Surviving Mars hands-on

Paradox's upcoming space colonization game is a blend of sci-fi nostalgia and speculative fiction.

As I write this it is the second day of E3. As you read this it is probably not the second day of E3, it is probably a week later, or a week earlier. Space-time dilation, man. How does it work.

Surviving Mars is a 4X city-building sim from Haemimont Games, a Bulgarian studio perhaps best known for its "banana republic" Tropico series of sims. Here, we've ditched fictionalized Central American islands for the entire fourth planet -- where the emphasis is on the player's own ability not to fuck up, rather than fending off an invading force.

In this respect you might consider Surviving Mars a pretty sedate title, one that you can pretty much play at your own pace. Unlike most science fiction games, there aren't hostile aliens to conquer or mysterious abandoned civilizations to plunder (well, sort of -- more on that later). Instead, the game prides itself on its "plausible" science, a word Haemimont CEO Gabriel Dobrev chooses with obvious care: none of us can exactly know what Mars colonization would look like, though we can speculate plenty. And no one on Dobrev's team is a NASA scientist, or Matt Damon for that matter. The details have been fudged for the sake of more expedient play and fancier-looking structures, but the systems which undergird the core play experience are pretty dang thorough.

Surviving Mars kicks off with a bit of an Oregon Trail vibe, as you select the cargo for a preliminary unmanned mission to start laying the groundwork for a habitable colony. You have limited funds available to purchase the equipment you'll believe you'll need, from all-terrain rovers to additional manufacturing drones and basic building materials. Next is choosing a landing site -- you have the whole surface of Mars to choose from, with considerations to factor in like exposure to cold fronts and asteroid strikes. You can even choose to set up camp in one of the same spots where NASA's landers have touched down in the past, a bonus nerdy detail of which I am particularly fond.

Once your unmanned shuttle's touched down, your initial fleet of builder drones deploys and you can get to work. First are the drone hubs to wirelessly relay instructions. Then the mining begins -- a staple of pretty much any resource game, obviously, but Dobrev wants to specifically emphasize resource depletion and the ways in which your automated mining equipment will soon drastically affect the landscape. Water and power are comparatively low-impact: you get two kinds of solar panels right from the outset as well as batteries the size of moving vans that will hold onto stored energy after the sun goes down. Towers gather Mars's modest traces of air moisture and convert it into water.

Once you've built up the infrastructure to support your first habitation zone, you can start flying your first human residents to Mars. Each potential colonist is a named individual with background, skills, and personality quirks -- some of which lend themselves well to homesteading on the Martian frontier, and some that don't. As you build more quality-of-life facilities for the colony, you can afford to start bringing in a more diverse group, including children. Interestingly (to me at least), Surviving Mars has two separate meters for tracking a colonist's mood: Satisfaction and Morale. I love the idea that your colonists can be incredibly unsatisfied with their lives yet feel great about being there.

As I mentioned earlier, Surviving Mars is mostly concentrated on the first 3 Xes of a 4X game: eXplore, eXpand, and eXploit. Although we didn't go into it much in the demo, it sounds like the fourth X could either be eXterminate... or perhaps ~X-File~. There is an appropriately enigmatic stat in the game called "Mystery," which you could interpret as a propensity to happen across the game's more conventionally sci-fi elements. You're not alone out there, if you don't want to be.

"We're very fond of classic sci-fi of the 1950s and 60s," says Dobrev. "So we wanted to acknowledge that and include it. But it's optional."

This isn't to say that colony life is completely without its hazards, even without alien life stacked on top. Colonists who are struggling to adjust to their new lives or aren't getting the support they need may end up abandoning the colony, and/or damaging some of its structures. The way the game chooses to address this isn't quite the most sensitive thing in the world -- you basically build and send antisocial colonists to an asylum to "remove unwanted traits" -- but I suppose some acknowledgement of mental health is better than treating all your colonists like interchangeable grunts.

Surviving Mars is still in pre-alpha, with a release window best described as a wide shrug -- Dobrev mentions the year 2018, but can't go into any further detail than that. Unlike many of its past games, which were published through Kalypso, Haemimont is going with Crusader Kings and Cities: Skylines publisher Paradox Interactive to distribute this title. So you can expect to hear more about it (and me yelling excitedly about it) as we get closer to next year.