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Review: Surviving Mars is a Near-Future Vision of Space Age Colonization

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Developer Haemimont is best known for the last few Tropico games—a series of city building and construction management games where you would take the role of a dictator overseeing a small island nation that functions much like a banana republic. With Surviving Mars, Haemimont took the city building formula they have been honing on the Tropico series to sci-fi territory. Surviving Mars puts you in charge of a near-future effort to colonize the red planet.

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If you wanted Surviving Mars to be a mashup of Matt Damon vehicle The Martian and city building and management game Cities Skylines, it comes closer than anything before it. Perhaps the closest was Aven Colony, another colonization themed sci-fi city builder. But while Aven Colony is a competent city builder for its own reasons, some of its mechanics make it feel, at times, like a real-time strategy game. Surviving Mars, on the other hand, will feel more familiar to those who have been spending their time getting deep into the mechanics of games like Cities Skylines or Tropico 5.

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In Surviving Mars you start by taking the role of one of a number of potential organizations with their sights set on Mars colonization. You can always opt for a “quick start” but if you want full control over every aspect of your mission, from start to thriving cities, Surviving Mars gives you the reins, which is very cool. You’re offered choices of mission sponsors that determine your starting income, commander profiles with their own traits (like bonuses to production, research unlocked at the start, etc.), and even what equipment you’ll be bringing with you on the rocket to Mars. And yes, the rocket’s contents are determined not only by your funds on hand, but also the rocket’s carrying capacity. You are even given control of which active storyline is set for your mission to Mars, which both changes the difficulty of your playthrough and its flavor, so to speak. These storylines are dubbed with enticing titles like “The Last War” or “The Inner Light,” and have an appropriate sci-fi flavor text accompaniment. After you have your equipment and other starting parameters set, you choose an area for your colony, balancing resources available (like water and metal deposits) with possible threats (like dust storms, meteor showers).

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After touchdown, you can set your drones eagerly off to work on numerous projects—like building structures, creating service infrastructure like wiring and water/O2 pipes, and gathering resources like concrete or metal that is on the surface. Eventually, through research and preparation, you can start building larger structures such as the domes which will house your habitats, schools, research facilities, diners, etc.  This is all in preparation for when actual humans will finally set foot on the planet, and there is much to do to ensure your colonists don’t freeze, starve, or become renegades due to lack of activities to amuse them.

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Whatever you can’t easily harvest from Mars itself, you can send away for. This will be your only option for advanced materials in the beginning of your colonization efforts, but it will cost money, which you draw from a finite pool. You have limited rockets available to you at start (determined by starting parameters) but you can purchase more if your funds allow it. You can also send away for prefabricated buildings and supplements to your drone and rover force.

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There are several different remote-controlled vehicles that will be your work force. Exploration rovers will check out anomalies, which can be anything from historical artifacts to strange, unexplained objects. Transport rovers can collect surface materials, and move resources back and forth with a continuous supply chain. RC rovers work as mobile drone controllers, so you can construct or repair beyond drone range.

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Drones will automatically perform tasks if they are near them, and have the materials. You can tell specific drones what to do, reassign them to different controllers, etc. But if you want them to be mostly autonomous, that is their default function. It can be frustrating when they don’t do exactly what you want them to, and this sometimes requires a bit of micromanagement as you nudge them in the right direction.

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Eventually, you’ll want colonists to be filling all of the buildings you’d made, and with colonists come a whole new set of potential problems. They need to eat and breathe, all while having a place to come home to, and sources of entertainment. If they’re too unhappy, they’ll become renegades and cause troubles that security forces will need to take care of. You do have a choice of which potential colonists can come live in your domes, but you’ll find that if you want to keep populating your colony you’ll have to start to settle for less than the “cream of the crop.” Colonists, like drones, will automatically fill positions and complete tasks. You can micromanage to your heart’s content or let the colonists work and live organically.

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Surviving Mars could do a better job of explaining what it expects of you, especially in the early stages. There is so much to take in; I made quite a few mistakes based on misunderstandings. But I have myself to blame, as there is an encyclopedia of information about the game and its systems. I also don’t love the hexagonal tile system it uses for building placement—I often struggled with getting a building to fit into where I wanted it to, and I would have to sacrifice form for function. As for the AI, besides the aforementioned occasional drone and colonist nudging, it is competent enough.

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Perhaps my biggest issue with Surviving Mars is the length of time it takes to do anything. Despite the fact you can pause time and play at multiple speeds, the fastest speed just isn’t fast enough. It takes minutes to get past one day even at the fastest speed.

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Surviving Mars does have narrative elements, and even objectives, but it is mostly a sandbox experience. The story elements, depending on which “mystery” is chosen, thematically range from exploration to war. There are end-game structures, as well—megastructures called “wonders” such as the space elevator or megadome. These wonders often replace a common building type, but vastly outperform it. You can only have one of each in your colony.

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As a mostly sandbox game, Surviving Mars’ soundtrack can get a little tedious. Luckily, there is an ability to switch between “radio stations” ala’ Grand Theft Auto series, even with fun (although somewhat limited) banter by DJs.

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There is also native modding support. This includes internal modding tools and a pretty extensive tutorial that allows anybody to try their hand at modding Surviving Mars. There is even Steam Workshop support, with fan-made content already being put up.

Surviving Mars is everything I wanted it to be. It’s a great city builder that excellently uses its near-future sci-fi theme. It does seem a little overwhelming at first, but despite my struggles with the hexagonal tile system and slow speed, it is deep and rewarding with lots of potential scenarios waiting to be played out. Surviving Mars is available now for Windows, Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

A copy of this game was provided to us for review purposes.

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