Platforms: PC | XBLA | PSN
Developers: Spiders Games
Publishers: Focus Home Interactive
The digital marketplaces are growing every day, offering deeper, richer, more compelling experiences than ever before, and fleshing out their offerings to include far more than retro throwbacks, re-releases, and arcade-tinged fun-fests. With the middle ground shrinking faster than ever, and double-A setups forced to look to avenues other than traditional retail, these digital platforms - with their variable price points and convenient routes to audiences - are the ones that benefit.
So it is that the idea of a fully-fledged, RPG, replete with 3D real-time gameplay, dialogue choices, variable companions, a relatively rich crafting system, side quests, and an expansive skill tree cropping up on such platforms maybe isn't quite as farfetched as it used to be.
Of course, that's not really saying much. It still sounds wildly ambitious, almost too good to be true. The fact is that we've seen precious few games such as that outside of a rather niche PC existence. Dungeon crawlers can work, as can well-paced narrative vignettes, and there's no doubt that we're seeing bigger and better games hitting the digital services; but we're talking about role-playing games here. A truly expansive, Western RPG on XBLA and the PSN? Some might scoff at the perceived impossibility of such a thing.
The folks at Spiders clearly like a challenge, because Mars: War Logs is a game that seems specifically designed to render the impossible possible.
As the title suggests, the game unfolds on the surface of the Red Planet itself, where a bunch of nefarious multinational conglomerates have gobbled up all of the limited resources that the planet has to offer. The major water companies of Mars have become the superpowers constantly squabbling over the few precious minerals left, even as radiation-poisoned mutant creatures lurk in the caverns and crevices surrounding settlements, and swathes of the downtrodden and disaffected are pressed into manual labour. It seems a little like Red Faction squashed together with Total Recall, and the game will shove you into the boots of Roy 'Temperance' - a gruff "renegade" with a rather large amount of baggage in his past.
Being a person with a fair amount of 'life experience' already, Roy has a number of abilities and skills that can be unlocked and upgraded, and he knows his way around a bit of lead piping. An early hands-on battle we got stuck into saw us saving a young boy named Innocence from a band of thugs. Combat is simple to begin with - X for a light attack, Y to break an enemy's guard - but soon becomes fleshed out as you learn to block and evade, make the most of any companions travelling with you, and later on learn how to harness the arts of stealth and Technomancy. In action, Roy seems a little clunky - Bayonetta this ain't - but there are promising little touches, controller hotkey mapping for certain skills, and having the ability to pause the action for a tactical breather as you plan your next move is a worthwhile feature. In a later level, where Roy finds himself set upon by mutant rats, he pulls out a firearm, with a flick of the right stick changing the target, and we dispatch them with ease.
"We wanted to make it an immersive experience, and felt that the best way to do this was through direct action," associate producer Walid Miled told us. "But you are not restricted to this course of action. Later on you'll be able to unlock stealth options so you can sneak up on enemies, and the Technomancer powers are a lot of fun too."
Taking deep into some of the later levels, and maxing out Roy's powers, Miled showed us what he meant. Although players won't be able to become all-powerful in terms of maxing out every aspect of Roy's skill tree, there's apparently "plenty to play with" (although no hint of re-spec options at the moment). Instant takedowns can be achieved through judicious sneaking, and you can even hide the bodies of your foes to avoid detection. Alternatively, you can blast enemies with chain lightning, or deliver a stunning shockwave, or a cloud of debuffing effects. Loot and scavenged parts can be shoved together in a number of different ways thanks to the game's impressive-looking crafting system as well. There'll be heavily armoured enemies, shielded foes, and even other Technomancers to take on, so having the right tools for the job and a skill set suited to your style of play will no doubt help. Miled tells us that mini-bosses will be scattered throughout the game, before cheekily giving us a sneak peek of an outlandishly sized beast . There's only one massive boss battle in the game, but he's pretty damn big.
Roy will not be alone, though. Companions will apparently form a large part of the game too, and Miled demonstrated how your actions and dialogue choices in the game can affect the relationships that Roy has with various companions throughout the game, documented in a menu tab marked 'Reputation'. "You can see that after you beat up all of those guys, Innocence is now a little afraid of you," Miled explains after the first fight. "The way are with those around you, and the actions you take, these will define how characters act towards you, whether they'll help you or not, give you items as so on."
Of course, being a renegade, Roy doesn't have much patience for people, so there's actually an option in-game whereby you can kill certain side characters and steal their "vital fluids", according to Miled, which can be used as something of a black market currency in the game. "Of course, if you do that, then certain side quests will disappear, some people will hate you for a while, and you won't be able to get certain items." We noticed that one of the characters on Roy's companion roster had "Loves" next to her name and, indeed, we were told that there will be characters that might turn Mr. Temperance into Cpt. Romance. "Yeah there are romance options in the game," Miled revealed. "They're not as deep as Mass Effect's, but there are some characters you can romance."
That last line is of great importance, because it rather encapsulates our initial experience of Mars: War Logs. It's a beguiling game, to be sure, one that has all of the features you'd expect from a game with a much larger development team, budget, and price point, but it's simply been packaged slightly differently, and noticeably given a good trim. The first question, once hit with that low price point of 15 Euros (probably around 1200 MSP), has to do with where corners have been cut.
It's clear to see that there's still work to be done to iron out some of the clunkiness. There were abundant glitches, unfinished lines of code and dialogue, and the animations (particularly in combat) were hardly what you'd call smooth. But our preview build was, as Miled told us, a relatively old build, and that many of the little kinks have been sorted in the meantime. It's not the prettiest game - the rusty dusty look is everywhere, understandably - and we got little indication of the sound design nor voice work, which was completely absent from the build we played.
More so than any other genre of game, RPGs make for infuriating preview material. There are real glimpses of promise here, and it's clear that Spiders have done a good job of trying to incorporate as many elements in as they possibly can, but there's no way we can possibly make an early value judgement on the plot, pacing, or progression. We're told that the running time is around 15-20 hours, which seems appropriate given the price point, yet one can't help but wonder if the studio haven't over-extended themselves. How deep of an RPG experience can you expect from 15 hours of gameplay, after all?
It's a bold project, and you have to commend Spiders for giving it a shot; the key components are all there. Moreover, Roy Temperance is frankly a cracking name for a protagonist? It's just a shame that this flair for nomenclature didn't extend to the game's title. When faced with a choice of terms for an epistolary narrative, always go with 'Chronicles'. It sounds more epic. 'War Logs' conjures up connotations of a soldier penning a journal whilst squatting timidly on the loo.
Excellent sideburns on Roy, though.