If Mankind is to reach the stars beyond our solar system, we need to learn the interstellar equivalent of crawling and walking before we can run. We’ve been to the Moon a few times, but our ambitions have to be greater, first to establish a base on our Satellite, and then to reach for Mars and settle upon our closest neighbour.
It’s an almost unimaginable feat, and yet it’s one that’s been romanticised countless times in science fiction, and planned for through thought experiments, isolation tests and robotic adventure (and misadventures) to the red planet. Per Aspera is the latest game to put a plausible spin on how we might achieve that goal, but as ever, it comes with some fascinating sci-fi twists and an engaging narrative to accompany your colony building endeavours.
You don’t play as the human settlers, nor some formless god-like overlord, but rather as AMI, a freshly awakened AI. You’ve been designed by the human mission controllers back on Earth to accrue knowledge, understanding and effecting sentience over time, while building and acting as the custodian to the colonisation and terraforming project.
It’s compelling way to view all of your actions through that lens. You’ll start off placing factories and mines wherever they need to go, but will soon start to understand how you can do this in a more efficient manner – having played the first few hours for a preview, I was keen to plant my structures to create a more sensible road network on my second attempt. However, as I expanded to making a second base and landing spot, I fell into another trap. I started to queue up the building of advanced mining rigs when really I needed to be more conservative. Machine learning is all the rage these days, and while my process wasn’t quite as destructive, I still learnt through iteration.
You’re welcomed to Mars and guided through the game by interactions with various humans like Dr. Foster from the ISA back on Earth and Commander Valentine who leads the humans of the colony that you help settle on the planet. Sometimes you’re given conversational prompts, where you can role play while being taught about the game with a decision, though they lead to the same place and ask you to follow up your words with in-game actions instead. Similarly, as your character grows, you’ll have AMI’s moments of reflection that can also pop up conundrums about its role, how the humans will view its contribution, the consequences of actions, self-determination and more.
It’s compelling and can throw a few curveballs to change your perspective at times, but the pacing of these interactions don’t quite hang together. New gameplay mechanics trigger pop ups to explain what they do, and these are often then followed by communications that also introduce them, make one or the other feel a little redundant. AMI will always present a little missive about a new research technology’s advantages… randomly around half way through the research process instead of at its successful completion. It’s also all too easy for communications and moments of reflection to arrive in a jumbled up order as the story tries to keep up with your progress.
Despite the overlapping guidance early on, there’s also some elements that simply aren’t explained all that well. You might think you can tackle any and all planetary actions once you’ve built your first spaceport, and you seem to be able to engage with things like repairing satellite arrays, sprinkling temperature capturing black dust around the place, or opening up new sectors of the planet to explore, but you can’t. You actually need to build a second spaceport in order to do so, but again, there’s no clearly marked upgrade or research that does this – Hint: you need to research Space tier 2.
But there’s twists coming, and one that will widen the eyes of any sci-fi fan as it emerges. It’s not enough to simply set up some habitat domes and mine your way through the resources of the planet, you will also have to manipulate the planet to be truly habitable, to have an atmosphere, to have enough air pressure for human life to expand and flourish, for that air to be breathable. There’s several methods you can use to achieve this, from nuking the poles, to importing greenhouse gasses from Earth, to dragging asteroids through the thin atmosphere to deposit their frozen resources.
And then there’s, out of nowhere, the prospect of needing to fight for survival, building armies of drones to take on enemies that appear out of nowhere. You do find numerous known and secretive remains of previous expeditions and colony attempts that were sent to Mars by various Earth governments. Is it another rival space agency to the ISA? Is it aliens? Colonist sabotage?
Either way, combat is a surprising element to have to suddenly deal with, forcing you to build defensive platforms and drone factories to defend your fragile industrial network. A single meteor strike in the wrong spot can already take a long time to recover from, so a roving droid army is not going to be pretty. Droid combat is a simple case of building enough defences and also growing your own droid army into a doom stack that can overcome the other base.
It’s with combat that the game presents another issue, though. The speed of the resource harvesting, manufacturing and the little drone network shuffling things around was such that I set my game to 8x or 16x speed almost exclusively. I was blissfully unaware of the first drone attack ravaging my offshoot base in another sector because I simply wasn’t really warned about it. The notifications are just a bit too small in the bottom right corner, and honestly, situations where a building has been destroyed by adverse conditions, meteors, or hostile drones, or even just a mine running completely dry really should drop you back down to 1x speed and give you a heads up.
Still, despite the flaws, there’s a compelling game here. You’ll initially agonise over if and when you’ll find vital resources mine to feed your hungry industrial machine’s growth, turn your focus to building up offshoot bases, overcome enemy forces as they mysteriously appear (and puzzle your way through the increasingly mysterious plot) and eventually pushing the planet’s atmosphere and temperature over the edge toward habitability and what comes next.