JPWPI 2010-03 Stalin vs. Martians “Game of The Year Edition”

Developer: BWF/Dreamlore/N-Game
Publisher: Mezmer Games
Platform: PC
Price: Not currently for sale (thank Mother Russia for that)

Home Page  (2018 Update  The home page is currently advertising the failed Kickstarter for SvM3 – no there was no SvM2.)

Gather close, comrade. Today, we tell you of not of game. But of history. Of glorious Soviet offensive against foul invaders from… America. No, wait, I meant Mars, This story, comrade, is told in game. Stalin vs. Martians is name.

We start up game, and must stand and salute of anthem of glorious Holy Mother Russia! And halfway through, I wonder if blinking black dots are bad encoding or code for pig-dog capitalist spies.

Okay, that’s enough of that. I may slip back, so be warned.

Stalin vs Martians’ premise is that during WW2, Martians landed in Siberia and started causing problems. Stalin decided to take charge of the anti-Martian actions himself, and we’re under his command.

The Playthrough

In an attempt to make this a little less wall-o’-text and a bit more readable, bits where I’m talking about mechanics and technical issues will be italicised.

So, we’re at the main menu, and we’re treated to some weird techno music and a screen saying this is the ‘Game of the Year Edition’. I’ll pause whilst those of you in the know clean up after the double-take from that.

Done? Good. Okay, here’s the explanation. They sold the original game that way.

Now, sometime after they released the game (mid 2009), the people responsible for this game decided to stop selling the game – probably due to the fact that it was getting a Metacritic rating of 25. They claim they’ll start selling it again once they finish the upgraded edition. This isn’t it.

Speaking of which, the menu really gives you a quick prelude to the aesthetics of the game, and I have to admit, I like them. Bright colors, very clean, it all looks really pretty. At this point, even having played this game once before, I want to like it.

I must be insane.

I went poking through the Options menu, noting things like ‘Revolutionary vs Orthodox’ keyboard layouts, and a ‘Do you like cats?’ setting.

Alright, the time has come. Let’s do this. Start game… and we get a text memo from Stalin (with a picture of him, even!) telling us we must defend Russia from the presumably Martian invader, because he’s busy with those pesky Nazis. Right, let’s go. Okay, the find 10 differences loading screen is awesome.

So, here we are in the battle screen. I have 6 groups of troops, and 5 tanks, and oh my god I’m being attacked by swarms of rainbow dudes (they kind of look like Pikmin to me) going ‘pew’! Agh, what do I do what do I… oh, it’s over. Apparently, I fulfilled the ‘Survive the attack’ objective, and must now attack the enemy position. Okay, let’s try that. Controls seem to be standard LMB to select, RMB to order. We’ll move towards the enemy position, and… there’s giant 3-eyed alien plushy dudes. And I get mobbed by a bunch more rainbow dudes and die.

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Well, that didn’t work. Thanks for not, y’know, helping me figure out the controls, game. Grr.

Since I have a second to think, I’ll describe the game screen. First of all, it’s a fairly low resolution image (my screen doesn’t tell me, sorry), I’ll guess 1024×768, no windowed mode either. At the bottom right, we have our mini map. At the top we have a clicky we can use to bring up objectives, and is also where I discovered the place to buy reinforcements. We also have our money counter, which we fill by drops from the baddies (who also drop temporary power-ups like heals and damage/armor boosts), and use to buy said reinforcements.

The graphics, as low-res as they are, actually look… forgivable. Bright, vivid colours, decent, if primitive visuals. Sounds are a combination of cute/stupid (alien) and boring but appropriate (Russians). The acknowledgement/color sounds from the troops are annoying, as if someone tried to be funny in one-liners, and mostly failed. The music in the game runs a gamut from techno to Weird Al-esque rock to thrash to 8-bit video game. Weird.

Right then, we try again. This time, after the initial wave, I use the cash to buy 4 more tanks and 3 more squads. I then take my force after the enemy position – neat, the tanks knock over trees – and focus my attention on the giant plushies. In short order, everything dies. Now what? Well, there’s this creepy tree thing, maybe we have to attack that… ayep. Creepy face trees = alien bases.

I will say this, while the LMB to select, RMB to order seems to work okay for stationary objectives, trying to get anyone to attack the little alien squads who rush up at you? Not so easy.

Oh goody, now I have to get my scattered troops. Fine, everybody zat way! I take everybody towards the first marker, and… heh. “More cannon fodder.” On to the next… and now I get to hold the village or die trying. With a new set of reinforcements, it’s easy, and mission over.

I must be having a psychotic break, because this is almost fun. Irritating the crap out of me, but almost fun.

Okay, next mission, I now have to set up an outpost. And I now get anti-tank weaponry, yay! Which are horribly slow but powerful tankish things. Yay, I guess. For my first objective, a standard survive the wave. The second, move to the north area and defeat some aliens to get some reinforcements. The third is a bit different – a standard survive the wave, but with two locations ot defend. Since the locations are 1) the area where my troops moved to for objective two; and 2) the place I started, I man #2 by spending some gold on a bunch of reinforcements. Just in time, it appears, as the wave is a bunch of… anthropomorphic blue elephants, that have fire attacks. Right. Okay, ouch, area of effect fire attacks versus infantry results in a lot of infantry saying ‘I’m dying’ or ‘I’m dying for Mother Russia.’

This, comrade, will not stand. Send in mass infantry! And tanks, too!

Well, that didn’t go well. I manage to fight off the invaders, but my counter offensive fails miserably. I’m really starting to get annoyed with how my troops seem to just stand there and get killed, a lot. I don’t understand how I’m supposed to get them to fight off attackers. My inability to handle the enemy’s defenses on the map make me have to restart.

On my second attempt, I come across some revelations. First, is in a thrilling example of historical accuracy, the Russian infantry is useless. Waste of money. The second, is that the alien infantry dies quite quickly to being run over by tanks. Third, is that the alien infantry is also a fantastic source of money. One mass rush of them versus a group of my tanks, a little back-and-forthing to grind them under the treads, and I’ve got loads of cash.

We will exploit this weakness, comrade, and lead our forces to glorious victory!

My new doctrine being Tanks, Tanks, More Tanks, and a Small Side Order of Tanks, my second attempt falls into a routine. I order up some tanks, charge the enemy, smear some alien infantry for cash, and attempt to kill as many 3-eyes, elephants, and trees as possible before getting killed. Rinse and repeat. It works surprisingly well. On to mission 3!

Well that was easy. A ‘Liberate the XXXX’ set of objectives, it became pathetically trivial once my infantry all died. The massive amount of cash my troops managed to get me allowed the formation of a complete tank force of BT-7s and T-70s that steamrolled everything. Not that I know what said tanks are, other than the T-70’s cost 40 gold as opposed to the BT-7’s 30, and last a bit longer. Oh, and new enemy – red round guys with a big eye, that they spit at you to attack. Yeah, they died against the might of overwhelming tanks.

Mission 4 ends up to be a fairly interesting one at the surface, but frustrating. The aliens have a doomsday weapon, which looks like a huge caterpillar/worm thing with a bomb on its back. The only way to kill it, since my tanks and troops do nothing, is to summon the powers of Holy Communism. The way the mission goes, there are 4 Altars to Communism on the field, and you have to free each one. When you free one, a ‘penal’ battalion will show up to be sacrificed on the Altar. Do that to all four, and three giant mud men appear to beat the crap out of worm thingy. I may have to try a new strategy from ‘mass o’ tanks’, since those three-eyed gits tend to concentrate fire (like I do) and take them out quickly. I also obtain Spetznaz infantry in this mission, but don’t use them. Stronger than regular infantry, but more fragile, and cost twice as much. Bleh. I ended up losing the mission a couple times for no obvious reason, until I figured out that my start point was a mission-critical area I had to defend. Thanks for telling me, game.

After mission four, we’re treated to an intermission. Which… is a thrash metal tribute to Stalin. Sung by the aliens. Okay, this is just bizarre.

Mission 5: Aliens are stealing our Oil! Oh no. I guess I’ll have to detonate them. According to the map, I’ve got three targets, which end up to be giant saucers that are slurping (yes, slurping) up the oil. We also have some new enemies – some classic little green men with ray guns, and giant ambulatory toadstools. To combat this, we have a new tank – the T-34. I romp through the mission, destroying the saucers and then quickly clearing the follow up to defeat the main UFO – which I happened to basically leave defenseless when I was wandering the map looking for infantry to run over for more money.

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Since this mission was pathetically easy with my new tanks, I decided to pull out some of the special abilities you can use. So far I have three: Soviet Anthem, which makes my troops do double damage for a short period; Rage, which makes infantry invulnerable for a short period (why am I not using this?! – oh yeah, it’s useless); and Anthrax, which halves enemies’ hit points, if it works. There’s also three more: Stalin’s Falcons, which is an air strike that supposedly kills everything except bosses (it doesn’t); KGB, which paralyzes the enemy for a few moments (it didn’t); and Historical Inevitability, which will kill any one thing (it did, but it’s pricy). Of course, these eat up my gold.

Wait! A friend just sent me instructions on how to change the resolution and get windowed mode! Thank Fnord. I need to see how this looks in higher resolution. Verdict: Not any better. Also, windowed mode is a bit goofy. I go back to full screen.

Next up, in mission 6, I’m supposed to clear out a region of the enemy – basically, kill the trees. The pre-mission briefing memos are getting more and more goofy. Welp, time to find my troops. Oooh, T-35 heavy tanks, they do nasty things to the enemy. I approve, comrade. With the new tanks, the mission is pretty easy. Most of my casualties in the ensuing battle is when I decided to be silly and send in a bunch of infantry. Wow those guys are worthless.

Things don’t start well in Mission 7. I’ve got to take out some anti-tank emplacements then liberate a city, and I start without tanks! Spetznaz! Agh! I’m doomed! Doomed, I tell you!

What do you know, I was right. Let’s try that again.

Y’see the problem is, things start out okay. I cross a bridge, taking out some rainbow infantry along the way, and take out the first set of anti-tank enemies (they look like bugs), but then I get hosed by massive amounts of anti-tank fire and a inconvenient 3-eyes. I combat this through use of the Rage special, hoping to leverage the minute of invulnerability it gives me to take out the second and third emplacements. It takes me about a dozen tries, as I get more and more frustrated with the magical range variance on the anti-tank fire. I finally manage it, which clears things out for Stalin to give me a bunch of tanks to clear everything out.

On to mission 8, in which Stalin lends his superpower of Historical Inevitability… for 650 gold. Yow. Oddly, the amounts listed in the in-game GUI appear to be incorrect, which ends up pissing me off. For the mission, we have to kill off a huge purple slime that’s wearing a mortar board using said power. We clear out some enemy bases, but that doesn’t get us enough money. The slime wanders the area, summoning enemies for me to kill and farm for cash. Half an hour later, I have enough to use Historical Inevitability, and mission over.

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Oh look, another intermission. This video is of a song called ‘Gorbachev’ by Anj. It features busty blue collar women being attacked by Communist zombies, and they are saved by Gorbachev, the barbarian.

It might be bad that this didn’t even phase me at this point.

What did phase me, however, was the fact that the mouse pointer disappeared after the video, and I had to Alt-F4 out of the game. Damn it.

Reloaded, and continued on for mission 9, which was an escort-type. Comrades, we must take weak lily-livered scientist type to alien portal. We send in tanks first, to clear out alien imperialistic dogs, and then wait for long, long time for scientist to trudge across battlefield to portal. Very boring, da.

Mission 10 is on Mars. We’re supposed to destroy the alien base to set up a staging area for our assault on the Martian Stronghold. Right. Okay, so first objective is to defend against an alien attack, that should be simple… oh my. I manage to fight off the swarm of enemies, and some reinforcements arrive. At this point, I notice I have some new units, the Katyusha, which is a mobile rocket platform. I proceed to the alien base, and… gah. Okay, the base has a ton of troops, clearly a job for the rocket truck. A few losses, but that’s that, right? Nope. We now have to clear out the map. Sounds easy… oh hell, artillery bugs.

It was at this point I gave. I ran this mission a dozen times, trying various strategies, and just couldn’t finish it. The enemy artillery seems to have magical range, far beyond what I can even see. If I try to bring my infantry in range so I can kill them while under the effect of a Rage, half the time they suddenly get an extra 30% range and kill me. If I try to use a KGB or an air strike, it doesn’t seem to work. I’ve reached my frustration threshold, I’m done with this one.

Final Words

Even if you could buy it, it’s hard for me to recommend Stalin vs. Martians. The overarching concept is intriguing, and the idea of a very streamlined RTS experience is attractive. However, poor design choices, and a generally half-assed approach, really hurt it.

The first problem, lies in the fact that the ability to command your troops is very lacking. They often don’t do what you want, and it’s nigh impossible to figure out why. This especially shows up in the infantry, which have a tendency to stand around and get killed, and the AA guns and Rocket Trucks, which often seem to take the wrong order, especially the trucks. More than once, I tried to order them to move somewhere, and they decided to bombard it instead. Also, to select enemy infantry (so I could attack them) I often had to zoom way the heck in and look for where the mouse pointer changed color, since the selection box didn’t quite match up to the enemy.

The second problem is the quirkiness/weirdness that is supposed to be part of the charm of the game dances freely into the realms of funny, bizarre, stupid, annoying, and offensive. It’s as if the developers really wanted to make the game one of those unique farcical gems, and put a lot of effort into that, but couldn’t be bothered to do a good job of it.

Thirdly, the graphics, while okay, are really a throwback to about the year 2000. They’re bright and effective, but there are hosts of indie developers which do a far better job these days. There’s lots of rendering errors all over the place (which showed up on my Geforce 275, a Geforce 8800, and the ATI 3450 I tried it on) which can make the screen a jumble. Also, the low resolution makes the game look blurry, and even upping the resolution (or switching to windowed mode for a 1:1 pixel:resolution image) didn’t make them look any better. The alien models are cute, but they don’t really show a lot of effort – low animations, low poly count, and they’re copies of stuff other people have done.

Fourthly, the game is can be fun, but that gets subsumed quite quickly by frustration and annoyance. I know it seems like I was really having fun, but to tell the truth, for every moment I was enjoying myself I had a dozen where I wanted to just nuke the damn game. Often times the exact same strategy will net you wildly different results, simply because the enemies drop more convenient power ups. This is what makes tanks so attractive, since they’re usually tough enough to take a bit of punishment before needing a lucky health drop. Also, the game difficulty varies wildly, switching from stupidly easy to mind-numbingly hard at the drop of a hat.

On the upside, where SvM really shines is the music, and even there, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lot of songs in the game, and they are sometimes really funny and/or catchy, and sometimes massively irritating at times, especially when the same damn one repeats over and over. Also, one song features profanity, for no real reason other than to be ‘edgy’.

Personally, I’d say unless one of the three development houses involved comes through and releases a vastly improved version of the game, pass on it. Assuming, of course, it ever does go on sale again.

Hmm. Odd thought – I wonder if this game was intended as a resume for someone (or a group of someones) to get a job with a major development house? If so, it’s not something I’d put forward, myself.

In Mother Russian, game plays you! Well, I feel played all right. I want my money back, and it’s almost a year later.

1) The JPublic Fun Rating: A rating of how much fun I had. Consider it equivalent to your standard game score. 1.5 out of 5

2) The JPublic Irritation Rating: A measure of how much I wanted to throw the game out the window at my most frustrated. Not really an issue until you get to the above 4.0 rating, but a warning. 4.5 out of 5

3) The JPublic Value Point: A level at which I’d say it’s a must buy, because at that price it’s a great investment. $1.00