for an action RPG it gets the job done in a way that hasn’t been tried in a long time. That way is through planning and timing. If you run into any encounter swinging your pipe and frantically trying to block on time or toss fine granules of Mars dust into the enemy’s eyes you won’t live. Whether you plan to sneak up on your foes one by one or launch an assault you need to have some idea what you’re doing for each encounter. Your enemies have varying attacks, are relentless, and they like to gang up on you. Dogs can only be hurt from behind, and people have ranged attacks that you’ll want to avoid. It also helps to use the environment to your advantage. The dodge mechanic is very simple and highly effective, but dodging blindly around won’t save you. It’s action based so being stupid or slow will get you killed, but if you think of the combat as more like a command based system than a reflexive hacking one you’ll do fine. It’s more Dragon Age: Origins than Dragon Age II for you Bioware fans. It isn’t pulse-pounding, but it’s solid and has its own feel.

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You have a melee weapon, you can get guns, and you gain access to technomancy abilities later on. In the menu you’ll level up your weapons and armor with the junk you collect and there will be points as you level up to be spent on perks (called Feats) and abilities. The abilities come in three types: Combat, Renegade, and Technomancy. Combat helps with your ability to smack bad guys around, Renegade deals with health and toughness, and Technomancy operates a power glove with some nifty attacks that make the battles more interesting. Think of it as your magic. In order to use those powers you need fluids and how you get your hands on those will be up to you. Killing folks by extracting fluids will keep you stocked but give you a bad reputation. The best use of combat partners is to allow them to draw off enemies to either keep them busy while you deal with larger forces or to get those who attack your partner to turn their backs on you. You can issue basic commands to your partner.

The environments can be a drawback in this game. The maps are on the medium sized side and are broken up into sections that you need to access by moving a door or climbing a wall with an accompanying animation. This does have the nice effect of autosaving in case you get swamped and killed in a battle you thought you could talk your way out of. You have to do plenty of backtracking and things can get a little claustrophobic but the fights and cut scenes do a decent job of breaking up the monotony.

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Side quests are fitting for their placement and how you act affects a morality system which works basically the same as other morality systems. Unfortunately I get the feeling this game was meant to be a lot longer than it is so it doesn’t seem to have a great effect on things. What is there is alright. A bad reputation might make things tough around guards but could make you more persuasive when threatening NPCs. Like I said though, I get the feeling it isn’t fully realized.

Along those lines is an issue about the progression of the game, which seems paced too fast. While that keeps things interesting for the player it also feels like Spiders had to squeeze their RPG vision into a smaller container than was intended.

I have no big qualms with the audio and no high praise for it either. You will encounter just as many bad voice actors as good ones, with nobody standing out as great. The sound effects haven’t been skimped on, which helps this vision of Mars life stay alive. Effects are crisp and timely. The soundtrack could use some more impact, I think there was too much focus on pushing the desolation angle from a sound perspective and not enough on engaging the player.

As an RPG with some pretty good tweaking, upgrading, and customizing elements there is sufficient cause for replay here. The morality system and dialogue options for the missions mean you might like to at least give it one run as a good guy and one run as a bad guy, however the difficulty in moving your moral status could frustrate the prospective multiple-run player.

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Mars: War Logs sets the bar very high for itself and in so doing it takes an admirable stab at an RPG epic. While it falls well short of that mark it does many things right and stands out for clearly having a lot of attention lavished on it by a team that put some soul into their endeavor. It’s not just good for a budget title, it’s good in its own right and I would recommend it to sci-fi and RPG fans that don’t require the term “AAA” attached to a game to enjoy themselves.

(Review code provided by Focus Home Interactive. Thank you.)

ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE

 Story – 7.5/10

Gameplay/Design – 7/10

Visuals – 8/10

Sound – 7/10

Lasting Appeal – 6.5/10

________________________

Overall – 7.5/10

 (Not an average)

Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: Spiders

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

 

David D. Nelson
David D. Nelson is a polymath with a BA in English working as an independent writing and editing professional. He enjoys gaming, literature, and a good hat.

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