The Martian Farm (Recapture Dover)

lv4-00After two levels in the general “rural England” mould and a third that’s just London, The War of the Worlds gives us its first genuinely unconventional setting. This is the point where the game definitively steps beyond the narrow geographical territory of Wells’s rather perambulatory novel – a stop by the coast before we begin our long road-trip to the north. Perhaps most importantly, it’s just a fun idea: really, how many science-fiction video games are set in Kent?

Where previous ones merely provided hints, the fourth opening flyover essentially gives us a tour of the entire level. It begins with a hillside Command Post flanked by Machine-Gun Turrets, then swoops down to the nearby Docks, across a pass to the Lighthouse which stands atop the Dover cliffs, and through a stretch of countryside infested with Martian units, at last alighting on the Martian Farm, where fifteen civilians are being held captive. The Martians are scheming to take the Docks, but the Lighthouse is vacant, and we’ll need it to signal for reinforcements to defend them. This is the first level in which no houses appear, giving everything an additional feeling of removal from reality (if that is even possible).

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We begin in our trusty old Armoured Lorry, parked near the Docks. (These are represented as a group of red-brick and wooden buildings standing by three stone piers. They also seem to be on the wrong side of the cliffs. Must have been… erosion.) “For now, this is the only vehicle you have. DO NOT LET IT GET DESTROYED,” our commander tells us, in what seems like a note the developers tacked on when playtesters uniformly drove straight ahead and got slaughtered immediately. Our first objective is to drive up the hill (a little more challenging in the Lorry than it was probably meant to be, if we’re being honest) and go to the Command Post for orders. Two soldiers emerge, and we’re instructed to take them to their Gunposts (which I guess is what we’re calling the Machine-Gun Turrets now). While the two Gunposts near the Command Post are already manned, these soldiers are destined for two other Gunposts to the south: one on a low beachhead, the other by the Lighthouse atop the cliff. The soldiers tell us to transport them surreptitiously, via the beach, so as to avoid Martians territory. (On the way, we pass a little orange picket fence which exists solely to make the shore less empty-looking; close inspection reveals that its shadow is painted on the grass.) As we draw near, the soldiers exit the Lorry to take up their Gunpost positions, after which they can be controlled by the player at any time. (This is perhaps the single point in the game where the question of who exactly we’re supposed to be playing as is at its most baffling.) The beachhead Gunpost allows a good angle on the sea itself, while the Lighthouse one holds a more commanding position, overlooking both the sea and a large swath of land towards the map’s centre. We’re told to use the latter to clear the level’s central pass, which is occupied by a couple of Heat-Ray Turrets and several Scout-Machines. (In an unusually striking bit of visual composition, the beachhead Gunpost’s view of the Lighthouse has it eclipsing the sun quite dramatically.)

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The White Cliffs of Dover are one of the most striking geological features of the British coast, and their iconography likely the primary reason one would consider setting a work of fiction in Dover in the first place. It’s also a particularly good thematic choice for a War of the Worlds level, as the cliffs face directly towards mainland Europe at the narrowest point in the English Channel – something which has given them unique historical and conceptual status as a point of invasion. This obviously would not hold true for an alien invasion, but nonetheless there is something fundamentally right about acting like it would. The fifteenth-century friar Osbern Bokenham speculated that Albion, the ancient true name of the island, derived from the gleaming chalk-whiteness of the cliffs – not bloody likely, but in this heady territory, truth is hardly the point – and William Blake identified the cliffs as the albino right foot of the giant. Somewhat disappointingly, the game makes little effort to capture this visual, instead using the same vaguely grey-white texture it uses for most of its rocky surfaces. No matter, though: we know what they really look like under there.

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The game’s Lighthouse is fairly clearly meant to represent the South Foreland Lighthouse, which looks a little different (being completely white) but did operate in roughly the same spot in the actual Victorian era, and was, incidentally, the first lighthouse ever to use an electric light. (A century later it would be featured in the gothic-horror ChuckleVision episode “Finders Keepers”.) While the level’s geography is simplified, there really is a similar narrow beach below the cliff – presumably the level was designed using photos for reference. The game, however, adds another traversable rocky trail approximately halfway up, leading to the amusing sight of the blocky Lorry somehow climbing a cliff face. There’s also an odd dead-end alcove beneath the game’s Lighthouse – completely pointless and never mentioned in any way, but just about spacious enough to have clearly been put there deliberately and so signify that, yes, these cliffs are Important in some undefinable way.

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It never stops being jarring to remember, looking out over a sea which quickly fades into black abstraction, that we’re actually at the closest point in Britain to France – that all this is supposed to correspond to an actual place. In fairness though, this is really one of the game’s less bizarre skylines – it remembers not to include any dim vast buildings looming over the English Channel, instead going for a vast blank sky that seems so nearby it’s inadvertently a little thrilling and strange, like the ending of The Truman Show. All games of the 32-bit generation feel a bit like they’re set in false prison-worlds – that’s always been part of the appeal, even if no-one ever talks about it.

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We’re told to use the Lighthouse Gunpost to take out the Martians occupying the pass, but the game doesn’t bother to track our response to this objective: moments later, we’re told that the Lighthouse Keeper is waiting at the Docks. Disappointingly, he looks like a regular male civilian – it seems the developers couldn’t be arsed spriting a character-type who’d never appear again, so no white-bearded blue-jacketed sailor, alas. Once we take him to the Lighthouse, he runs inside, and the beacon lights up and begins to rotate. (Back in the second level, we had to install a soldier in an experimental transmitter atop an ancient stone edifice to signal for help. Now that we have another “lighting the beacons” moment, it’s almost starting to look like a theme.) We’re told that visibility is deteriorating, making the Lighthouse crucial, which would be a little more convincing if the game had any weather effects beyond that weird rainbow lens flare you get whenever you look at the sun.

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After their sluggish attempts on the Factory and the Houses of Parliament in the previous level, the Martians have upped their game, attacking the Lighthouse almost immediately after it becomes operational. They mainly send Flying-Machines, with a solitary Scanning-Machine emerging from the woods to join in, demoted from the boss-like role it played back in London to become a regular enemy. (Their HP is serious nerfed from this point on, too.) Once we’ve fought them off with the Lighthouse Gunpost, we can finally start getting some of the reinforcements we’ll need for the level’s eponymission. This first wave consists of three supply boats – identical to the barges in the last two levels – which appear at the far edge of the map and sail towards the Docks, one by one. They contain an Anti-Aircraft unit (which I guess is what we’re calling the Mobile Anti-Aircraft Platform now) and two Armoured Cars respectively. Rather a bit too much of the level’s gameplay consists of using the two seaward Gunposts to protect boats (which always take the exact same path) from Flying-Machines (which likewise follow one repetitive flight pattern). This is the first level in the game not to introduce any new playable human units, which has the effect of further sapping one’s enthusiasm and patience. When a boat gets sunk, we’re down a vehicle – there’s no other way to get them round these parts.

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After the three ships are resolved one way or another, the Martians try attacking the Docks. It’s mostly a swarm of Flying-Machines again, but this time a couple of Fighting-Machines join the fray. It’s quite clear that we’re supposed to use the Gunpost between the Command Post and the Docks to fight them off, which works just fine – strategic decisions are up to the player’s discretion, of course, but again, the game isn’t quite complex enough for that to matter much. Thankfully the Lighthouse and the Docks only need to be defended once each, so the tedium never reaches fractal levels. If either of them is lost in its respective assault, however, it becomes impossible to receive additional reinforcements, so you’ll just have to make do with what you’ve already got. (If things do get too boring, just… literally blow up the Lighthouse. It speeds things up considerably, and makes the later parts of the level interestingly tricky – defeating any significant Martian force with the Lorry and its locked-off machine gun is extremely impractical, but becomes just about possible if use uneven terrain to aim, one of the few things in the game with any real knack to it.) Partway through the Docks battle, we receive a warning that a lone Fighting-Machine is taking a scenic route through the woods towards the Command Post, the only building in the level whose destruction actually does mean game over. (This is what that other Gunpost exists for.) The level tries to have it both ways with the Fighting-Machines – it brings them back for the first time since the tutorial, turning them into regular cannon-fodder by presenting them alongside the games’ own invented enemies, but also treats one as if it’s some dreadful and unique threat, assuring us that this is indeed the same type of thing as what battles the Thunder Child on Mike Trim’s iconic album cover.

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Once the Docks are safe, we’re told that a supply boat carrying a gun emplacement (which I guess is what we’re calling the Gunposts now) is en route. If we protect it, a Lorry disembarks, which can then be driven to a specific burnt-out building in order to deploy the gun emplacement. This is located in the pass – in the middle of Martian territory – so the turret gets destroyed pretty much instantly if you’re not using the invincibility code. (This is the game’s most Gunpost-heavy level, I promise.) After the mission to install a strategically questionable turret is resolved one way or the other, a final wave of reinforcements is sent: an Armoured Car, an Anti-Aircraft unit, and another Armoured Car.

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Once these escort missions are over and done with, all that remains is to clash with the Martian army on the darkling plain. After we’ve taken out the Heat-Ray Turrets guarding the pass, the horde of Scout-Machines milling about behind them, and the handful of Fighting-Machines looming above those, we encounter the level’s one new enemy: the Bomb Turrets. While similar in basic shape to their Heat-Ray counterparts, these turrets are topped instead with a cycloptic cannon. When it notices you, its “head” turns slowly towards your vehicle, a green light flashing in warning as it launches cylindrical canisters that trail a fiery arc through the air before exploding on impact. The overall effect is much less organic than the Heat-Ray Turret, with less sense of a creepy intelligence, though there’s presumably still a Martian in there somewhere. Get behind them, or up close at an oblique angle, and they’re rendered easily destructible. Perhaps not the most memorable design, but they make for a decently different gameplay challenge as part of the alien horde.

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Once we’ve destroyed enough enemy units, command tells us, with their customary mix of blunt pragmatism and grammatical error, “Alright, you’ve depleted the Martians defence, now find a way to the Martian Farm.” However, we find the bridge to the final area destroyed. The solution, once again, is a temporary Bridge Section. Thankfully, this one is delivered by train rather than boat, providing at least a little variety in our escort missions. The train-tracks begin at the Docks – a representation of the real-world Dover Harbour station, which was in operation at the time the game is set – and continue across neutral land, finally vanishing into a tunnel on the far side of the map. (The road that runs alongside the tracks is blocked by a boulder, but it presumably represents the beginning of the fabled Watling Street, whose journey across the island is just as interesting as ours; a tale for another day.) A blue-green locomotive of the type that would have steam billowing out of it in a slightly more advanced game emerges from the tunnel, but it’s another non-playable vehicle – our job is to keep time with it, protecting it from Flying-Machines as it trundles its way to the Docks with its precious Bridge Section cargo in tow. (If the Train gets destroyed, they send another one. If four get destroyed, it’s game over.) No Bridge Section is visible in the carriage, but one is unloaded nonetheless. Once we take it and cross over, we’re attacked by a final host of Martian units – Scanning-Machines, Scout-Machines, and Flying-Machines – who swarm to defend their base.

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Wells’s novel, partly as a result of the Journalist’s squeamishness, does not contain a detailed account of how the Martians feed, mentioning only that they take blood from a living victim (usually, on Earth, a human) using a “pipette” and inject it directly into their own veins. We’re told of how the Fighting-Machines use their tentacles to capture humans – a function given instead to the Handling-Machines in the album artwork, a change which carries over to the game – but there’s no information on how or where or even whether humans are stored in between. As a result, the Martian Farm is a wholly original invention. It consists of one central building – a large blocky metallic hut with three claw-like prongs – surrounded by three small equidistant domes. While most of the games’ new Martians draw from Trim’s “Victorian engineering by way of trippy 1970s sci-fi art” designs for the Fighting-Machine and Handling-Machine, each taking some core characteristics and extrapolating them in different directions, the Farm is rather different: instead, it seems more inspired by the Space Age aesthetics of 1960s America – a time when domes and goofy ray-gun ornamentation seemed terribly futuristic. All four buildings are steel-blue, each dome linked by a transparent beam of red light to the central structure, which looks like the protruding head of some buried hybrid of Robby from Forbidden Planet and Maximilian from The Black Hole. Like the Martian vehicles, the structures flicker bright-red when sustaining damage. Destroy a dome, and five humans (all, interestingly, male) are freed; we’re warned to clear the area of Martians first if any of them get killed, but the game doesn’t actually punish us in any way, even if we let the lot of them die. (Videogame objectives can be very… bureaucratic.) If we destroy the central building before taking out the domes, the remaining beams hang eerily in the air. None of the structures appear to have any doors, so the mechanics of blood-farming are left abstract. No humans emerge from the main building, which is presumably where the procedure is controlled. Are the red beams connected to blood in some way? The Martian design motif of threes and trios is respected, providing a subtle visual link to our enemies, but other than that, there’s not a great deal linking the Farm to the alien culture we know. Indeed, with the vaguely pyramidal outline suggested by the three prongs, there might be an indirect thematic link (via the aesthetics of Ancient Egypt) with the sphinx inhabited by the Morlocks in Wells’s The Time Machine, who similarly trap docile human cattle inside before they feed on them. In any case, the Farm is a worthy and intriguing little addition to the mythos. Once we destroy the four interconnected structures, our mission is complete, and the level ends.

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The Martian Farm is also where another classic War of the Worlds element is introduced: the red weed. Covering the soil near the Martian base, Wells’s alien vegetation is both upgraded and downgraded for the game. On the one hand, it no longer chokes the entire countryside, instead being limited to areas under heavy Martian control, and nor does it seem to grow appreciably. However, it’s also much more powerful, capable of destroying any of our vehicles in only a few moments. Roll over the red weed, and you’ll instantly start taking damage, which is accompanied by a satisfying visual effect where the screen shakes and large gnarled flakes of the stuff (represented as 2D sprites tumbling in 3D space, pleasingly retro) erupt from the earth around you. The red weed itself, however, is represented essentially as patches of mottled red-and-green grass – we’ll get a better look at it in later levels.

The level’s default music, presumably to tie in with the eponymous vegetation’s first appearance in the game, is a version of “The Red Weed”. In Wayne’s album, this one is actually split across two tracks, each around five and a half minutes long. Kicking off the record’s B-side, the first part finds the Journalist wandering aimlessly through the countryside after the destruction of the Thunder Child, finding the landscape covered by the rapidly-growing alien vegetation which he surmises gave Mars its red colour. Slow and languorous, feverish and off-kilter, it’s a brilliantly uncanny piece of music, the red weed’s crawling tendrils represented with inexorable plodding synths that channel the theremin. There are no lyrics and no character drama, but the track doesn’t need them – it’s supported entirely by Wayne’s alien soundscapes and a few lines of Richard Burton’s morbidly-fascinated narration. The next track is “The Spirit of Man”, which stands between the two halves of “The Red Weed”, the centrepiece to their bookends. The second part, which covers Parson Nathaniel’s death, is too involved and plot-heavy to match the listenability of the first, but it’s still a good coda, affectingly distorting the theme from the red weed’s nightmarish otherworldliness into a kind of liberatory catharsis as the Journalist finally escapes the ruined cottage.

Like most of the game’s remixes, the basic idea of “The Red Weed” is to take an electronic beat and add it to Wayne’s instrumental track. This transformation isn’t so dramatic for most tracks, but here it’s a revelation – the album version of “The Red Weed” has no drum track whatsoever, making this new form feel much more complete and (ironically) song-like. An atmosphere of otherworldly wonder is accomplished with the addition of a Brian Eno-style pool of synth which shifts and lurches between minor chords in the background. The games’ composers also make fantastic use of sampling here, extracting the creepy two-note orchestral riff with which Wayne accompanies the events surrounding the Parson’s madness and death and multiplying it into one of the main throughlines of the track. The result is magically alien.

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The track’s illustration, also titled “The Red Weed”, is another painting by the great Geoff Taylor. Quite vividly detailed, it depicts the central square of a small village utterly devastated by the red weed, with thatched cottages crumbling into brick, a cloud of smoke rising ominously in the background, and not a single blade of grass to be seen. Wells described the red weed as having a “vivid blood-red tint” and “cactus-like branches”, clogging the English streams with “astonishing vigor and luxuriance”, and Taylor takes significant liberties here, seemingly fusing the plant’s structure with its habitat to render it as liquid – a vast sea of blood with occasional tendrils, the Carnage symbiote on steroids, draining the village’s well, penetrating through windows and up stairs. Combined with the painting’s symmetrical composition, the effect is rather like the elevator scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The game doesn’t really follow Taylor’s direction with the red weed, but the painting does seem to have been a significant influence on the look of its villages and houses, which copy the painting’s Tudor architecture. (On close examination, we can see that one of the ruined buildings is called The Rising Sun. So that’s why the guy from the Animals was telling that mother not to let her children do what he had done – he was “gambling” with his life by facing the red weed in there. Wells isn’t definitive about the scope of the invasion, so there’s no proof that the painting isn’t set in New Orleans. Or maybe “in New Orleans” is obscure Victorian slang for… something.)

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Anyway. The game’s remix captures both the dread and foreboding of “The Red Weed (Part 1)” and the adrenaline-rush intensity of “The Red Weed (Part 2)”, reaching the second part’s eerily triumphant plateau towards its middle, then continuing to mount in strangeness. The result is a track that feels like it could represent the Martian perspective just as easily as the human. At this point, it’s worth remembering that the red weed itself isn’t necessarily part of the invaders’ plans. It certainly came from their world, but who’s to say it wasn’t a stowaway? The entire story of The War of the Worlds is based on the premise that Earth is the superior, more desirable planet, so it would make little sense for the Martians to attempt to terraform (martiaform?) it. Perhaps we should take the red weed as a counterpart to the earthly bacteria which thwart the invasion in the novel and album: a truer representative of its planet, devoid of brain and all the more powerful for it, fighting a more authentically cosmic battle than its animalistic and only equally vampiric relatives. This, at least, is the kind of feeling the game’s remix of “The Red Weed” seems to suggest. There are no humans here, and no Martians either: only the arborescent majesty of something older and greater. In the book – and, presumably, the album – the red weed is eradicated by Earth’s microbes, just like the Martians themselves. Since the game presents the Martians as immune, however, we can assume that its version of the red weed similarly needs to be exterminated manually – which leaves open the possibility that some survive the purge. The post-war humans of Wells and Wayne look up at the night sky with fear and uncertainty, but those of Pixelogic would also do well to remember what might lurk in the soil beneath their feet.

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