Review: Surviving Mars

By Alex Connolly 15 Mar 2018 0

Review: Surviving Mars

Released 15 Mar 2018

Developer: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Simulation
Available from:
Steam
Direct
Reviewed on: PC

What do you get when you strip Tropico of its irreverence and plant what remains onto the iron oxide of the red planet? You get Surviving Mars, and this chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure comes with mixed results.

There has yet to be a really good off-world city/colony builder. There might be good off-world games, but each colony-centric effort I've found lacks a certain something. It might be a failure of personality, or missed opportunities to sell scope… maybe the premise makes for great Kim Stanley Robinson fodder, but doesn't translate well with the traditional city builder conventions.

Surviving Mars, from Banana republic specialists Haemimont, plonks the player on Mars with the aim to develop a workable colony. Your expedition starts under the customizable auspices of several factions. These factions offer a variety of boons, such as pre-existing research or positive stat increases on specific elements like mineral production. The factions also dictate part of the difficulty, so an international initiative is deemed easy, whereas Russia offers a hefty challenge. You can also at this point choose the initial load-out of your first ship, and what narrative thread you’ll be following as the game evolves – more on that below.

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Players then must decide where to set up shop – there may be a number of pre-scanned locations for you to land, or you can use one of your precious orbital probes to instantly scan a square. If you really want, you could cast the die and choose an unscanned square. Every square comes with details on the chances of concrete, water and metal prior being present. Deposits are still subject to procedural placement on the surface, though with a little exploration, players won't get caught short. Once a square had been scanned, all of the resources and other interactable elements within that space are revealed to the player.

When your skids hit the dusty seas of the red planet, it's a slow and sadly boring burn to establish a colony. Starting with a clutch of rovers and drones, you're tasked with getting the fundamentals up and running, prior to the arrival of living colonists. Concrete foundries are hitched to solar farms and wind turbines to begin grinding up the regolith for use elsewhere. Drone control stations and recharge pads keep the robots on task as they skitter from raw material and storage bay to project site. Cabling and aqueducts snake from facility to facility.

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Planning for the future feels a lot more exciting than it really is, given that research soon reveals the ability to decommission buildings and salvage what can be drawn back to storage. The flat topography feels dated in the wake of builders with more in the way of rolling terrain, especially with a hexagonal overlay popping open at every build order. We can get to Mars, but seemingly cannot install a windfarm on inclines, or space them beyond the confines of designated hexes.

Expansion is largely made on the back of the colonial drone fleet. These indefatigable crawlers are subject to drone controller radii and access to electricity, so there's a smidgen in the way of infrastructural overhead to keep the ball rolling. Heavy crawlers -- transporters, explorers and mobile controllers -- fulfil their expansionist role in the early game. Explorers are tasked with scanning points of interest revealed in sectors, often pulling in advanced tech options with each discovery. Mobile controllers function as expected, allowing its small clutch of workers to complete buildings and maintenance operations well beyond the reach of a base's static controller.

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But there's only so much that a robotic workforce can achieve in Surviving Mars. Eventually, once the water wells are pumping and purifying, and the air scrubbers are humming, colonists from Mother Earth will need to make the journey. Metal extractors need rig-workers, as do many other of the more technical facilities that make up the length of the game's tech tree. As such, domes are required, and they feature their own little real-estate wrinkles.

Life on Mars does require closed loop life support, with all the accoutrements of providing for air-breathing, water-drinking, food-eating bipeds. Domes provide a catch-all location to house the colonists, but in a Sims-like fashion, each arrival or indigenous native also requires employment, food and carefully-curated lifestyle structures to remain happy and productive. And alive.

Players will find themselves filling empty domes with high-density housing, water recyclers, small parks, social services and factories, as well as making sure they're plugged into the life support infrastructure. Colonists can specialise in particular careers -- social engineering allows for occupation preferences when loading colony-bound rockets on Earth -- and they provide increases in output once the manufacturing and science hubs get going.

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Each colonist has his or her own quirks, including positive and negative attributes. These attributes and more can be offset or coerced by tech, such as mind-control or cloning. It admittedly goes a long way to inject a much-needed sense of personality into the mix, but for me, undermines the scope of something that should feel a lot bigger.

However, there are also optional mysteries to explore, which form the pillars of nine 'campaigns' as it were. These range from the mundane to the high-concept; fraying diplomatic relations with Earth to encounters with incomprehensible alien sentience. The game can be enjoyed as merely an open-ended colony builder, but these mysteries graft a bit of exoticism, and offer direction where there is otherwise none beyond the fundamentals of operating a colony in perpetuity.

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For a management title, though, Surviving Mars is a strange one when it comes to information at a glance. All the stats are there; the current power and resource production, the tech output, deficits and surpluses and everything in between. The real issue is more an element of the mundane. Pathfinding for the heavy command rovers is often finnicky and doesn't respond particularly well in confined spaces.

Drones can be set to particular job types, such as maintenance or resource transfer, but it's often hard to see their immediate task and destination with any granularity. They can be manually guided to, say, a broken cable, but often didn't respond to the obvious fault. The damn machines would often just sit abreast from the sparking malfunction or move off to do something else. Priorities can be set for construction, but the holistic hierarchy is obfuscated and it's hard to see how the current colonial workload is distributed.

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Surviving Mars isn’t a bad game – how can it be, when its most egregious flaw is its willingness to be merely competent. But I played Surviving Mars twenty years ago, when it was called Outpost 2: Divided Destiny. In place of Outpost's mediocre combat, we get an unambitious infrastructure model and topography that could just as easily be Terran, if it weren't for the domes. Where is the awe-inspiring scope? Settlements feel Lilliputian, distance trivial, and an environment sold short by a lack of grandiosity.

At the risk of sounding like I'm searching for a game that Surviving Mars never claimed to be, I do feel the emphasis seem wrong, or at least out of focus. Haemimont traded out the cheekiness and political satire of Tropico for a more by-the-numbers builder, and even the skyhook of colonial quibbles and interstellar mysteries aren't quite enough to camouflage a tiring formula.

Surviving Mars is a stable, easily-parsed and often relaxing game. But for a game about our tentative steps into settling the solar system, Haemimont sadly haven't reached for the stars.

Surviving Mars is treading old ground, despite the new soil. For better or worse, it offers a comfortable colony management experience that trades innovation for familiarity.

Review: Surviving Mars

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