To paraphrase the immortal words of erstwhile time traveller Sam Beckett, it’s not unknown for experiments to go “a little ka-ka”. In JCB Pioneer: Mars you get a lesson in the meaning of that little concept in no time at all.
Stuck on Mars, surrounded by dust storms, sand and broken-open cargo containers, you, as the hapless schmuck on the red planet find yourself with dwindling resources, a habitation module, a rover, a garage module to put it in, and some rocks. This is when it hits you that things are more broken than you thought.
This early access title uses Unreal Engine 4 to create a vivid, dusty and rather dangerous world for you to rove around in. The beginning is simple enough with a tutorial taking you through the early steps of finding your JCB rover, finding the habitation module and associated paraphernalia and eventually ensuring that you won’t run out of the essentials like air, water and food. Then it’s on to resource management by building a launchpad so you can send materials garnered through the sweat of your brow back to Earth in return for resource credits to upgrade your equipment to better versions of themselves and move on to new toys and stranger things dug out of the ground.
Being early access and a title in the works there’s not much more content than that at this point but the signs are that much more is to come. Unlike a lot of other EA titles, JCB Pioneer: Mars shows promise in that the developers have rolled out a number of patches since the game hit Steam in September and are actively listening to the players and squishing bugs at an impressive rate. Performance has improved even on my creaky old desktop with its relatively anaemic specs and on more recent systems it’s silky smooth.
The controls in the game are simple enough and described in the tutorial in a clear and concise manner. The early missions that send you off to repair bits of your little piece of Mars and get you on a workable footing with air, water and food production up and running. There are a couple of amusing little visual touches that raised a smile like the Razer Blade laptop sat in the habitation pod with its green three headed snake logo and I confess to having indulged in a little tomfoolery at one point by doing donuts on Mars and wondering if the rover you start out with was capable of a burnout (no, it’s not). The audio from the game is impressive with the eerie howl of Martian wind on your helmet making things seem as lonely and isolating as the early escapades of Mark Watney.
A feature promised for the near future is the ability to cooperatively expand your little piece of Mars and earn special rewards as a result of spending a little time alongside other “pioneers”. Of course, this will no doubt mean the usual array of bases named after various body parts and “amusing” layouts of buildings but one would hope those players will be easily avoided.
The JCB name on the game isn’t just for show either, the mining equipment and rovers are designed by actual JCB engineers so there is a flavour of “what things may come” to JCB Pioneer: Mars that has impressed me during the hours I’ve spent in the game.
Elon Musk may want to get mankind to Mars by 2024, but Atomico seem to have beaten him to it by a few years. Now if you don’t mind a dust storm just hove into view and I better get inside before I see that damnable “You have died” screen again!
JCB Pioneer: Mars is available for £18.99 from Steam right now.