The release of Mars: War Logs has marked a significant shift in trends for digital distribution services on consoles. While both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have played host to full retail releases as digital products as well as everything from indie titles to retro remakes, it’s rare that videogames are developed from the ground-up with the intention of replicating the depth of a AAA retail release for a budget price. Many have suggested that the middle tier of videogame development has been lost forever; that it’s impossible to offer gamers anything but bug budget productions or accessible, throwaway indie titles. Mars: War Logs shouts in the face of this, proving that the middle tier isn’t dead, it’s just in the process of moving home.
Mars: War Logs has literally everything you’d expect of a videogame trying to ape the biggest releases with only a middling budget: a farcical plot, a familiar combat system, a levelling mechanic and a wrapping that cleverly conceals confinement with the perfect amount of detail. Mars: War Logs is the exact type of videogame that just five years ago would’ve been made available as a full priced retail release and most likely struggled to find an audience. Here on modern digital distribution platforms it can not only reach further than retail shelves, but do it for a fraction of the coast and thus offer the consumer it at a fraction of the price.
The videogame takes the interesting approach of not casting the player as the main character. A young man, Innocence, retells the story of how he was called up to fight for his guild, and how the bitter taste of war turned him from a eager boy into a weary man. Most certainly mature in its themes, Mars: War Logs sees Innocence captured by the enemy and sent to a prison camp. Within minutes of the opening sequence this young man is threatened with rape on a shower room floor, but Roy – the player character – appears just as the right time to save him.
While Roy is the wisened hero of the piece, much of Mars: War Logs is a sort of ‘buddy pic’ that places both of these characters (or other friends, depending on the choices you make) in one dangerous situation after another as they try to escape from the prisoner camp. This however, is where the pair’s troubles really begin.
The action of Mars: War Logs is made from a number of different mechanics that centre on your character, the evolution in both combat and your ability to craft upgrades for your items. The latter is performed via a menu using salvage found in the environment and collected from fallen enemies, while the former uses a skill tree system that sees you adding percentages to your attack and defence at first and later unlocking some interesting special abilities.
The combat system is built around melee attacks with ammunition for your firearms and additional weapons, such as grenades and mines, very scarce indeed. As a former techromancer – Mars: War Logs’ take on a science-fiction mage – the player has several abilities that can be used to tip the balance of combat sections. However, while summoning lightning from your finger tips and infusing your spiked club with energy can be helpful, Mars: War Logs’ level system can make combat far too difficult; it’s easy to follow the wrong path and spend your limited points on the wrong things, suddenly ramping up the difficulty as enemies fight in relation to your level.
In line with this comes the poor arrangement of combat. The videogame operates on a series of open maps on which the players can roam freely, meeting characters and engaging in side missions. Story missions take place in more structured environments and feature scripted events and combat sections that are elegantly paced, however getting across the open maps to these highlights can be a chore as enemies will response in exactly the same location, in the same formation, each and every time you pass through.
The technical quality of Mars: War Logs is commendable, but never outstanding. The greatest achievement is undoubtedly its length as Mars: War Logs provides plenty of content across its open maps, both side missions and those key to the story. The character models are of a reasonable quality, though their animation is left wanting, and the voice acting varies wildly its delivery. Undeniably flawed but still appreciable, Mars: War Logs just keeps its head above water thanks to it’s interesting lead characters.
It’s a shame that all of the disparate mechanics in Mars: War Logs don’t gel, as when taken as individual schemes they all work wonderfully. Combat, levelling, crafting and dialogue systems have all taken lessons taught by the best the videogames industry has to offer, and the fact that your reputation system can affect the way in which characters will react to you – and thus potentially alter the choices you will have to make – demonstrates that Mars: War Logs could’ve been so much more. Ultimately it’s an enjoyable ride, but not one that stands a chance of competing against bugger budget titles.