Mars: War Logs – Review

It’s pretty good. Something of a Bioware clone. Efficiently delivers the standard action-rpg experience. Some voice acting is bad. Overall, though, I felt good about the presentation, and always felt as though any reasonable action I could take in a given situation was decently covered. Steam clocks my playthrough at 20 hours, although some of that was spent paused and pondering a couple branches. I will replay half of the game, changing faction, so it’s likely about 20 hours, for a $20 rpg with okay depth and reactivity. If you just wanted the quick & dirty opinion piece, you can stop here. The rest of this is going to be in-depth about what impressed me, and this is your only spoiler warning.

The mechanics of the skill system… are kind of awesome. The three skill trees actually synergize. The technomancy ability to charge your weapon with electricity can be specc’d out to up critical hit chance, and so can your basic combat talents, and further in the renegade section, for anyone facing away from you. The only skills not available to you after the prison escape are the capstones of each tree. Everything else is available instantly… but at the lowest power. Every level, you get 2 points to spend. And every point has weight. There are a few pre-reqs that are a little… underwhelming. I didn’t really want to upgrade, for example, MP recovery rate before upgrading the power of the damaging attacks. I never did put any points into throwing sand in anyone’s face… but it was still a pretty nice, quick maneuver that worked just fine on anybody without glasses or stormtrooper helms. The system also avoided the question of item power. You never got more effective health potions (they can call them infusions, I don’t care, it’s a recovery consumable), but the renegade tree let you make them more potent. Or upgrade your “homemade grenade”… which was faster at knocking a squad of soldiers on their butts than anything else at my disposal, and gave a precious second to buff up. Because these consumables never went bad, and weren’t crazy-hard to build, I actually did use them. Which tends to not happen in this kind of game unless the combat is particularly dire. Generally, if I was having trouble in a fight, I wasn’t using half my abilities. And the game has that perfect option: You hit one button, and it almost pauses the action, letting you target, give orders, and activate any of your abilities. You can have a few hotkeyed, but it was generally better to use the menu, just to plan another second or two, and be quite sure you have the right target.

 

Separate from the skill system is a feat listing. You get 1 feat point per level… and almost nothing is that cheap. Unlocking the crafting options was the most helpful. Every chapter or so, you’d get to access another tier of moddable weapon, and be able to fit it with slightly better mods… with quite a list of options to arrange as you like. You could make your weapons gain extra damage when buffed, or more crit damage, or a bit more defense. Your armor gave some tradeoffs with damage mitigations, regeneration, and I… went with the Techwarrior mods for the electrical resistance. Sure, most foes do physical damage, but who wants to have no defense against the guys who fling lightning? The system gives the player a lot more than you… could need. Early on, you will scrounge. Later on, you can recycle components you’ll never use into stuff you might like, and have enough health boosts, grenades, and ammo to gun down an army. Other notable feats allow for more xp from combat and more loot. Your reputation as a good guy or an ass also grants you a couple free ones. Bad guys get a slight boost to wound chance and critical hits. Good guys get 50% off at the shops. So, you can buy whatever you like at the shop… if you needed anything. And didn’t want to wait to find the free stuff. Great guys get +50% companion health and damage. You only really get 1 npc follower at a time, with very brief exceptions. And this is the difference between your friend being able to keep 1 of the 4-5 enemies off you… and being able to hold out against half of them until you’re free to help clean up.

 

Now… I like these systems. The feat system is perhaps the least impressive aspect. You’ll get most by the end of the game, so you’re mostly picking the order, and none of them (except the crafting) are actually necessary. The thing I like about this is that it’s got no direct connection to your combat abilities. The +10% boosts to combat xp seem like a lot, but I don’t think the difference is going to total even one level over the course of the entire game. The looting bonus seems great, but in the middle of the game, not only do you have a ton of resources, but you can farm enemies. I think, outside the crafting (again, seriously, I quite liked that one) only the option to recycle primitive components was worthwhile, and then only because a lot of what I made used up my leather… without touching a ton of cloth I had no earthly use for.

 

Outside of combat, you have the usual adventure gamer system of quests and side quests. There were a lot of potential problems with the conversation system, as you select one of usually three very short phrases, and having your character expand on the concept. Frequently, this sort of thing leads to massive frustration as your character says something very different from your expectation. M:WL avoids this by putting a lot of effort into making the hero sound intelligent. Most other characters are not so snappy. There is a fair bit of reactivity to your choices, although a lot is… rather on rails. Only a few of the things you did in the prison matter outside of it. But then, it’s a prison break plot. After that, the game opens up dramatically in scope, in side-quests… and then, after you choose a faction and depart the city… you are back on rails. The game advertises a high degree of reactivity, with everything you say mattering… I’d qualify that some, as most of the payoff is in how a few dialogs play out.

 

You can never fully forget that this game is more of an indie title than AAA. The romance sub-plot was… thoroughly perfunctory. “Oh, I’m less horrifically maladjusted as a person now. Wanna… date?” “Eh, sure.” The final assault, running with the general to have a “chat” with the leader of the guild/nation… the general doesn’t have a nicer weapon than the usual salvage clubs? Some of the enemies have tasers, or guns more dangerous than the PC’s nailgun. (Which is solid enough with a few skill points.) I don’t care if he’s not a good fighter, the man should have something to swing that might not be an embarrassment in an armory.

 

Still, I’m incredibly impressed by what is present. Because, while it has clearly achieved the minimum necessary in several categories… it doesn’t fall farther. Yes, the companions could have some more dialog, and discourse, or react to one another in ways that would allow you to bring more than one along at a time. But that would be quite a bit more expensive. It scales geometrically with the number you bring, and the budget for this title capped at one. So we get to hang out with our choice of not-quite-trustworthy oddball, and hear them interject when it’s not entirely inappropriate. The zones are broken up by doors and ledges that not only allow for subtle terrain loading (more helpful on the consoles than my PC) but also teleport your companion to you, and are skippable cutscenes. It’s easy to get your companion pretty lost otherwise, because they stop moving when you sneak… so as to avoid screwing up your chances at ambushing most of an area. AI’s functional, although, if you bring the technomancer, and she’s getting ready to fire the shockwave… DODGE. The game makes her take longer on that for your benefit. They can’t make the AI smarter on the cheap. It can’t stop an attack queued if you finish a foe before it gets back to its feet… but they can give you warning for the one attack that’s friendly fire. Keeping your buddy AI from getting stuck if you stealth over half a map and then stand up. But it can move them to you when you go through a door. Cheap solutions to thorny programming problems.

These clever dodges combined with a system that very cleverly expands the scope of your abilities without the linear scaling issue of the usual RPG… a combat system that is fluid, modifiable, and tactical… with a reason to bother, as you are outnumbered and can be staggered… a plot that’s fairly sharp, and not quite as predictable as I’d imagined… and you have a game that’s about half as deep as the average Bioware game, with a lower price tag. A good buy, with the only caveat being some rather lame voice acting in some of the tertiary cast. And a terribly shrill potential love interest. Still better than ye olde Resident Evil.

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