I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.
Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.
The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.
Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.
For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.
The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.
Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.
The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.
After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.
Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.
As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.
Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.
Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
The past year of releases has really changed my perception on what sand box style games could achieve. I must admit the only thing I enjoyed about sand box games was the fact that once I got bored with the main story line I could unleash hell for another 15 minutes or so before I quit the game without saving. Red Dead Redemption and Minecraft were two examples of games where my inner jerk stayed in his cave for the vast majority of the game and so when I started seeing seeing some of the screens from Rockstar’s newest game L.A. Noire I figured that it would be yet another step away from their traditional Grand Theft Auto style sand box, and thus very worthy of my attention. What followed was an incredibly interesting experience on multiple levels, both for its accomplishments and its faults.
You play as Cole Phelps, a veteran of the second world war who’s come back to being a cop in downtown Los Angeles. L.A. Noire wastes no time in getting you into the action, setting up Phelps as a man with an incorruptible dedication to seeing a case through to the very end. You start out knowing very little about the man himself at the start but as the story progresses bits of his past, retold in flashback scenes and with dialog with other characters, come to light. It can be a little frustrating not understanding your character’s motivation for certain actions, especially when he’s prone to reacting wildly to certain things. I can understand the reason for keeping much of his past hidden for the majority of the game, however even a few more bits of insight into his past would’ve made his character a whole bunch more believable.
There are several distinct categories of game play within L.A. Noire. The first is the investigation mode where you look around a crime scene for clues, where upon your controller shakes when you stumble upon something potentially interesting. Not everything will relate to the case however, so you might find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time picking up cigarettes and empty bottles. Thankfully they’re kind enough to alert you when you’ve found all the clues so you don’t spend hours going around in circles looking for a potentially missed bit of evidence. These clues will then lead you onto people of interest who you can then interview to get a better idea of the details of the crime.
The next core game play mechanic, the interviews, relies heavily on the extremely lifelike motion capture technology that L.A. Noire uses. You have a list of questions which you can ask the person of interest and based on how they respond you have to choose whether you believe they’re telling the truth, lying but you have no evidence (doubt) or if they’re outright lying for which you’ll have to provide proof. I’ll be honest and tell you that this mechanic frustrated me to no end as whilst the truth and lie were relatively easy to tell the doubt option was a tad ambiguous. It’s explained exactly as I said before to you in the game however the option can also mean “They’re telling the truth but not everything” or “This guy isn’t going to give you anything useful no matter what you say”. It’s also confounded by the problem that Phelps seem to fly into a rage whenever you choose the doubt option so whilst you might think that there’s more to the story (and there always is) Phelps’ behavior seems to make the more softer targets shut down completely. You do get better at picking it towards the end but it can still lead to some incredibly frustrating times.
It’s made somewhat easier by the introduction of “intuition points” which are gained by leveling up your character in the game. These points let you either remove one wrong answer (which isn’t as helpful as it could be) or ask the community which shows you the percentages of how everyone else answered those questions. You can store a max of five and there’s only 20 levels in the game, with a few of those levels giving outfits and not intuition, so they’re best used sparingly.
Additionally whilst the facial capture is down right amazing in how realistic it appears it’s rather comically strapped to good old fashioned motion capture bodies that were filmed independently of the voice actors. What this means is that whilst from the neck up they appear quite lively everywhere else is your usual rigid clothes and rather awkward flailing about, especially when interacting with other objects. Whilst it’s not noticeable most of the time there are a number of occasions when it looks like the character’s head is trying to move independently of its body. Hopefully the technology they used to capture the stunning facial features will soon trickle down to doing full body motion capture and we won’t have this strange world of bodies with alien head syndrome.
During your investigations you’ll be alerted to street crime that’s happening in Los Angeles. Should you respond to it you’ll be pointed in the right direction and receive a short cut scene when you arrive detailing the situation. These little side quests can be anything from chasing down wife beaters to full blown car chases that end up with a shoot out with dozens of individuals. Primarily they’re there to break up the monotony of driving and give you a little break from the case you’re working on (which can stretch for over an hour). They also serve to help you level up your character as it’d be nigh on impossible to reach the level cap otherwise.
The same sort of action scenes that are played out as street crime also form part of the investigations themselves. It would seem that everyone’s gut reaction when confronted by the police in Los Angeles is for them to run for the hills which whilst fun get’s a little repetitive after the 20th time it happens. This isn’t helped by the fact that your case is judged not only by how many clues you found and questions got right but also by how much damage you do to your car, people on the street and the city itself. Since these action scenes tend to be rather reckless you’re more than likely going to rack up a large bill chasing down all these scoundrels. It really doesn’t mean that much overall, but when the game actively encourages you to do it (like your partner telling you to ram someone off the road) and then punishes you for it does leave you feeling a bit mixed up.
Like any Rockstar sandbox game the city in which you play L.A. Noire feels very alive when you’re playing through it. However it’s probably more appropriate to equate it to a movie set: it’s made to look that way. In this game’s predecessors like Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV you could engage with the NPCs in varying ways (playing cards, buying clothes, visiting clubs and what have you) there is simply none of that in L.A. Noire at all. You’re more than welcome to drive around Los Angeles whilst you’re on your way to the mission but there’s no intermission where you’re free to do as you will. You really have no choice but to pursue the cases constantly as sometimes no matter how long you drive around for you just won’t get a street crime to go and solve. So whilst L.A. Noire has the feel of a sand box game it’s really nothing like that at all.
But just like a movie set the pieces that you’re meant to see are set out extremely well. I was a bit disappointed when I saw that it implemented the same cover based shooting style that’s present in nearly every game these days but unlike shooters where the combat areas are obvious they blended in quite well in L.A. Noire. The camera work, music and use of the environment is also done quite well, setting the mood almost perfectly throughout the game.
I also found the story to be quite enthralling as did my wife who sat by my side and watched me play almost the entirety of the game. Whilst the story line suffered initially from the lack of an overarching plot line, just like Dragon Age 2 did before it, the unveiling of Phelps’ back story slowly begins to tie everything together with the ending wrapping it all up. If I’m honest though I felt the ending was slightly hollow with some of the events happening right at the very end serving only to try and make one last emotional impact on the player, rather than adding anything else to the overall plot. Still I must commend them for going with an ending that didn’t scream “SEQUEL SEQUEL”, a downright rarity these days.
L.A. Noire feels like yet another step towards gaming become a mature medium, becoming more of a medium to tell a story rather than just a distraction for kids. It’s also a technological step forward as well with the facial capture they did for it being nothing short of jaw dropping and I’m sure it’s not going to be long before we see that kind of realism extended to other aspects of the game. Whilst it might not stay true to the sandbox roots from which it was born L.A. Noire delivers a solid game experience that I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone, especially for those who enjoy their games more on the cerebral side.
L.A. Noire is available for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $89 and $89 respectively. Game was wholly played on the PlayStation 3 with a total of 22 hours played with approximately 75% total game completion according to the in game stats recorder.