Memories of Mars (PS4) | Review – Thin Atmosphere

Emerging from 2 years of PC early access onto consoles, Memories of Mars is a MMO survival RPG FPS that casts the player as a freshly birthed clone tasked with investigating the disappearance of human settlements on the red planet. Despite its lengthy ‘live test’ period before launch, the game arrives on PS4 with a litany of technical and design problems that hamper an enjoyable – if unspectacular – experience and are likely to shorten its potential lifespan.

Pitched as a live service game, Memories of Mars uses both official and private servers to host individual instances of large play area supporting a finite amount of players. These servers are periodically reset every 8 weeks (the lore reason attributing the wipe to coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ravaging the surface of Mars), forcing players to start again from scratch if they haven’t progressed enough in a ’season’ to build and launch a memory capsule containing a record of their character progress  – essentially a lo-tech NASA-inspired cloud save of your character.

Deposited on a 16km square area of rocky Martian terrain (complete with day/night cycle), your newborn clone is very quickly introduced to the survival basics of the day: health, nutrition and oxygen levels. Like most survival games, your initial time will be devoted to constantly monitoring and feeding these gauges, and, like most survival games, they will oftentimes add another dimension to your activities that create personal adventures and anecdotes over and above what can safely be called a vanilla campaign.

While developers Limbic Entertainment should be commended for including a campaign that tutorialises gameplay elements, gives context to the player’s disposition and makes good use of the sizeable real estate on offer, the story itself is largely forgettable, if not entirely inconsequential. The campaign does succeed as a good structure for a sandbox game though, giving players guidance and achievable goals while allowing them to stray far enough from the path to enjoy the mechanics on their own terms.

“It *is* a cracking opportunity, Steve, but I think we should just build a set of normal rugby posts and not get murdered instead.”

RED DAWN

 

Character progression for your clone eschews typical experience points in favour of an in-game currency called flops which are generated by mining, defeating enemies and completing objectives. Flops can be spent in two of three skill trees – gear rigging and engineering – on weapons, ordinance, tools, armour and the various components used for base-building. Each piece of gear or building piece has increasingly superior variants that are purchased as blueprints, as well as accompanying passive bonuses to compliment them. 

The third skill tree, survival, operates in a similar manner to the others but uses a different in-game currency. As the player spends flops on the other two disciplines, survival points are generated and these are used to grant passive-oriented bonuses such as more efficient oxygen and nutrition consumption or better encumbrance stats.

The blueprint system is an interesting riff on normal RPG progression, allowing players to use any kind of weapon, tool or gear found in loot right from the outset. However, they can’t repair or replace them until they have the requisite purchased knowledge. The system does restrict building initially but creating smaller outposts where the campaign missions take you early on is good practice for later parts of the game where you can choose an appropriate location for a main base and get creative.

However, there is an odd downside to this progression system in the endgame. Throughout your time with Memories of Mars, especially if you’re playing with others, you’ll find yourself adopting a build of some sort. The game offers a healthy number of weapon and ordinance choices to allow this, with the added bonus of allowing those with a more creative or supportive flare to invest heavily in engineering and/or medicine. 

Obviously, player choice is generally a good thing, especially in games where the driving force of the experience is creating your own narrative. But curiously, as you approach the end of the game, Memories forces players to invest in tools, weapons and building skills that they may not even use, simply to unlock the most powerful armour which is bizarrely only available through the survival skill tree. In and of itself, that is an odd decision when armour has only been accessible in the gear rigging tree but it also seems unnecessarily grindy and wasteful, particularly in a game with a resource management focus.

The core experience of Memories is a combination of shooting, crafting, scavenging, farming and building. Despite some quite unforgivable technical issues, Limbic have turned in a surprisingly solid game loop that, No Man’s Sky notwithstanding, offers a satisfying and relatively unique (at least in the console space) sci-fi survival experience. The shooting and building in particular feel well fleshed out, the former offering great sound work, feedback and good mod customisation in particular. It’s not quite the Destiny standard of shooting but it certainly feels good enough to sustain numerous hours of rinse-and-repeat enemy base runs.

It’s frustrating then that the otherwise satisfying shooting is so spectacularly undermined by terrible performance issues. Frame rates routinely nose-dive into the single digits – especially in areas heavily populated by player-built structures – which is unforgivable in a shooter at the best of times but in a game where ammunition is a craftable resource and death carries tangible losses, it’s an absolute deal-breaker. Staying in and around the less-populated areas of the map or playing one of the late-stage underground map missions rewards the player with a relatively reliable 30FPS but with the most convenient grinding situated around the busier centre of the map, inexorably draws you back to suffer through glacial frame-rates.

“Hello, Space IKEA? I’d like to complain that the free cutting torch included with my flat pack Martian base can be used as an offensive weapon.”

BUILDING EXCITEMENT

 

Thankfully, the building mechanics are somewhat less subject to frame rate issues and translate surprisingly well to consoles, allowing complex structures to be planned out using holographic wire-frame models before being built. Once learned from skill tree blueprints, each section and device of your base must be crafted using gathered materials and individual pieces must also be hand-crafted using tools, which adds a certain authenticity to the proceedings.

Base-building is an intuitive, rewarding activity in its own right and will see players not only construct large, creative structures as they progress, but use their inner-architects to problem-solve out in the wild as well. This manifests in numerous ways throughout the shared landscape; from simple ramps permitting access to hard-to-reach structures, to fortified hides for sniping at high-level enemy encampments and even massive canyon-spanning bridges that decimate long traversal times. One of the high points of Memories is watching the server community learn and grow from one another, transforming the map as they do.

While building is undeniably fun, it also succumbs to technical shortcomings that marr the experience. Issues with the seemingly robust (if a little uninspired) UI are initially few and far between but as you get deeper into Memories of Mars, unresponsive ‘collect all’ functions, items being added to inventory when others should be removed and sluggish map controls all begin to grate. 

The UI problem with building is somewhat more pronounced, especially because it pertains to a feature designed to streamline the process. A quickbar makes light work of managing the numerous weapons, ordnance, tools and consumables available and also doubles as a shortcut for building piece selection. Except that player-defined shortcuts for regularly used pieces stored in the quickbar never save between sessions, resulting in a cumbersome and time-consuming hike through multiple menus during builds (or shortcut remapping every time you log in).

“‘Come to Mars’ they said. ‘Build your own community’ they said. ‘Explore the mysterious red planet’ they said. Not one person mentioned robotic spider murder-bastards!”

SHARED EXPERIENCE

 

Of course, being a MMO, you’ll encounter other clones in your travels on Mars and this creates a sense of life that can sometimes be overlooked by other live service games. As stated earlier, each server is a single instance of the map which is good for multiplayer as friends need only log into the same server to play alongside you. Although communication is available via emotes and game chat, clans can also be created and this is arguably where the best experiences of Memories – like live service games in general – are to be found. 

As with many survival games, the co-op in Memories can be more rewarding than a lot of other shared experience games. You’re not just mowing down thousands of AI enemies together to get to the end credits, you’re actually building something together and this embellishes the personal stories crafted while playing. Base construction decisions are made, tasks are appointed and expeditions mounted, all creating a collaborative co-op experience that is still not entirely commonplace on consoles. Even just taking on a campaign mission becomes more enjoyable as your squad of clan-mates contribute to objectives, making them easier to complete.

On official servers at least, the majority of the map is PvE, punctuated by regular PvP capture-the-flag events taking place at randomised locations that offer flops as rewards. These events are completely optional to enter but add something for the more competitive player, even though the lack of gating means you can be completely outmatched in terms of gear and weapons.

As the campaign reaches its closing stages though, gameplay is changed significantly by the inclusion of a rare material that must be mined from a PvP only zone located in a far-flung corner of the map. Suddenly, the structure hit points and some of the base-specific explosives make a horrible sense as player buildings transition from the fanciful cosmetic experiments found in the PvE area to functional fortresses built to repel opportunistic raiders. The community co-operative spirit of the shared map chills significantly as activities in the PvP zone become fraught with the kind of paranoid caution that pervaded the first Division’s dark zone.

It’s undeniably a neat twist that completely contrasts with the game experience up until that point, increasing the stakes even further as players steel themselves for prospective human opponents to push back in less predictable ways than the uninspired robotic AI enemies. In truth, my team barely ever encountered another player in this zone, and while, in retrospect, this was disappointing, it didn’t make us any less cautious or exciting at the time. Our ‘forward base’ was broken into a number of times and cleaned out, resulting in some devious construction, but that was as PvP as it got.

Presenting the map as a single shared area does have its drawbacks though.

Being beaten to the punch on resources or enemies by other players can prove irritating, especially in the later stages of play where grinding becomes more prevalent. It really is just that though: an irritation. Enemies, resources and loot seem to respawn every 20-30 minutes so it’s hardly the end of the world and their temporary absence makes the world feel lived in.

Where players might feel more of a sting is, not surprisingly, death.

Players have the freedom to explore where they choose from the outset: often a sure-fire way of stumbling into enemies far superior to them. In those cases where things go awry, respawns are permitted from predetermined areas or a clone chamber in your base. From that moment, a 30-minute expiry timer on your dropped gear and inventory starts before they evaporate into the Martian ether.

If you died somewhere remote during daylight hours with few roaming enemies, then there’s a good chance you can (literally) run the risk of a straight sprint to your possessions with minor-ish repercussions and come out victorious. If, however, you died at night, then you need a flashlight to navigate a map that is characterised by steep, deadly cliffs. No problem, you can build one. Except holding a flashlight prohibits holding a weapon. Okay, let’s build a helmet with a headlight or a tactical light for a weapon. Great. But what if there are many enemies patrolling your hapless corpse? Then you need better armour and more powerful weapons that also require crafting. And that’s not counting travel time to your death site on foot.

Anyone familiar with survival games will not be remotely surprised by the above scenario. In some ways, it’s part of the appeal: there’s no quick respawn and back into the fray. There’s a steep learning curve and ample rewards for the prudent planner. However, accidental-death-inducing frame rate issues (remember those steep cliffs?) can still take down the seasoned prepper. Or at the very least make that 30-minute timer substantially less forgiving on travel time.

The lack of mission-specific instancing in the closing chapters of the campaign seems particularly mean-spirited. The normally simple mission open-area maps become sprawling underground complexes that, while welcome as a change of scenery, are designed to funnel players forward without permitting backtracking. Death in those conditions becomes an often futile race against time: even if you have the resources on hand to quickly re-equip, the respawn timer ensures that you are very likely to encounter enemies on the way back to the scene of your death that will slow you down enough to miss your window and potentially force you to finish a tough mission ill-equipped.

It’s worth pointing out that the above conditions can be difficult enough in co-op. They are near impossible playing solo.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have sent that cheeky tweet about street lights to the Martian council.”

VERDICT

 

First impressions of Memories of Mars are not especially kind. From throwback last-gen graphics, crude animations, one-note AI and a soundtrack that consists of one song (and even that is used in the start menu!), the game gets off on the wrong foot in just about every way it can. In addition to presentation stumbling blocks, there are serious fundamental problems that really should have been eliminated in early access, but despite this there is something to it, a fun and relatively different console experience for those that are in search of such a thing. 

Sadly, Memories of Mars biggest problem is support.

My friend and I started off our first MoM playthrough on an unofficial, allegedly PvE only European server close to the console launch. As we got to grips with the game, we discovered countdown timers and lore that supported the server-wipe CMEs, even though there was no tutorialisation that explained or even warned of it.

Googling directed us to Steam pages for the PC version of the game (because Limbic and publisher 505 Games seems to have little to no information about the game on their sites – there isn’t even a mention of a console version) and discovered that the game operated in 8 week seasons before wiping all player progress on the servers and starting again with new content. Sure enough, some weeks into our run, we logged in to fresh clones.

Forewarned, we tried again, this time on an official European server. From here on in, we encountered the aforementioned terrible frame rate that seemed to deteriorate further as the weeks passed but that had not really been an issue on our first server.  We persevered, routinely consulting the Internet as we looked for guidance. Mainly through Steam forums, we learned of the early access period on PC, of vehicle beta testing and of the few seasons that had preceded the console launch. Peppered throughout, were user frame rate complaints that went unanswered.

Console patches – some major – came and went. Still, the performance and UI issues persisted. The last major update – whether by design or accident – changed the hit boxes of two of the more prolific enemy types such that the sniper rifle and crossbow were rendered completely useless for long-range combat. (As of the time of writing, this has not been fixed.)

On Discord, users championed the game’s best qualities but persistently called (and still do) for action with regard to the deplorable frame rate. Word around the community camp fire suggested that the large number and larger scale of player bases was hogging game/server resources. The one developer that appeared to moderate the channel simply asked for patience on the few occasions they commented at all.

Then, a number of weeks in, perhaps the most telling incident occurred. The numerous CME counters dotted throughout the world reached zero and nothing happened. Life on Mars continued.

Raising the issue on Discord, I was emphatically informed by another user that server wipes had been taken out. The moderator did not argue otherwise.

Midway through our Martian adventure, my friend fell through a hole in the map while exploring. Their clone didn’t die but also could not escape from the behind-the-scenes pocket of terrain they were trapped in. The respawn option in the menu proved uncooperative, as did pleas to the twitter accounts of Limbic and 505 Games. Instead, his clone had to slowly asphyxiate before he could start again, minus all of the unreachable gear and inventory that was attached to the expired clone.

Deterred but committed – we had sunk about 30 or so hours into the game by this point – we continued through the campaign but as we closed on the finishing line we realised that the ultimate goal of Memories of Mars (at least the console release, I can’t speak for the PC version) is a pointless grind.

Of course, we got to hear the final part of a forgettable story and ultimately finished the game but it’s very clear that the materials grinded and saved progression of your clone were to be used for whatever a new season would entail. Except that there isn’t any new content to come and it’s equally clear that Memories of Mars has been ported to consoles with an apparent minimum of effort to cash in on an existing IP.

That Memories can overcome some frankly game-breaking issues is testimony to strong central concepts that offer a fun, rewarding co-operative experience worthy of your time and money. Unfortunately, the fact that the game has been neutered and left to languish in a state of disrepair with seemingly no support suggests otherwise.

Admittedly, I’ve taken a long-winded approach to highlighting the support issues Memories of Mars has. But what is more bewildering is that there is a clear path to negating them. If financing is prohibiting further development, there are clear opportunities for micro-transactions in the game in the form of avatar, building and weapon cosmetics that have been overlooked in favour of in-game currency. While MTX can be divisive, a budget live-service game has more entitlement than most to offer them.

To try and end things on a positive note, the game weighs in at a pocket-friendly £15.99 and runs a fair chunk of game with 50+ hours of gameplay from a tiny 3 gig install. Provided you know what you’re buying, you may find Memories of Mars flawed but enjoyable purchase. If you’re patient though, I would recommend waiting 12 months for a sale and significant patches.

Rating:

3 Stars

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