“Not all missions go as planned.” This is the phrase that lights up your screen before you crash land on the stormy, unforgiving planet of Mars. Your mission is no longer to collect planetary data, but to survive. JCB Pioneer: Mars by developer Atomicom and publisher GamesCo is gritty, tough, and difficult, and because I played it before its official release, I encountered some technical issues that were at times incredibly frustrating. But the originality is there, and both the impressive setting and complex story allow you to completely immerse yourself in the moment of the game.
Because your character is stranded and your one and only goal is to survive, there is no time for leisurely exploration of the planet. In fact, time is a limited and precious resource: the only oxygen available to you is the supply in your astronaut suit, and every second that supply goes down. From the very beginning, you are racing to get back to the base and replenish your tank, then repair your power systems and vehicles, then restock your weapons and refill your oxygen tank again, all while dodging lava eruptions and explosive meteors. Needless to say, playing JCB Pioneer: Mars is an intense experience, and even just a few minutes can leave you breathless. That said, the high stakes give you an adrenaline rush as your basic survival instincts kick in, and the desire to not die propels you forward in the game. Even when you do die from an empty oxygen tank or a meteor blast, you feel compelled to try again and beat the harsh elements. Also, I would like to note that I played at the “extreme” level of difficulty, but you can also choose to play at “easy” or “regular” levels.
One element that adds to the chaos of this quest for survival is the ambiguity of directions. True, you are provided with a mission log that constantly updates you with the next task, and the game controls are as simple as pressing different keys to move and function. And finding locations and objects is not difficult, for you have arrows that pinpoint their exact area and distance. However, it is entirely up to you to figure out how to do everything. For instance, I never knew my oxygen was decreasing until it was critically low, and then I had to run around my base opening every single crate looking for oxygen canisters, then figure out how to transfer it from the crate to my suit. May sound easy enough, but the stormy landscape obscured my vision, and the pressure of finding it in time severely affected my ability to think clearly and calmly. I thought it was interesting to observe how much harder everything became when I was under a time limit and could not see, and I think it really added to the realness of the game.
My one complaint is purely technical: maybe because the game has not been officially released yet, or perhaps my network connection was too weak, but the game often lagged or was extremely slow. When I had to get in a vehicle and drive to the main base at the beginning of the game, it took me almost 10 minutes because it seemed like I was crawling one inch per second. And when the main challenge of the game is to operate under a time limit, this could be very stressful. Also, something that bothered me personally was the inability to minimize the game on my desktop; if I needed to do something else on my laptop, I had to completely quit the game and then reload it, which took several minutes. But other than these minor technicalities, I fully recommend JCB Pioneer: Mars!