Dig For Victory [Review: Waking Mars]

"Amani, this is Liang. I've been exploring these Martian caverns for ten hours now and I'm reaching a conclusion about the nature of this game. The discovery of a smooth-walled vertical cavern running through many layers of the map confirms my hypothesis: this is not a naturally occurring structure but a tribute to the classic BBC Micro era game Exile."

Waking Mars is a game for mobiles, tablets etc. with impressive scope. As astronaut Liang, you explore a network of caves with your jetpack, searching for a missing robot and discovering an ancient ecosystem as you go. In order to progress, you'll need to understand the relationships between the different life forms (your computer assistant, ART, is keen to point out that they are not technically plants or animals), and use this knowledge to increase the biomass in each area.


Gameplay video by Youtube user 1Retrodroid

The gameplay area is huge, and after you've taken the first few steps the game becomes non-linear, allowing open exploration and free travel between areas of the map you've visited. There's something new to discover in most zones, and plenty of memorable moments. The non linear play also means it's possible to "complete" the game, reaching one of the alternate endings, without making all the possible discoveries, and different players will have different experiences. That said, in about 15-20 hours of play I think I was able to explore the entire map and as far as I know I have found all the discoveries and possible endings.

Physically the game plays like Exile in terms of exploring a 2D cave system by jetpack, avoiding hazards such as molten lava, rockfalls and some of the more vicious plants. However the game mechanism of solving puzzles through planting seeds and managing ecosystems - third person gardener? grow-em-up? - is perhaps unique. I love the fact that while some puzzles are scripted or set up, some arise naturally from your own actions and mistakes. You can introduce a species of plant to an area that rapidly colonises and kills other species, and regaining control can be hard work.

There's some decent characterisation too. Liang, your character is cynical and prone to silence. He is assisted from base by Amani who is much more chatty and open minded, leading to some great Mulder-and-Scully banter. ART provides a comic element - he communicates through smiles (a little like GERTY) and suffers from a malfunctioning language module, as well as a habit of stating the obvious.

For comparison, gameplay video of the original Exile (BBC Master version) with comments by YouTube user Lord Triax

It's good to see that epic computer games are still being made, even if mobile gaming as a whole is skewed towards casual games. Yes, Crossy Road, I'm talking to you. There have been other exceptions - I previously reviewed the excellent Deep: Submarine Odyssey here - and of course there are newer gameplay styles such as Minecraft that reward longer play in different ways.

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