Sunday, April 20, 2014

Game Review - Mars: War Logs (XBLA, 2013)

I'm always looking for a great new RPGs.  Immersing myself in an expansive world and seeing an epic story unfold or building my character(s) with the skills and equipment I find useful are some of the highlights of modern gaming.

Mars: War Logs is not one of those games.

While some aspects of the game make strong first impressions, evoking memories of Knights of the Old Republic with its aesthetic and basic controls, the whole thing rapidly deteriorates into a long sequence of tedious fetch quests, a frustrating real-time combat system, and a generally forgettable storyline that lacks momentum.

War Logs opens with a young soldier called Innocence describing the situation (a war on Mars) while he's taken to a POW camp.  Immediately after exiting the prisoner train, a large prisoner threatens Innocence with rape.

This scenario is just the first of many scenes throughout the game that seem to have been written by a 12-year-old trying to be "edgy;" it seems totally out of place given the nature of the situation (a war prisoner is going to rape a kid from the same side of the conflict right out of the gate?) and the view of the world that we get elsewhere (after this initial confrontation, the camp as a whole seems surprisingly friendly and inviting).

And that's essentially the whole game: a vaguely oppressed group of prisoners deals with their situation and the occasional bout of unnecessary adult content.

To make matters worse, the story is divided into three acts, but they are only loosely related.  The major issues introduced during each segment are hastily resolved during brief cutscenes, so you get a few disjointed storylines rather than the coherent narrative as you might expect from an RPG.

Overall, the story in Mars: War Logs lacks the depth and the polish to be anything more than a passing interest.

The gameplay sadly doesn't pick up the slack; there's just nothing really inspiring about it.

While the quests throughout the game aren't too unusual for a modern RPG, the lackluster story fails to mask the tedious elements.  Nearly every quest reduces to "go here, fight them, get this," and its hard to overlook the repetitive structure.

Combat doesn't add much enjoyment, either.  To be fair, there are a few nice technical features: battles are handled in real-time, playing almost like a third-person action game, and they're usually pretty intense, as 3+ enemies will all come at you simultaneously.

The problem with fighting lies in some of the details.  First off, the introductory tutorials present strategies that are irrelevant during your first major encounter (and many encounters throughout the game).  The ability to break an opponents guard seems totally ineffective against certain types of enemies, so rather than engaging them as the game teaches you, it forces you to develop new strategies almost immediately.  That's just frustrating design.

Second, the level design forces you into combat more often than not.  Ordinarily that setup wouldn't be a huge deal, but the game places some emphasis on being able to sneak around; I was almost never able to avoid fights, and the skills directly associated with sneakiness were impossible to use in most of the plot-oriented fight sequences.

As a result of the poor combat design, you're kind of pigeonholed into following a couple of paths through the game's skill trees.  It looks like there are some interesting options to explore, but it's really a false choice - if you don't prep yourself for straight combat, you can very easily find yourself stuck in a near-unwinnable fight.

The gameplay is frustrating at almost every turn.

Sadly, the disappointment doesn't stop there.  While the voice acting and overall sound design are generally pretty good (though never particularly outstanding), the art direction is uninspired.  Yes, the whole thing takes place on Mars, so the dusty red setting is expected, but the fact that nearly every area is a rundown slum gets tiring, as there's no aesthetic incentive to explore.

The end result is a game that's just not very entertaining.  It has some nice ideas, and the overall vibe evokes some nostalgia, but it rapidly becomes a tedious exercise.

If you're looking for an enthralling story with fun mechanics, you should look somewhere else.

My Rating: 2/10 - terrible.

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