Humankind has always been fascinated by the unknown; the Mayans and Egyptians with the sun; the Greeks with the night sky and more recently, the whole of mankind with the moon. After we journeyed into the unknown and landed on the moon, finally we were assuaged for a time. The wonder returned when scientists started to look at our red neighbor, Mars. With its harsh landscape, immediate lack of life and dead atmosphere, Mars caught our eye as a possible first step in our eventual evolution into the stars. Elon Musk is the latest person to formulate a plan in order to actually travel to the red planet and hopes to establish the first interplanetary colony within the next 100 years, with that, we have the inspiration behind Surviving Mars.
Surviving Mars is a 2018 space-simulation game brought to us by developer Haemimont and published by Paradox Interactive. In Surviving Mars, you assume the role of a mission to Mars commander, your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to build a sustainable colony in one of the harshest environments in our known universe. This is done by choosing recruits, building infrastructure and habitats and ensuring that the natural world of Mars and the disastrous events that can often take place, do not put a dent in our foray into space travel and colonization. Upon beginning Surviving Mars, you are greeted by a beautifully simple yet awe-inspiring background with music that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Cameron movie. You can choose to begin the game quickly by selecting the ‘quick start’ option, this will negate the need for making all of the choices and options which Surviving Mars tasks you with and allows the game to set you up automatically. If you decide that you would like to customize your gameplay from the beginning and want to be able to have full control over your intergalactic destiny, then ‘new game’ is the option for you. Once you click-through, you are welcomed with another menu screen, this menu lists the mission sponsor, the commander profile, your colony logo and a ‘mystery’ – more on that later – if you would like to play with one in your game.
Commander profiles are ‘loadouts’ around which your entire gameplay strategy will be based. These can vary in usability but ultimately will shape the way in which you play for the rest of your playthrough. If you decide to choose a commander who has access to more credits than usual, then you will need to ensure that research becomes a top priority during play alternately if you decide to use a commander who possesses an ability which allows you to research technology and techniques quicker and more effectively, then you will need to make up for the short fall in funds by choosing a fiscally-focused commander such as the ‘politician’, who begins the game with a boost to income and has a breakthrough technology which allows for faster accumulation of funds per sol (day). Once you have chosen a commander, you must choose a mission sponsor. A mission sponsor is a company who funds and sponsors your endeavor throughout your play. The ‘mission sponsor’ you choose is essentially Surviving Mars’ difficulty setting, it ranges from ‘International mission to Mars’ (an obvious Elon Musk reference) this sponsor is the ‘easy’ setting of the game, on the other hand, you are also able to choose the hardest difficulty available from the very beginning, ‘Paradox interactive’. This level of player choice and freedom is somewhat of a rare occurrence in the simulation or strategy gaming market as games of that nature, usually require you to complete the game initially on an easier setting, this is just one of the ways it is made apparent that Surviving Mars is very much a breed of its own.
Each mission sponsor has an associated difficulty, as previously stated, along with the difficulty setting, the mission sponsor has an included funding budget, this tends to decrease as the difficulty is increased. The sponsor also has perks attributed to it in order to make the experience even more unique and idiosyncratic, so if you are a player who tends to focus on building over welfare of the people you would be best suited to a sponsor who has the perk of colonists never getting ‘earthsick’ or one who holds an increased food stock, however if you are the sort of player who likes to focus on people and allow building to come much later then a perk which allows more colonists or allows colonists to reproduce at a faster rate will be welcomed by you. In addition to all of the aforementioned choices, the sponsor also controls how many available applicants you have to filter through – we’ll get to that later- in order to have them transported to live on your brave new world. The next screen you arrive at is the cargo page, here you are asked to choose where your allocated budget will be spent on your first flight. You are able to have resources, prefab buildings or drones taken with you on your maiden voyage to the new world. Certain items can only be taken from Earth wholesale and not mined for on Mars – this includes some key buildings and robotic assistance – so it really is a good idea at this point to ensure you are not rushing your decisions as you can only make them once, and one poor decision can have grim complications for your endeavour or worse, your colonists. A fun feature to point out at this stage is another level of immersion and control, that is, the naming of your shuttles, so whether you decide to embark on your journey in the ‘serenity’ or the ‘Babe Ruth’, Surviving Mars has you covered – please, no profanities!
The final screen you land on – pun intended – before your touchdown on the red planet is the ‘colony site’. The colony site is the area where your shuttle will land and you will establish mankind’s first ever interplanetary colony. Pay attention at this stage to the ‘resource’ menu as this will tell you how habitable and plentiful a landing area is but also ensure you take heed of the threats components as a location which is high in resources but also at high risk of meteors and dust storms, may not be worth the trade-off for the long haul. Okay, it’s been a long journey, but here you are. You are the first human to land on an alien planet, but no time to take in the view. Within seconds of landing, you will be hit with a barrage of onscreen information, detailing what day it is, how many colonists you have, available objectives and the ‘sector scan’ screen – along with a lovely little message reinforcing the importance and crucial nature of your mission. The sector scan allows you to investigate surrounding areas in order to plan your expansion accordingly. Scans will reveal the buildable area, likely resources and any resource deposits which may be lurking in the darkness. Scans can be completed at any time as long as you have an ‘orbital probe’ available, these are ‘purchased’ when you resupply in order to gain more resources, and eventually colonists from your home planet of Earth. Orbital probes are relatively costly but offer many advantages to you so it may be worth dropping the money on them early in the game, as your landing spot may not ‘pan out’ as you thought it would due to unknowable complications which tend to rear their head as you play. One such instance may be that, you have scouted a location from orbit and it may have looked like the perfect place to start building your utopia, however upon arrival you may have noticed that it is far more ‘craggy’ and elevated than you would have liked and only contains a small amount of buildable area. Remember that ANY location can be your starting location as long as you scout and explore the area you have in mind, this can be done by using a combination of the orbital probe and the ground robots which have a specialty in exploration, namely the RC explorers.
Finally, your proverbial feet are on terra firma -by drone proxy at least. Now you must send your drones and mechanical ‘elves’ out to scout and build to your specifications. The first thing to build is a source of power, after that, a resource gatherer such as the concrete extractor, remember that extractors can only be constructed effectively over deposits which are highlighted on-screen via color and texture differences. Erecting – yeah I know, haha, I said ‘erect – buildings is just as simple an affair as you would expect. You locate where you would like the building to go, open the build menu and confirm your selection. This is a key skill and if this alludes you at this early stage, this game probably isn’t for you as it doesn’t get any simpler than that. Once you have a building constructed and functional you will need to turn your attention to future planning. Where are you going to build your first dome in order to give your pending colonists a place to reside, are you going to have a backup power grid and if so are you going to use solar or wind power, how about water, your colonists are going to need water to survive. Finally, you will need to build ‘drone hubs’ to allow you to spread your building influence far and wide and ensure that your drones don’t just end up wandering around or sitting perfectly still. Always ensure your drones are doing something, their batteries tend to deplete rather quickly early into the progression of Surviving Mars’ gameplay so you may as well get the best possible result out of them early on.
As Surviving Mars progresses, you are able to access the ‘research’ function. This allows you to discover new technology which will help to propel your colony forward at an exponential rate. Research is completed by offscreen researchers, the act of researching uses your research level (I think that was what it was called) and funding for completion. Each technology has an associated research cost and if yours does not reach this threshold then the research will be slower to complete. Research is completed in increments of ‘sol’, these are days. There is an allocated amount of research which can be done each sol by your team, however, this can be increased in a number of ways, one of which is by building a research lab inside a dome where colonists who possess the ‘scientist’ specialization reside. Speaking of which, you now have a fully working colonial facility, drones working round the clock and research being completed sol-after-sol, but there’s something missing, colonists. All the world’s a stage and you don’t have any players, better start a resupply and gather yourself some colonists.
The resupply screen for colonists is in-depth. It categorizes applicants into age, sex, specialization, quirks and flaws groups. First, we’ll start with age. If you decide to take younger applicants with you then you will find yourself needing schools and nurseries, however if you land on the opposite end of the scale and decide that seniority equals positivity then you will find that your applicants are too old to work in any of the buildings which require a workforce, middle-aged applicants can still work but are approaching retirement and adults really are the backbone of the economy as they can work and have very few needs pertaining to their age group. Next is specialization, there are a number of specializations which an applicant may possess, these can include but are not limited to; engineer, scientist, and medic. Each specialization grants a bonus to an area of work, for instance, researchers can work effectively in labs and engineers can work effectively in refineries and extractors and so on and so forth. Each specialization has a small window of text detailing where this particular colonist will be the most effective so don’t worry, you can’t really sabotage yourself at this point.
The ’sex’ category does not play a key part, however, you will often find that a higher count of one sex can result in a lower birth-rate which will slow the acceleration and growth of your colony, this is why it is best to try and keep a 50/50 split as much as you can. A perk is a beneficial trait which represents various talents and abilities of the colonists. In the case of the genius trait, the colonist will generate more research when in the colony or in the case of the celebrity, more funding will be granted to the colony due to their inclusion. There are many different types of traits and all offer a different advantage so choose wisely.
Flaws are behavioral traits which negatively impact the colony and can be whittled out at this stage. These categories can be as large as an ongoing chronic condition that causes a colonist to lose health every day or as small as a colonist with the hypochondriac flaw who will need to visit a medic regularly and if unable to do so, will take sanity damage. If a colonist takes too much sanity damage, they will take their own life, however, sanity can be increased with aesthetic changes to the environment or with the addition of an individual with the composed perk, who will allow all losses of sanity within the colony to be halved. For every to there is a fro, for every high, there is a low and for the ‘bad’ of the flaws, we have the ‘good’ of the perks. A perk is a beneficial trait which represents various talents and abilities of the colonists. In the case of the genius trait, the colonist will generate more research when in the colony or in the case of the celebrity, more funding will be granted to the colony due to their inclusion. There are many different types of traits and all offer a different advantage so choose wisely. Finally, we come to the quirks, quirks are neither or either and can again vary in importance, like the tourist who will leave if comfort level is not high enough or something as unimportant as the vegan, who…well, will tell you all about their veganism. It really can be a mixed bag with this volume of choice and one wrong move can throw the entire colony into disarray and often results in loss of life and detriment to productivity. Once you have chosen your passengers they will embark on the long journey to reach their new home. Their flight can be monitored by observing the Hud where a small percentage marker will appear below a visual representation of their shuttle, once they arrive they will need oxygen, power, water and a dome to call home. It doesn’t seem to matter too much when you decide to build these things as the shuttle doesn’t land until you allow it to, which means you really do have all the time in the world to set things just the way you would like them – at least this has been my experience.
So your colonists have landed and made their way into their home sweet dome, but just one problem, they have no houses. You can rectify this by placing small residential dwellings. As Surviving Mars’ campaign progresses you can research and build ever more lavish and swanky dwellings, while also erecting – yes I said it again – bars, diners, and grocers to ensure food reaches the population. The number of types of buildings you can build is frankly staggering, from the all-important medical station to the relatively unimportant playgrounds, almost any building can be built and put to use by the colonists. As time goes on, more and more complications arise and your will as a commander is tested to the limit, you will experience oxygen shortages, power outages and water leaks – to name but a few. This is all made very clear to you by the onscreen messages and usually has a voice-over element of some description. The visual message almost contains a timeframe element and informs you how long you have to fix the problem before it becomes a danger to the colony and your beautiful red home.
As with previous simulation/strategy game such as Tropico, each colonist is selectable and you are able to view various bits of information about them and improve or refurbish their surroundings to meet their needs and wants, after all, a happy colonist is a happy colony. Colonists can be made very happy or unhappy with the choices you make, specifically to whether or not you agree or disagree with them about an outcome. A time that comes to mind was when I encountered one of the ‘mysteries’ in Surviving Mars. Mysteries are overarching stories that unfold once you have completed what I will deem as the ‘tutorial’ – oxygen, water, power, dome, colonists, workplaces etc. These can range from AI uprisings to encountering alien forms such as cubes. One such instance occurred after I had just answered the call for more power to my existing dome when a cube appeared as if from nowhere. No one knew what to do and I was looked to for answers regarding our course of action, do we bring it in and worship it, try to kill it with laser fire or do we study it? The answer was never really apparent to me and before I was able to act, many more cubes arrived, needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to offer them a ‘friendly’ welcome.
Surviving Mars is played entirely from an aerial perspective, you are able to pivot the camera and zoom into various sections of the map using a combination of the thumb-sticks and shoulder buttons. Zooming in, you will find that every inch of the Martian surface is lovingly shaded with reds, blacks, and browns that any amateur planetary scientist will recognize from real-life images which we have been lucky enough to have beamed back throughout various failed attempts of discovery in the recent past. The textures within Surviving Mars are pleasant and have enough fidelity to support a real-time strategy play style. The various rock features, formations, and craters are surprisingly interesting, with every curve detailed finely to promote the image of desolation and isolation by which we all know Mars to be. The overall detailing of the landscape is not what one would expect a game of this age to look, it can – at times – look slightly aged and primitive however this serves to add more proverbial weight to the idea of a long-dormant planet with barely any habitable environments contained on its surface. With any other planet, this appearance would look vague and uninteresting but due to the nature of our unforgiving crimson neighbor, the elements work perfectly. The colonists are animated and shaded in a way that is neither common nor rare of the RTS genre, they each have small details contained within their models however as with any game that has a large number of characters onscreen at any one time, character models are reused. This is never more apparent than when your colony grows to a colossal number and you are treated to the same well-built crew-cut engineer you have seen for the last five minutes procreating with another colonist only to see their offspring grow into yet another well-built crew-cut engineer. This isn’t particularly jarring but one would hope for something more inventive considering the year of release and market popularity of procedural-generation, however, this takes nothing from the overall gameplay and the visual presentation is still solid as a whole.
I have said before and I shall say again, the soundtrack of a game can make or break the success of a game, could you imagine Dark Souls with an electronica soundtrack and dull sounding weapon noises? No, of course, you can’t, that would be awful. The same can be said for Surviving Mars, from the point you load into the main menu, you are enveloped in a blanket of Hollywood-esque grandiosity. The soundtrack is painfully science fiction while also being a genuine joy to listen to. At times of crescendo, I was reminded of the Penguin Café Orchestra. As I phased out of my current state of mind and transcended into an otherworldly headspace which was made possible due to the atmosphere the music created. I realized that the soundtrack to Surviving Mars is wholly alien, every noted resonated and every synthesized piano key landed perfectly, never before have I experienced a soundtrack which could stand alone without the gameplay influence, now it would seem I have.
Now down to brass tax, is Surviving Mars good? I have spent almost a full week with Surviving Mars and feel like I have only scratched the surface, each mystery lends a hundred hours of gameplay, the campaign is plus 40 hours and can be replayed in any variation you so wish. The massive choice of colonists, landing sites and strategies mean that you can never really see and experience everything unless you decided to make Surviving Mars your fulltime job, and in a world where games are exceptionally violent or ludicrously tame, Surviving Mars manages to carve a niche out for itself as one of the most enjoyable, quirky, random and innovative games I have ever had the pleasure of playing and I honestly believe if you love strategy games or simulation as much as I do, then Surviving Mars will be the game that punctuates your existence for a long time to come. It contains all the standard trappings of a Tropico game with the addition of elements taken from a Simcity-clone all mushed together with an overall experience that reminds one of Command and Conquer-era base builders.
In summary, I have said a great deal but there is so much more I haven’t been able to detail. The extent of the research programs, the fact that you can play straight or humor-laden, or the fact that you can erase the need for power altogether, there really is so much more to be said. I guess all I can say is, Surviving Mars is a fantastic RTS Simulation game which wears the label of ‘hardcore’ like a badge of honor. With its hundreds of play possibilities, entrancing soundtrack and seismic gameplay approach, I believe that Surviving Mars is one of the best simulation/strategy games ever made. It capitalizes on so many things we expect and brings so much more to the table than we could ever have anticipated.
With more choice than an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet, Surviving Mars overcomes minor design flaws to take its rightful place as the Dark Souls of simulation games. Throughout this brutal game, every choice has a consequence and every consequence has an outcome.
Surviving Mars is the simulation game we needed that we never knew we wanted. Absolutely outstanding.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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