Very quietly, outside the AAA scene, there is an RPG developer that is managing to hang with the big boys. Maybe the engine they're working with does circa-2003-quality lipsyncing, but these guys have ideas. They can write engaging stories, give you choices to make that matter at least as much as the ones in a BioWare game do. And for those of you who care about gameplay, well, this studio, called Spiders, has built a combat system that is completely unique to their work.
The prospect of playing Mars: War Logs excited me, then, because I'm always interested in seeing what a studio with the ambitions of a BioWare can do without the restrictions of working under a major publisher. To be honest, Mars: War Logs doesn't stretch the bounds of taste or anything like that, but what it does do is insert gameplay that might be considered inaccessible to today's babied player. More on that later.
Mars: War Logs takes place near the end of a war between Mars colonies called Abundance and Aurora. You are Roy, and you are from Aurora, and you are stuck in an Abundance POW camp. Step one on this journey: break out.
But this prison camp, which you'll spend several hours in, is just the beginning. (If it weren't so long, I would call it a prologue.) This is one of those games where the protagonist has secrets, and they're slowly unraveled over the course of the game as Spiders does some serious lore-building. Let's just say that this version of Mars has more going on in it than Volition's Red Faction series did (RIP), and the world that opens up as you play through is quite interesting.
Mars: War Logs contains a bit of cyberpunk, but it introduces that element slowly, presenting us instead with a world that seems pretty similar to our own with a bit of weirdness on the fringe. We hear the word “technomancer” a few times, and we don't really know what that means until it matters. I like this approach; too many fantastical games like to throw strange, foreign concepts and terms at us from the outset. Easing us in like this works very well.
For a while, you'll be wondering where your choices are, but they kick in eventually. While once again we are presented with a choice-based RPG that is not as wildly divergent as I would hope, the variations are satisfying, the moral conundrums appropriately thoughtful, and the consequences for being an asshole are real. When your young friend Innocence talks about how scary you are, it hurts.
Underlying it all is a BioShock-esque harvesting mechanic; when you take out a human foe, you have not actually killed him (combat is primarily melee), and after a fight is over you can choose to suck out his serum (Mars' currency) and kill him. The benefits of doing that are not great, and it seems like an arbitrary system to me, because unless the game scripts it for you to kill a character, beating him down with a metal pipe with nails sticking out of the end will only knock him out.
But, I say, the act of beating down a dude with that metal pipe is awesome. It would be pointless for me to try to explain combat here, as even the game's tutorials don't do a great job of it and the only real way to learn is by playing. But it's a real-time brawler system of sorts, and it's hard. You have to be really good to win some of these fights, and if you are ever outnumbered by more than a couple dudes, you'll feel legit dread. (I noticed, too, that the easy difficulty on my press copy was grayed out. I don't know if it is like that for purchasers.)
At first, it seems like it's just about swinging your weapon and blocking and dodging, but it becomes more complex with the introduction of grenades and very-limited-ammo guns and eventually tech powers (like lightning). And as the complexity of combat increases, so does the difficulty of the fights.
Interestingly, your character in Mars: War Logs does not have stats for you to level up. Instead, you earn skills that help you out and increase your effectiveness, like one that makes your lightning power do 25 percent more damage, for example. Also, gearing up is incredibly important. You'll want to seek out better gear, and you'll also need to upgrade it with items you craft from the scrap you find around the world. Upgrades can drastically improve your armor and weapons by as much as two or three times, and so it's important to not forget to do that.
Mars: War Logs only costs $20 to buy from Steam, but make no mistake: this is a full game. The non-major scene (this game was published by Focus) continues to experiment with different price points, and this one is plenty sweet. For a third of regular price, you get a game as big as the original Mass Effect. And, I must stress, it is a quality 15-20 hours. You can find technical nitpicks throughout this game if you want, but Spiders, in the end, delivers a package that should satisfy any long-time fans of Western RPGs.