Read our review for the return of MARS. Is killing Monsters, Zombies and Robots as much fun as it used to be?
Games change over time. Help the community know what score it currently deserves
What is MARS?
Released on 28th October 2021, Mercenary Assault and Recon Squad (MARS) is a PVE/PVP, Third Person Shooter (TPS) developed by Ying Pei Games (formerly Epic Games China) and published by SubaGames. Some of you may recognise MARS by its former names Mercenary Online, Hazard Ops, Black Fire or Zombies, Monsters, Robots (ZMR). Just like the aforementioned games, MARS is free to play.
The game is very vaguely described as taking place in "20xx", where war has broken out between the League of Nations and UNITA. To gain the upper hand, UNITA created zombies and in response, the League of Nations created robots which subsequently went rogue. This story isn't presented at all within the game, but provides some background to why you're battling such a wide variety of enemies.
Both Player Vs Player (PVP) and Co-operative Player Vs Environment (PVE) game modes are on offer in MARS. The PVE offering is far more popular amongst the player base with plenty of games to join in on, or start one yourself.
For players to battle one another, the 6 PVP game modes with self-explanatory titles are:
- Team Deathmatch
- Free For All
- Head Hunter
- Team Mech Match
There are 7 PVE game modes on offer. They really fall into one of two categories but with different enemy types. They are:
- Assault Ops
- Mass Biochemical Crisis
- Bullet Rain
- Mass Bullet Rain
- Kill Every Thing 2.0
- Threshold Defense
- Mech Mode
As you might expect from the names of the game modes above, MARS leans heavily into being an over the top shooter. You will be shooting everything from soldiers to Egyptian pharaohs, to large mechs and everything in between. This is MARS' strong point. The game tries to ensure the action maintains a good pace and is varied enough to stop things feeling stale, and, despite some minor oversights, it does it successfully. Headshots do extra damage, some enemies have shields, some are cloaked, some deploy gas if you let them get near and bosses have unique mechanics which you need to learn to survive.
Of all the modes, Assault Ops is MARS' strongest. It's a point A to point B affair for you and your teammates, in maps of varying sizes. The story is delivered through a combination of typo-ridden loading screens and so-bad-it's-hilarious voice overs at key points throughout the map. Assault Ops has you and your team going through linear maps full of environmental hazards carrying out objectives and, of course, shooting lots of bad guys until you reach the final boss. The bosses are as large and as over the top as you would expect, and usually fun to play against.
The other highlights of MARS' are the defence modes. Obviously inspired by Call of Duty's zombies mode, these game modes will have you defending an area against waves of enemies. Depending on the specific mode, sometimes you will be required to repair defences, pay to unlock new areas of the map and pay to unlock more powerful weaponry. These modes can become intense with enemies coming from every direction and your team scrambling to hold a line against them. Throw in the pressure of active reloads along with the clunky controls and you won't be bored.
The developer of MARS, Ying Pei Games, was formerly Epic Games China. The influences from the Epic Games' Gears of War franchise are clear to see in this free to play game, but not always for the right reasons.
In this day and age, there is an expectation of a control system to feel fluid and not a hindrance to what actions you are trying to achieve. Unfortunately, many important actions are carried out with the space bar meaning it has to determine if you want to sprint, take cover, roll or jump over cover - a task it frequently fails at. You can instead use the shift key for sprinting but this seems to cause a delay when trying to roll immediately after. Much like Gears of War of old, sprinting feels more like controlling a bus rather than an elite soldier - your turning circle is large and you're unable to respond to anything quickly until you let off. The context sensitive jumping also causes frustrations when your character refuses to step up onto an ankle high step unless you approach it from the correct angle. The other major annoyance with the controls is double tapping a directional key will make you roll in that direction. This means frequent accidental rolls, usually into the path of danger.
These gripes aren't game-breaking but they are an annoyance, especially when you're surrounded by enemies. This game was originally released (under different names) over a decade ago so it would have been nice if the control scheme was reviewed for its re-release in 2021. Sure, the feel of the game would have changed but if that alleviates the clunkiness then it would have been worthwhile.
On a more positive note, active reload makes a return to the control scheme. When the player reloads, a moving bar appears with a highlighted area. If you press reload again while in the area, you will reload faster and gain a temporary damage boost but if you miss the area, your reload will take longer and your character will bang the gun frustratedly. This mechanic is one of my favourite additions to shooters ever since I first saw it, creating risk vs reward every time you reload your weapon and potentially changing your situation if you can handle the pressure.
The only thing more varied than the enemy types in MARS is the difficulty. You will spend most of your time against context-sensitive cover, such as walls or boxes. You'll stay behind cover, picking off enemies with very basic AI one by one with an auto-recovering health system until the game tells you to move on. This was an overused trend back in the day because of the success of Gears of War, but feels oddly refreshing nowadays. Although refreshing, it's also not particularly difficult. Sometimes, difficulty is only introduced when the game provides a cutscene and then spawns you out in the open, being shot at by 20 different enemies. Sometimes bosses will do so little damage that you do not need to avoid their attack - other times they use near-impossible-to-dodge mechanics to one-hit kill you, even on easy mode. This cheapens the experience and you feel slightly robbed - especially after you have gone through a long map with relative ease only to reach a point of cheap tactics to force you to use a respawn token.
The levels in MARS are the game's strong point. The map list is thematically varied, taking you through lengthy space stations laden with force fields and electrical hazards, Egyptian temples with giant spinning blades and boulders, and much more. While simple, the traps do a good job at adding to the gameplay while going through the levels and, again, add to the levels themes.
While the maps all have their own personality, there are a lot of sections which feel by the numbers. There is an overuse of corridors leading to open areas with easily accessible walls or boxes to take cover behind until you have killed a sufficient number of enemies. Again, this was a design trend with shooters at the time and one that didn't age well. Interesting maps are reduced to shooting galleries where you spend more time waiting to advance than enjoying the action. While this criticism is more aimed at gameplay, more thoughtful level design could help out by forcing you to relocate, use moving cover or have more varied enemy spawn points so your gaze isn't fixated along a narrow path.
The defense maps handle this better. By having enemies spawn points in every direction, you're forced to move around and learn routes to keep yourself at distance from the waves of enemies. Another defense mode allows new routes to be opened up over the course of the match, granting access to stronger weaponry but more spawn points for the enemies.
Visuals & Sound Effects
MARS is built on the Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) game engine. The full potential of the engine wasn't used, presumably to keep the system requirements at a reasonable level back in 2014. Little or nothing has changed since then, and the graphics are starting to look a little dated as a result. The visual effects, such as explosions and smoke, look very bad by today's standards. Although bad, the visual effects do not have a negative effect on the gameplay. In fact, the smoke, for example, does it's job of obscuring vision perfectly well. They are difficult to ignore during cutscenes however when effects such as explosions are so jarringly bad.
The game's cutscenes draw attention to a lot of the game's issues, not only the poor visual effects. Sound clips will glitch in and out, not match what is happening on the screen or not be playing at all. Objectives, such as a doorway you need to reach, are highlighted in long winded movements of the camera to show you where to go. As mentioned above, sometimes, when the cutscene is over, you will be standing out in the open surrounded by enemies shooting at you. These cutscenes are often accompanied by the highlight of the game, the voice overs. It's uncertain if the voice acting was supposed to be as bad as it is, but it does provide genuine laugh out loud moments and adds to the corny, tongue in cheek theme of the game.
The user interface is another victim of the game's age and lack of modernisation before re-release.
Menu screens are cluttered and the lack of contrasting colour scheme means everything blends into large, complicated visual overload. Things are very difficult to find and the number of items on screen is often overwhelming while trying to navigate the screens. The menus are in a vertical tab format with a mass of options in each. Unfortunately, any natural inclination to use the "back" button at the top of the screen will not return you to the previous menu, but instead take you to the title screen without any confirmation pop up.
The daily reward spam which inexplicably still haunts free to play games exists in MARS too. Immediately upon login, you have to wade through pop ups, claiming items. It's a tiring, repetitive task when you are an existing player and it is overwhelming when you are a new player that has no idea what the items are for.
Network & Anti-Cheat
MARS makes use of the ever-popular Easy Anticheat system for preventing and handling cheaters. During playtesting, no obvious cheaters were encountered although this is more likely to do with the size of the game's player base than the effectiveness of the anti-cheat solution.
MARS was built on Unreal Engine 3 nearly a decade ago. There has been a long time to create exploits of both the game and the engine's code, so it is safe to assume that cheaters do exist within the game.
MARS uses multiple currencies for various purchases. There is Gold (also randomly referred to as Coin) which is earned in-game and can be used for renting items from the shop such as weapons or clothing. There is "$Gold" (also referred to as Cash) which can be purchased with real money and allows you to rent or purchase many more items, weaponry and more. Then there is "QGold" (also referred to as "Credits") which is earned from missions and can be used to rent exclusive items.
There are also "Bullets" which can be earned or purchased with $Gold, and act as a currency for a form of loot box called the "Shooting Range". The Shooting Range is reminiscent of gambling adverts that plague the internet, trying to entice you to click them. You are presented with a static image of a shooting range with several targets. Each target has an unknown prize behind it. You can click on a desired target to spend 10 "Bullets" to get whatever prize is behind it.
Every aspect of MARS has monetisation attached to it. Of course, the available items are not merely cosmetic either. Rent strong weapons, buy the components you need to craft, purchase EXP boosts, buy buffs, buy more Revive Tokens. You can even buy Bullets to use the Shooting Range and pay to reveal what "prize" is behind each target (individually or all of them, of course). Loot Boxes are in the game and are earned through PVP games, but you have to pay 399 $Gold to open it and receive an unknown prize. Last but not least, there is a Battlepass which you can spend your final remaining $10 on.
The prices are, frankly, eye watering for a game that is nearly 10 years old. The cheapest assault rifle available to purchase costs 18,149 $Gold. This means the 20,000 $Gold option must be purchased from the store for $25. Renting a melee weapon with real money would set you back $5 for 3 days of use.
Free to Play games have always had a stigma due to dodgy monetisation methods which were so often attached to them. Over time, more and more free games were created with care to avoid being labelled as "Pay to Win" and ensure a level playing field for all. The attitude towards the free games market is changing as a result, although there is still distrust. MARS is a stark reminder of the dark days of Free to Play marketplaces and why that stigma exists. The sheer number of advantages placed under monetisation pushes it beyond cynical. The prevalence of rentals over permanent weapons, not to mention the number of gambling mechanics, available for sizable amounts of real money is a large red flag that the game was not rereleased for the players, but for the whales instead.
So, is MARS good?
Unfortunately, it's difficult to recommend MARS. The over-the-top theme of the game is still fun, even today. However, the issues with the game were around in its previous inception and time has not been friendly to the many gameplay, design and user experience flaws the game has. If the developers had taken the time to address those flaws, particularly modernising the controls and user interface, then MARS might have nostalgic value. As it stands, there are many slicker, more polished alternatives around nowadays that make MARS look as old as it is.
It's also hard to recommend a game with this monetisation model. If as much time and attention had been placed into polishing the game as went into designing how to milk the players dry, MARS would be a gem. It was greed back in the day, in a maturing market, and it is greed to rerelease it now.
Gameplay can be fun at times
Active reload continues to be a great system
Level Design can be nice in places
Voice acting is hilarious
Focused on being Pay to Win
No modernisation since it's 2014 release
Clunky and imprecise controls let the gameplay down
Difficulty is very inconsistent
Currently Playing MARS on Steam
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