Surviving Mars review

5 months ago by Jonathan Bolding

What you get out of Paradox's new city-builder depends a lot on what you put into it.

When the first person on Mars died of old age, I felt like celebrating. After years of struggle, stretched funding, meteor showers, and faulty water pumps, someone had lived their life happily on the red planet.

Over time, as the colony grew into thousands of people and became over 90% people born on Mars, I couldn’t help but think back to the first 14 explorers. I realized I needed to start over. Start a new colony, with new citizens, because I wanted to have the experience over again… that, and I’d run out of things to do. The story I told myself with Surviving Mars was great, the strategic management puzzles I solved were superb, and the process of building a sustainable colony was excellent. Surviving Mars is a city builder in the true sense of the word, a game about building the first settlement in an unforgiving landscape with fewer resources, more dangers, and a bit more tedious management than you’d like.

The equipment, buildings, and domes of Surviving Mars have a retrofuturist-meets-contemporary-space-equipment aesthetic that looks lovely in motion. Popping up habitats and decorating them with amenities feels great and looks good. Rows of wind turbines spin as solar panels follow the sun across the Martian sky. It’s all lovely, though by hour 15 or so it’s pretty uninspiring and monotonous - that’s something that the game’s mod support will likely pretty quickly account for, though. Accompanying the game is a nice soundtrack on several Martian radio stations, each complete with a personality-filled host. (My favorite is the beer-loving Kim Taehi and his Western & Bluegrass station, The Martian Frontier.)

At first, your expedition to Mars is nothing more than autonomous drones. The first rocket to touch down has meager supplies and a few prefab buildings, things you’ll need to set up industries like concrete production, extracting metal from surface deposits, and setting up the basics of life support. As you expand to newly-scanned and explored sections of Mars you’ll get into the tempo of the game: Planning and executing expansions and extensions to the colony.

The basic game loop is about identifying what you’ll need next, finding where to get it, and stockpiling the supplies you need to make it happen. Whether you order those supplies from Earth or make them yourself, transporting them across the Martian surface is the challenge - that, and dealing with various inclement weather that fouls up your plans. Throughout the early and mid parts of the game you never have quite enough of what you need, forcing you to suss out what you need to produce soon and what you can do without or have sent from Earth. Much of Surviving Mars is logistics - ensuring you keep the water flowing, the oxygen pumping, the fuel catalyzing, and the factories producing. Keeping the economies and production lines moving ensures you can keep expanding, which ensures your colony doesn’t stagnate and run out of resources - or worse, funding from back home on Earth.

Sometimes this requires a lot of tedious micromanagement, manually shuffling resources back and forth using rovers and drones. If you’ve been dealt a particularly bad hand by the game’s random technology tree system, like a lack of aerial transport drones, this can be extremely annoying.

Colonists also help ensure that micromanagement is never entirely easy. They have personalities, traits, and needs - not to the extent of more complex management games, but to a higher degree than the average city builder. You can filter these traits in your arrival candidates, allowing you to build the Vegan utopia you’d always wanted or ensure no lazy people make it to space. In truth, however, this will only work for the slow-growingest of colonies - you’ll rarely have enough viable candidates to be this picky.

In truth, for all your colonists’ personality and autonomy, they are perhaps too autonomous. Once you get a few people on Mars, you’re pretty much stuck with humanity’s problems forever. God help you once they start breeding - you can’t stop them, and if you don’t keep up the pace of building with the exponential population growth you’ll end up with a rather impressive population of homeless Martians. This is particularly noticeable in the latest parts of a Colony’s life, when it’s a harsh struggle to keep up enough infrastructure to even house, let alone employ, the massive Martian population.

As your colony develops, so does the game’s story. Most of that story is what you make yourself as the colony grows and develops new needs. It’s all very realistic, a simulation aimed at a believable, real-world Mars colonization effort. Surviving Mars’ concession to various classic sci-fi tropes, however, are what the game calls “Mysteries.” I won’t spoil any here, but these are things like strange new phenomena on Mars, odd extraterrestrial artefacts, or developing politics back on Earth. Each playthrough of the game, each individual colony, has a single one of these mysteries develop - which one shows up can be random or chosen by the player. They’re a nice flavor, and some are incredibly disruptive gameplay changes that make certain buildings or playstyles vital to the development of your colony. Others are very relaxed, requiring only very minor changes to your colony’s development.

By the time the mystery is fully unraveled, for good or for ill, you’ve likely got a pretty sizeable colony and worked your way through much of the technologies to be researched. You can then build "Wonders," huge infrastructure projects that help with the long-term sustainability of your Mars colony. Once these are constructed, however, there’s not much left to do with yourself other than mindlessly expand to fill every corner of the map. In this, Surviving Mars really lacks a meaningful late game challenge, other than the bland micromanagement of trying to keep up with your colony’s now-explosive population growth - which really comes down to building the same five or six buildings over and over in new domes.

Surviving Mars is a true a city builder - a game about the strategy of expansion and planning required to reach sustainability - but it’s not about what you do once you’ve reached that point of ultimate success. The best option then is to restart, pick a new, harder mission environment, a new Mystery, and land a rocket with nothing but drones to start over again. I enjoyed this aspect of the game, but those who really like to stick with a single grand construction project probably won’t.

It’s worth noting that like many strategy games on release, Surviving Mars has its fair share of bugs, but playing on PC I never encountered any that were disastrously game breaking or that prevented me from meaningfully progressing my colony. I spent about 38 hours with Surviving Mars, and I’m looking forward to seeing what expansion Haemimont has in store for this one - as well as what the modding community will do with it.

Verdict: Yes