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Review: Stalin vs. Martians

John Funk | 12 May 2009 13:00
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Stalin vs. Martians is a game that takes delight in being absurd and unconventional - dare I say, "revolutionary"? That much is obvious from the opening video - upon first being asked to stand for the national anthem, I expected a standard opening cutscene. You know, where the Soviet national anthem would be, say, interrupted by an invasion of aliens as per the game's premise. Nope! It was just the full national anthem, at least three minutes long.

Maybe it was the title screen that proclaimed "Stalin vs. Martians - Game of the Year Edition." Maybe it was the loading screen that exhorted me to practice my "revolutionary powers of observation" to find 10 differences between an actual historical photograph and the same photograph with cartoon aliens Photoshopped in. Maybe it was the sheer mental dissonance between a soundtrack that alternated between hyper disco electronica and driving Russian pop-punk as my little pixilated troops exchange fire with said cartoon aliens (whose laser beams literally make sounds like someone is saying "Pew pew!") and cheerfully exclaim "I am dying!"

Whatever it was, it's clear that the development team had a very fun time making the game, and filling it with as many Soviet clich├ęs as possible. It's almost like Cold War propaganda in game form - the soldiers answer orders with quotes like "I worship communism!" and "Speak Russian or die!" - only, y'know, it's made by actual Russians.

It's a shame that the developers' fun seems to have gotten in the way of making a good game. For instance, the options menu lets you choose your keyboard settings between "Revolutionary" and "Orthodox" - ha ha, it's a joke about Russia! Clever! ...but the game doesn't let you map the buttons yourself, and it doesn't even tell you what the different keyboard configurations are. Right below it is "Do you like cats?" an option which, beyond being amusing, changes nothing in the game. But other than that, there are no real gameplay options. There are no difficulty settings, there are no options to change the resolution or play it in a windowed mode, there's pretty much nothing else. Their jokes got in the way of being useful to the player.

On some level, I see what the developers were trying to do. The idea of a fun, "Arcade RTS" that's simple to pick up and play - there's no base-building, you earn gold through killing your enemies and instantly spawn reinforcements - with liberal use of powerups and a fun, cracked-out premise... why shouldn't someone make one? Unfortunately, when the gameplay itself ends up feeling largely secondary to the wacky premise, that doesn't make for a very good game.

Stalin vs. Martians might have almost been forgivable - enjoyable even - if it hadn't been for the clunky controls. It's hard to select units without just dragging a big box around everything on screen. It's hard to tell them exactly where to go (you can order an individual unit just fine, but try telling a group of tanks to go pick up a powerful and none of them will). It's hard to tell them exactly who to kill, which is bad when you're being chewed up by vicious little multicolored aliens. Control is so key to the essence of the RTS, that when you feel like you keep losing battles because your units just won't listen to you, that's just frustrating - the sort of frustrating that makes you just want to throw your hands up and quit.

There's a faint glimmer of potential under all the clunky design, and the game can honestly be rather amusing every now and then - oh, and the soundtrack is surprisingly catchy - but when the "Ha, ha! Russians!" appeal wears off after about an hour of gameplay (if that), there's very little substance left to carry the game.

Bottom Line: Dated graphics, lack of customization, clunky and imprecise controls. Stalin is a strategy game that feels like it rewards strategy less and big waves of mass units more. The presentation can be funny, and it's so absurd at times that it you really have to experience it for the sheer audacity of it, but ... the game itself is below average at best.

Recommendation: The developers set out to create something "fun" and "trashy." They were only half successful. If you've got $15 to burn and really like absurd silliness (and Russia), eh, why not? Otherwise, give it a pass.

(Note: The little square box around the cursor is not actually representative of what it looks like in-game. It is a glitch in our recording software.)

John Funk wants to know what's so special about a Bolshevik on a bicycle.

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