I’ve attended many preview events over the years to check out videogames on behalf of you fine folks, but I can’t think of a single time where one involved being taken to a quarry and getting to try out heavy machinery.
The first thing you probably noticed about JCB Pioneer: Mars is those three little letters at the start of the title. I can confirm that yes, it is that JCB, the makers of high-powered telescopic handlers, loaders, excavators, diggers, forklifts, engines, tractors and more. And now they’re sponsoring a videogame about surviving on Mars, which is as good an excuse as any to explain why I was put behind the controls of a JCB 540 Telehandler and an 110W ‘Hydradig’ Wheeled Excavator.
Check out our interview with JCB Pioneer: Mars’ producer Andy Santos!See where JCB Pioneer: Mars stands on our list of Upcoming PC Games!
I was expecting at any moment to drive the thing into the huge crater at the centre of the quarry, as I’m a bad enough driver in a regular vehicle. Somehow we all survived my attempts. I had a chat with JCB Pioneer: Mars’ producer Andy Santos (you can read my interview with him here), who also got to have a go and was just as thrilled to live through the encounter, and we commented on how the redness in the rock being mined in the quarry looked just like their game. After driving these machines around Mars in real life, I honestly understood how that would make for a really fun game. And I hadn’t even hit a lightning tornado.
JCB Pioneer: Mars is a survival game set, of course, in Birmingham. No, not really, it’s on Mars. You’ve been sent as one of the first pioneers to colonize the Red Planet and make it sustainable for human life but something’s gone very wrong. Your landing pod crashed, your base is in tatters, the planet’s trying to kill you, and you’re on your own. There’s a basic JCB transport vehicle close by, so you’ll just have to hop in that, avoid all the incredibly deadly weather, get to the remains of your base, put it back together, and survive. What could be simpler?
For a survival game, it’s rather unusual that there are no terrifying local creatures or enemies (so far) to face. Instead survival is against the elements – weather mostly. JCB Pioneer: Mars boasts a spectacular Martian landscape with even more spectacular meteor showers, sandstorms, toxic rock pools, and the aforementioned electrical dust tornados. All of these can do a lot of damage to you and your vehicle, not to mention your base. Meteor showers in particular are like a rain of Michael Bay-directed explosions and are both terrifying and amazing. Mars is beautiful, courtesy of Unreal Engine 4, but it’s also scary.
While billed as a survival game, developer Atomicom also wants us to think of JCB Pioneer as a strategy game, at least of the city building sort. The base building is the main focus of that strategy, and honestly it’s rather fun. Once I made it past the exploding space balls and Electro dust devils I found the centre of the basic base, featuring some damaged power pylons, a busted-up garage which was basically a big box with doors, and my Habitation Unit. It’s from here the player builds a colony and manages every aspect of the game, including buying new parts, abilities and vehicles.
After getting the materials together to get some credits I found the colony builder on the pod’s Crafting Station to be surprisingly robust, and I can imagine people spending hours putting together the perfect Mars space base. Buildings include warehouses, refineries, landing pads, biodomes, sleeping quarters, research centres and more. You have to make sure every building has ample power and oxygen, both in terms of building new generators and linking them to those buildings, and that they stay that way. New buildings are unlocked or can be bought or researched as you go along, and as NPCs start moving into your base you have to start managing them too. Well, when they’re implemented anyway. That’s quite a lot to think about and I haven’t even started heading out into the wild lands of Mars yet.
The items and minerals I needed to scavenge to build all this weren’t nearby, so I had to venture out in my JCB vehicle - which still couldn’t do much beyond driving on rough terrain, although stuff like digging and building can be bought later. The parts I was after could not have been further apart. One was in a toxic cave underground, the other was on a high cliff. With an eye on my oxygen supply I headed out, cave first. Avoiding toxic slime, some careful jumps and I grabbed those parts and got back to the vehicle just before I ran out of oxygen. Heading to the high cliff for the next, I basically repeated the process with the same amount of jumping over certain doom. Mars is definitely an open-world sandbox though. I’d spoken to other journalists who didn’t realise you could jump up to get the second part, some who manoeuvred around the cliffs, and another who drove the JCB up to the top from the other side and dropped on to it. Experimenting in the game could be a lot of fun, although admittedly all this was mostly because the jumping in the game is terrible at the moment.
Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there are elements of _JCB Pioneer: Mars_ that reminded me of No Man’s Sky. The first-person exploration, hunting for minerals on an alien planet, and in particular the non-lethal Repair Gun that you point at damaged areas and “fire” a repair beam at them all feel like the ‘simple to get into’ style that No Man’s Sky was attempting. Make no mistake though, this is not No Man’s Sky. It’s brutal, it’s about staving off death when the planet you’re on is trying to kill you, and the landscapes are notrandomly generated. It’s a lot more fun too, mostly because there’s more of a game here. Oh, and Atomicom are trying to sort out bringing your friends over to visit your base, something Hello Games never managed to implement.
Atomicom and publisher GamesCo are aiming for a Steam Early Access release sometime in the next two months, before the end of September hopefully. It will be generally complete although there are still plenty of features they haven’t yet implemented, such as co-op multiplayer. The initial release will purely be single-player, we believe.
I can’t tell if people will be put off or intrigued by the JCB branding. I’m pretty sure everyone from Atomicom to JCB themselves know that no one is going to buy a 110W ‘Hydradig’ Wheeled Excavator after playing JCB Pioneer: Mars. It’s all just a case of brand awareness, and the brand is everywhere in JCB Pioneer: Mars. It’s on all the vehicles, most of the base, equipment right down to coffee mugs, and even on the money (‘JCB Credits’).
Still, it shouldn’t matter. All the vehicles are fun and futuristic, and if you’re going to have a game about diggers on Mars it might as well be an actual digging company. I actually respect that JCB saw value in the game enough to put on their only videogame branding outside of Farming Simulator. And make no mistake, in real terms it makes about as much difference as putting Sony products all over a James Bond movie – even if you really care, you’ll still enjoy the movie/game.
And JCB Pioneer: Mars does indeed look like a fun mix of The Martian with DayZ and SimCity. Getting a cool base going looks like an excellent goal, and it definitely looks gorgeous at the very least. There’s definitely still polish required though – jumping up ledges, for example, is a pain in the arse, and the lack of co-op or even NPCs at the current time make the game feel more empty than it should do. Still, there’s reasons to be positive and Atomicom aim to continually update it. We’ll have more on the game when it releases on Steam Early Access soon, and I’m sure we’ll try a stream or two when it does. Even if it’s just for those lightning tornadoes.
Most Anticipated Feature
Putting an elaborate Mars base together, and then showing it off.