The once serene red sands of Mars are now littered with broken robots, haphazardly laid power lines and cold lifeless corpses. This colony’s less than able founder had sadly managed to lure hundreds of people onto the lifeless rock before the true folly of his plans took their lethal toll. It was supposed to be a hopeful journey to a new life. Things quickly spiraled into freezing cold, starvation and eventual mass death. Hopefully, the next brave souls to set foot on the planet will end up more than a forgotten mistake.
That hopeless leader was me, and learn I did from the first Roanoke-esque mishaps of my maiden colonization voyage. Surviving Mars is a top down city-builder set on the eponymous planet, where you are tasked with establishing a living, sustainable colony. After choosing who you are and work for, you can scroll around a rendered version of Mars and pick any spot on the map to settle.
Prepare for Takeoff
Each spot is broken down into a grid filled with unique challenges. Some are geological, as craters and cliffs disrupt linear layouts. Natural disasters occur with varying frequency depending on the site. You can expect meteorological events from snap freezes to dust storms. Resource locations also need to be discovered so where your rocket first touches can make things unpleasant without proper surveying.
Before taking a stab at the inhospitable wastes, you need to decide what to bring with you given the monetary and weight constraints. As a new captain, I had absolutely no idea what to do and the game doesn’t really have the time to explain it all. So off I went with a collection of stuff which I soon found was wildly inadequate for my needs.
Once the landings struts touch, the game begins in earnest. Before you can start importing real people, you have to set up the infrastructure with autonomous drones who keep themselves busy with any task within their zone. These early structures will become the skeleton which the meat will sit atop. Like a coy mentor allowing their student to stumble into common pitfalls, the in game tips don’t really have a lot to say about anything beyond a small snippet of text. Learning is more of a trial and error affair (unless you’re one of those in game encyclopedia reading weenies). Erecting structures is simple enough, you put a plan down and drones dutifully collect the necessary ingredients and viola.
Power lines are the bones of the whole operation, as everything of importance needs juice. Off I went, stitching up extended lines from resource to resources. Water and air are the next order of business. Wiring buildings for life support is intuitive enough so up went more pipes. Giant Truman Show style domes are the final step so after they were all hooked and housed up, I figured everything was going smoothly and ordered my first batch of brave space monkeys.
I guess you could call it a “failure”
The situation quickly deteriorated after my third batch of colonists. A dust storm had damaged my buildings and my funding had dried dried up. My people were marooned with no air or water as lifeless drones cruelly sat lifelessly idle. Things went from thriving to shit in a blink of an eye and the game hadn’t warned me of my impending failure until the die was proverbially cast.
Surviving Mars is definitely not for the faint of heart, as entire playthroughs can be boned way before you know it. In the earliest cases of my failure, this moment came extremely early, as the long, winding cables I had placed were hard to service and quick to break. However, you can’t really fail early on so these mistakes aren’t punished until far into the future. Personally, I like how these sort of intuitive rules are learned viscerally by horrible failure if ignored, but some may not appreciate the harsh lessons after hours of work.
Adapt to Survive
Since catastrophic malfunction is pretty assured for the first few runs, it speaks to the entertainment value that I was eager to jump into a new map with a new leader and sponsor. How each combination can vary wildly and lets you be pretty creative and fun about how you approach the unique challenges of each new map. Sponsors really determine how you will play, from the mining colony of The Blue Sun Corporation to the research focus of the EU.
Leader professions augment how you approach these goals, usually with different starting technologies. For example, by using rocket shuttles, it’s possible to construct remote satellite bases connected without wiring. A Chinese or Indian backed mission can quickly replace lost colonists, so perhaps a poorly supported mining extension on your base might be worth the risk.
Horrific as this may be, for better or worse, I never really feel that much of an attachment or immersion from any of these cities as the game doesn’t really put any emphasis on world building. It would be cool to have some more dynamic interactions with your Earthbound sponsors. All you have are simple material re-ups and it’s focus on a being a city building sandbox eventually takes its toll.
Growing your burgeoning little Martian ant farm is appropriately where the game comes to life. Once you have a handle on things, reaching out to a new cluster of Martian treasures properly feels like a risk. It is not just a dry matter of extending a new arm of your base. New arms strain your power and supply lines can quickly sicken your main base. You need to carefully balance risks and rewards. These decisions can make or break an early base so the effort to stay prepared and thoughtful during these stages is crucial.
The transition from bumbling amateur to disciplined manager is smooth. I always feel like I’m learning things about how to improve for the next outing. This is largely due to the sheer number of actions you have to take. A medium sized base will have tons to do and consider at one time. I found myself falling into a managerial trance-like state quickly after jumping in. There is kind of a limit to this growth for me however. I never really got serious enough to really start micromanaging every aspect you can (individual colonist jobs/traits etc.). If you’re the exacting factory manager type, a large colony can have you occupied for days.
Speaking of caps, Surviving Mars unfortunately falls into a common category for titles of this sort – getting tiresome as your holdings become expansive. To be fair, there are good systems in place to ensure that the writhing tendrils are largely self sufficient as drones will automatically handle the mounds of tedious tasks that can murder a game like Civilization.
However, like those games, all of your modular base parts are similar. This means the stuff that needs personal attention is all the same. Ironically, I felt like a drone controlling the drones. Eventually, there are so many moving parts that dealing with it is too much of a chore to want to continue. Despite having a good array of buildings available, nothing was really that conceptually interesting. There are overarching “mysteries” to act as long-term objectives. Sadly, they weren’t compelling enough to get me building up the needed infrastructure to solve them.
Bugs on Mars
Weird inefficiencies and design quirks make extended journeys even more difficult. Technologies are largely all locked in the beginning so for some reason you have to scan planetside anomalies to unlock them. This makes things extremely difficult to plan out if you don’t know what you can actually do. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if remaking the shape of your base was easy. Things like rebasing colonists, rewiring drone infrastructure and even moving resources around is much more of a hassle than it should be. Even a mild mistake in an established system is enough to make me start somewhere else instead of fixing it.
Controlling the bigger, individual drones is a strange inclusion as well. Since they are single purpose, I’m not sure why I have to personally tell them to scan or collect . Having to do it yourself is like following a Roomba around and pointing at the dirt. The game is not bug free either. A rocket stuck in planet side limbo managed to torpedo one of my promising saves.
Should you buy?
Surviving Mars, is competent but dried up fairly quickly for me. The systems in place work well and it accomplishes all it wants to do effectively. It has a good natural difficulty and good variation between plays. For those who are comforted by grid lined paper, this is probably a cathartic managerial experience. I am not in that group however. Like the planet itself, the whole experience felt a bit one note and bare. To me, there needed to be something else, another angle or facet to the game to give it the life that it desperately needed.