Stalin vs. Martians is, if anything, an experience from start to finish. You start playing the moment the intro movie loads. The intro movie, that time-tested overwrought institution of all Serious Games, has been here turned into an absurd prank: the game asks you to stand for the Soviet anthem and then delivers it, all five minutes of it, while the only visual is a gigantic Soviet flag. It's a pretty funny joke, which is just about the last thing anyone expects from a computer game, let alone a computer game whose ostensible subject is that Most Serious of Serious Topics, the Second World War.
In fact, if you start looking at Stalin vs. Martians as a parody of those types of games – Blitzkrieg, Company of Heroes, Men of War, Call of Duty, etc. – then its lame levels and overall scatterbrained gameplay start to make sense. Instead of immaculately rendered Tiger tanks, you square off against big green monsters with googly eyes who deflate when killed and whose attack-sound sounds suspiciously like someone making a "pew-pew" noise with their mouth. Instead of fighting the final battle of your campaign in the streets of Berlin, you kill an octopus with Hitler's head in some crater on the planet Mars. And you kill this Hitler-thing using Stalin himself, who stands twenty stories tall and attacks enemies with what looks like a pen knife.
There's a rudimentary unit power-up scheme, whereby your tanks and soldiers don't just gain minor bonuses to attack or armor, but turn into superpowered beasts. At the end of a level my infantry were keeping pace with my tanks and some of my armored vehicles were zipping around like invincible shell-slinging sports cars. For a gamer like myself used to plodding, incremental progress, where one hour's worth of battle experience nets your units an extra clip of ammunition or something equally inconsequential, the power-up system was truly startling and, I'll admit it, a bit funny.
But it doesn't stop with the gameplay. The music in-game isn't a sweeping orchestral score, it's a collection of tunes from a Chinese twee band, a few songs from a Russian heavy-metal group with a song (in broken English) about Gorbachev, and some great techno. And there are cutscenes, too, but instead of advancing the story they're just music videos for some of the game's songs. The best video is for the Gorbachev song I mentioned above – it shows Gorbachev as a virile barbarian rescuing fetching Soviet girls from the grips of zombie Stalins, and then making Coca-Cola, Levis, and Twinkies fall from the sky. Mission briefings, instead of providing useful information, maps, etc., are letters from Stalin, where the great leader jokes about his purges (“the good old 30's”) and explains where the true strength of Communism comes from – apparently it's derived from shrines where sacrifices are made of prisoners. After freeing the shrines from alien control, the player is promoted by Stalin to Orthodox bishop or something. It's zany as hell.
In the context of parody, even the fact that this game lacks a compelling gimmick (supply points in Company of Heroes, direct control in Men of War, etc) can be understood. It may be boring just lassoing giant globs of units and ordering them around the map with no apparent eye to strategy, but it's a conscious feature built into the game to sharpen its satirical sword.
Or maybe it isn't. Maybe Stalin vs. Martians isn’t just a bad game. If you abandon the idea that Stalin vs. Martians is a budget-priced joke meant to make you laugh at the overstuffed, overcrowded WW2 "genre," then it simply becomes a waste of money. The campaign is very short, even for a game this cheap, the missions are all formulaic, the graphics aren't that great, the interplay of the different units doesn't even approach rock-paper-scissors levels of complexity, and after a while you get the faint impression that whatever joke there is in this game is on you for shelling out cash for it.
The bottom line is that if this game is parody, then it's a great concept executed in a somewhat middling way, and if it's intended to be fun on its own merits then it's just a bad game. A terrible one, actually.
Editor's Note: Be sure to check out Kyle's follow-up interview with lead designer Alexander Shcherbakov.