I’ve started to grow rather fond of these little city simulation games, each of them bringing a different bent on the same genre. Looking back over my gaming history it seems to have started with Anno 2070, a game I never would have played if it wasn’t for a gentle prodding from a good friend of mine. Since then I’ve played quite a few of them (even an Early Access one, breaking my rule!), usually getting to my first victory until I moved onto greener pastures. It’s rare that one manages to bore me into not wanting to play again which is unfortunately what Surviving Mars managed to do.
The premise of the game is simple enough, you’re part of a mission to establish a colony on Mars. You’re given a base set of infrastructure, a truckload of cash and a set amount of time to build the colony up to a respectable level. Mars isn’t a particularly hospitable place though, devoid of much of the resources that you’ll need to keep your humans alive and happy. At the same time you’re still at the behest of your supporters who are keen to exploit the natural resources of this yet untapped world.
Now I’ve never played any of the Tropico series or other titles that Haemimont Games is known for so I don’t have much of a baseline to compare it to. On first glance I thought it had a little bit of that Unity engine feel to it but they apparently have their own, custom built engine which was upgraded for Surviving Mars. It has a similar visual style to that of Cities Skylines with heavily stylized visuals including simple textures and bright colours. There are some cool bits of visual flair like vehicles, buildings and infrastructure all getting dusty after being around for a set period of time. Whilst the simple visuals are necessary, due to the game’s heavy simulation load and potential for a lot of items on screen, they’re certainly not one of the game’s negatives. I only wish the game gave you a little more reason to enjoy them up close (more on that later).
Surviving Mars is a colony building simulator with all the essentials you’d expect from such a game. You’ll be given a starting location and a set of infrastructure to get you started but beyond that you’re left on your own. Initially you’ll just be commanding a drone army, one that needs little more than a stable power source to survive the harsh martian terrain. You’ll use that to build up the minimum set of infrastructure required to start bringing humans down which in turn leads onto bigger and better things. Along the way you’ll research new tech, explore new terrain and grow your colony further. Your win condition will depend on which nation you align yourself to and it could be something as simple as reaching a colony of 200, building multiple domes or researching enough tech. There’s certainly a lot to do and, in true simulation fashion, it may take some time to get to the next thing you want to do. For some that’s part of the charm but unfortunately, for this writer, it was what ended up killing it.
Getting started in Surviving Mars is a bit of a struggle as even the quick game option doesn’t really give you a lot of direction to start off with. It gives you a few basic instructions here and there but unlike other simulation games, which usually give you a simple mission which will help you establish a basic colony, Surviving Mars does no such thing. This leads to maybe an hour or two of screwing around to figure out what you should do, in what order and what each of the mechanics is best used for. I believe this is intended, mostly to keep some mechanics a bit vague in order to generate those desperate moments when you forget to do something and suddenly your colonists are running out of food or something. Whilst I’m all for emergent gameplay elements like that, indeed one of my favourite stories is trapping all my colonists inside their first dome in Planetbase with no oxygen and no power to get out, forcing them takes away much of their charm. Still most of them are easy to avoid even though there’s no base overview panel or similar to keep a track on all the colony’s key stats.
Building up your colony can be done relatively swiftly if you make good use of the resupply mechanic, allowing you to spend capital to get resources from Earth. The limiting factor there will be your research however as the small domes you get at the start are too small to be useful. Making you colony self sustainable is quite the challenge as the specialised buildings you’ll need to fabricate the different resources (like polymers, electronics and machine parts) all require specialised facilities, most only built inside domes, and the requisite resources. Both of those will require colonists and the greater the number and mix of them you have the harder it will be to ensure they all have everything they want. This is somewhat easier in the later stages of the game when you have access to bigger domes of course but it does mean that the first few hours of a game are usually a bit of a struggle. From there though it starts to drag a bit as you get into a repetitive cycle of: ordering new resources from Earth, expanding as much as you can, waiting for some tech to research and repeating until you’ve had enough.
Indeed that’s what killed it for me in the end. I was definitely making progress but I still didn’t have a fully, self sufficient colony that I could depend upon whilst I focused on the higher order things. I did have domes producing each of the resources but the rate at which they did was so slow it was barely enough to keep everything going. So instead I’d be focused on the resource depots (since there’s no page to say you have X units of metal or anything), figuring out what I needed where, ordering enough from Earth and then ensuring they all got transited to the right places. Strangely it feels a lot like one of Paradox’s other games, Stellaris, where you end up getting bogged down in the minutiae of running everything rather than having fun with the big picture.
A lot of this is born out of the lack of quality of life features that would make the game a lot more fun. For example drones have no idea about anything outside of their control zones, meaning that if there’s resources in one zone that are needed in another (even if those zones overlap) they will never get transported there. This makes setting up new areas a real chore as you have to manually transport everything there. The lack of a colony health or overview page makes checking up on resources a real pain with the only indication of a problem being the alerts when things are on the brink of disaster. Worse still the normal notifications like “We have an oxygen shortage” are usually inaccurate, actually meaning that a dome you just built (that doesn’t have people in it yet) hasn’t been connected yet. The research trees are hidden unless you discover it in an anomaly or research up the tree which means there’s no driving motivator to push you along one path or the other. Also there’s no drag to select a bunch of units, a real pain when you want to reallocate a bunch of drones between zones.
All of these things, combined with the dreadfully slow pace of research in the early game, make it really hard to keep going past a certain point. Some of Surviving Mars’ negatives are easy enough to deal with, like the lack of tutorials or quality of life mechanics, but when it takes so long to do so little with so much effort I just end up getting bored. It’s a shame as there’s obviously a good amount of mechanical depth in Surviving Mars but at 6 hours play time I felt like I had been playing for 30. I didn’t even get to check out the “individually simulated” colonists, not that I think that would’ve made much of a difference in anything.
Surviving Mars is a game that feels like it left beta just a little bit too early. The core tenants of what the developer wanted to achieve are there, a colony simulator with a Mars bent, but the things that would make the game actually enjoyable to a wider audience are missing. Perhaps this is par for the course with the developer and the game is perfectly built for their fans, I wouldn’t know as this is the first title I’ve played from them. Still considering their pedigree I had higher expectations for what would amount to their 9th game in the genre. Given that the game has mod support and DLC to come it’s entirely possible that these issues will go away in due time but that wouldn’t be enough for me to recommend the game as it is now.
Surviving Mars is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $39.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.