Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Haemimont Games
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Mars, the Red Planet that has always held a strange fascination for us little Earthlings. Like so many, I watched the film adaption of The Martian and was intrigued by the story of survival on an alien world. Scientists and regular ol’ people have long dreamed of colonizing Mars, but just how difficult a task would it be? Could it ever be done? Well, Surviving Mars wants to know that too, so for some baffling reason it puts you in charge of turning Mars into a new home. A really, really dusty home.
The first big decision you make in Surviving Mars, aside from what to name the rocket which will probably take you an hour alone, isn’t about how you’ll build the inaugural Martian settlement. No, it’s about where you’ll land. There are so many places to choose from and they all have differing amounts of the basic resources needed to build all the things that squishy humans require to stay alive. First, you have to pick a general area, and then you have to select a specific spot after spending a few probes to get back more detailed information. And let’s not forget that you need to touch down somewhere that has plenty of flat terrain otherwise planning your new colony is going to be a royal pain in the backside.
The dream of having a flourishing planet full of happy humans is a distant goal for the initial hour or two, though, as you first have to spend your time commanding a small army of drones and rovers in order to build the basic infrastructure needed to support life. Your first rocket will touch down, loaded with whatever you opted to take based upon funding and weight, and from it will stream your automated workforce, and with them you can get down to business, starting with popping down a concrete plant or two that will scour the Martian surface in order to create the building blocks you’ll need. From there you’ll slowly build solar panels and wind turbines as well as the power cables needed to run everything, then you might add oxygen generators and a mine capable of hauling up water from beneath the red surface.
These first few hours are both brilliant and frustrating in the almost equal measure. The slow work of building up your resources in preparation for the very first colonists means that when the moment finally comes to disembark the first Martian explorers it’s all the sweeter, while also giving you some time without the pressure of people starving or suffocating in which to plan things out. As it turns out, humans are bloody hard to keep alive sometimes and the game doesn’t teach you very much, so this period gives you a chance to learn some of the mechanics without worrying.
The frustration comes from managing resources. You build pads where all the resources you gather are kept, but since your drones must always stay in range of their specific rover or drone hub they won’t simply transfer resources themselves as needed to complete a building, instead you’ve got to manually tell a transport rover to get metal or concrete from here and take it over there. It’s fine in the early days of your colony when you are managing just a couple of buildings, but as time goes on and you’ve got so much more to keep your eyes on having to constantly ferry resources from area to area becomes an irritating slog of micromanagement, a problem that doesn’t get solved until you can build a shuttle port which will automatically deploy little ships to move resources around as needed. However, this building needs fuel, so it can take a while before you can have one running. Man, is it worth it, though.
An effort is made to combat resource transportation fatigue via your carrier rovers who can be assigned transport routes, but the options are too limited to make this idea effective. You can command a rover to pick up a specific resources or all resources from a small area and then take them somewhere, but once the resources are gone it will stop and there is no way to make it ferry specific things back and forth, nor will the rover automatically recharge its batteries off the power grid, something you have to tell it to do or else it might get stuck. Nor can you queue up commands, so you can’t even tell it to transport something, recharge and then go somewhere else.
But I also have to concede that this micromanagement will be rewarding to a lot of people. Later on, you’re going to have a thriving colony that even has casinos and gyms, and the game looks a lot like a typical city-builder at that point, just with a red tinge to everything and the occasional oxygen hiccup that kills a few dozen people. In the early game eeking out a survival with limited resources makes Surviving Mars feel unique in the genre, part city-builder and part survival simulation.
When you finish your first dome there comes with it a sense of achievement, and that pride only grows when you call in the first rocket loaded with eager colonists who have not yet realized that you’re probably going to get them all killed. These giant domes can be populated with housing, factories, diners, pubs and even giant central spires which do a variety of things for your new human pets. With limited space comes interesting decisions to make since your colonists won’t travel from dome to dome to take advantage of the amenities, encouraging you to specialize your domes. You might have one mining metal and then turning that into machine parts, for example, and another that houses a nursery, school and university for the hopeful forthcoming Mars-born humans to study.
Humans tend to bring problems, though, because as we all know it’s impossible for a human to even breath without cocking things up massively. In this case they bring another layer of micromanagement to the game, albeit a well-meaning layer that winds up being frustrating. The developers wanted to ensure that the people living in your colony weren’t just drones in all but name and thus every colonist has unique traits that can be good and bad, as well as specializations that make them better at specific jobs. On paper this sounds intriguing, but in practice the various workers you have will often take on a job that’s completely unsuited for them despite their perfect job being right next to them with plenty of space for a new staff member. Doing jobs that don’t match their specialties means they take a penalty and will get unhappy, so to avoid this you have to attempt to control what they do by manually sending them to specific domes which becomes impossible once you have a few hundred colonists milling about. Not mention just because you send a geologist to a dome that focuses on mining doesn’t mean he won’t end up working in the local diner instead.
As your colony grows you’ll need to expand in order to grab more of the slowly depleting resources, and while it’s tempting to simply extend the pipes and cables that carry electricity, oxygen and water it’s a foolish errand as the longer the network the higher the chances of failures within those cables and pipes. And boy, let me tell you, this game really likes to wreck your cables and pipes which causes massive drains on your economy because apparently despite being able to travel to Mars you are incapable of constructing vital pipe infrastructure with automatic shut-offs. Failures occur often, and for some excruciating reason your little army of drones will not prioritize their repair above other things nor is there any way to directly command them to fix the problem, meaning you have to sit and watch helplessly as a bunch of people freeze to death or suffocate. In fact, so annoyingly broken is the system that it’s actually quicker to order the construction of a new pipe or cable than wait for a drone to finish its lunch break.
The point is expansion usually means setting up outposts that are largely self-sufficient, able to generate their own power, pump water and make oxygen. In fact, in many ways its smart segregate your main base, too, dividing it up into sections with each section have its own dedicated power, water and oxygen supplies, that way when things go wrong the entire colony doesn’t have to suffer. And yes, like any good city-builder, this is probably something you’ll learn from experience. Heart-breaking, saddening experience.
The idea is to basically become independent from Earth, but that doesn’t mean you can’t call home for a helping hand from the Motherplanet. You have funding that you can use to outsource research or to order up a supply rocket. When you call a rocket in you get to choose exactly what it will carry based on weight and the cash you have to spend, so you can get it to bring various resources or pre-fab buildings so that you can construct things that you’ve not researched yet. Once a rocket lands on Mars it can be refueled and sent back so that you don’t have to spend more cash purchasing new rockets, and you can even pack the rocket making the return trip with valuable metals that will earn you more funding.
Pushing you along are a series of achievements like getting to 100 colonists, as well evaluation challenges where the game just drops by to see how things are going. Got your first colonists? Awesome, now you have to ensure they survive for a certain amount of time. Hey, is that someone suffocating over there? Damn it. There are even some slight narratives running through the game in the form of Mysteries that crop up, many of which are based on famous stories or other things. I won’t spoil them because they’re best enjoyed by going in blind.
There’s always the threat of disaster to keep you on your toes, too. Several hours into my first game I had a fairly decent colony going consisting of several domes, and my economy was starting to come together slowly. I had my eyes on a patch of metal where my first independent outpost could move me one step closer to no longer needing deliveries from Earth. My glowing sense of pride was somewhat damaged, though, when a savage meteor shower rained down deathly pain by consistently annihilating the pipes carrying water and oxygen to the domes, and since I hadn’t been smart enough to build in redundancies into everything my colony began to crumble. I watched in mute horror as my tiny army of drones did everything except fix the problems. Thankfully the storm didn’t completely decimate my colony and I was able to recover while learning from mistakes.
The point is the game tries quite hard to keep you moving forward, which is important because like a lot of titles in this genre there can be large periods where you aren’t doing very much except watch your beautiful optimization tick away. Another way it tries to keep you invested is the sizable, randomized research trees where you’ll unlock an impressive variety of bonuses, as well as the new buildings you need to expand further. By default you can always have one research topic going at any given time, and to increase research speed you can spend some of your funding to outsource some of the work to Earth or you can find anomalies on the map which when scanned grant a chunk of research points. You can also build research buildings, too. Despite the order in which you unlock things being randomized I never felt screwed by the system, although there were a few frustrating moments when a building didn’t pop up until quite late, but that just meant I had to ensure a steady supply of rare metals to Earth so that I could purchase what I needed. For some, this could be a problem, but for me I felt like the research order being different gave the game extra replay value.
The issue is that despite these things attempting to pull you forward it doesn’t take all that long for you to feel like you’ve seen and done everything of real interest. Once you have several domes operational and a reasonable economy you feel as though you’re doing things simply for the sake of it, rather than to reach a goal.
Some general quality of life problems get in the way sometimes, such as the inconsistency surrounding left or right clicking to select stuff, like the developers had two people assigned to doing the UI who couldn’t agree on which button should be used. JUST PICK ONE!
To the developer’s credit, they’ve already announced plans to add new automation as well as the ability to connect domes which will make attempting to keep your population happy much easier. This shows a willingness to on the developer’s behalf to expand and improve their game.
But that’s all in the future and I have to review the game in its current state. What we have is a fun, solid city-builder with some interesting ideas and a couple of big flaws that are holding it back from being truly great. With some updates to fix some of the issues and expand a few key concepts, though, this could be a brilliant title that’s well worth picking up. Right now, it’s worth grabbing on sale or if you’re a big fan of the genre.