Stalin vs. Martians (PC) review
"But anyway, the game is an RTS in the same way that margarine is butter, which is to say it's not, but it looks similar! The overhead camera is old hat to the genre. The piles of units marching together toward their objective is familiar. The hud, with its point-and-click interface and minimap, leaves no doubt. Any given screenshot tells the RTS story, but it's only when you play the game that you realize that something has gone horribly wrong. "
On some level, it feels as if all I need to do here is point out that the title of the game is Stalin vs. Martians, and then conclude my review there. When you first hear the title, it's got your attention with its promise of incoming wackiness. But that's the thing, the premise is so unabashedly wacky that it's about as likely to be awful as it is to be awesome. And, well, it's awful. Sometimes wacky just isn't good, no matter how much you want it to be.
Stalin vs. Martians is basically a cascade of badly implemented concepts that should have been easy because they're all so standard. It tries literally nothing new, which is why its failure is so spectacular. It's not just genre traits that it got wrong, but fundamental things that make a PC game a PC game. For example, there are no graphics options. You will be playing the game in what appears to be glorious 800x600, or you won't play the game at all. It honestly blows my mind that this can even happen, and god help you if your monitor is bigger than 20". The whole game turns into something of a pixellated mess, and given the way every environment already looks the same, it makes it kind of difficult to keep track of where things are.
But anyway, the game is an RTS in the same way that margarine is butter, which is to say it's not, but it looks similar! The overhead camera is old hat to the genre. The piles of units marching together toward their objective is familiar. The hud, with its point-and-click interface and minimap, leaves no doubt. Any given screenshot tells the RTS story, but it's only when you play the game that you realize that something has gone horribly wrong.
A key component to effective strategy is loyal troops who will follow your orders without question. Unfortunately, your army hates you with passion undying. Stalin vs. Martians is a game of strategic suggestions that your troops execute with wildly varying amounts of seriousness. If you tell them to go somewhere, they'll slowly turn in that direction and meander to a halt in the general vicinity of where you clicked. If you tell them to attack a target, they'll get around to it, usually. We're getting ahead of ourselves, though, as in order for targeting to be a problem you have to be able to click on your target in the first place.
The basic martian unit resembles a gumball. It's tiny, indistinguishable form comes in a rainbow of colors, and they wander the landscape in swarms at speeds that are just irresponsible. The combination of their speed and the fact that they're about the size of a skittle make them next to impossible to click on, so your only real hope of killing them is running them over with your tanks. You'll never shoot them unless your soldiers just decide to do so while standing around, which you can't exactly rely on.
Because of this, there's no reason to use your basic infantry units, because any enemy in the game that's big enough to click on will shrug off machine gun fire like an elephant in a spring shower. They only excel at killing enemy infantry, but you can't click on them so that's pointless, and a huge wall of tanks will steamroll over every tiny bugger just fine on their way to do actual damage to the huge three eyed green monsters that make up half the game's discernible antagonists.
So there's no strategy to actual combat, which leaves us with clever objectives as the only possible way for the game to earn the S in RTS. As you may have guessed, however, it doesn't have them. Every level is prefaced by 'Uncle Joe' Stalin giving you a briefing about how the alien threat is going to devolve your glorious red nation into a den of lawless anarchy where the civilians devour each other for sustenance just like every imperialist country. Then after that you do whatever arbitrary thing the game tells you to in a series of events that put the mind to Wario Ware.
"Liberate the village!" it might say, giving you an arrow on your minimap to point out the two houses that make up the village that needs rescuing. So you'll go and run over the obnoxious martian horde only to be told seconds later to "Cross the bridge!" and get another arrow. This continues until the game's out of objectives and you complete the mission. What it may as well be saying is "And now jump through these hoops!" Most of the time, an RTS mission will have some kind of very specific goal, one that lends itself to strategic thinking or clever plans of attack.
And that's what it boils down to. This isn't a game about making things happen, it's a game about hoping things happen. You hope your tanks will listen to you and go run over those guys shooting at you. You hope that after you "Form a line of defense!" that the next objective will actually make sense. You hope that at some point the game will get better. Never once will you need wits to get through a tough level. All you need is a high threshold for pain.
Freelance review by Josh Higley (June 04, 2009)
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