Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stalin vs. Martians Review

Stalin vs. Martians, developed by Black Wing Foundation , Dreamlore, and N-Game and published by Mezmer Games on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Very simplified approach is good for novices, humorous and unique premise
The Not So Good: No multiplayer or skirmish modes, units do not simultaneously attack and move, outdated cumbersome interface makes it difficult to select and target specific units, egregiously outnumbered by the dumb AI, repetitive gameplay with routine objectives, poor performance for the graphical return
What say you? A comical premise isn’t enough in this stripped-down, substandard real-time strategy game: 3/8

Once an ignored theater of World War II, the Eastern Front has been getting some play thanks to Russian developers making games about Russians: IL-2 and Theatre of War, to name a few. A trio of Russian teams have taken it a step further and addressed one of the glaring areas of omission: the Martian invasion of the motherland. I cannot believe that this important era of Russian history has been ignored for so long. Well, no longer thanks to Stalin vs. Martians! Finally this epic battle between titans can be told.

Stalin vs. Martians is a couple of years (at least) behind the graphics curve. While some leeway can be granted to an independently-developed game, when you compare this title against the likes of Zeno Clash, the results are disappointing. The first thing you’ll probably notice is the fixed low resolution at an archaic 1024 by 768 pixels. Now, you can go and fiddle around with some configuration files to increase the settings, but why should you have to? Subsequently, the game looks quite fuzzy and lacks crisp detail in almost every area; I can’t imagine what it looks like on a large widescreen monitor. There are also no graphics options to add or subtract quality for different machine configurations. The models are OK but, partly because of the resolution, lack detailed textures and solid animations and look quite stiff. Some of the Martian designs are funny, though, although one is blatantly stolen from the movie Toy Story. Weapon effects are also underwhelming, failing to deliver intense battles mainly because everything is so small. Despite the simplistic nature of the graphics, Stalin vs. Martians performs quite poorly, delivering consistent changes in framerate and simulation speed when different populations of enemies are being rendered. The sound design is more imaginative, featuring an annoying but almost compelling mix of very eclectic music that doesn’t fit into any game, let alone one set during World War II. Each individual “song” selection is quite short, increasing the repetition and irritation. While I like the simple sounds for the Martian weapons (pew pew!), the voice acting is repetitive and uses the same one-liners over and over again. I will give points, though, for having an option asking whether the player likes cats. Other than that, though, Stalin vs. Martians lacks polish and variety in graphics and sound.

As you might have guessed from the title, Stalin vs. Martians features a twelve-mission campaign where those naughty Martians have invaded Russia. Each mission takes about twenty minutes to complete, so the entire game lasts about four hours assuming you don’t fail (which you most likely will). The missions have unexciting objectives with little variety, usually involving attacking or defending a specific point (or points) on the minimap; at least your objectives are clearly labeled. Once you are done with the campaign, there is nothing else to do: there is no multiplayer, either online or against the AI (partially because AI is essentially non-existent). The game also lacks an in-game tutorial, and the manual doesn’t cover the basic controls, going so far as to call the basics “obvious.” They might be “obvious” to the veteran player, but true novices to the genre won’t know the conventions (right-click to attack, for instance), and the casual tilt of Stalin vs. Martians will draw at least some newcomers.

You will be doing two things in Stalin vs. Martians: moving and shooting. Enemy units will drop coins once they are defeated that can grant bonuses: cash for reinforcements and special abilities, armor, attack power, speed, and health. It is difficult to differentiate between the coins, especially when they are massed together, and since most of the bonuses are unit-specific, this is an important limitation. Reinforcements are always called in at the same, fixed point on the map, which most likely is located halfway across the terrain. There isn’t any resource management in the game other than choosing which units to order across the coins and whether to spend your money on reinforcements or special abilities. Friendly units in Stalin vs. Martians are quite uninspired with one gigantic exception. Of course, being pigeon-holed in World War II doesn’t help this issue, but you would think more “wacky” troops could have been developed. You get infantry, powerful infantry, light/medium/heavy tanks, artillery, and (of course) a giant Stalin (I wouldn’t have spoiled that except that the screenshots for the game already have). The special abilities are usually buffs, like doubled damage while playing the USSE anthem, or large attacks like the air strike. Abilities seem to be more effective than calling in additional troops, especially if enemy troops are concentrated. Actually moving and shooting is somewhat of a pain, thanks to the inferior interface. Box selecting doesn’t work 100% of the time; I think it messes up if you start in the fog of war or over a building, but I can’t seem to find a consistent culprit. There is no key to select every unit, and clipping issues means its difficult to differentiate between units. It is literally impossible to target enemy infantry: you have to click on an enemy that is quite literally three pixels across. That’s horrible design.

Stalin vs. Martians is very light on the strategy, and this stems from a couple of problem areas. The first very significant problem is that units cannot attack and move at the same time. You can instruct some tanks to fire on the run, but this order icon magically disappears when you have selected mixed troops. You will constantly be pressing the “stop” order icon so that your troops don’t die. Enemy troops seem to have no problem doing two things at once (it must be that superior Martian intellect), which leads to quite an imbalance. Since most of your troops have the range of a pea shooter (and the visual range of an old blind man), having to constantly micromanage movement is a gigantic pain in the behind. Strategy is also eliminated by the initial enemy positioning: the designers just threw an insane number of troops in one location, without any regard to planning. Because of this, your primary tactic is just to grind through the Martians and pick up coins along the way: not exactly the most stimulating gaming experience. Difficulty results from having too many AI units and the AI is not smart, usually sitting in one spot until spotted or moving in a congo line. Units are routinely outside of your viewing range but they still fire on you: I guess those gigantic Martian eyes are good for something. Difficulty also cannot be adjusted anywhere in the game: another distressing limitation. The fast pace is balanced by poor pathfinding, with units unexpectedly moving backwards, through other units, or ignoring adjacent enemy units. The mission fails if you run out of units, even if you have enough money to purchase new ones. Sadly, the missions are usually not over soon enough.

While the setting will hold your attention for the first couple of minutes, it doesn’t take too long to realize that Stalin vs. Martians is, at its heart, a poor real-time strategy game with numerous problems. The short campaign with unoriginal objectives is followed by no multiplayer options. Pathfinding and unit movement is annoying, and the inability to move and fire makes Stalin vs. Martians annoying to play. The interface doesn’t help matters, and targeting tiny enemies is strenuous. The enemy AI is very simple, but since they consistently outnumber you and have superior firepower and sight ranges, the game is difficult. And that difficulty cannot be adjusted. Poor performance in the game produces some dated graphics, and the music selection is…well…unique (I suspect on purpose). The hype machine has been on full-throttle for Stalin vs. Martians, including some imaginative trailers, but they can’t cover up the fact that this is a very basic real-time strategy game with no unique features other than the background story. A unique setting can only carry you so far, and Stalin vs. Martians fails basic canons of the strategy genre. You can be simple without being bad, but Stalin vs. Martians is both. The manual is more entertaining than the game itself: the final nail in the coffin of Stalin vs. Martians.