Mars: War Logs
Mars seems like an awful place to settle down. Time and time again, in movies, novels, or games, the red planet always seems to be at war with itself. Tales of rogue factions and leaders left unchecked have become the norm. Like so many resistance stories before it, Mars: War Logs paints a picture of a Mars divided by too many factions to name (and too ambiguously named to remember).
The heart of the narrative is formed by the relationship between Roy, formerly known as Temperence, and Innocence. Roy checks the requisite protagonist boxes: well-traveled, war-hardened, and pock-marked with a mysterious origin. Playing his opposite, Innocence is the doe-eyed kid just getting his first harsh taste of the real world at large.
The setup is as classic as it is cliché. The friendship they foster is one you’ve undoubtedly seen or read before. The voice acting is serviceable, the writing is inconsistent, and the character animation does little to enhance the emotions on display. But even still, it’s easy to buy into the worn dichotomy between the two leads. Though Innocence is likely too appropriately named, you’ll still want to spare him of the life you’ve obviously lead.
Through action or inaction, players can decide the nature of Innocence’s role model. Combat always leaves unconscious enemies strewn about. Not long into the game you receive a Serum extractor, which allows you to drain Serum (the game’s currency) from your beaten opponents, and killing them in the process. Draining the Serum nets you negative reputation.
The reputation system unnecessarily penalizes players for experimenting. You have to be a saint or a sinner, otherwise you risk locking yourself out of reputation-specific perks, and of course there are no perks for remaining neutral. I personally harvested Serum from five or six enemies the entire game and I solved every single side quest in what should be assumed as the ‘good’ manner. But even so, my reputation remained neutral for three quarters of the game, leaving me no chance of moving from Good to Excellent. At an Excellent reputation your companions receive a +50 health and +50 attack power boost. In a game when you should expect your current teammate to die in nine out of every ten fights, it might have been a game changer.
Fights take place in real-time and usually put you and your companion at a disadvantage in terms of numbers. The action can be momentarily paused at will to access the skills/companion menu, where you can issue one of four useless commands to your present partner. No matter what you tell them to do, they will die. And in many cases, if you’re surrounded and out numbered, you’re probably going to follow their lead.
Combat can be distilled down to three basic actions: attack, roll, and block. Of course there are variations on that trio, such as Technomancy powers, parrying and guard breaking, but everything comes down to knowing when you should and should not take certain actions. Attacks can be blocked; you take damage during evasive rolls; your own guard can be broken. It’s a simple rock/paper/scissors system that works as long as you don’t get mobbed, which is essentially never.
For a combat system that almost always sees you fighting groups of enemies alone, after your teammate has died, it’s inexcusable to have so few crowd control options. Grenades are the only guaranteed deterrent for groups but remain scarce throughout. Eventually you may stumble on an area of effect ability in the Combat skill tree, but even then you’re still rolling an imaginary die that dictates whether it connects or not. If your companions could eat more damage, or were even a little more adept in battle they might have been able to even the playing field.
The entire experience is unfortunately built on a handful of these systems that don’t quite work. The romances are underdeveloped, in some cases requiring as few as three lines of dialogue to convince a companion she’s the one. The economy and crafting systems become redundant if you take a little time to find obviously ‘hidden’ resources throughout the environments. The stealth is a welcome alternative to combat, but is too simple and too broken to be taken seriously.
With better pacing and a lot more balancing, Mars: War Logs could have been a fresh, satisfying take on BioWare’s proven formula. Its intriguing premise and characters eventually succumb to its broken systems, creating a fiction you’ll hope sooner to finish than completely understand. Maybe Mars just isn’t worth fighting for.