There was a moment when I stopped asking the question, “How is this considered a survival colony builder?” Within moments, my metal mine ran dry leaving me without enough materials to repair the malfunctioning power cables. Next to go where my oxygen generators. “A colonist has died,” Surviving Mars’ AI assistant warns me in its detached, robotic voice. By the time I found the colonist that kicked the bucket, four more had died. It quickly became a cascade of colonists collapsing and gasping for air in every dome. Life on the Red Planet is definitely perched on the razor’s edge, which can provide an engrossing and sometimes frustrating sense of danger and urgency to a genre that’s usually laid-back and relaxing.
The player’s mission in Surviving Mars is to establish a permanent population of colonists on a pleasingly rendered map based on real terrain data from our planetary neighbor. When starting the game, humans don’t come to Mars until they can survive there, so all the infrastructure and housing needs have to be established first. As such, the game’s opening hours (around 2 to 3 hours) are spent in control of a convenient, remote-control drone army. The drones are paired to trundling rovers or static drone hub buildings (or in some cases, the landing rocket itself). The drones have many jobs to accomplish such as harvesting and stockpiling resources, laying down grids of power lines and life support piping and building the habitat domes.
The game bears a clean, retro aesthetic of rounded domes with bright colors that pop well against a somewhat dull desert environs based in an unusual hex-based grid scheme. The hexes are unique, but tend to make placing right-angle grids of power and life-support lines a bit fiddly. The game even includes a native Photo Mode to allow players the ability to take screenshots of the settlements. The sounds in Surviving Mars can seem rather quiet…at least until one finds any of the the in-game radio stations, complete with DJs and distinct selections of music. I tended to gravitate to the funny commercials to be found on Free Earth Radio, but Red Frontier’s country-inflected playlist made for relaxing construction sprees.
By the time the first humans set foot on the planet, I had built an elaborate life support network pumping oxygen and electricity to the domes while plotting what my next objective would be. The list of potential objectives is a bit daunting, but since the game does not have you worry about the needs of the colonists first, Surviving Mars has a forgiving early game.
The real task is getting all of the cogs in this to work together and you’re given relatively incomplete, minimum advice on how to do so. To be fair, Surviving Mars plays well as a sandbox game in which you’re free to run your colony as you see fit, but there are certain benchmarks you’re encouraged to hit. As I was learning the ropes, I spent a lot of time sitting around wondering what to do next while waiting to see if a crucial advancement had become available in the semi-randomized tech tree.
Depending on which mission sponsor you chose, you’ll also get some extra help. The easiest of the sponsors to pick when starting out is the International Mars Mission, netting you a substantial monetary budget. While money doesn’t mean anything on Mars, it is very handy when buying cargo that can be sent over from Earth, especially when you are not yet self-sufficient.
THINGS NEW PLAYERS SHOULD KNOW:
Now, for those players who would rather simply build an interesting Martian ant farm than constantly fighting off colony-wide cataclysms, there are ways to tweak the difficulty to make Mars more survivable. Players can select from a multitude of available colony sites which allows you to decide how abundant certain resources are and how often you’ll have to deal with natural disasters like meteor strikes.
The goal is setting up the foundation of your production chain for your colony. Despite its survival aspect, Surviving Mars still follows the standard pattern of turning resources into finished products and building whole industries out of them. This is accomplished while trying to keep the colonists happy, or at least placated.
Regardless of which setting I played on, I didn’t find that the individual personality quirks and flaws available to my colonists created much in the way of interesting scenarios. It could be due to the fact that I weeded out some of the less stable applicants, so all my colonists more or less behaved like good little worker bees. Players can certainly make the colony life harder on purpose by inviting alcoholics and antisocial creeps who are going to stir the pot. These colonist choices have no real impact on the game, unless you happen to be one of those players with an inner demon that causes you to summon tornadoes or alien invasions upon your SimCity. Since there will always be plenty of healthy, hardworking applicants to choose from, this aspect of the game feels more like an optional novelty than a core game mechanic.
Another aspect to the game that made its presence known a bit late into the game for my preference were the mysteries. While they tend to give a player a grand narrative sweep, I would’ve appreciated more drama and personality in between these. Rather, the game is filling these rather large spaces with the standard building, expanding, and maintaining. This aspect of the game left me feeling unsatisfied.
One of the minor gripes I have with Surviving Mars is the colonist selection and usage. Colonists tend to be nothing more than simple summaries of their traits and specialties with no reason for a player to become emotionally invested. With the scale of the settlements being built, there’s no efficient way to go into the colonist’s personal micromanagement that many other Sims-like games would encourage. This game has no advisor characters or even rival factions to deal with – no adversaries are made. It’s just you, your colonists, and the planet environment for the most part.
At the end of the Martian day, Surviving Mars is a simulation sandbox where everyone can die at any time simply due to making a minor miscalculation in your electrical grid. If you can manage to stick it out through a slightly forgiving, but poorly explained learning phase, there’s a lot of interesting challenges beyond the glass habitation domes of Surviving Mars. I just really wish I had more reasons to care about the colonists other than for the balance sheets of rare metals, synthetic polymers and microchips.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE DEVELOPERS:
If I were a developer I would provide more information and assistance in the start of the game. It does not have to be a tutorial, but perhaps some helpful tooltips to guide the player to a more successful start. I would like to see a way to list or sort the people to better place them where needed or provide help. A list that shows all my engineers so I can assign them to engineering positions or a list of colonists with mental issues and what their needs are so I can help them instead of having to click on multiple buildings to try and find the little suckers and have to individually go through each one. Also, the ability to spawn weather and disaster conditions during game play would be a fun feature for those who like to dabble in a little destruction from time to time. Lastly, I would make the colonists would be more than just the sum of their perspective traits to make me care more about my selections beyond choosing those colonists with the most desirable traits.