The makers of Tropico invite you to colonise the Red Planet, in this enjoyable city builder for PC and consoles.
There’s something very old-fashioned and welcoming about building a space colony on the harsh, inhospitable landscape of Mars. City builders like this used to be commonplace on the PC two decades or so ago, but now they’re a rarity and even more so on consoles. More than almost any other genre they’re almost impossible to make seem cool or exciting, and we’re not about to pretend that Surviving Mars is any different. But it is fun and engrossing, and that’s exactly what you’d hope for from such a game.
You should never judge a book by its cover, but to be honest one glance at a screenshot and the name of the game, spells out pretty much everything that Surviving Mars is about. You’re in charge of a colony on the Red Planet and have to construct and maintain buildings in order to not only sustain the population and keep them safe, but to also ensure they’re happy and entertained and… profitable.
Surviving Mars has an agreeably wry sense of humour but it plays the science relatively straight, so although there’s a lot of technobabble involved this isn’t, for the most part, science fantasy. It’s also not a simulation of modern, or near future technology, but what it does do is illustrate how difficult it would be to live on another planet. And how adding a survival element to a city builder can actually make it seem surprisingly fast-paced and tense.
City builders are usually set in somewhere like Ancient Rome or, as with SimCity, the modern day but there have been sci-fi versions of the concept before, such as last year’s Aven Colony, but they’ve rarely used the setting as anything more than window dressing. In Surviving Mars everything seems a lot more urgent and fragile, as you desperately try and keep the oxygen generators running or risk having hundreds of colonists suffocate to death in their own homes.
If you’ve played a city builder before then the basics will seem very familiar as you first ensure you’ve got a reliable source of energy, and in this case oxygen, and then start building essentials such as the sci-fi equivalent of granaries and farms. Once you’ve got a stable population you can then start thinking about factories and business areas, as well as entertainment to make sure everyone doesn’t go stir crazy.
The interesting thing about the Mars setting is that there’s no base level of subsistence: if your people don’t get food, oxygen, and water then they’re going to die – not just be unhappy. And of course none of these exist naturally on Mars (well they do, kind of, but they all have to be processed). What this means is that every structure is interconnected and a problem with the power generators or the factories can quickly cascade down the chain of interdependencies until within minutes nothing is working and everyone is dying.
The mitigating factor to the game’s level of difficulty is, inevitably, money. Depending on what sponsor you pick when you start you’ve either got access to a near infinite supply of cash (if you’re funded as an international space mission) or are left conquering the stars on the planetary equivalent of dole money (if you’re funded by a parody version of publisher Paradox Interactive). No money worries still doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful but it does simplify the game considerably.
The problems with Surviving Mars are fairly inevitable, with a serious lack of proper tutorials and awkward controls if you’re using a gamepad. There’s nothing much developer Haemimont Games can do about the latter but you’d think, given their experience on the consistently underrated Tropico series, that they’d realise that most people are going to need more help than they provide to get started. Especially as, unlike Tropico, this is much more of a straight sandbox game rather than something more story-led.
It’s also surprising that the game doesn’t make more of Haemimont’s comedic streak, as many of your potential colonists have highly dangerous characteristics like claustrophobia and alcoholism that could prove disastrous to all. But as long as you read their bios it’s easy to just not accept them, which ruins a potentially interesting element of the game. Unless you chose to add them on purpose that is, which can provide some of the game’s best moments – even if it’s likely to doom your colony.
What works better is the game’s various disasters – a meteor strike on Mars is a lot more dangerous than it ever was in SimCity – and some neat narrative-based side quests. These feature a randomised element, so you never know what you’re going to be faced with, and introduces a simple Tower Defense mechanic that probably should have been a bigger focus of the game.
Overall though Surviving Mars is a success and while it’s much easier to play on PC the PlayStation 4 version works perfectly well considering its limitations. Surviving Mars doesn’t revolutionise the genre but it does add some interesting wrinkles that makes it one of the most entertaining entries in recent years. So do as Arnie says and get your ass to Mars.
In Short: An enjoyable twist on the usual city building formula, that simulates the dangers of planetary colonisation impressively well – although it could have done with a slightly lighter touch.
Pros: The strategy side of things is well judged, with just the right balance of realism and gameplay. Sensibly varied difficulty levels. Disasters and story elements work very well.
Cons: The lack of tutorials is a needless oversight and the controls are inevitably awkward on a console. Not as funny or focused as Tropico.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Haemimont Games
Release Date: 15th March 2018
Age Rating: 7