Surviving Mars – Dark times on the red planet

Give Us Your Alcoholics

 I scratched my old man face, pondering the first colony on Mars, and a thought entered my mind. “What would a colony established by a psychiatrist sponsored by the Blue Suns Corporation look like?” It could have gone a few different ways but I settled a bit on the darkly altruistic side. The goal was always to look for alcoholics. I would take the drinkers of earth, and slowly but surely turn them into the basis of a great Martian civilization. I would treat them, help them, and they and their children would do great things for Mars, Earth, and of course the pockets of the Blue Suns.

It wasn’t the hardest mission to the red planet, as many folks that dropped by the stream had let me know, however it was an informative experience. I learned a whole bunch about the game, the mechanics, about finances, and the most important thing: No matter how much money I’m possibly going to make, I should never be allowed to raise children. Not on this planet. Not on Mars. Not anywhere. I now barely trust myself to keep the power on, the fridge stocked, and my rabbit safe from meteorites.

Based out of Bulgaria, Haemimont Games has made the last three Tropico outings, Omerta – City of Gangsters, and 2015’s Victor Vran. Their experience with city builders in a dangerous setting – as with Tropico – show in this speculative colonization game. While the dangers are less political and more dust tornado shaped in Surviving Mars, one danger stood above the rest. Like a lab-created black hole completely out of control, I was sucked in. Hours of my stream seemed to vanish before my eyes as I struggled convincing colonists not to abandon me to the strange red landscape, with only peppy radio host to keep me company.

Some questioned a sanatorium so close to the nurseries – they were sent for re-education

Welcome to Mars – How Hot Do You Like It?

The early days of the colony were rough. There were many things I didn’t know about the game, but thanks to some very concerned-for-my-drunk-colonist viewers I was able to overcome most of my initial mistakes. Remembering to have enough resources to lay those extra power lines and environmental pipes, realizing that resource extractors didn’t need to be directly on top of deposits of water, metals, or concrete – but could be near them to allow for a greater number active gatherers – and the fact that the salvage tool could be used to get rid of unwanted pipes and cables also helped. But I still stumbled.

Self-inflicted problems were many. If it wasn’t our poorly chosen landing sites allowing dust to clog up so many of our power generators, thereby increasing our need for maintenance, it was stuff like disregarding fungal farms early and relying mostly on traditional large-scale crop growth. There were many blunders but I persisted and, well, I had that AI with the colony. You know that AI that was completely not going to murder us all in its quest for self-determination, you know the one. Actually, you may not know the one, particularly if you have mysteries set to random when you start – who knows if you will get some perfectly safe AI friend or a collection of strange black cubes appearing out of nowhere? The mysteries of Mars can be chosen at random or selected manually at the start of the game. They add in a chaotic story-based element and really set this game apart from a game like Cities: Skylines for being just another, better version of Simcity.

My excitement about setting down and getting things built made me blind to the help the game offered in the form of fairly easy to read instructions with every mouse over. Instead, early on, I relied on the small pop-up hints that appeared. Had I read more, my easy mode Mars colony would have been much easier to manage. Now, this wasn’t the easiest setting, but let us take a moment to talk about game difficulty. Every choice you make in setting up your game helps inform the difficulty rating. Blue Suns, with their multitude of rockets and ability to just add to your colonist pool with the magical power of money, were as helpful as I had hoped. Also, the early sanatoriums I had from my commander type were needed to help treat the variety of damaged colonist I was recruiting. Landing site and mystery choice also play a role. While the difficulty rating I ended with was less than 100%, making it an easy mode for sure, I’d seen others with difficulty over 400%. I appreciated this since it allowed for a very custom game feel.

After 48 hours – we seemed like we barely expanded

Return to the Red Planet

Let’s talk replay value. While being able to play a game an infinite amount of times isn’t necessary for a game to be good, as a consumer I feel more value is added if I can get different experiences from the same game, particularly with games of this genre. If you look over the fourth burnt-out husk of a Mars Colony and roll up those sleeves to go in again, it’s a bit of a drag if you need to play the same map each time. The novelty of each playthrough keeps things interesting and allows a person to take what they learned and apply it to brand new challenges.

Even as the startup for each game will seem the same at first, with mystery hints, different colonist traits, science breakthroughs, and dangerous events, you will find yourself with different challenges each game. And there are more than a few challenges. I could write an entire article on tips and tricks for starting out, but there is more experienced folks out there doing that so I’ll leave it to them.

But this does lead me to another point tied to difficulty.

While the game can be very very hard if you let it, it is never inaccessible. I never once thought this wasn’t a game for me, that it’s too confusing or complex, or that there are too many moving parts that are unexplained. The hints and mouse over information are very helpful and allow for an ease of play that by the midpoint of my settlement life cycle I was feeling like a pro. (I am most certainly not a pro – but I could fool myself into thinking it for a few moments)

Finding this basin of water formed the foundations of my colony. I was a little to happy about it.

Broadcasting Live – From Mars!

Bad audio can kill a game like this, where you keep getting the same alerts, clicking the same buttons, hearing the same voiced lines pop up over and over. Audio and music in games is something that, if done well, rarely gets the credit it deserves, and if done badly can destroy an experience. Surviving Mars handles its audio well, for the most part. Thinking back, I don’t recall I ever heard a single audio snippet that made me grind my teeth or roll my eyes, and it scores well. The music on the radio channels is also good, with myself and viewers getting many of the tunes stuck in our ears like a martian borne parasite.

The only problem I can really voice is about the radio station host. They all have great little stories, very excellent voice acting, and distinct personalities – I haven’t been able to get such a good idea of what a fictional DJ’s own agenda was since Three Dog from Fallout 3. So the issue isn’t with the writing, the characters, the acting – it is with the quantity. I wanted more. A few more musical tracks, some extra dialogue with the host, different news stories. I found the same talking bits repeated several times and it left me just wanting more – and often cycling through channels.

The landscape may look bleak – but the list of radio stations cheered us up.

Nuts and Bolts

The mechanics of the game are pretty simple and will be recognizable to any of you folks with a passing knowledge of settlement builders or other fish tank style games. Some of the quality of life options included were very welcome. We had the ease of building multiple same-type structures, easily customized pined objects to notification bar (particular citizens, vehicles, buildings and so on), and the ability to change the priority of a building so it would get power, supplies or people first. And with this the easy one button hotkey to apply changes, priorities, or maintenance requests to all buildings of a type if you want – it was all very helpful.

Sadly, there were a few things that, if they are in the game, they were not clear enough to find. There was no master list of current buildings or search function, so sometimes if I unpinned a drone hub or something to lessen clutter, I would be hard-pressed to ever find it again. Same with new buildings that I constructed and wanted to go back to an upgrade. Yes, some of these problems likely came from my own scatter-brained organization skills, but a quick list of all active buildings and maybe a ledger showing their current status and upgrades would have been helpful.

Also, while you could put a priority on buildings, you could not put one in a depot. There were many times I was hoping I could convince my shuttles and drones to focus on filling one or another depot over others, but there’s no evident way to do so. Finally the levels of prioritization – there could have been more. Maybe double the number. As my colony progressed into the 200th Sol, I very much wanted some more priority options as I kept finding myself thinking in six or eight tiers of importance, rather than three.

All in all, the mechanical side is fine, it just could be a bit better. I normally don’t whine about things like this, but these felt like noticeable exclusions that hopefully will be added in the future.

All those pinned items on the bottom of the screen let you keep tabs on important people and things – quickly.

Moving Forward

The number one thing I kept seeing come up while I streamed was that viewers could not wait to see what the modding community was going to do with this game. And I agree, wholeheartedly, that the modding community for this game is going to be robust and fun – but a game should not live and die based just on modability. But as long as people aren’t looking for modders to fix problems in the game, that is a fine point to get excited about.

If other games like Cities: Skylines are any indication, we will be getting lots of building focused DLC, likely more disasters, radio channels, and more mysteries… Mysteries likely being my favourite part of the game. Games like this are never really done until the developer no longer sees a value in producing content for them. People should not look to other games like them, see a pile of DLC, and roll their eyes making the assumption that ‘They just released an incomplete game’ – it just isn’t true. Like many of the people who dropped by my stream to watch and speculate, I am excited to see the content coming soon – official or fan made.

Yeah – the number of starving colonists is high in this picture – but it got much higher.

Photo Finish

This one really surprised me. I’m not even kidding. I saw other people had been playing with it, but I kind of shrugged at the idea of ‘Photo Mode’. This a special mode that basically lets you take an in-game camera and snap some shots. Not a new idea, but I had never reviewed a game where it featured so prominently. I’ll tell you, even a person with terrible aesthetics like myself was able to capture some mighty nice screenshots with it. You can play around with all sorts of things and get some great snaps of the Martian landscape. No doubt more options to be added later by modders or DLC.

I would keep an eye out for day one mods that add more photo options. I played with this more than I expected. Made me a believer.

And that takes us to the end of it. If you are looking for a game that is a fun experience right out the bat but holds a great deal of promise for future DLC, this is a game you’ll want to gobble up soon. A word of warning, if you are one of those buying into it as an investment, hoping for more and more DLC down the line, I always urge caution. You never know how long a studio is going to keep a game running for. Sometimes you get Crusader Kings II that is still putting out stuff to this day – and sometimes you get Dragon Age II which talked a bunch about future content but really EA’d up that whole thing.

Looking at Surviving Mars as is, it is worth the money. A few quality of life improvements could make it better, but as-is it’s a wonderful game. It’s going to be on sale March 15th and will be around $45.50 CND on launch.

8/10 – Had almost everything I wanted, but it left me thirsty for a few tiny things. Thirsty – like my poor colonists.

Review by Joshua Smith (Old Man Mordaith)

Edited by Jesse Roberts

This game was received free for the purposes of streaming and review

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