Science fiction has shown us the perils of trying to colonise the Red Planet, but now you can have a pop at it yourself in Surviving Mars, the new simulation game from Haemimont Games, who previously did an excellent job with the Tropico series.
Unsurprisingly then, Surviving Mars is set on Mars itself, and players are tasked with establishing a colony that is self-sufficient using the resources it finds on the planet. And that’s the only information you are given to start off with.
Surviving Mars describes itself as a “hardcore survival city-builder, where players will be tasked with creating a liveable colony in the harsh, hostile environs of Mars”. The hardcore nature though comes about because it doesn’t offer any guidance until a mistake has been made, instead relying on you to actually figure out what is required yourself. Omitting information seems a cheap way to increase difficulty.
This is further compounded by the lack of explanation on the controls. The first hour or two are infuriating as you struggle to make any sense of the controls. Buildings are placed inside of Domes for colonists to work in, but initially trying to highlight these buildings sees the Dome selected instead. It turns out that a simple double-tap of the A button highlights the building inside the Dome, but this is never properly communicated, and I got lucky in discovering this. Ditto for each building sub-menu; this is accessed by pressing RT, but what makes it more confusing is that nothing on the menu is highlighted until you press right as well.
If all that doesn’t sound too bad then you can be a real glutton for punishment when it comes to choosing where your funding comes from. There are choices from the major players in the ‘Space Race’ including the USA, Russia and China, as well as options from SpaceY (not to be confused with Elon Musks’ Space X) and Church of the New Ark. Each option provides varying amounts of beginning funds along with unique positive and negative traits. Some are harder than others though and are graded appropriately.
Once you do get the hang of Surviving Mars though, it comes across as a very competent simulation game; one that, at times can be a very relaxing experience. When things weren’t going wrong, I could happily sit back and watch my colonists go about their daily routines, and this is in part to the fantastic soundtrack.
Normally, opinions on soundtracks are held until the end of any review. But the main soundtrack on Surviving Mars has properly blown me away. It’s a very retro-futuristic sound – along with the rest of the overall aesthetic – but they complement each other perfectly. And it’s this that keeps me coming back to play more of this game.
A lot of thought has gone into the overall look and style of things too, and for the most part the graphics do that work justice. Zoom in too far though and the colonists and buildings do not look too great.
The gameplay, whilst solid, is nothing new for a simulation game. Starting off with a few basic things to build and a starting amount of resources, players need to collect the resources available to them to then build bigger and better things, before being able to invite colonists onto the surface. It’s a gameplay cycle that has existed before, and exists here also.
Where Surviving Mars tries to differentiate itself – and add yet further difficulty – is by increasing the number of resources available. Where most sim games have four or five, Surviving Mars has 11 in total: Four basic resources including concrete and food, and four advanced resources that need to be synthesised from other resources. On top of these you have power, water and oxygen that are gathered from the planet itself. You will always find yourself short of one of them, typically the one you need most.
When your colony starts expanding and getting to a larger size, being able to zoom in and out proves crucial. However, zoom out too far and you end up on an overview map. This is useful at times but it would have been better to have a larger scope to zoom out with to get a better view.
Surviving Mars has also gotten rid of a traditional campaign with missions requiring different objectives. Instead, each New Game has an open-ended structure but you can add a Mystery to proceedings as well. Mysteries are just that; a scenario that will need to be uncovered by playing through the game, with the exact requirements are unknown until they are triggered. These Mysteries have names ranging from The Power of Three, Beyond Earth to Wildfire and The Last War, each with an accompanying quote from such people as Isaac Asimov, Bill Gates, Jean-Luc Picard and HAL 9000 that appear to give a clue. But they are very cryptic.
This open-ended approach also means the achievements require time and effort. Many are for building high level buildings and reaching milestones in terms of number of colonists but also for completing the Mysteries and achieving certain feats with the different, generous contributors.
The first few hours of Surviving Mars are frustrating and the game can come across a bit disappointing; stick with it though and once you have figured out what to do all by yourself – due to the ineffective tutorial tips – the game opens up and almost becomes a completely different experience. Things start to make a lot more sense and you begin to understand the intricacies, and what is required to take your colony to the next level. And once you get to that stage there is a lot of depth and stuff to uncover to keep you going back to Mars for a long time.
Remember, you are exploring an entirely new planet for the first time, there is a lot to discover.