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.
4X style games aren’t the kinds of games you start to kill an hour or two, they’re the ones you start when you want to kill days. I can remember whole LANs that were lost to games like Alpha Centauri, whoever was “dragging the chain” on their turn ridiculed endlessly until they were done. Indeed when I first spun up Stellaris, the latest game from Paradox Interactive, I recieved a message from one of my friends saying I wouldn’t have time to finish it. As the unfolding hours showed he was 100% correct as even 9 hours with this game feel like you’re barely even scratching the surface. Still I can see the appeal but unfortunately Stellaris tends towards repetition very rapidly, making longer sessions more of a chore than anything else.
You’re the leader of a young civilisation that’s just discovered the miracle of space flight. Like all good civilisations your first task is to set about exploring the universe in the hopes of finding other planets and solar systems ripe for exploitation. Along the way you’ll likely encounter other lifeforms (some more or less advanced than you), relics of civilisations of the past and all sorts of celestial phenomena. The tools you’ll have at your disposal will vary widely each time you attempt this and will greatly impact the way in which you expand into the universe. Whether your civilisation thrives or perishes is up to you and the decisions you make in your journey across the great black.
Like most games in the 4X genre Stellaris errs on the side of simple graphics without too much flair. Since you’ll be spending most of your time zoomed all the way out this doesn’t come up too often, although the lack of detail becomes glaringly obvious for things like the ship designer. Of course these low-fi graphics are a deliberate choice as most of your rig’s horsepower will be focused on churning through the simulations required. For the most part this works well however there are some rather glaring issues with the simulation system which can make your experience far more frustrating than it needs to be (more on that later).
The core game of Stellaris is your typical 4X affair, centred around finding new planets, colonising them if you can and repeating that process ad infinitum. Stellaris shakes things up a little bit by taking a different approach to the upgrade/technology tree system, dividing all upgrades into 3 categories. Each of these categories can be researched by a scientist but what they can research is random. This means that you could, potentially, go the entire game without getting the technology required to build colony ships. Armies, rather than being pre-defined types, are all fully customisable. This means that there’s another element of randomness when it comes to combat as you can never be quite sure how well your army composition stacks up against another. Finally since your aim in Stellaris is to be a true galactic empire there’s a system to add planets to “sectors” which are then controlled by an AI for you. There’s still more to Stellaris however even summarising them all would take longer than I have to write and you to read, I’d wager.
Starting off Stellaris is a daunting prospect as there’s just so much thrown at you that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The tutorial system does a pretty good job of walking you through everything however it’ll probably take a couple retries before you get the hang of the basics. Once you get past that point however the early game can be quite interesting as you try to pick out the best upgrades, figure out where to best place your outposts/colonies and how you deal with the hostiles getting in your way. Indeed I think my favourite part of Stellaris is the early to mid game as it feels quite varied, progress is consistent and there are no major issues getting in your way. It’s once the game starts to creep past the 2 to 3 hour mark that things start to turn south, usually for a variety of different reasons.
Typically you’ll spend the first part of your game defining your borders and trying to cordon off sectors that you can exploit later. Past a certain point though all your territory will be exploited and your borders brushing up against numerous potential foes. It’s at this point you have a tough decision to make: either start preparing for total war with someone (although you should probably do that anyway as it’ll likely come for your eventually) or start attempting diplomatic relations. The latter is, honestly, a total crap shoot as it seems most alien races aren’t willing to do anything unless you lavish them with resources. The former is the option you will be forced into at one point or another as there’s simply no way to expand your territory otherwise. Worse still if you do want to play pacifist there’s every chance that another race will simply not take a liking to you and completely decimate you, something that happened to me on several occasions.
The sector system, whilst a good idea, does little to reduce the burden of ensuring that your system is running as well as it can be. Sure you can set goals and whatnot but issues like a mixed species population, developing factions, etc. will all keep drawing your attention. As your empire grows these problems become more and more frequent making it incredibly draining to run an empire that spans more than a few sectors. Indeed I abandoned a couple games simply because they became too tiresome to continue with, instead wanting to try my hand at starting again to see if there was a better way to set myself up. In the end I didn’t find anything which is probably why I didn’t play as much as your average Paradox Interactive fan does (around 30+ hours, according to the data I have available).
There are also some niggling issues which need to be addressed. The fact that achievements can only be acquired in Ironman Mode is something the game doesn’t make obvious to you and is honestly a pain to get working. It took me more than 5 hours of game play to realise I hadn’t gotten a signle achievement and then another 30 minutes of getting the cloud save feature working so I could actually start a game with achievements on. Worse still the Ironman Mode saves every month, something that freezes your game session every minute or so if you’re playing on fastest. Honestly it’s more frustrating than its worth which is why I think most simply don’t bother. This isn’t to mention some quality of life improvements that are required, like being able to filter planets you’ve scanned by say habitable status, or your colonies by the type of shipyard you have and so on. Essentially a lot of it relies on your memory or simple brute forcing, something which takes much of the joy out of the experience. Indeed I’m not alone in thinking this either as many of the threads I read whilst trying to find these things led me to other players looking for the same features.
The emergent stories of Stellaris can be quite engaging though, both from the perspective of how you grew your empire to the various little pre-generated story titbits that are strewn throughout the universe. One of my empires tried, with varying levels of success, to infiltrate a less developed race to prep them for our arrival. Another alien race found out about this though and accused me of enslaving them. Whilst that was partially the point on my end (it was a strategic planet) the fact that they reacted in such a way was a surprise to me. This did mean the end of my civilisation however as the other alien race was far better equipped for war than I was.
Stellaris is an adequately competent 4X game with a bevy of unique features that keep the experience fresh and interesting, at least in the early to mid game. The random technology trees, procedurally generated galaxies and random alien races means every play through will be unique. However the game rapidly becomes a burden the longer you play it, even with the AI systems that are designed to make your life a little easier. The niggling issues that are still present even a month after release only exacerbate this problem, especially if you’re someone who wants to hunt down all the achievements. Overall I think Stellaris is worth the price of admission, especially for fans of Paradox or the 4X genre, but falls short of my “must play” list.
Stellaris is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total game time was approximately 9 hours with 26% of the achievements unlocked.