eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Aven Colony

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Though they don’t figure into the game at all, Aven Colony makes me think about the Transformers. In the 1980s, Transformers were one of the coolest toys out there — vehicles or objects that could transform into robots. There were also the Gobots – vehicles or objects that… Could transform. Into robots. Transformers were cool, desirable, and continue to inspire young minds to this day. Gobots were Gobots. There was nothing inherently wrong with the Gobots (for the record, they actually came to the States a year before their far more enduring brethren); they just lacked a certain spark, the unquantifiable something that makes a good idea great.

Aven Colony, developed by Mothership Entertainment and published by Team 17 Digital, is a city-builder game set on a future colony on an alien planet called – surprise! – Aven Prime. The game continues in the tradition of SimCity, Cities: Skylines, the Anno series, and the classic Caesar games.

And, like the Gobots, while it is functionally the same thing as other, far more successful products, it’s also not nearly as compelling as any of them.a

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A scenic view on the gulch.

In Aven Colony you’re tasked with building a successful colony on a newly settled planet. There are several different biomes available – from rolling fields to deserts and arctic locations – each with various challenges inherent to the location.

Whether you’re playing the campaign mode or a sandbox game, your role is functionally the same. Build buildings to attract residents, build more buildings to accommodate the growing population, build even more buildings to accommodate even more people, and so on. Aven Colony does a good job of selling the setting here. Because we’re iiiiinnnnn spaaaaaaaace you’ll be constructing tubes rather than roads, growing exotic crops, and building space factories instead of regular factories.

If all of this sounds rather expected that’s because, for the most part, it is. This is one of my biggest issues with Aven Colony: for a game that has a unique setting, there’s very little about it that’s actually different than the other city-builder games you’ve tried.

You start with a small colony center and, usually, a power station and some air filters. You’ll want to add some crops to feed your people, improved housing, and some storage space for…Stuff. It’s not exactly clear what you’re holding on to, but running out of room for all of it is a crisis on the same level as losing clean air or running out of food.

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So many large craters.

Aven Colony’s UI does a serviceable job of helping you track the various potential crises. A row of gauges sits permanently at the bottom of your screen, tabulating values like citizen happiness, power, air supplies, etc. If the gauge is full, then things are usually fine. Unless the storage marker is full, then you’re doomed. This makes sense – lots of clean air is good, lots of stuff is not good. But it’s a little counterintuitive for all the gauges to work the same way except for one that is backwards. Sadly, this is endemic to the game design as a whole.

So the mechanics are pretty much right off the shelf, but there are some neat twists. Aven Colony has a winter mechanic, à la Endless Legend. The world grows cold, snow falls, and your colony’s food production basically shuts down. To compensate, players can build greenhouses which are far less efficient and way more expensive than standard farms. These won’t completely mitigate the food problem, but will help your people survive the lean months.

There are also some sci-fi themed disasters including fouled air, diseases, and lightning storms that players must navigate in order to survive. Each crisis has a prescribed solution (air filters, hospitals, and lightning towers, respectively), but they help break up the monotony of building and help support the setting.

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Don’t eat my beautiful city Mr. Space Worm!

Ironically, however, the one thing that makes Aven the most unique – placed in charge of a new planetary colony – also leads to some of its greatest weaknesses. Because we’re in the future (and in space) the buildings are all designed to look future-y (and space-y). However, this also means that quickly recognizing what building does what can be a real pain, especially in a crisis. The space hospital is indistinguishable from the space research center and the space mill.

It’s a hard thing to fix – “make a building that is clearly a future version of a factory” is close to impossible. Yet it’s a serious problem for the game. From a player’s standpoint it means clicking on every building until you figure out which is which, even after multiple playthroughs. From a graphical standpoint, it makes every city look generic and every iteration, no matter the environment, appears the same. It’s all so blah.

That’s unfortunate because Aven Colony is actually fairly attractive. The amount of detail provided – you really can zoom right in and watch the people go about their day – is admirable. There are times when things appear oddly blotchy, and a few of the game mechanics can be downright ugly (disease looks like a glowy green blob that slowly floats over to your colony) but overall you’re going to enjoy watching the game as much as playing it.

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Something important is going on here!

Beyond construction, Aven Colony also adds some of the other features you would expect from a modern city builder. Much like Anno, you’ll get quests from various personalities at your colony or back home. These include constructing certain buildings, developing trade goods, and exchanging those goods with other colonies. These requests give direction to your plans and also help spice up what can be a middling mid-game.

At the start, building a new colony is exciting. Where will things go? How will it develop? Once the colony basics are set, however, the game is more watching and waiting than an evolving challenge. Unlike most of these experiences, almost everything you’ll want to build is unlocked at the start. You can’t afford all of it, necessarily, but it means that practically everything you want to do is already there, waiting. Most of the advanced stuff is just bigger versions of what came before.

Consequently, there’s no sense of earning things. Or pushing forward with a city because you can’t wait to see what’s next. You know what’s coming because you’ve already seen it. The game is also disappointingly flat. Nearly everything is just one step away, and it takes away from some of the more interesting aspects of other games like it.

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This looks like a great place to relax.

Not to keep hyping the Anno games (they have their issues, too), but there’s this neat puzzle aspect to them that I always find very satisfying. Let’s say you want sushi because that will add scientists to your colony and unlock better tech buildings. Well, first you’ll need to start growing rice and find fish. Then you’ll need a factory. It builds and builds and builds.

With Aven, most everything is done in one step. You want goji juice so you grow goji. You’re reward for that goji juice? Another random request. There’s no progression. Yes, some things need to be researched, then grown, and then processed. But it lacks the sense of collecting pieces to build a bigger thing which in turn is one part of an even bigger ask and so on.

Some of this is to the game’s benefit. Unlike Cities: Skylines, which buries players in options upon options, Aven Colony is fairly simple. You’re not running water or steering traffic. Flowing electricity to a new section is simply a matter of connecting the buildings with a transport tube. For someone who’s often bewildered by the wealth of detail in a modern city game, Aven Colony’s simplicity can be refreshing. But to someone who expects greater depth, I fear you’ll grow bored with the game far too quickly.

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I want to visit Aven colony.

So it goes with Aven Colony. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t really try anything new and so there’s really nothing all that right with it either. It sounds like faint praise – if you’re tired of every other (deeper) city building game out there, then Aven Colony is absolutely worth a try. That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement and it’s not.

The good news is that the developers seem beyond dedicated to improving their game. We’ve gotten thirteen updates since launch in July. Thirteen! That’s just nuts. And I don’t mean hot fixes for bugs here, these were actual content updates adding new buildings and tweaking functionality. What is a nice entry now might really be something special in a few months or years if the pace keeps up. But that’s a big if.

In the end, this is what Aven Colony is: a solid entry in the genre. There was nothing wrong with the Gobots, either. Some of the designs were just as good as Transformers. But the Gobots have long since been forgotten, and I fear that Aven Colony might eventually share their fate.

TL;DR: Aven Colony is a city-building game set on a newly established space colony. It features most of what you’d expect from a modern entry in this genre. However, it also doesn’t try anything new or innovate, and so it is mostly just a simulacrum of other, better games. It is a solid entry into a well-loved category, certainly fun, but never spectacular

You might like this game if:

  • You’re hungering for a city-building game and you’re tired of Anno, SimCity, Cities: Skylines
  • The idea of building a place for future people appeals
  • You want an approachable game that doesn’t bury you in systems

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You like managing deep, complicated experiences
  • You want science fiction games to expand beyond just setting, to say something greater about life and humanity
  • You’re looking for a deeply strategic, thoughtful game

 

Joshua played a gifted copy of Aven Colony for 20+ hours on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070

5 replies »

  1. To the extent that the Anno series works as a city builder, what makes it work is that adding a resource to your city was often a big deal both in the intricacy if doing so and the resulting payoff. Even an early game resource might involve

    1. Scouting for an island that provides it.
    2. Building a transport ship.
    3. Using it to settle on the island.
    4. Building necessary support structures and roads.
    5. Building production buildings, with an eye towards minimizing land use to allow for later expansion.

    By contrast the housing was mostly just plunked down, with an eye towards just having as much high level housing as possible. Virtually no meaningful decisions are made there, at least, not once you figure out a basic housing block that you can reapply to each level.

    By contrast, housing in Tropico is quite complex. Different housing types matter, and each has its own set of needs that must be accommodated. How one builds housing is a huge part of the game. Meanwhile, resource buildings are mostly just plunked down (albeit with a few adjacency and location concerns).

    In even further contrast is a game like Sim City 4, where building a bad city is nearly impossible once you understand a few basic concepts. But in spite of this the game remains interesting because of an underlying aesthetic concern- anyone can build a city that works, but can you build a city with a beautiful mountain-based green energy powered monorail that handles most of your transit, while still turning a profit?

    This sort of analysis seems like it’s lacking from a lot of indie city builders. At some point you have to ask- what are the interesting decisions players will be making? Anno- supply chains. Tropico- citizen maintenance. Sim City 4- balancing function and aesthetics.

    The city builders that ultimately fail tend to be the ones where there either aren’t any interesting choices, where the interesting choices are almost impossible to control, or where the interesting choices are the same in every level and you answer them the same way so once you figure them out there’s nothing else to do.

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    • Yyyyep. That basically summarizes the problem. Aven Colony, in my experience, is really more of the latter — once you figure out the basics there really isn’t much to do The added issue is that, in this case, the basics aren’t really all that different than other games that currently exist.

      In concept, city building on another planet should be a unique experience and it’s one that I’m still interested in seeing executed. Aven Colony, unfortunately, just feels like a lesser copy of already existing games.

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  2. Sadly, these are the kinds of complaints I’ve heard about the game since it was released. I’ve been keeping an eye on it, hoping that after several big updates it might evolve into something much better, but it looks like it might never get there.

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    • To be fair, the devs have made some interesting updates and they’ve done it fairly regularly. They clearly seem dedicated to the game. Whether it’s going to be there in a year is an interesting question, one I cannot answer definitively.

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