Surviving Mars review (PC/Xbox One)

We got our first glimpse and hands on experience with Surviving Mars last summer, and now that its multi-platform release is upon us it’s time for our review of this city builder/society management/survival game.

One of many Mars-themed videogames we saw during Gamescom last year, Surviving Mars was definitely the one that we’d expect from a publisher like Paradox. At first glance, it resembles its hit city builder Cities: Skylines quite a bit, so that’s where our expectations went prior to meeting with developer Haemimont. Turns out that, aside from the visual comparison, Surviving Mars is quite different, less forgiving and emphasizes aspects that aren’t present in Cities. In Cities, when disaster strikes you generally just find a way to deal with it. In Surviving Mars, disaster usually means the end of your colony on Mars. Partly for this reason, Surviving Mars is a game that has to grow on you.

During my first few playthroughs, whenever disaster struck I was usually taken by surprise and not able to handle what was going on. One of my domes would crack, causing the people inside it to quickly die and thus crippling my entire ecosystem – which would result in other vital aspects of my colony to break down and eventually the loss of all of my colonists. Yikes… I could already see their families sue me for a life behind bars.

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Mars is challenging, and Surviving Mars makes this a key gameplay element. Food and water are hard to come by, and the world outside of your building isn’t exactly forgiving either. There’s dust, wind, and the elements can wreak havoc on your hard work. You’ll likely fail quickly during your first playthrough, but it’ll cause you to think differently about your approach when you start over.

Every new colony feels quite manageable, as you don’t yet have to worry about any citizens and their well-being. Instead, you build basic facilities and an infrastructure to support life, and colonists don’t show up until you do. Expand and create job opportunities, and more of them will make the journey from earth. You have a say in who gets to board the next shuttle traveling to Mars as well, which all plays into the careful balancing act of building and sustaining a viable colony on the Red Planet.

One of the keys to success in the mid-game is to try and automate certain aspects of your colony so you don’t end up micromanaging everything and losing your overview once your colony grows too big to do so. Drones can performance maintenance tasks for you and these are essential because things frequently break down under Mars’ tough conditions. Solar panels become less efficient and eventually break down if left to collect dust, and power loss is a regular occurrence anyway with meteor strikes and other disasters making life difficult.

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All the hardships that Mars brings with it also weigh heavily on the people who live there, who can become depressed and can even commit suicide. You’ll need to do your best to improve their quality of life in this hard place, ensuring they have social spheres to interact with each other in as well as places to live and work. Not that work’s not important though, because you’ll also need to set up production processes in order to start generating income for your colony – eventually making it self-sufficient, no longer having to rely on sponsored money.

Even though things become easier as you start to understand the game’s core dynamics better (often during later playthroughs, and not right away), the game always keeps you on your toes – sitting back to just enjoy your colony manage itself isn’t something that happens until much later in the game. And even then, Mars will find a way to make you jump up and fix something that could otherwise end in catastrophe.

Matters can get overwhelming though, especially during the first playthrough(s). Surviving Mars is a game that needs to grow on you and as such doesn’t have the instant “I can do anything!” appeal that a game like Cities: Skylines has. That level of patience that’s required is also reinforced by the control scheme, which lends itself to a lot of micromanagement and a lot of searching around for what exactly does what and where to find each tidbit of information. It’s especially tricky on consoles, but even with a mouse/keyboard combination it took a while to get comfortable with the controls and just focus on the gameplay. Stick with it though, and Surviving Mars ultimately becomes a very rewarding and rather unique hybrid experience. I wonder where they’ll take the game next, if any expansions are planned.

Score: 7.8/10

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