“…a fresh, new, all-powerful city building experience.”
Welcome to the natural next step in the city building strategy genre. Fasten your seatbelts, check your oxygen levels and prepare for launch; we are go for Mars! Developed by Haemimont Games (Tropico 3, 4 and 5) and published by Paradox Interactive (Cities Skylines), Surviving Mars is a huge collaborative effort between genre veterans, working together to take their successful models off world towards new horizons. Fans from both the Tropico and Cities camps alike have been watching this game for some time, eagerly awaiting the fulfilment of its promise to forge a fresh, new, all-powerful city building experience. Now the time has finally arrived. Its time to set foot on the red planet…
Surviving Mars is a very self-aware title. It plays on the knowledge that its fiction may soon be a reality, inheriting the attitudes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX mission at its heart. Considering both science fiction and fact in equal measure, the game offers an entertaining vision and experience, grounded in a solid base of could-be reality. In this way, the Tropico influence signs through, whilst the Cities Skylines influence is slightly more subtle. This is owing to Paradox being largely in an advisory role as the game’s publishers, however an overt connection has been made between the games ahead of launch with a free Surviving Mars DLC for Cities, establishing an intriguing shared universe. Certainly, players of Cities who have not played Tropico will still feel at home with the middle-of-the-road presentation.
The premise of the game, if you can’t already tell, is to choose a location on the surface of Mars to establish the first human colony. The process begins with a delivery of drones and key resources to the surface, allowing you to construct the key infrastructure needed to allow said colony to become self-sufficient. self-sufficient. This includes the usual suspects such as power, water and oxygen, but also automated factories producing resources such as concrete and metals for construction. This early game stage can be swift or lengthy, largely depending on the quality and quantity of resources where you choose to land. As such, exploration and research are a huge part of your early game decision making.
Exploration in Surviving Mars takes on a couple of forms. Firstly, you must choose sectors on which to perform orbital scanning. Initially this reveals basic surface resources, but later upgrades can reveal valuable deposits deep below the planet’s crust. Occasionally you will also come across anomalies, which bring a variety of benefits to your cause. These can include new research prospects, rare mineral deposits or general boosts to your growing civilisation. This lead nicely into the research element of the game. Much like any similar strategy title, research comes in the form of a number of themed trees. These range from benefits to energy, food production and infrastructure to metal conditioning for your soon-to-be colonists. The descriptions and outputs of research is explained in an easy, accessible way, and every piece of research available feels as though it makes a genuine difference to the way you play the game. As a core background process, the system works brilliantly.
So you’re ready to colonise Mars? Your infrastructure is built, your resources are in a steady flow, and your dome stands proud, awaiting its first inhabitants. Now its time to check out the applicant pool. Naturally, not everyone on Earth is keen on a permanent move away from their home planet. Those who are, however, are not all “useful” to your cause either. Fortunately, you have your applicants personal details in advance, allowing you to set your preferences and only review those Earthlings that best suit your needs. At a basic level, you can sort by age and gender, allowing you to select a good mix of people to help your society thrive. From here, however, you need to consider your applicants’ skills and traits.
Some applicants have a background in useful professions, such as botany, science, geology or engineering. These applicants will bring key benefits to productivity when working in their specialism on Mars, and are generally the first people you need to consider. Traits, however, can potentially enhance or undermine these boons. Good traits can provide you with enthusiastic, rugged or survivalist colonists, amongst others. These colonists will work hard and be well adapted to the potential pitfalls of Martian dome life. Negative traits, on the other hand, can include laziness, hypochondria or idiocy, each having clear negative effects. Sometimes the lines can be blurred, such as hippies and loners who can have positive or negative impacts dependent upon their particular conditions at any given time. You job, taking all of this into consideration, is to pick the right colonists for your mission to Mars, and know which ones are best to leave behind.
At this point you might find that your colony is established, its inhabitants having survived their initial few Sols in the dome and now going about their daily lives. This is the stage during which the game will give you an overarching objective to achieve. These range from researching a set number of benefits for your colony to finding and exploring a number of anomalies in a given time. Along the way, you will need to continue to develop your infrastructure, providing food, shelter and resources for your growing population and their varied needs. On occasions, however, things can go a little sideways. Wear and tear means you must have fall-back plans in place if a dome’s power goes down, for example. On top of this, treats such as “dust devils” and meteor impacts can do critical damage to your colony at a moment’s notice. Achieving your objective in Surviving Mars, then, provides plenty of challenge along the way. The only problem with the game comes when this is, in fact, not the case…
It may sound strange, but much like Cities Skylines, the model of play for Surviving Mars relies on things going wrong. Both games offer a wide variety of elements for the player to control, from building to management, but in both instances there are periods of time where there is simply nothing to do but wait. This can mean that if you are fortunate enough not to experience threats to your colony’s survival as you play the game, you can spend long periods going through the motions, grinding your way to achieving your goal. This circumstance seems rare, as the game has enough variables to keep challenges regular and engaging. That being said, when these slow periods of play occur in the mid-to-late game, it can be a bit of a drag.
Surviving Mars is a fulfilling successor to the franchises of its developers and publishers. It offers a fantastic balance of city building, resource management, exploration, research and frequent challenges along the way, encapsulated in the delightful aesthetics of the red planet. With complex, near-future concepts portrayed in an accessible and easy-to-understand way, any fan of games such as Tropico or Cities Skylines will be able to appreciate the combined model of gameplay that Surviving Mars offers up. A fresh coat of paint laid on top of this fruitful hybrid makes Surviving Mars a pleasure to play. Despite a few slow moments, the game stands easy to recommend.