Surviving Mars is the sci-fi optimism you've been looking for

2 weeks ago by Kendal Erickson

Paradox's next 4x strategy game wants you to science the sh*t out of the Red Planet.

The “settlement survival” genre has seen resurgence over the last decade. Quality and reception however, have been mixed. On March 15th, the developers of recent entries in the Tropico series, Haemimont Games, are stepping up to the plate in partnership with Paradox Interactive to deliver a new IP, Surviving Mars. Taking aesthetic inspiration from science fiction of the 50s and 60s, combined with realistic science about Mars exploration and rocketry, Surviving Mars aims to let players control humanity’s first foray into interplanetary colonization.

I am happy to report that, much like NASA’s Opportunity rover, it is succeeding in its mission.

Haemimont Games clearly did its homework when designing Surviving Mars. It is easy to see hints of 2014’s Banished or 2015’s Planetbase, both excellent games in their own right, sprinkled into the design. After setting initial parameters of your first rocket -- funding, pre-fabricated buildings, and building materials -- you set about constructing a colony that will be able to maintain human life. A familiar premise, but unlike Planetbase or Banished, Surviving Mars is designed under the likely very real assumption that our first colonization efforts will be maintained by drones, not human beings.

Hands On

From a gameplay perspective, “scientifically plausible” seemed to be the end goal. Using various types of rovers, extraction of concrete, valuable metals, and water is your top priority. Once the base is on its way to a comfortable stockpile of resources, and drone self-sufficiency, you notify Earth to send its first shipment of colonists.

It turns out that, unlike our small computerized compadres, human beings are a bit more complicated to satiate. Colony Domes require oxygen, power, water, and a food source, but outside of those necessities players are left with a wide array of choices on their design. Not only do colonists specialize in specific jobs, they also have specific aspects of life that need fulfillment. Nurseries and hospitals, casinos and recreational facilities, art and gaming shopping centers -- the list of options easily exceeds the size constraints of multiple domes. Depending on your difficulty level, which is ranked based upon different space venturing nations and companies like SpaceX, you can choose to either focus on your colonists’ perfect happiness and work efficiency optimization, or just ensure that most of their needs are met and move on.

On higher difficulties, players have access to lower initial funding and fewer available spacecraft; infrastructure breaking down more often, and there are higher chances for colonists to spiral into unhappiness and seek passage back to civilization. Playing on both a low and very high difficulty setting made it clear that Surviving Mars is accessible to both the casual city-builder fan and intricate 4X strategy player. (Though from what I played, there is no eXterminate aspect to the game… unless you count the slow descent into depression and extinction of your colony. Sorry, Domination Victory fans!)

Late-game revolves around continued expansion of your colony’s infrastructure while also maintaining continually complex methods of transportation and resource extraction. Resource caches are finite, so continued expansion to limited areas of water or metals are essential to survival, which also requires the water pipes, power lines, and transportation facilities. Research trees involve standard building efficiency increases, new technology and schematic unlocks, powerful new transport methods, and easier means of keeping your colonists alive and happy. If your colony is profitable, via sending back valuable metals and excess resources to Earth, you can use additional funding to outsource research requirements. Alternatively, you can re-invest in your colony by purchasing additional spacecraft to transport materials and personnel back and forth. As for victory conditions, Surviving Mars seems similar to Banished in the sense that there aren’t defined parameters that need to be met to achieve a win beyond survival itself.

Alongside settlement construction, Mars has a plethora of “anomalies” that can be scanned by rovers. During my time with the game I experienced a sudden dust storm, expanded research capabilities, hidden resource caches, and other events. Surviving Mars also features of myriad of mysteries that can be added to shake up workflow routines. Potential contact with extraterrestrials, the sudden appearance of giant black Rubik’s Cubes, and plenty of other scenarios are available. While some of these certainly throw “scientifically plausible” out the window, they’re an optional module that add a levity and intrigue to the game. I really am disappointed that I didn’t have enough time to see how my colony of Rubik’s Cube worshippers would end up, as I was right on the cusp of fulfilling the requirements for the next phase of the mystery when the preview event ended.

There were a few notable UI issues I had during my session. For instance, the interface of scooping up resources with a rover is tied to a right-click key bind by default, but dumping resources out of the rover is not done via the same key. This led to me continually scooping up resources and wasting precious time until I realized I needed to click an unload button located elsewhere on the screen. Similar in nature, drones require some sort of control hub to keep them functional. You can use spacecraft themselves, a specific rover, or a Drone Hub structure. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell the drones en masse what they should report to. So if you purchase 20 new drones from Earth, you’ll need to individually click each drone and tell it which control method it should transfer to. As the colony can eventually operate hundreds of drones at once, this is an expansion nightmare just waiting to happen.

Lucky for us, Haemimont and Paradox have announced that the PC, Mac, and Linux releases of the game will launch will full mod support, while the PS4 and Xbox One versions are still being worked on. I am confident that a healthy modding community could easily remedy some of the UI issues I experienced, while also expanding Surviving Mars’ core gameplay to new and exciting areas. Hopefully we will be able to see the fruits of their labor soon.

For console players, Haemimont Games is not currently planning on supporting mouse and keyboard configurations. However, my exposure to those versions of the game leads me to think that the controller key bindings still facilitate quick movement through menus and gameplay, so it’s not something that should be considered a deal breaker.

Lookin' Good

From an artistic viewpoint, the game is a perfect blend of upbeat and futuristic Jetsons aesthetic against a backdrop of realistic spacecraft, rovers, and planetary harshness. Vibrantly colored children’s playgrounds contrast with realistic solar panels and wind turbines. Interestingly enough, when you launch or land rockets, structures within a certain radius are covered in dust and may even take damage. It’s a nice little addition from an aesthetic standpoint. For those of you who want to maximize your graphical experience, Surviving Mars will launch with native 4k resolution support for the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game.

The camera allows for close up shots of colonists bouncing around in lower gravity and drones being busy little bees, or you can zoom far out and stick to the traditional bird’s eye view of your colony. The game also features a Photo Mode, allowing players to create stylized vignettes and screenshots. While it may not have Super Mario Odyssey’s level of depth, it’s a fun tool to have at your disposal, and yes, I have immediate plans to make travel posters that spell “GG” and “Earth Rules” with solar panels. It’s practically tradition at this point.

Tobias Gustavsson, the newly hired Head of Music for Paradox Interactive, made it a goal to ensure that the different types of music available reflected the design and narrative of the game. Radio stations range from upbeat synth songs akin to a “Top 40s style” to songs about the loneliness of living on another planet without family or friends. Much like the game experience itself, players can tailor the music they’re hearing to better fit the mood of their colony.

The developers at Haemimont Games were very excited about creating a game that blends city building, gritty survival, and upbeat Sci-Fi into one cohesive experience. Surviving Mars succeeds in bringing out the positive aspects of the “settlement survival” genre while giving us a pseudo-realistic look at how humans, or should I say drones, may colonize the planet Mars years from now. This is the type of game that may help younger generations gain a newfound interest in space exploration, and help facilitate those dreams into becoming reality.

There is room for continued expansion after the game’s release as well. Challenge modes like partially pre-built scenarios in Planetbase would be a welcome addition to Surviving Mars, or perhaps a scenario editor to build out planetary maps for others to test their strategy skills against. Here’s hoping Paradox Interactive realizes they have a potential major hit on their hands and continue to give the game the resources it deserves.

Surviving Mars pre-orders will be available starting February 13th, 2018, with a launch planned for March 15th, 2018. Much like humanity’s previous expeditions into the wild black yonder, I wish them a successful launch.