Historical “what if?” has always been a fun subgenre of historical fiction that doesn’t get as much representation in video games as I’d like. Most of the time if you do play games where you can change the course of history, it’s through war or politics. Mars Horizon gives you the chance to change history—or repeat it—as you take command of a country’s space program starting in the 1950s. Instead of waging war, you’ll be engaged in a space race as you guide your chosen country to space, the moon and beyond—with sights on the ultimate goal: the red planet.
Mars Horizon is a management game developed by Auroch Digital with help from the European Space Agency. In it, you handle the management side of space exploration—think more Tycoon than Kerbal Space Program. You take control of a major space agency—Soviet Russia (later Russian Federation), NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), China or Japan. This time, I decided to play as the Russians—though in my initial playthrough for our preview I played as NASA. Since the Soviets were my biggest competitors early on in that playthrough, I wanted to try things from the other side.
In Mars Horizon, you’ll deal with all of the logistics of getting a space agency running—though you do have some hand in the missions as they play out. The main focus of your management will be in building your agencies’ facilities, planning and executing missions, doing research, and generally making the decisions required to move progress forward. There are three main currencies in the day-to-day operations: money, support and science. Science is used to complete research, and is gained through missions and certain buildings. Money is all-important, and allows you to build vehicles, buildings, recruit astronauts, etc. The amount of money you get monthly is determined on the amount of support you have with your host government—the higher the support, the more money you make. You mostly earn support through doing missions, but there are PR campaigns and other events that can net you some extra. Of course, you don’t always have to be working towards a historical achievement. Supplementary missions are available in the form of “requests” and these allow you to get more money, research, or even help out other agencies.
Competition with other agencies is a major part of Mars Horizon—in fact, it’s a lot of the impetus for speed. There are numerous milestones to achieve, and you get a shiny gold medal if you are the first to achieve something—first animal in space, moon walk, etc. Of course, you can choose to work with other space agencies—sharing research, doing joint missions—but my Soviet overlords didn’t care for that much. Each agency has an inherent attitude towards the others which can be made worse or better as time goes on. But helping other agencies means they could get the jump on you in unexpected ways—the space race is cutthroat. Being the first means prestige, and more support, and if you do well on milestones often enough, you’ll even get a bonus to research and development. To achieve these historical feats, you’ll need the infrastructure to make it happen—which you can achieve mostly through research.
There are three main research trees in Mars Horizon: missions, buildings, and vehicles. Researching mission types is straightforward: you can’t go to the moon without doing some research first. The buildings tree allows you to expand your operations, conduct additional missions, do faster research—and includes necessities like mission control, the vehicle assembly building, and three sizes of launch pads. Vehicle research is crucial to getting ever-larger payloads into space—hopefully without blowing up.
Rocket construction is a part of Mars Horizon, but again, unlike Kerbal Space Program you’re not dealing with aerodynamics and delta-V, but risk assessment. Payload construction and rocket construction can imbue the craft with bonuses or harmful side effects. There are many parts to build your crafts out of—but usually mission requirements will only leave room for rather limited configurations. You can only build a vehicle if a mission demands it. If you end up aborting the mission, that vehicle is scrapped. You can save vehicle configurations to make construction go a little faster—but there are only a few parts to most vehicles, with the simplest rockets needing a payload, upper stage, and booster.
Once you get your payload into orbit, it’s time to conduct the mission. I wasn’t very fond of micromanaging missions after the first dozen or so—luckily, there’s an auto resolve option. If you choose to play them out, there are a variety of tasks that involve balancing a number of different stats, with bonus objectives to achieve. It’s a fun little minigame, until it isn’t. Its during these missions, too, that you can get glimpses of some of Mars Horizons’ best art and animations—since most of what you’ll be interacting with is menus.
Mars Horizon has a bright and colorful art style, and it’s a joy to click around its vibrant and attractive menus. The UI is put together well, and it’s pretty intuitive in most ways, but seemingly overcomplicated in others. Planning missions, for instance, is a multi-step process that is drawn out over several in-game months. While that’s true to real-life, you can’t make any other steps towards planning that mission in-game until the previous step is completed. You can’t, for instance, design your vehicle until after the payload is already constructed. I would sometimes get a little confused as to what the best next step would be if I wanted to stay ahead of my competition because I forgot what stage my current mission was in.
My biggest complaint about Mars Horizon is that, despite its interesting systems and fun “what-if” take on history, it feels like there’s very little intersection between gameplay and subject matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was possible to take out all of the space references and mod it into any number of other Tycoon style games. Most of the “flavor” can be ignored by paying attention only to success percentages.
Base building is another disappointment. While you can choose what buildings to construct, and where they’ll be placed—it seems like there’s little need for this part of the game to exist. Sure, clever construction can maximize your agency’s potential even more, or even potentially hurt it: placing certain buildings next to others can give you a bonus, while placing them next to the wrong building gives you a penalty. There’s a bit of strategy to it, but it feels like an afterthought. I wish there was more options for base building—this might even have been a chance to let players get creative.
Mars Horizons is an interesting take on management games. I’ve never played a game with such a satisfying and attractive UI—it’s too bad most of the best art and animations are rarely seen. I also really wish base building was more fleshed out. But even so, I was strangely proud of my Russian space agency, and by the time I finished playing, they were the masters of space on my fictional earth. Next time around I might create my own agency, or try to dominate as China. If you’re into alternate history, or just love a solid management game—Mars Horizon is a safe bet.
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