Making Mark Watney proud.
Review copy provided by Paradox Interactive
The future isn’t on the horizon; it’s on other worlds. Mankind has been looking to the stars for centuries and we’ve been eyeballing Mars for the last few decades as a potential colony to branch out as an interplanetary species. Of course, we’ve only recently gotten serious about the thought of space travel again now that commercial interests have peaked in that area, but who’s keeping track of that anyway?
What Surviving Mars does, is it gives players a glimpse into the challenges of what it means to set foot on, and colonize, another world. Could we be training a generation of settlement leaders?
Probably not, because it’s just a game. I mean, it’s not like Sim City taught people how to be effective mayors… Still, is it worth checking out even though it won’t be something you can put on your resume as a future Mars colonist?
Surviving Mars changes as you play it. The early game revolves primarily around creating the infrastructure for colonists. Your colony isn’t starting off right away; there aren’t astronauts roaming around, constructing buildings and exploring the red planet. Instead, you’re given a small contingent of drones to do your bidding. But first, before you even jump into setting the stage for the colony, you have some preliminary work cut out for you. If you choose to begin a normal game, you’re allowed to choose a sponsor, the type of commander, your logo, and storyline.
Your choice in sponsor adds some kinks and perks to the game. Obviously, an international venture is going to be far easier than one carried out by a single nation or organization. Your commander’s profile will offer a couple bonuses, such as offering more funding through the Politician profile, or giving you an extra rocket to use for ferrying colonists and resources back and forth. And of course, the most important part is the logo, though I have no idea how you could not pick “Don’t Panic”?
I’ll get more into the story stuff later.
Once you make your final preparations, you get to choose a landing site and set down, and your real work begins. Surviving Mars isn’t just about building a settlement limited only by the money in your coffers, and while a settlement might be simpler to run with only robots around, it gets much more complicated down the line. As I said before, early stages of a colony revolve around stockpiling building resources and getting the groundwork laid for the colony. Your drones are instrumental in doing the majority of the heavy lifting, including the construction of every structure, and ferrying of various building materials around.
Some of the buildings you’ll need will have to be shipped to Mars as a prefab, meaning that you won’t be totally self-sufficient from Earth. Even the amount of rockets that are at your disposal are limited, meaning you can’t just create a non-stop train of resources flowing back and forth. Sure, you can do that eventually, and you’ll need to send rare materials and the occasional traitor back to Earth for processing, but it’ll be a while before you genuinely need to build more rockets.
Moving on… This may come as a bit of a shock, but humans need food, water, and oxygen or they cease living. So your job is laid out pretty plainly. Produce power, water, oxygen, and raw materials.
Then the humans show up and all hell breaks loose.
You’ll get access to one group of people at first, and you’re required to prove your mettle before they’ll send more. Go figure, they don’t want to send 300 people to their deaths at the hands of a moron who doesn’t know how to take care of even ten folks. It doesn’t get any easier once you get the initial needs out of the way though. People need to be happy to do their jobs and make a new life on Mars. In order to keep your colony in a functional state, you’ll have to keep them happy. This can be accomplished through many different means, though how each individual desires to be sated will differ based on their own interests.
Good lord… I feel like I’m diving down a rabbit hole here. I’m almost done, I swear.
“Why”, you may ask, “do I need to keep people happy?” There are two reasons.
- Some colonists will leave if they’re unhappy
- Some colonists will go renegade if they’re unhappy.
Neither of these outcomes are desired, but I doubt that I need to tell you that.
Like most city builder games out there, your job will evolve as your settlement grows. Where the initial stages will be about gathering enough resources to hit your next milestone, later stages will revolve around the management of your colonists. You’ll need to properly leverage their strengths and weaknesses to make things work. You’ll need to be picky about who you allow to come to your colony, because some folks will muck things up.
And that’s not even considering the babies…
The controls – at least on the PC – can take a little getting used to though. I’ve found that controlling the remote control units like the RC Explorer, RC Transport, and RC Rover with the right mouse button can be a little frustrating, considering that moving and actions are both tied to the same control. The same applies with the left mouse button, which controls some unit actions, as well as de-selecting a unit.
And why can’t I disable side-scrolling with the mouse?!
Also, while the hint system functions rather well as a tutorial, there’s little that is explained in some cases. For instance, waste rock dumping sites are useful for giving drones somewhere to deposit waste from extractor buildings, but you’re never told that those deposits are just there from now on; at least until later in the game.
Surviving Mars takes a page from games like Cities: Skylines, aiming for a mildly realistic look. Obviously, how realistic it looks will depend on the platform you’re playing on, and the PC version is definitely the optimal platform in this case. However, even if you’re playing on the lowest settings, it’s a good looking game. Hyper realism isn’t necessary here, though I imagine there are modders out there right now who are working on that.
What I feel is important to remember here is that Surviving Mars, just like any other city builder game, doesn’t need to look breathtaking. A game like this is about the mechanics, not looks. However, Haemimont Games did make the interface and soundtrack fit the title extremely well. Furthermore, following suit with Cities: Skylines, Haemimont Games included multiple, excellent radio stations in the game, which can be switched at will.
There’s something about building a new civilization on a new world, while listening to some sweet tunes. NASA, your priorities should be here. Avoid the disco.
What I enjoy about Surviving Mars is that it isn’t the normal city builder. I know I keep using that term, and it doesn’t necessarily apply, but it’s the closest I can come up with because there just aren’t many other games out there that take the same approach. The closest game I can think of would probably be Alpha Centauri or Beyond Earth, but those are closer to the Civilization series. They focus on not only management of resources and civil matters, but also war and politics. Surviving Mars is about going to the frontier and starting from scratch on a desolate world.
It’s made even more evident when you start out, when you’re giving a plethora of variables to account for. Even picking a settlement site is a big decision considering that you need to examine the amount of potential resources in an area, along with threats, before you pull the trigger.
The same applies when picking colonists for your settlement. Your applicants aren’t perfect human beings, and trying to weed out potential problematic traits can cut your applicant pool down to the point that you won’t be able to get a full group of colonists together.
I mean, human beings aren’t perfect after all…
And that’s not all! Remember how I mentioned that money isn’t the primary concern? Well, just because you aren’t limited only by your wealth, doesn’t mean that you aren’t limited by money at all. In order to purchase prefabricated structures, valuable raw or processed materials, or additional rockets, you need cold, hard cash. Nobody is going to be handing out loans to you. Luckily, by sending rare metals back to Earth, you can build up a little cash. You can do the same by allowing tourists and celebrities to tag along, but they aren’t exactly all that helpful and will often be the first to catch a ride back home.
Interestingly enough, had Surviving Mars not included a narrative at all, I would’ve still been happy as a clam. An interplanetary clam that somehow made it to Mars along with the colonists. However, Haemimont Games actually included story elements in their game, and they carry implications and vary in difficulty.
The option does exist to forgo participating in a story at all, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to have a few wrenches thrown at you. Still, those story elements are both a nice addition to the game while not saturating the experience. The majority of your time will be spent on managerial tasks, not unraveling a conspiracy or navigating political intrigue.
WILDCARD: TATERS, PRECIOUS?
Perhaps one of the things I like about Surviving Mars the most, is the sense of humor permeating it. It’s clear that Haemimont Games designed this title to be a fairly accurate representation of realistic struggles that humanity would face, but with a little fun injected into the mix.
Obviously it wouldn’t take a matter of days for rockets from Earth to arrive, and settlements probably wouldn’t be nearly as elaborate, but that’s part of the charm. Surviving Mars is about being grounded in reality just enough to make it interesting, without making the game a horrifically boring slog. It’s possible to suspend disbelief just enough for us hard sci-fi nerds to be content with the experience.
Also, for those that are into a little assistance every now and then, cheats are available for PC players simply by pressing the tilde (`) key. Ah, just like the good ol’ days.
So is Surviving Mars worth taking a gander at? That’s up to you. Haemimont Games didn’t set out to make a realistic depiction of the colonization of Mars, but they also didn’t aim to gloss over the important factors. There’s a wonderful balance struck. It’s a great title for those looking for something to scratch that strategy itch, and you don’t need to worry about attackers trying to wipe your creation off the map.
If you’re looking for a game that balances strategy with humor, while providing optional storylines and beautiful habitation domes, Surviving Mars might just be a game for you.
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