Are we in a city builder renaissance? I’ve been told by many that this is so. With SimCity, Cities: Skylines (C:S), the Anno series, Aven Colony, and Frostpunk out amongst a host of others, there may never have been so many options for the burgeoning electronic metropolist. And yet. And yet, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by it all (maybe I’m channeling my inner Oliver).
These aren’t bad titles – they’re fine. But that’s all they are. Fine. What happened to the innovation? Where’s the outside-the-box thinking that turns my expectations for a city builder on its head? Where is the polish that takes a solid title and transforms it into a masterpiece? It all just seems so mediocre.
The title says it all: we’re going to build a colony on Mars. But first, we have to select who’s sponsoring this mission. You can decide that you’re part of a unified Earth force or from the US of A, to more challenging options like being part of a religious expedition or from Russia. This seems like you’re choosing a narrative, the story of your people, but really it’s just a clever way of letting the player select the difficulty of the game.
Who you choose will determine how many rockets you have, your starting resources, financial support… Basically everything that makes settling Mars a walk in the park or a sprint through the bowels of hell. But beyond that, it doesn’t affect your game and I do think that’s kind of a lost opportunity. Shouldn’t the announcer voice be customized based on who I choose? Maybe my overall goals could be different depending on my selection? This is going to be a running theme of this article: time and again SM presents choices that appear to change the narrative of the game, but in the end it’s just cosmetic and very little is actually different.
Once you’ve chosen your starting sponsor you can also select resources for the flight. Like packing for a long road trip, chances are you’re going to forget something important so it’s critical to take your time and think about what you really need.
And then it’s off to Mars! Hooray!
Setting Up Your Colony
At this point, you’ll pick where you want to land. Again, in many ways what you’re really choosing is how much of a challenge you’d like to have with the game. Landing someplace with heavy storms and little resources is going to be way harder than a paradise overflowing with water and minerals.
I don’t know this for certain, but I think a lot of the negative Steam reviews for SM come from a misunderstanding/misuse of these early game options. I see a lot of complaints around “I played it once, solved it, got bored.” Well, if you pick the easy sponsor and the placid landing, that’s going to happen. Lots of games are dull on Easy mode. So my highest recommendation is, once you’ve got a handle on how things work, start amping up the difficulty.
OK, so now your rocket has landed in its selected sector. What next? To me, this is the best part of SM – where it really shines above and beyond its many competitors. The game gives the feeling of settling on an alien planet, where your nascent colony is just one mistake away from total disaster.
You don’t even start with people! Instead, your first Martians will be three vehicles. The first is used to explore the landscape. The second is the base for your worker drones. The third can be used to collect/move resources. All of them are integral to setting up a successful base. Do well then and, only then, will actual people be able to move to the red planet.
This early part of the game is fraught with tension. The pressure is created by the tenuous existence you’re forced to scrape out and a multitude of challenging logistical issues. Like an Anno game, each step forward is composed of multiple smaller steps that must be combined in set orders – almost like a recipe – in order to succeed.
Turning Earthers into Martians
So, you want people on the planet, right? That means you need to create a dome for them to live in. Well domes take a ton of resources to build, but that’s the least of your worries. They also need air and to make air you need water. Finding water is often a problem, and once you find it, the agua may not be in the most convenient place to be tapped.
So let’s say you’ve found a nice little aquifer that isn’t TOO far away. However, you’ve already set up your landing area with power-generators and begun rolling up concrete. The water area is outside the range of your worker drones. So now you have to set up a second base. That’s not exactly easy. Ferrying the drones themselves is a process, let alone the necessary resources. Should you try to move everything? Or set up two locations? Neither is ideal.
These sorts of challenges make for wonderful world building. Decisions have weight to them and definite consequences. You can absolutely screw this up. It makes every move feel important and worth consideration. After all, that’s the game: “How Do I Not Screw This Up? Mars Edition.” Now available for Mac, Linux, and PC!
Maintaining Your Colony
Beyond the problems you create for yourself by accident, SM offers up several other complicating factors. One of which is the environment, itself. Asteroids will crash into your area every now and again. Sometimes it’ll be harmless and actually will provide some needed resources. Other times, though, they’ll hit a building and cause all kinds of trouble. When it’s early in the game, it’s frustrating but not too bad. Later, when the dome is cracked and air is leaking out and people are freezing and suffocating and oh God oh God oh God…!
Even when everything is calm, however, you must constantly be keeping an eye on your buildings because they degrade over time. This is a good idea, making you repair your buildings so they don’t collapse, but right now it’s way over done. Buildings fall into disrepair quickly and, though they claim to take care of this on their own, your drones will leave them to decay until it’s far too late.
This is odd, honestly. The game seems to have the mechanisms in place for automated repair. You can even tell drones to prioritize the maintenance of some buildings over others. But then *BOOM* your solar collector crashes and you’re left wondering what happened. This means that you must spend a ton of time clicking buildings to check their status, then ordering the drones to fix the ones that need it. It’s beyond busy work, it’s just plain old stupid. As your colony grows and you have multiple buildings all crowded together, this process becomes especially tiring.
You also have to keep an eye on the power level of your vehicles. They can run out of juice, leaving them to slowly decompose somewhere, far away, on the sands of Mars. The biggest risk is your explorer vehicle, so you have to always balance looking in one more crater with the danger of losing the poor thing out in the dunes. Recharging is easy, you just park the vehicle on the power cables, but it’s one more thing you’ll have to manage.
However, SM never gets to the level of micromanagement that it’s cousin, Cities: Skylines, encounters. The exact details of perfectly drawn roads, needing to control for traffic or desirability, these things are never really an issue. For me, that’s a good thing. I want to feel like I’m in charge without getting into the nitty gritty. But, I know, for some, this game may be slightly too ephemeral.
In any case, we mentioned sending out the explorer vehicle. Why would we want to do that? Well, as I said, you’ll need to find water. After a source of concrete and electrical power, water is the most important thing out there. However, you’ll also need to find metal deposits so you can create some of the more complicated elements needed for Martian survival. There are also rare deposits that can be sent back to Earth and sold for extra scratch.
Improving Your Knowledge
Finally, there are mysteries out there that your explorer can find, each of which usually leads to a new technology. Yes, SM has a tech tree and it’s pretty awesome. There are six categories to research through, plus a seventh “lucky strike extra” category with surprise techs. The other six categories [need to add list of them here] are always the same, however the order the techs appear, and can thus be researched, are randomized each time. So, while the progression doesn’t ever really make sense, at least it’s different which does help with making each game feel like a fresh challenge.
Techs are usually of two types: the kind that improves your ability to do something — better water yields, for example — or the kind that removes a negative. For example, your power buildings might no longer require maintenance. As I said above, repair is a huge chore, making these techs really worth chasing.
So you’re collecting concrete and drawing power lines. You’ve managed to set up a water system and it’s slowly being turned into breathable air. The first dome is almost complete. Again, SM does such an amazing job of making this experience truly feel like a momentous endeavor. Just refueling your rocket for the first time seems like a monumental job and, once done, a tremendous accomplishment.
Now it’s time for the next big step: let’s get some people up in this place! Players can choose who they send to Mars, just like loading up their rocket ship with resources. You’re given an almost unending list of options to personalize your people, setting preferences for age, gender, and specialties. You can also prioritize positive attributes (hard worker, creative) with negatives (alcoholic, depressed). This seems like it’s an incredible level of detail, bound to give your first Martians all kinds of interpersonal interest.
It won’t. This is not the Sims. And, to be fair, you don’t really want it to be. But, man, those lists of personality quirks seem to be brimming with opportunity and, in the end, your colonists can all be alpha-type workaholics or drunk, horny, jerks and they pretty much act all the same. What a shame. I’m not saying I need to be able to create the Real Housewives of Cydonia. But why have all these options if they don’t do anything?
So this is it, your big moment. You’ve finally built a place on Mars where humans can habitate. The rocket lands. The people rush into the dome. And the game just falls flat.
Here’s the thing. Leading up to this point, it feels like the moment your humans finally arrive is when the game will open up to all new possibilities and challenges. But in practice it really doesn’t. Once the people are there, SM actually gets kind of boring.
Yes, you can build new structures inside the domes. There are new challenges, as well. For instance, you have to keep everyone fed and entertained. You must also maintain shifts so that the work gets done but everyone can still be happy (something that Frostpunk does so, so much better at). However, these things never feel as urgent or as consequential as your earlier actions.
Many of the buildings are simply new ways to create things you already were ordering from Earth. That makes things easier, yes, but that’s sort of the problem. The challenge leaks out like air through a pinhole crack in your dome.
You will eventually have multiple domes and a massive infrastructure. You can create some really impressive setups on Mars, but the game never recaptures the fun of it’s early setting. Having humans, it seems, makes SM into just another city builder. And kind of a banal one, at that.
The game seems to acknowledge this problem because it adds another wrinkle: science fiction-style mysteries that you can uncover. These often lead to fantastical technologies that allow for all kinds of interesting powers.
These are very smart and quite creative, yet they also kind of ruined the game for me. One of the biggest strengths of SM is in how it makes you feel like something that could actually happen. Like Andy Weir’s The Martian, the game does just enough to feel rooted in actual science that everything feels plausible. It sets the stakes for the entire engagement.
The really imaginative stuff rips the cover right off of that. We’re no longer dealing in reality and a lot of the appeal of the game goes with it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing one of those mid-review turnaround thingies where I spend all article telling you how great the game is and then — surprise! — announce that I hate it. SM is a good game, deserving of your time and money. It is smart and fun and really creative and clever. It embraces its setting in a way that I wish other games would.
The graphics are really well done. I’ve complained in other games of this ilk that buildings tend to look too same-y. SM manages to get the balance exactly right: structures look futuristic, but at the same time, I can tell them apart and know what each does. Sound effects are suitable, though they don’t stand out. The music is solid. This is a game that looks good as you play and my entire family wanted to get in on the fun. Even my seven-year old wants to start her own colony.
I’ve yet to encounter bugs (beyond the whole repair issue which I believe to be a poor, intentional choice rather than an annoying error). Most importantly, Haemimont seems dedicated to providing updates to the game. Several have already dropped, along with fixes, and I’m certain more are to come. This is a Paradox game after all, and that means new content will always be on the horizon.
The biggest issue is going to be replayability. There is a point where you will have seen all SM has to offer. Upping the difficulty can only do so much. My recommendation for this game is strong, but it’s also strongly predicated on the idea that the devs will continue to add new content and features. If they can make dealing with people on Mars as interesting as the journey of getting them there is? Wow. We’ve got something that is all-time great.
TL;DR: Surviving Mars is a creative, unique take on the city-building genre that uses its SciFi setting to its best advantage. The process of making Mars habitable for humans is one of my favorite city-gaming experiences of all time. While the mid-to-endgame falls short, the challenge, setting, and care given to every aspect of the game made it worth my time. Additional content could very well turn this from a contender into a champ.
You might like this game if:
- You love city builders and you’re looking for a different take on the genre
- You enjoy science-based science fiction like The Martian
- You don’t mind a little micromanagement
- You like the idea of scratching out a solitary existence out amongst the red sands
You might NOT like this game if:
- You expect the depth of a Cities: Skylines
- You’re looking to create personal, human stories
- You want absolute fidelity to scientific realism
- You’re looking for hundreds of hours of content
Joshua has played for 25+ hours on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070. He purchased the game with his own cold, hard cash.