Review: Stalin vs. Martians

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Let’s get straight to the point – Stalin COMMANDS you to dance! Yeah, from the very outset you know you are not looking at a by-the-numbers real-time strategy (RTS) game. In fact you are looking at a very odd dichotomy in gaming: a casual game in a hardcore genre with a very narrow appeal value in any potential target audience. Confused yet? You should be… you should be…

The premise (I can’t really call it a story) of Stalin vs. Martians is pretty simple: Martians are invading Siberia. However, since it is 1942, Stalin and the bulk of the Russian forces are otherwise occupied keeping another force with world domination goals at bay. So you are a junior commander appointed to oversee the forces and drive the Martians from the motherland and take the battle to them! It is a ridiculous setup, which falls perfectly in step with everything we already knew. Add to that the little music video clips between some missions and you have what seems like it could be a perfect setup for a quirky little game.

Ah… the game. I suppose now we’ve looked at all of the extraneous stuff wrapped around the release we should actually look at the thing you get to play. Well, after mentioning the electronic manual that comes with the game.

The game is extremely minimalist when it comes to anything aside from the core game. It comes with a tiny manual that does little to get you started other than talk about different unit and armor options and how enemy ‘drops’ have replaced resource generation, and how a centralized ‘buy reinforcements’ menu replaces individual unit builds and so on.

The game also lacks a basic tutorial, launching you straight into the action and assuming that you will gather how the gameplay is supposed to work. I will be blunt and say that this is either laziness or stupidity… or perhaps both. Here is a game that throws standard RTS convention out the window, attempts to appeal to a broader audience including those who have never played a strategy game before, yet it lacks even the most basic help and hints about how to play? I assume the thought is that the gameplay elements are so simple to discover that there is no need for manner of help. Which is why games like Bejeweled and Peggle don’t offer gameplay hints in the early parts of the game… oh wait, they do!

So what about the game itself? Well, since this really is a casual game, you shouldn’t expect too much technically. Yet if you watched the trailer you were probably intrigued by the music. And the music is the one place where the game absolutely delivers the promise of the trailer – it is quirky over-the-top techno music that keeps the mood light as the frenetic battles rage on. But similar to watching the trailer multiple times, the music is bound to grate on you after a while.

If the best technical aspect of the game becomes obnoxious after a while, what about the rest? My word would be ‘unimpressive’. The graphics are rudimentary, with muddy and bland textures that show little detail of anything you are viewing, regardless of zoom level. Soldiers and tanks are indistinct even when fully zoomed in, and the Martians themselves look more like little jelly beans when fully zoomed.

The sound effects are simple and work well enough, with typical gunshot and explosion sounds abounding during battle. Similar to the graphics, they work well enough but are outdated in terms of quality – but again, that really isn’t the point in a game like this. There is an assortment of canned ‘voice effects’ – I hesitate to call it ‘voice acting’ as they are just a selection of a few lines that play every now and then. A sampling from the early missions includes “my name is Ivan, I like you”, “click me, please”, and “I’m dying”. Expect to hear that last one a fair amount for a couple of reasons that I will discuss momentarily.

The controls for the game couldn’t get much simpler – you click on groups of units to select them, click and drag a box to select multiple units, and right click to select either an area for a ‘move’ command or an enemy for an ‘attack’ command. You can also use the buttons along the bottom of the screen to choose a command. This is where the simplicity of the game comes into play – pretty much all you can do is move or attack units or groups of units and run across whatever power-ups appear on the field.

Martians come in small and large sizes, and drop items when killed. This is the replacement system for how resources are usually developed in a RTS game, which generally includes creating bases or controlling strategic areas or mining resources and converting those to useful materials to help build and upgrade your forces or unlock special skills. In traditional RTS games this sort of ‘micromanagement’ is what adds depth and challenge to the single player and multiplayer experience, as your approach can vary widely from someone else’s approach – and also from the way the AI chooses to do things.

Resource accumulation in Stalin vs. Martians comes entirely as a result of picking up stuff dropped by fallen enemies in combat. These include money to buy reinforcements, health and armor pickups, and also enhancements to your units’ attack power and speed. The Reinforcement menu will allow you to buy additional units that zone-in at the spawn point, and will later open up to allow you to buy special powers to help your units by making them temporarily invincible, for example.

What you will realize after about fifteen minutes of playing is that this system doesn’t work well, and really just isn’t much fun. In any strategy game, it is critical to have a constant understanding of the balance of power between forces, to be able to make quick strategic changes when things turn against you, and so on. None of this is easily possible in Stalin vs. Martians – unlike most RTS games you cannot setup ‘hotkeys’ to access a specified group of units, meaning that you need to manually select and de-select units to make any changes to your attack and move patterns. I honestly cannot recall the last time I wasn’t able to use a hotkey when dealing with dozens of units at once.

The minimal interface doesn’t work very well either – when the goal is to hold off the enemy, it is critical to be able to manage your troops and keep yourself alive while constantly counterattacking. The interface doesn’t tell you how many troops are left alive, what your status is, how many reinforcements you just spawned in, or much of anything else. The closest you even come to getting situational feedback is when you hear “I’m dying”.

Sadly, sometimes it feels like you will never stop hearing your units tell you their problems – that is because while you might want them to go somewhere and attack something, they might have different ideas such as getting stuck on a wall or standing along the shores of a river or wandering through a sea of enemies without counterattacking or other interesting moves completely unrelated to what you would like them to do at the moment.

And by the time you have managed to figure it all out… the game is over. There are a mere dozen missions with a few objectives in each, and you’ll be done with them in a few hours or so. Once completed there is little reason to go back and replay because the enemy intelligence is quite limited and linear, and as mentioned there are scant few strategic options for you to explore. So while the game is budget priced, there is little there. Even the little music videos you get every now and then between missions aren’t worth bothering with the game.

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Pros:
+ Dancing Stalin!
+ Funky Music
+ Tries something new

Cons:
– Lack of strategic options
– Too few control options
– Units lack basic intelligence
– Enemies also lack basic intelligence

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Mezmer Games
Developer: BWF/Dreamlore/N-Game
Release Date: 4/29/09
Genre: RTS
ESRB Rating: N/A
Players: 1

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!