Surviving Mars Review

By Megan Walton, 4 months ago
City builders have always felt more at home on personal computers, but that hasn't stopped plenty of franchises and one-off genre titles from migrating to consoles, and nor should it. The latest from the genre is Surviving Mars, from a studio best known for this sort of title in Haemimont Games (Tropico, Omerta). Their pedigree and years of experience don't help them finally resolve some of the genre's lingering console issues, but in most other ways Surviving Mars is an instant hit no fan of city builders should miss.

Keep your civilisation running inside the domeKeep your civilisation running inside the dome

Surviving Mars allows you to live out Elon Musk's dream, by creating your own new colony on Mars. The first step to the foundation of any colony is laying down some roots, and the surface of Mars has plenty of potential beginnings for you. If picking a good place isn't your strong point, the game offers you an easy start. Not only does this pick out a good starting location for you but it also chooses your sponsor for the mission. These sponsors will fund your mission, and with some being more generous than others, this can greatly change the difficulty of your game. This helping hand at the start for guidance is much appreciated, and you're free to mess about with new beginnings a little later down the line should you so wish.

One of the nice story additions in this game is the way it references other science fiction stories in the form of mysteries. If you choose to pick your own landing place and sponsor you'll also be able to pick your own mystery. This is something that will occur in your journey once your colony is established, and might end well or badly for your civilisation depending on how they have developed. For example, your colony could become overrun by black cubes that may or may not have an ulterior motive (Doctor Who, anyone?). These mysteries, aside from paying tribute to various science fiction works, also help give you that extra push to stick with the current iteration of your colony and see through its advancement. Couple this with the different sponsors and you have great replay value, with hours upon hours of colonies to create.

Maybe your colony will be laid out all neat and tidy like this, or maybe it'll look like mine (which I won't show you)Maybe your colony will be laid out all neat and tidy like this, or maybe it'll look like mine (which I won't show you)

Your next stop, before any kind of colony is established, is to make sure you have all the basic amenities, which include water, oxygen and power at the bare minimum. Finding and managing these major resources will be the key to keeping your colony alive once it's up and running. As you progress, you'll unlock new buildings in order to capture these resources more easily, but in the beginning you must drain water from the ground, use the oxygen from this, and use solar panels or wind turbines in order to create some power. It's pretty basic stuff, but the hard part comes in the planning and placing of each of these items in order to best suit your colony. Oxygen and water need pipes and power needs power cables, and whilst these can cross over each other, they cannot go through buildings.

In the early stages, everything feels quite complicated, with a lot of things covering your screen, and only seems to get harder still as you start trying to keep track of more and more facilities. Little hints and tips will flash across the top of the screen every now and again when you encounter something new, but this isn't really enough for someone unfamiliar with the genre. The game also feels awkward on a console, whereas you can imagine it is much better suited to a keyboard and mouse, which is a legacy issue for city builders on consoles. You should get to grips with the peculiar controls after a while, but at first you will likely find yourself often cycling through menus and items to get to what you want.

The area of the planet on which you begin your colony is laid out like a grid, with different sectors that can be scanned and deep scanned in order to see what goodies lie beneath. This makes more efficient your time spent exploring and can help you figure out which direction to expand your colony in order to exploit the best resources. Scanning can also reveal anomalies, which could have any number of different benefits for you. You might unlock new buildings to research, or even research points to help you towards new bonuses. This research is hugely beneficial, so it's well worth sinking some time and money into completing the different research trees, whether that's biological, engineering or even the breakthrough arc.

Different things will be available in different sectors; it's up to you whether it's worth the travellingDifferent things will be available in different sectors; it's up to you whether it's worth the travelling

Once you feel like you've got a steady income of resources from the planet, you can invite some applicants on Earth to come and join your colony. In order to survive, you'll need to build them a dome to live in. In here you will also need to supply them with somewhere to live, somewhere to work, somewhere and something to eat, and somewhere to keep them entertained. Finding the right balance of these is harder than it sounds, especially as the first dome you are able to build is quite small. You will unlock bigger versions but not until later in the game, and like with other simulation games, buildings can't be upgraded to larger sizes so your only choice is to knock them down and start over again.

Each colonist who joins you or is born on Mars has their own preferences, perks and flaws. Some will become overworked, others will turn to alcohol and become alcoholics, others might go insane because they don't have the building there for their needs. In a worst-case scenario, your colonists will succumb to their problems and even commit suicide in some instances. Your aim is to provide them with what they need: farms to make food, shops to keep them busy, research labs and medical buildings to work in, and casinos and gyms to keep them occupied. The amount of buildings you have available at the beginning is decent but not a huge amount, so again, sinking energy into the appropriate research tree is well worth it in this case.

You have a number of ways you can help out your colonists along the way. Having a steady rota of drones, who can run about fixing broken items, carry resources and general help you out day to day, is essential. So are your RC cars, which can transport drones, carry resources and scan anomalies, and these will need caring for just like your buildings. Prepare to see and hear lots of messages about running low on certain items and different buildings needing maintenance. Mars has a whole bunch of problems to cause you, and you'll have to be well on top of your colony to keep everything running smoothly. Calling Earth for extra supplies when you are running low is something you'll have to do at some point. You can request any of the resources, or even extra colonists, from Earth, provided you've got the money and the space to do so. Simply relying on this for your resources will see you run out of money very fast though, so this should only really be seen as an extreme solution if you are running rapidly low on something. Even so, it's handy to have and could definitely save your colony in a tight moment.

If you start running low on food, oxygen, water or power, it's time for your colony to panicIf you start running low on food, oxygen, water or power, it's time for your colony to panic

Whilst there is no real end goal for your colony, continuing to expand and grow your civilisation is ultimately what you will be hoping for whilst playing. You will become invested in what happens to your people, with each person having a name and personality traits making them feel more real. Babies will be born and can be sent to schools and universities — of course, you'll have to build them first. There is a plenty of room to grow your colony to an impressive size in this game, but you've got to be careful not to over expand or things can take a turn for the worse quicker than you can handle it, but this is part of the fun of simulation games. Experimentation and even failure are expected on route to finding that sweet spot.

Surviving Mars feels expertly presented, which makes sense given the developers' pedigree, but it comes with some rigidity in its design options too. Everything feels sharp, straight and technical, both in the look of the game and how things run, and it can be hard to adhere to this sometimes. The ground is laid out like a giant honeycomb, and you must place all your buildings in this grid-like structure, with wires and pipes running between the various buildings along these grids. While this helps things feel a bit more orderly, it does slightly take away some of the creativity you can inject into your colony. If you don't lay things out well either, and have crisscrossing wires all over the place, your colony can look very messy very fast, making things harder for you as well as the people and drones that reside there.

In terms of achievements, earning all 50 on offer will be quite a big time sink. There is one related to each mystery, which will see you playing a couple of hundred in-game days in order to complete each one. Some achievements will come naturally, by building certain basic buildings and supplying your colonists with certain amenities. Others will take longer, such as building wonders, which are the ultimate goals with regard to buildings, and even deep scanning every sector. Simulation games are not really a rush-and-complete type of game anyway, so you may have expected that already if you frequent the genre.

This game was featured in our The Best Xbox Simulation Games Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

Surviving Mars offers most of the things you expect in a simulation game: a chaotic and overwhelming start is eventually calmed down once you understand what's going on and how to work efficiently. Mysteries add a unique bonus to the progression, and don't be surprised if you become quite invested in your colony the more you play. As is often the case, the controls pose a bit of a problem and feel like they'd be better suited on a computer. Never the less, for simulation game fanatics, Surviving Mars is an easy recommendation. For everyone else, if you are willing to sink in the time and the effort, you'll be happy in your new home on the red planet.
4 / 5
Positives
  • Great sense of scope for exploration
  • Mysteries as nods to other science fiction are a nice addition
  • Easy to become invested in your colony
  • Different mysteries and sponsors offer huge replayability
  • Various research trees offer new buildings and benefits
Negatives
  • Feels quite overwhelming for a while
  • Creativity feels slightly limited at times
  • Controls less effective on console
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 12 hours getting her various colonies up and running, encountering a few anomalies and mysteries along the way, earning 12 of the game's 50 achievements. A download code was provided for the purpose of this review.
Megan Walton
Written by Megan Walton
Megan is a TA newshound and reviewer who has been writing for the site since early 2014. Currently working in catering, she enjoys cooking extravagant dishes, baking birthday cakes for friends and family in peculiar shapes, writing depressing poetry about life and death, and unlocking every achievement possible.