JCB Pioneer Mars is pretty much Andy Weir's The Martian in video game format. Well, that's true if you take away Matt Damon and add a bunch of JCB-licenced diggers. The former Early Access title sees you roam across the planet's hostile surface collecting materials to craft new resources and facilities to build the pillars of mankind's survival, compiling elements of survival and sandbox exploration to satisfy a niche on the Nintendo Switch that few others have targeted.
Our mission to colonise the planet was off to a disastrous start as we found ourselves blacked out in the scorching hot sand surrounded by the remnants of our ship. After we regained consciousness, we made our way back to the landing zone where we were handed our first few missions to build a refinery, a water collector, and a warehouse. Each of these facilities was comprised of different materials that we had to mine from pools on the planet's surface, and each pushed us to explore different areas of the map while keeping an eye on our vitals and braving the elements before us.
This essentially serves as the main gameplay loop of JCB Pioneer Mars - you search on the map for different dig sites, set your marker, and then drive from point A to point B gathering the materials for the next objective on your mission log. It can feel tedious and awfully grindy at times, but watching our safe haven slowly expand felt satisfying and the grind felt like a necessary step within the premise of colonising Mars. That said, we did wish that digging was made a little more complex than just approaching a mining site and pushing the A button, a mechanic that felt oddly shallow considering its use in a game that had input from JCB.
Each expedition we embarked on required us to stock up on the likes of oxygen canisters, rations, and hydration tablets to maintain our survival. Our oxygen, water, food, power, and hydration levels began to deplete when we were outside of our base, and without the presence of fictitious space mutants or other humans, it was the biggest threat we encountered. There was also the looming danger of our JCB running out of power if we ventured out too far and didn't return to our garage for a patch/charge up. These survival elements worked to add more of an authentic touch to life out on the red planet and presented a major roadblock in the early game as supplies were limited.
The red sands and wide open stretches of Mars do look drop-dead gorgeous here, but sadly we felt little reason to want to explore this wondrous landscape beyond the missions. The planet felt desolate and empty, with only electrical storms and dust clouds posing a threat, and as the devs opted for a more realistic approach, all that is out there besides your outpost is sand and rocks (not counting some stretches of snow to the north). The only reason we ventured beyond the beaten path was to find containers with rare resources stashed inside, which is a shame as JCB Pioneer Mars prides itself on being an exploration title.
Also causing us frustration was the fact that certain core aspects weren't explained in depth beyond a rather fleeting tutorial. As we sank our teeth into the first few missions all hints pretty much evaporated, leaving us to fumble around and figure things out alone. One thing we had to learn the hard way was that our JCB never displayed when it was at carrying capacity. We spent countless attempts clawing at the surface with no results until it dawned on us that we should check out our inventory. This may have been a purposeful choice from the developer but we wish that this and a few other aspects such as the upgrade system were covered in the tutorial before we were left to salvage and explore.
Graphical glitches and bugs also caused us to have a rocky ride when roaming the planet's surface. There was a recurring issue that plunged the frame-rate to an unplayable low when flipping over our vehicle. We also found ourselves getting stuck on the wall of our main base, but luckily a frequent autosaving system meant that not too much progress was lost. We also found that in handheld mode the draw distances were pretty poor with frequent pop-in and the frame-rate would often take a hit during moments like trawling through a cloud of dust.
We couldn't help but feel like JCB Pioneer could have benefitted from a longer stay in Early Access (where it remains on PC, it should be noted - it's also worth noting that the devs told us that they will continue to support the Switch version so it may well do well out of the game's continued development on Steam). Its vast explorable planet felt lifeless and empty, there was an abundance of bugs and glitches, and its core gameplay loop soon felt tedious and grindy. Building our future on the Red Planet did feel satisfying and we are sure that enthusiasts will get a real kick out of all the licensed vehicles on show, but there's just too many drawbacks here to make things worthwhile at the time of writing.