It was only after Felix assured me that Mars: War Logs was a story-driven RPG and not a new line of chocolatey energy bars, that I finally calmed down. We've all been to Mars before, though, right? From watching Arnie's eyes bulging out of his face in Total Recall to smacking everything to bits with a massive hammer in Red Faction: Smashathon, the dusty red planet-next-door has seen its share of sci-fi imaginings.
Well, actually, they're all pretty similar in their visual aesthetic. Which, I suppose, is only to be expected when you're setting your story on the red planet. Mars: War Logs gets right in on this whole thing from the outset: prepare yourself for a whole lot of dust-choked slums and rusty metal. This is very much the dilapidated Mars from Total Recall. And, it has to be said, it's done over and over. There's not a huge amount of variety in the graphical feel – the inner sanctum of the Technomancers has the same giant overhead fans and piles of crates as the abandoned tunnels beneath the city.
Much of the game is spent running back and forth throughout the maps tidying up loose ends on quests and exploring nooks and crannies which usually contain small caches of collectible goodies. Crafting is not an option here – you can buy better equipment but it's then up to you to craft home-made attachments for your weapon and armour in order to make it look funkier and perform better. Melee weapons in particular are fun to upgrade. You never really get anything manufactured to work with; a powerful starting weapon might just be an old steel pipe, to which you then strap a couple of cogs to the end in order to fashion a sort of brutal-looking axe thing. This is an RPG at its heart, so as well as doing up your weapons there's the usual experience points to level-up economy, and perks for reaching new levels are pretty varied. The game obviously wants to encourage a choice between straight-up melee, ranged combat, technomancer powers and stealth, but in reality combat generally devolves rapidly into the same pattern. After a failed attempt at stealth (some baddies can see you through solid objects, and once you're spotted by one, you're immediately visible to all), you and your chosen companion wade into melee with all of the enemies in the room at once. A few enemies will go after your companion, who inevitably falls after about thirty seconds, during which time you engage in a frantic series of random forward rolls and weapon swings, some of which hopefully connect with the gang of enemies who are trying to hit you. The goal here is to lower the odds a little before the enemies that went after your companions finish their work and come after you. Then it's a whole bunch more forward rolling and swinging, until they're all down and your companion gets back up as if nothing happened.
The main storyline does work, albeit telling a tale that happens almost entirely out of wartime and completely away from major battlefields, despite the name. Questions of the ethics of the different guilds and their technomancers, along with hints at long-forgotten relics from the original settlers on Mars creates a fairly absorbing story, and the voice acting is passable enough to not interfere with that tale. Side quests tend to be a little standard, but overall the whole thing has a kind of cut-price Deus Ex feel to it.
Deus Ex! High praise! But please do notice the 'cut price' bit. Mars: War Logs clearly hasn't had a budget anywhere near that of Deus Ex, nor will they ask as much money for it at release. The graphics are functional rather than awe-inspiring, but a lot of work has gone into creating the look of Mars, even if it is a little samey and similar to other Marses we may be used to from sci-fi.
You can only have one of your NPC chums hanging around with you at any given time, and they have their own things to say and their own combat techniques (although see above). The obligatory 'romance' storylines are there, although they feel a little tacked-on and unnecessary. You can't affect their inventories at all, and it can be a little frustrating to have duplicates of really good weapons but your companion is still using the same rusty old spanner he's been using since the start...
For its relatively low launch price, I found Mars: War Logs to be an engaging and playable action RPG. Despite a couple of bemusing foul-ups, such as non-definable controls and a frankly demented camera that can go for minutes at a time in combat without ever showing your character at all, the simple crafting system and accessible combat scenes made for a pretty solid return for your money in terms of game time. None of the characters are particularly deep and the stealth system is horribly unworkable, but for all its forward-rolling shenanigans, melee combat is pretty fun and the story clips along well enough, with a couple of choices that affect the outcome. There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and some of the quests are pretty obviously signposted with 'good storyline' and 'evil storyline' options, but that's been the way of things at least as far back as KOTOR.
Mars: War Logs. The nutritious snack you can consume between big-budget RPGs without ruining your appetite.