What is so appealing about space travel? Is it the sense of discovery and adventure? Is it the thought that there is an infinite universe out there just waiting for us? Or is it the idea that we might find aliens with 7 sets of genitalia to mate with like a pre-Next Generation Star Trek crew? Sigmund Freud would probably say it was that last one, well, he would if he had known what Star Trek was. Much like Alpha Centauri and RimWorld before it, Surviving Mars is a game all about trying to survive in space, this time revolving around the small red planet of the solar system. You start out with one rocket and must select what you’re going to need to create a thriving colony, relying on your limited funding and what exports you can scavenge to create a thriving utopia in space.
Like a lot of base building games, it relies on you enjoying micro-managing the construction of a settlement down to exactly where the waste dumping and storage piles go. There is also a pretty steep learning curve which is difficult to avoid in any decently complicated strategy game, especially one that has so many restrictions on the placement of certain buildings and resource production facilities. When you start out your first game, you have to select the different resources that you’ll be sending on your first mission rocket, helpfully explained to you by a few hint windows. You have to select from rare resources, prefabricated buildings and remote vehicles that will help you to create a starting point on the red planet. Once you’re done, you select a landing zone and begin building.
Your first point of call is to get a working base that can support a human population. Firstly, this means having a concrete factory to build with, water and oxygen saved up, and as much food as possible to keep your settlers alive. Getting the right balance between these things can be a bit difficult throughout your first game, and there is a good chance that you’ll probably need to start a few different games before you actually manage to get a thriving community going. The drones that you use to create structures can be fussy little gits at times. Part of their job is to keep your different structures running well, so when a power line goes haywire or a structure starts to fall into disrepair, they rush over to fix it. Well, actually they’re supposed to rush over and fix it, they manage to figure this out for power cables, but when it comes to structures, they seem to have a bit of a blind spot. Not only do they not automatically maintain your buildings, but you also can’t tell them to repair things from their own command menu, although there is an option for it. Instead, you have to go to the building that is breaking down and click ‘request maintenance’. While this is fine and at least lets you repair your buildings, it is a bit baffling considering that the maintain option on the drones’ panels doesn’t seem to actually do anything.
If you do actually manage to keep your structures functioning, then your next problem is going to be making sure that you’ve placed everything in the right places. While you don’t want to place any structures too closely to a resource location so as to not leave enough space for the required structure, some production buildings need to be close enough to habitation domes to ensure that human workers can actually reach them. On top of that, you also have to make sure that you haven’t created such a huge crisscrossing network of cables and pipes that you can’t actually build any of the necessary buildings to keep your community going.
Obviously, there is a lot to take into consideration when you first start playing the game, and this is the largest part of the reason that you’ll probably have a few false starts before you manage to get the hang of it. It’s really best to hold off building any structures until you’ve got a plan in place as to where everything is going to go in relation to everything else, and even then you might end up forgetting the one piece of vital equipment that you need. Having said all that, the appeal of the game lies in its technical gameplay. It is incredibly satisfying to finally build that perfect base on Mars that runs to perfection, even if it does eventually get destroyed by a freak meteor storm.
Once you’ve finally managed to build up a structure, it’s time to order a new rocket to your planet and bring aboard a bunch of needy human colonists to turn your voyage into a profitable venture by producing rare metals and industrializing as much of the planet as you can. At this point, the game adds another element: making sure that you have enough food and entertainment to stop your colonists from going ‘Twilight Zone’ on all of your robots or defecting to “Space Russia”. While this does add another element to juggle between keeping enough power in your system and stopping it all from decaying, it does ramp into it quite nicely. While the system management does take some time to get used to, there is no actual rush on getting your colonists to the planet, so you can take as long as you like to get your supplies built up and your base looking nice and hospitable.
If Surviving Mars is your sort of thing, you’ll probably end up sinking a frankly embarrassing amount of your time into it, and when you do eventually emerge from the cocoon of Doritos and Mountain Dew that surrounds your PC, you’ll start seeing little drones swarming across your eyes for days at a time. Despite the few little niggles and bugs present, everything on offer here is made to appeal to the kind of micro-managing control freak who enjoyed games like Master of Orion but thought that there was just too much social interaction and laser battles going on.
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release Date: 15th March 2018