My first attempt to colonise Mars ended in disaster. It had all been looking so good, as I ambitiously expanded, set up new domes, broadened the reach of my drone network, and then disaster struck. One of my key sources of water ran out, my local food and resource production was exposed as being nowhere near good enough for self sufficiency, and my colonists started starving to death. Surviving Mars was certainly living up to its billing.
Some of the initial challenge in this colony builder is simply figuring out what you need to do and how you can do it – if you’re on console, add getting used to the controls into the mix. You’re not landing humans on the surface of Mars, but sending a wave of adorable little drones to lay the foundations. As your handful of drones trundle down the ramp of your reusable rocket, your first jobs will be to place the pre-fabricated drone hub that you will have needed to pack on board, then construct some solar panels, connect them up with power lines, find a source of concrete to dredge up, and start to turn water into duel for the rocket to make the return trip.
It’s daunting to begin with, especially if you decide to customise your starting set up by picking your sponsor, the contents of your first rocket load of resources, the mission leader’s background, and the landing point on Mars. All of these decisions will make your early progress easier or harder. Having the USA funding your project gives you plenty of cash to throw at the problem and lots of reusable rockets to send back and forth, but Russia is much more stingy, not to mention the Church of the New Ark.
Either way, you soon learn that attention to detail and planning is vital to success – the initial difficulty will subside as you learn how the game’s systems interact. You need to gradually grow step by step, making sure there’s a steady supply of water, oxygen and power before building a habitable dome and the accommodation and services within. Then it’s a case of making sure your colonists are kept busy and geared toward self-sufficiency, researching and building farms, mines, production lines for fuel, mechanical parts, and more. Picking the colonists with the right specialisation and character quirks is pretty important too.
Finding yourself short of any one resource can completely screw you over, causing a ripple effect through your colony if you can’t be flexible enough. Everything wears down and gets clogged up with Martian dust over time, needing to be serviced and repaired every once in a while, but this takes up resources. If you don’t have the electronics parts to fix your drone hub, or the mechanical bits for your wind turbines, you can be up a creek without a paddle if you can’t have more produced locally or sent out on a rocket.
The game is constantly trying to catch you out. There’s dust storms that spin through and disrupt your naturally fragile infrastructure, there’s occasional meteor strikes, and then there’s the Mysteries of Mars. These narrative events – random by default, but can be specifically chosen or turned of entirely – add extra adversity for you to overcome. My first encounter was with the Dredgers, and while I raced to understand them, my colony creaked and eventually buckled in part due to their presence. With nine in the game at launch, they offer plenty of replay value and intrigue.
One great element is the research tree, which gives you various technologies in a shifting, slightly randomised order. They’re the gateway to building larger domes, having the means of production instead of simply trading resources with Earth, improving your colony’s efficiency, and so on. You can also make scientific breakthroughs, sometimes centred around a mystery, sometimes throwing up sci-fi clichés like discovering empathic abilities. These are often uncovered by sending out a rover to investigate the anomalies that your scanning detects.
I’d love to see much more detail and information put in your hands of players, so that you can better manage your colonists and the resources you have. The colony info panel is too basic and doesn’t really give you an idea of where the problems in your colony might be. It suffices early on, but it’s nowhere near detailed enough when you have a sprawling colony and resources need to flow from one end to the other to keep buildings maintained. Some kind of resource views such as those in Cities: Skylines would be ideal here.
At the same time, personnel management is a pain to the extent that I just don’t bother. You want geologists down in the resource mining facilities, engineers in the factories, and so on, but the manner in which you filter and choose from the applicants is awkward and time consuming. Worse, when they’re living in your colony, the interface for managing them is poorly thought out even before you consider that you might be navigating it with a console gamepad instead of mouse and keyboard. In fairness, the game does a generally good job of giving out appropriate roles, but it’s those times when you want or need to override it that are a pain.
This was compounded by a few minor niggles with playing on PS4, both in the design of the interface and a handful of inconsistencies. Interacting with buildings, drones and people has you pulling the right trigger to access the info panel and then either navigating with the D-Pad or using shortcuts. It takes some getting used to the way that the controls overlap in different contexts and never really feels that natural. The reticule also has a tendency to select something just to the left of what I wanted, and it’s not always that clear what can be selected when, for example, trying to send a drone to collect raw metal on the planet’s surface (which looks very similar to rocks) or reassign a colonist to work in a different building.
If we ever try to colonise our red neighbour, it’s going to be one of the greatest challenges that mankind will ever undertake. Though Surviving Mars makes a game out of it, Haemimont have brilliantly kept that hard edge, as it constantly pushes and tests your ability to plan with survival in mind, especially with the unpredictability of the Mysteries of Mars. There’s plenty of ways to improve it and put more colony control in the hands of the player, but the first landing is already off to a great start.
Version tested: PlayStation 4