If there's one developer that has been quickly winning my heart- it's Spiders. From my personal game of the year in 2016 The Technomancer, to 2014's unappreciated diamond in the rough Bound by Flame, Spiders have shown that they are competent enough to make not only a good RPG, but also a good game all around.
Now where did this undying love begin? Well one day, whilst strolling through the Xbox Live marketplace, I stumbled upon an interesting little title that caught my eye; Mars: War Logs. The description and screenshots made it appear as a Mass Effect-esque space adventure. This was back in 2015, so I was still emotionally scarred from the utter disappointment of Mass Effect 3, and had yet to experience the human rights violating atrocity known as Mass Effect: Andromeda. I needed a worthy successor to Mass Effect, so after glancing over some reviews, I took a gamble on Mars: War Logs, and boy, did I get it.
Mars: War Logs opens on, you guessed it, Mars, in a POW camp where we are introduced to our first companion, Innocence, through a heavily implied attempted gay rape scene. If there's a better way than that to start a game, then I haven't seen it. Luckily the protagonist, Roy, intervenes just in time to prevent that from happening. What follows is a slow, yet deliberate prison break sequence reminiscent of The Great Escape that sets the tone and narrative for the rest of the game.
While some might be initially put off by the overall depressing tone of Mars: War Logs, I think it's fantastic because it illustrates a grittier depiction of war and death in a cyberpunk future. Most games with similar themes, such as Mass Effect and the latest entries in the Call of Duty series, show a much more "Hollywood-ized" version of those themes complete with huge budgets and explosion filled set pieces. Whereas Mars: War Logs drags you down into the thick of it. If that's the kind of future we have to look forward to, I'd look at Mars: War Logs to get a more accurate picture of what to expect; technomancy excluded.
"Technomancy?" What? Yes, in a way, similar to Biotics in the Mass Effect series, Mars: War Logs features "Technomancy." However, unlike Biotics, technomancy is limited to the ability to wield and control the power of electricity. Characters trained from a young age to use 'pre-Turmoil' artifacts enabling them to wield the electricity produced by the human body are called "Technomancers." Normally this would be a spoiler, but Mars: War Logs spoils itself with a locked skill tree that says "technomancy" when selected; Roy is a technomancer. The introduction of this plot point also becomes a gameplay change that was executed perfectly. Up until this point, I'd been playing for about 4 hours, so the fights had been becoming rather stale, and I can't help but feel this was intentional to make your newly acquired technomancy powers feel all the more powerful to freshen up the gameplay.
Anything beyond that actually would be a spoiler. So let's recap the story thus far: you're on Mars, it's a gritty cyberpunk future, you play as a guy named Roy, and Roy is a Technomancer. Got it? Alright, let's move on.
Mars: War Logs is not, I repeat: NOT, a shooter. Not a first person shooter. Not a third person shooter. Not a Bulgarian miak shooter. NOT a shooter. Surprising, right? Well the reason I bring this up is because, according to many reviews from both critics and users that I've come across, many people went into Mars: War logs expecting a third person shooter similar to Mass Effect. I don't know if it's because shooters were the only games being developed at the time or the fact that Mass Effect really is the only game Mars: War Logs can be compared to, but Mars: War Logs is a third person action adventure, not a shooter. However there are gun in gameplay, but they are used in a similar way to the guns in Bloodborne. Yet you wouldn't categorize Bloodborne as a third person shooter, right?
Perhaps it was just me, but I was nearly overwhelmed when first experiencing the combat Mars: War Logs had to offer. That was until I realized how simple, yet ingenious it actually was. You have basic melee combat mechanics such as attack, block, and dodge, but that won't be enough to get your through most enemy encounters. That's because enemies are actually somewhat competent and won't hesitate to murder you repeatedly if you try to spam your attacks. Since the enemies are as tough as nails, you must remain vigilant in every fight. Like I said, you have your attack, your block, and your dodge, but you must also utilize your ability to break your enemy's block, your technomancy powers, and the orders you issue to your companion.
It may sound fairly simple at first, but in practice, it can be a nightmare to get through fights if you don't know what you're doing; even on the easiest difficulty setting. This is where I discovered the one major flaw in Mars: War Logs' combat- the companions. Being able to control whether or not your companions should focus on melee attacks, dodging, or ranged attacks may sound like a blessing, but that's completely squandered once you realize that enemies will gang up almost exclusively on your companion, so unless you set them to dodge, they're going down in just a couple of hits from multiple enemies. So I devised a routine to account for this problem. Set your companion to focus on dodging, take out the out any ranged enemies, then pick off the enemies ganging up on your companion one by one. This routine makes combat a breeze, but enemy encounters begin to get stale. While not fatal, this flaw definitely does hurt an otherwise great combat system.
Outside of combat, Mars: War Logs is a fairly open exploration game. While not an "open world game" per-se, Mars: War Logs' open, non-linear level design is great. You'll be able to visit multiple locations around Mars ranging from a hellish prison camp to a decaying ghetto and even a war torn city; all full of side quests with interesting characters and stories. It's clear that a monumental amount of love went into fleshing out these characters and locations to create a seemingly living breathing world. Even if that world is a sun scorched hell hole ravaged by war and human atrocities.
The side quests, and even some of the early main quests, introduce the player to Mars: War Logs' morality system. Now before you roll your eyes so far back that you snap your optic nerve, I am happy to report that Mars: War Logs is one of the few games on the market today that properly utilizes a morality system. I'm sure we're all used to morality systems in games being as simple as "be a jerk for absolutely no reason other than receiving weapon that is slightly better than the one you're using right now" or "be a goody two-shoes and get nothing other than a nice big thumbs up from the game for being a good person." While there definitely are some side quests that end like that, most of the quests in Mars: War Logs end in moral ambiguity, and it is imperative that you understand which decision will affect your moral standings with a companion and/or faction. Something you may believe to be beneficial to whomever gave you the quest may in fact cause your companion to grow suspicious of you and even eventually distrust you.
As I said before, my initial discovery of Mars: War Logs was while browsing the Xbox Live marketplace, so my first playthrough of this underrated gem was on my poor old Xbox 360. Of course, that being said, the graphical fidelity of Mars: War Logs on console was... okay. Obviously not up to par with the latest AAA or even most middle market releases at the time, but also nothing that made my eyes bleed. On PC, however, Mars: War Logs actually doesn't look half bad. Facial and clothing textures are well detailed, expansive Mars vistas are a sight for sore eyes, and all at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second on any PC built before the turn of the century with little to no dips during transitions between loading areas.
Although I was hoping for a more synthesizer heavy soundtrack in a cyberpunk game, Mars: War Logs' soundtrack is actually quite incredible. Often times I found myself in a quiet area of the map just listening to the original score Sylvain Prunier crafted for Spiders. So props to you, Mr. Prunier. Listen for yourself.
While not necessarily a masterpiece, Mars: War Logs is a testament to proper RPG and game design the likes of which we haven't seen since the original Mass Effect. Undeserved hate and criticism comes with the territory in the middle market, but Mars: War Logs is one of the most undeserving of said hate and criticism of any middle market game I've ever experienced. The combat could have done with a bit more polishing and testing, and the side quests could have been a tad bit more unique, but if you're like me and often long for a proper role-playing experience, then do yourself a favor a pick up Mars: War Logs.