By John Walker on May 2nd, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
On some levels, so much effort must have gone into Mars: War Logs. Not into the name, clearly – that’s an act of self-sabotage that can only have emerged as the result of some unconscious perspicacity as to the game they’d made. But it’s a big, long RPG, albeit one made of tight near-identical corridors, and they don’t just appear. And that’s just a bit sad.
It’s also very clear that War Logs aims to be a lot more than it was ever going to achieve. It clearly wants to be an open-ended RPG where your choices define your character, and the world around you, in an oppressive future set on the wastelands of Mars. What it is, at least in the first few hours, is a series of “run here, do that” tasks back and forth its labyrinthine corridors, with peculiarly arbitrary fights along the way. Sometimes you can finish a quest by fighting, or by not fighting, and then it moves on.
Perhaps the first line of a game isn’t quite as important and mood-setting as a novel’s. But then, when a game’s first line is –
“I never thought I’d end up in the middle of the war, but I didn’t really understand how.”
– the scene is pretty firmly set. Nonsense writing, with clearly no voice direction from those involved with the script (so many lines are delivered badly that it becomes a game to guess how it was meant to be interpreted), rarely puts the player in a confident mood. That the game’s first main scene is then a prison shower rape attempt pitches things a little lower.
However, it does do something of an interesting switcheroony here. The narrator at the start, the young character you follow on his journey to this Mars POW camp, isn’t the character you play – instead you’re the guy who prevents his getting raped. Sadly this also means you’re not the far more interesting personality of a young, wide-eyed kid, drafted into the dying moments of a war, terrified and vulnerable. You are of course the grizzled, hardened soldier man, growl-voiced and cynical, because after all, this is a videogame.
So yes, there’s a war between two, er, sides? It doesn’t really care to explain. And you’re in what must be the friendliest, most chilled out POW camp of all time. The threat in the opening chapter only ever comes from other prisoners, with the guards either indifferent or downright friendly. One even operates as a shop, selling you – um – weapons. Very liberal! Here you’re given a bunch of main and side quests, which all involve running to a point on the dreadful map (the prison is in many sections, but you’re only ever allowed to see the map of the bit you’re currently in) and talking to a person, or killing some stuff, then running back. Then running there again. Then running back. And so on. The backtracking is really quite impressive.
Combat, however, is much more interesting, not least because it’s remarkably difficult from the start. It’s a very brutal, very tough system, primarily composed of melee, with you (and your wide-eyed chum called Innocence – people have “virtue names” it seems) always outnumbered, thumping enemies over the backs of their heads with lead pipes and the like. Because Innocence is generally useless, the fights are usually about one on five or six, and it’s certainly not button spamming. You have to make precise use of your dodge-rolling, blocking, and kick, as well as wildly swinging lumps of metal at their faces. And that’s all before you get the extra powers that come a bit later on. It’s not easy, and often losing can feel a little unfair as you’re overwhelmed and pinned in a corner. But – and how rarely do I get to type this – the checkpoint saving is perfect, and always just before the battle started. There’s a very loosey-goosey stealth mode, that lets you at least get the jump on one of your opponents, and then it’s most about remembering to run away and heal. Well, no, actually run away as you heal, which means you end up running in circles being chased by five men in a single-file line, only lacking Yackety Sax in the background.
I want to medivac the combat out of this game, and put it in something else, something that deserves the challenge. And something that would then clean up the fighting’s frayed edges – clippy scenery, and the increasingly stupid inability to use certain skills if enemies are too close and can interrupt, but saying targets are too far away if you give yourself space.
I persisted for a good long while. I reached what I assume might be the third chapter of the game, but even though I’d now travelled from a POW camp, via a small township, and into the city from which I’m supposedly originally from, nothing has changed. Not the nature of the quests, not the completely inexplicable reasons groups of men are fighting me, and certainly not the scenery, that has remained identical throughout. Finding your way around without the map superimposed on the screen is pretty much impossible, since the same assets fill every location, right down to the same groups of men sat around a table playing invisible poker. But perhaps the most significant lack of change, for any sense of attachment I could have developed for the game, is in my character’s alignment. He’s set to “Neutral”, as he has been since the start of the game, despite everything I’ve done.
I’ve rescued prostitutes from horrible pimps, I’ve gone out of my way to help an enemy mechanic by picking up rubbish for him throughout the entire prison, I’ve even saved all the “dogs” from being put down after a strange disease was sending them mad. That involved so much back-and-forthing as to be ridiculous, and yet, nope, nothing. I may as well have let them get slaughtered. I’ve also not killed a single person. Here the morality is a little wobbly. You can beat a man to death’s door with a spanner, and fill his chest with nails fired from a nailgun, but he’ll only fall to the floor and eternally wriggle about rather than die. To actually kill him you use a device to extract his “serum” – the currency used in the game, that can also be made into health kits – and that leaves him properly dead. I’ve not done that once, and while I’d argue that bludgeoning people to the edge of life perhaps doesn’t qualify for anything above neutrality, that’s the measure the game suggests it’s going to use, and hey – they hit me first!
But ultimately this is picking over details in a game that’s just not worth the time. It’s so intrinsically dreary, infested with a dullness that doesn’t let any of its notions scrabble to the surface to become intrigue. And whatever its story wanted to be, the writing just can’t sustain it. When convincing a guard to help you out requires that you be rude to him, rather than confident in your plan, you know that there’s never going to be a moment where you can be aware you’re making the choices you want through the dialogue. And in the main, it’s just gruff sci-fi filler dialogue, with no peaks to warrant its endless trough.
Maybe something amazing happens moments after I gave up – but it absolutely hasn’t earned the right for that to be discovered if it’s the case. And on the evidence of the first few hours, it seems very unlikely. However, one thing that does seem important to highlight is that the lead character bears an uncanny resemblance – right down to their demonic David Bowie eyes – to RPS’s own man of action, Jim: