First of all, let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t your average first person shooter. Or... well, maybe it is an average FPS, but it doesn’t FEEL like one. HBM, the developer of March! Offworld Recon, has classified it as an arcade/3D shooter, which isn’t just another sub-genre that they created to market their game. The pervasive feel of March! is one of colorful sci-fi fantasy settings mixed with healthy doses of brute force and an immersive shooting gallery. Add a dash of tactical squad elements to that mixture and you’ve got a game that truly comes off as a memorable shooter experience.
It’s a little bothersome to see that the planet Mars is once again causing us intrepid humans more trouble in the near future, but it’s relatively close to Earth and largely unexplored; therein lies the open-ended creative license. March! starts with a brief prologue, telling of humanity’s real-world ambitions and necessities, like the waning proportions of resources and living space left on our home world. Attempts at terraforming and colonizing Mars eventually deteriorate, resulting in the abandonment of the red planet and the established factories in pursuit of other endeavors. That is, until the satellite system orbiting Mars stops sending back its constant stream of information for no apparent reason. Enter the small group of robotic “investigators” armed to the teeth, and woefully small in number. I’ve played enough games, even FPSes, to know that a little character build-up doesn’t hurt to help the player identify with the cause. Even though March!’s story is light, there’s really no need to pile on the dressings and create an epic; this is the first good justification for its alignment as a truly distinctive shooter. The emphasis is really on the action.
Once inside the game, you’re treated to one of the smoother FPS/action games out there, featuring an aging but still robust LithTech engine that’s been tried and tested in such notable games as Aliens vs. Predator 2, and the Bond FPS, No One Lives Forever. The varied environments, which include a space station orbiting Mars, planetside complexes, and red-tinged ruins, offer well-adorned pathways to the game’s objectives.
The view from behind the main character’s eyes is equally as impressive. I wouldn’t normally include commentary about how your gun looks on screen, but there really is nothing quite like seeing a meaty, multi-barreled Gatling cannon hanging on your side. Aiming is easy, even without the help of auto-targeting (an optional combat assist), and firing your main gun is just as entertaining to simply watch, as the barrels spin up to their optimum RPMs before firing. Quite empowering, I must say – more on the weapon goodness in a minute. The HUD shows a good amount of detail without being overwhelming. Your own defensive energy, as well as the energy of your four mechanized squad mates, are all in easy-to-see locations. There’s also an unobtrusive weapon mod display that allows you to easily see what’s available as an addition to the gun. The only thing that would have made this particular display feature a quicker read (which is essential during intense firefights) would have been a small indicator of what numeric key you need to hit in order to activate the associated gun augmentation.
And speaking of weapon modifications, let’s talk about one of the key methods March! employs to keep things simple without losing depth in gameplay. Anyone who plays FPSes or shooters of any kind enjoys visceral options, or the varying degrees of destruction one can inflict on foes, flora, or fauna. March! serves up heaping dishes for this malignant appetite by presenting a more realistic approach to weapon diversity. Instead of the suspension of disbelief needed that most games encourage by having the protagonist somehow carry 400 pounds of weaponry on his/her person, March! outfits you with one main weapon, and a secondary weapon of greater power and range. Although the default gun has unlimited ammo, there are much more destructive and noisy augmentations (six primary, three secondary) you can acquire by finding glowing power-up items lying around, usually dropped by a fallen enemy. Carry any or all of these mods, including shotguns and grenade or rocket launchers, for available use at the touch of a button. There are also six additional power-ups, such as increased damage, that work for any of the arms in play. I shouldn’t have to do the math for you – that’s a whole lotta’ ass-whoopin’ power.
Squad tactics are included as a somewhat useful gameplay edge, which seems to be the trend of many other martial simulators these days like the SOCOM and Rainbow Six series. Though your four identically-clad teammates do help in a fire fight and will generally do a good job at following orders, their reaction to any situation is just as simple as commanding them. Close-quarters combat quickly becomes an allied bloodbath with your squad members stumbling around, trying to get a bead on the enemy. They’ll commonly wander in front of your line of fire, or stand point blank with a target and miss every shot as they get clobbered about the face and shoulders by some cyborg melee unit. Self-preservation is certainly not on top of their list, and actually having them work as a team (as opposed to executing their own decisions devoid of any tactical logic) would have gone a long way to making them more effective.
As is usually the case with games of this sort with so many elements of gameplay diversity and simple execution, multiplayer pulls out ahead of the single-player game. With Free For All and Teamplay matches, singular players are pitted against one another or face each other in teams a la “capture the flag”. To take advantage of having the four-man posse of the single-player game follow you around during a deathmatch, there’s also the aptly named Squad Deathmatch. Even without the squad support in multiplayer, the weapon mods alone should be enough to satisfy that part of you that continually hungers for new and preferably violent ways to destroy your friends. No online play is widely available, but LAN play is a snap to set up. Let the beatings begin.
With a very competent and powerful Lithtech engine moving the FPS action along at silky framerates (even in times of explosive distress and attacking enemy hordes), the crew at HBM was allowed to really polish up ambient and reactionary sounds. From gun shots to backdrop sounds, March! benefits from its auditory spectrum. The only thing that actually detracts from the effective soundscape is a rave mix of lively, yet dark techno music. However, nothing goes better with a quick-paced shooter than a compulsory soundtrack to beat the war drums for your inner child.
There are only a few things that mar the otherwise healthy package of March! Offworld Recon. Senseless enemy AI causes the cyborgs to stand in the background, even after being hit with several hundred rounds of ammo, and sometimes will keep running even after plowing straight into you; boss characters with obscure or indistinct weaknesses are discouraging, making advancement to subsequent stages a bit of a trial; the engine is starting to show its age, and the music is a little repetitive, but largely excusable. The rest of March! is a well-realized work of innovation, gameplay diversity, and good honest fun. Anyone looking for a slight deviation from the standard FPS formula will enjoy March! Offworld Recon’s augmented shooter onslaught and rudimentary squad tactics.