Mars means many things to many people. It's either the gravesite for a long dead civilization, a harbinger of what awaits the Earth, or simply a pretty red ball in the sky. Humanity will always look to its sister for the secrets of the universe but for now, we are left to speculate on what mysteries and histories lie within a planet named after the Bringer of War. Unearthing Mars is the latest in a genre of speculative science fiction that uses the PlayStation VR to create an immersive experience.
Trips to Mars are what VR was made for. I'll never travel through space, and doing so with a headset is the next best thing. The thing is, Unearthing Mars is the most inexplicably bizarre trip to the red planet since Ghosts of Mars. Even as a piece of “what if” fiction, where you could ostensibly make up whatever you want (Mars is filled with ice cream!) with little semblance of fact, Unearthing Mars spins a yarn so outlandish and silly that it might be the greatest story ever told. I don't really know.
Cast in the role as the lazily named “Copilot,” you are joined by two astronauts and a robot pal who occupy a floating space vessel that's way too large to transport a three-person research team. Their mission to Mars involves studying its satellite Phobos, for which the game includes a hefty discussion among the scientific community on whether or not Phobos is an actual moon (I wasn't aware of this debate and after doing some research online, if there was one it's been long settled). Divided into ten chapters of varying interactivity, you and the mission commander will unveil the secret of Mars - though in this case, some things are better left unsaid.
Unearthing Mars has all the thrill of an amusement park make-out ride. The immersion and majesty of exploring a planet are constantly ruined by plastic character models, noticeably bad lipsynching, ugly visuals, and terrible voice acting. Why call out the voice work? Because I've heard people talk about socks who sound far more interested and engaged than the characters in this game. None of the dialogue is presented with any real genuine emotion, but instead an inflection or raised voice governed solely by “[loud, frantic shouting]” notations on the script. One character that drove me to madness was the robot companion, who talked in a similar manner to what we all thought robots walked and talked as children - you know, that halting, monotone speech pattern. It's so difficult to develop an interest in the game’s message because any attempt to instill awe is abjectly ruined the moment someone opens their damn mouth.
Reaching Mars is presented with an appropriate degree of wonder and drama. However, when the ship makes contact with the surface, the view is extraordinarily dull. It looks like the middle of a Barstow desert instead of the Mars surface. Looking up at the sky reveals our solar system’s sun, presented as a huge, floating white ball. I think it's impossible for it to be that size, given the distance between it and Mars. Hell, the sun in this game looks bigger and closer than it does on Earth, given the impression that during planetfall, Mars switched orbits with Venus. But who needs realism when the game transitions the player to Mars’ past, trading its red, dusty landscape for one that is lush with water, vegetation, and animal life. And yet, it's all so plain and boring to look at. The landscape is less stimulating than the mid-1990s Trapper Keeper design, in which this sort of imagery would be prime material.
What is it you do in Unearthing Mars? Each chapter is built around different gameplay systems. You'll switch between walking around on foot (though the actual walking is done by transported between hotspots), interacting with objects as necessary to solve puzzles, and driving across the planet using a Mako-like land vehicle that has the most bizarre method of control. Using the PlayStation Move wands, you are presented with a third person view of the vehicle and are expected to drive it like an RC car. The weird thing is that the camera is fixed, so you'll stand still as the Evolve speeds away. You can hit a button that will warp the camera immediately behind the vehicle, but you'll always stay at a fixed location. This setup is just so strange! Why not let the camera follow the vehicle? Why third person, why not a first person view? What benefit is there to keep the camera fixed? On a different, but relevant, note, what benefit is there to these vehicle sections? You can't really do anything except drive to the objective, and if you go too far, you'll be stopped by an impassable laser grid wall (which no one takes the time to comment about).
The chapters are mostly short, except those that require you to trudge around hotspots to collect items, which also happened to be the worst, most tedious thing to do. That said, none of the activities presented here - the driving, exploring, puzzle solving - are good or interesting enough to keep them afloat. I wanted to quit during the chapter where I had to feed apple-like fruit to three pig bear aliens (and listen to them moan suggestively after eating them), but I'm glad I stuck with it because the game’s story only got weirder from there. I'll spare the details (as if there were any to do so), but the whole experience leads up to a jarring transition into a first person shooter. Basically, and I don't feel bad about spoiling this at all, ancient civilized Mars is essentially blown to shit by the Covenant and you're recruited to play through the battle’s last moments. The game then turns into a lifeless first person shooting gallery that is aggressively mediocre.
When the game ends, with the Mars crew leaving for Earth (Why? Wasn't the whole point to be there to study the planet? Who would just leave, especially after discovering the greatest archeological find in all human history?). During this dramatic conclusion, which it by no means earns, I came away convinced that I had played a Scientologist simulator. The story of an advanced alien race attacking another advanced alien race reeks of being a tale only told to those who have successfully purged their bodies of harmful thetans. Unearthing Mars begins as a serious expedition to Mars only to transform into a laughably bad science fiction space opera about angry aliens and partying pig dog beasts. It won’t leave you with anything to remember it by, except for how laughably bad it is. The experience of Unearthing Mars is a lot like being EPCOT Center’s Spaceship Earth while riding high on bad weed.
End of review note: The screenshots provided with this review are not indicative of the final product. PlayStation VR games run at a lower resolution, so any non-concept art screenshots are going to be much sharper and cleaner than the real product.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.