Review: Mines of Mars07 Mar 2014 0
It's deadly hot down in the tunnels, but that's okay, because they strapped a thing to your chest which makes it cold.
You're a miner. Your day starts when you step into the portal on the Martian surface, and step out at a cavernous steel enclosure deep underground, one of the many subterranean safe-zones carved into the red rock. The worst part of your day is when you hop down your own fresh-dug shaft and fall, fall, fall for what seems like ages before you hit the floor of your current dig site with a resigned thud, the auto-stabilizer in your jetpack having slowed you.
The best part of your day is when you fly back up this shaft like that rocketeer from The Rocketeer (which is an oldie you probably saw on holotape, or something), fast and light and, for a moment, it almost seems like you could crash through the cave ceiling and burst out somewhere, anywhere, else. Maybe the place where the water comes from, the streams that turn into small waterfalls which support alien life even here, miles separated from the sun.
But, you can't. You can't dig up, you see. So you step back into the portal, and out onto the surface with its empty shops and empty streets, populated by a few small, chittering robots that only pay attention to you when you plink at them with your pistol. When you come back up it's light out, sometimes, and sometimes it's night.
This is Mines of Mars, a mining and, ostensibly, crafting game which tasks you with squeezing sweet, sweet paydirt—or pay-anything-but-dirt—from the bowels of the Red Planet itself. It works like this: first, you jump in the teleporter. Next, you pick from one of several starting points to strike out from. At the beginning, you've only got the one, 'pard, but later on you'll unlock new, deeper, more dangerous areas, populated with increasingly larger hordes of alien beasties trying to maul your innocent miner to death. The portals to these new zones are unlocked with the ores and gems you mine.
Once you're good and buried, it's time to get pickin'. Opals and iron near the upper mantle are good for early upgrades—the first new pickaxe, the first armor upgrade, the earliest of the weapon upgrades, and so on—while the emeralds, amethysts, and rubies deeper down are, naturally, more valuable. As you descend, ores tend to increase in value—as does the temperature. Go past your heat threshold, and you'll burst into flames (but really just get damaged some), and that means you best head back to the surface and purchase a new personal air conditioner. Again, this is done with the ores and gems you mine.
On top of the digging tools, weapons, and armor, there's also several tiers of boots, mining helmets, storage bins, and ammunition magazines to buy, among a few other odds and ends. These items, in turn, let you move faster and jump higher; see further underground; hold more ore; and hold more... bullets. To kill things. Which is important in... mining. All this is done, yeah, with the ores and gems you mine. (Fuel, health, and ammunition for any weapons you've unlocked are all free, courtesy of the vaguely sinister mining corporation that's more or less stranded you on a hostile alien world.)
Mines of Mars is going for a more kinetic, action-heavy sort of geological plunder than many other mining games. Case in point: you can't mine up, at least not until some time on when you're able to purchase an upgrade which reverses gravity and lets you dig upside-down. What does Mines of Mars explicitly suggest you do to counter this limitation? Shoot at the rocks. Yep, just whip your sidearm out and blast away, you utter nut. It's daft, both your character's apparent inability to lift his pickaxe above his shoulders and the game's preferred workaround, but, at the same time, what a fantastic image. The lone miner, driven mad by isolation, shooting at a clutch of topaz so he can mine it, fly back to the surface, and buy a bigger gun with the topaz.
Unfortunately, Mines of Mars doesn't have a similar solution for its lack of a map (shoot... paper... no, leave a trail of shell casings) a feature which is sorely missing. The lack of navigational tools is further exacerbated by the fact that the mines and caves of the game, for all their touted procedural generation, all look quite, quite similar. Brown squares to the left, brown squares to the right, the occasional open area or waterfall bit, and that's it. True, there's only so much you can do with the “rocks” motif but, still, it's hard to see Mines of Mars as the sort of game where a player will thrill at the discovery of a new cave, or at their first foray—new heat shield strapped to their chest—past a previous unbearable depth. It's browns all the way down, mate.
Except for the alien ruins. Tucked into the rock are long-buried structures of uncertain provenance, which your miner-turned-archeologist can enter if they dig out the surrounding area and find an activation stone to open her up. Inside, a whole gaggle of bads to shoot, potentially some traps and environmental hazards, and a boss alien guarding a mysterious collectible item. You know what to do here.
Unearthing these ruins is the closest Mines of Mars ever gets to making one feel like a real interplanetary explorer. The rest of the time it vacillates somewhat uneasily between straight, somewhat tedious mining and patches of floaty combat. Which is fine, if you mostly like those two things, and don't mind doing the former a lot and the latter occasionally. Mining is easy—just move in the direction you want to dig with the bottom left of your touchscreen and, boom, you're digging. The biggest challenge comes from planning around the fact that, again, you can't dig up by default. You'll want to try to approach patches of ore from above, especially in situations where you're low on ammunition and can't awesome-blast your way back up to a resource you happen to be under.
The controls work well enough for combat, too, with the bottom right of your screen aiming and auto-firing your chosen weapon; this could just be an indicator of how nonthreatening most enemies in Mines of Mars are, though. Those bosses, in their cramped ruins, might give you hell, but with even the most basic upgrades the rank-and-file nasties are no more than an infrequent nuisance.
Everything works, for sure. Barring the tacked-on minigames (completely optional) you're meant to play, for some crazy reason, on a smaller screen within your possibly-already-small-screen. And there's the curious “Offering Pit,” which lets you gamble ores you no longer need for a chance to win some “relics” from the past. “Relics,” as it turns out, including such completely useless items as a suitcase, or (giggle lol giggle reference) an Xbox controller. The only value in these objects comes from the attendant gag conversations between your miner and his corp handler, who will say something along the lines of “Now isn't that an old thing because now we're in the future har har” whenever you blow half your ore to win one. Letting players just gamble away lower tier, suddenly valueless gems: pretty much an admission you couldn't think of anything better. “Well, you used these precious stones like once or twice. Keep mining 'em and you can throw 'em away!” *Miner draws SMG on aggressive-looking pile of quartz*
But that's small potatoes. My real issue with Mines of Mars is that it never really feels like a game where you're crafting anything. Sure, the sign outside the building where you get your new gear says “craft,” but you're really just “unlocking.” There's a difference. The goal is to mine so that you can unlock things which help you mine. The game is full of rewards—clear milestones you can work to reach—but not enough mechanics which are rewarding. The combat is functional, just; mining requires a nominal amount of planning, for a time; and even though you're constantly getting shiny new things, those things rarely change or modify how you play the game. The upper-tier jetpacks? They're just faster and more fuel efficient. The improved pickaxes? They just go faster. It's not even as if they afford you access to new, ultra-rare resources, and because the most useful resources—health, fuel, and ammo—are free, the longer you play, the less it seems like you actually have a reason to mine Mars at all. What the game relies on, what it excels at itching, is that dull, obsessive desire to--for no good reason at all, other than because it's that or literally nothing--go ahead and jump back in, back...
...back in the tunnel, and it's almost time to go up because your pack is nearly full, and the only times you need to go up are when your pack is full. The more you dig, the deeper you go, the more gems you gather. The more gems you gather, the better mining equipment you can buy, the more you can dig, and the deeper you can go. The deeper you go, the deeper you can—no, will—go.
Sometimes when you get back to the surface, you wonder how just how high you could get on that jetpack of yours. When the Sun hangs midday you figure it's pretty high alright, especially if you refuel before. Damn near break orbit, if you wanted, all the gear you've bought and all.
Then the moment passes. Silly, after all. This is a mining jetpack, and you're only supposed to fly when you're underground.
Mines of Mars was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.