Survive now

Review: Surviving Mars (PC)

Simulation
7.5

Good

From Paradox Interactive, the publisher that brought us Cities Skylines, comes a new simulation-survival game, Surviving Mars. As a fan of Cities Skylines and city builders in general, I had to give this game a go.

I loaded up the game and hit the ‘easy start’ button, which bypasses the game setup. I found myself on the red planet with a rocket full of supplies, prefab buildings, drones and rovers to help me get started. There was no tutorial, only a series of hints that popped up as I progressed.

With my basic supplies and trusty drones, I set about gathering resources like concrete and metal, and set up life support buildings that my colonists would need when they arrived. As the days, or Sols, passed, I managed to get a small network of basic buildings up and running, all the while scanning the rest of the planet for resources and anomalies, and researching new technologies.

Once I had a reliable supply of power, water and oxygen, I built my first dome and requested a passenger rocket from Earth. A dozen eager colonists soon arrived and took up residence in my colony. I set them to work farming food for themselves, gathering resources that drones couldn’t gather, and creating advanced resources like electronics and polymers. All I had to do to expand my colony was to make sure at least some of these founding colonists survived 10 Sols on Mars.

Things went fairly smoothly until the resources I’d brought with me were used up. Fortunately, I could just buy some from Earth and they’d arrive in a rocket a little while later. This worked well until my starting funding began to run out, and I had not yet figured out how to make money.

Cascade failure

This is when things started to go not so smoothly. I realised that all my new buildings needed constant maintenance – which uses resources – or they would break down. And when a power-producing building breaks down, other buildings cease to function, leaving your colonists without heat, water, or air. Which means they’ll become unhappy – or just die – and stop working, meaning the colony stops producing the resources needed to repair the malfunctioning buildings that caused the problem in the first place. In a matter of a few minutes, my colony went from mostly functional to total disaster.

In a matter of a few minutes, my colony went from mostly functional to total disaster.

My colony never quite recovered from that cascade failure, leading me to abandon it and try again with a new game. I fared quite a bit better on my second go, since I now knew how most things worked – mostly through trial and error, plus a couple of YouTube videos I watched. My second colony made it through over 100 Sols, which was around the time a story about a seemingly innocent AI research project popped up (I would later learn that this was my current game’s mystery). I don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say that this particular game ended with the death of all my colonists.

By this point, I was quite frustrated with the game. I’ve been playing city builders since I was a kid, but Surviving Mars was proving to be much more challenging than I expected. The lack of tutorial coupled with various features I didn’t know about until I stumbled onto them or discovered them via Reddit or YouTube, plus the way things could go horribly wrong with the breakdown of a couple of critical buildings, had me ready to write a pretty unfavourable review.

Still, I decided to give it one more shot. I’d picked up a few things, and I felt I was ready to start a new game and customise the setup. There are a good number of sponsors to choose from, which influence things like your starting funds and the number of rockets you start with, as well as giving you some unique bonuses and possibly even some drawbacks. I picked Europe, which gave me some starting technologies, and would grant me funding with every technology I researched.

Trying again

After selecting a sponsor, you choose a commander, which gives you a bonus starting technology, as well as a unique bonus, like having your domes consume less water, or starting with an extra rocket. After that, you decide which mystery this game will have, what goes into the rocket you start with, and where you’ll land that rocket – make sure it’s near some resources!

My third game wasn’t exactly smooth sailing – I scraped through with just one founder still on the planet when the founding phase was up – but I somehow managed to keep the colony going through all the ups and downs. Despite dust devils, Earthsick colonists, water shortages and more, I finally had a functioning colony! The mystery I’d randomly selected for this game was not a deadly one, and was an interesting story to follow, granting me some nice bonuses when I finally completed it.

Still, the game is not without its flaws. The learning curve is very steep, mostly because the game does a pretty bad job of telling you how things work. I got numerous notifications that my crops had failed, but I could not figure out why, nor how to fix the problem. There’s some other odd things too, like how colonists will run out of domes without a space suit to reach a rocket or dome miles away, and suffocate along the way. This is bizarre behaviour, especially when there are shuttles available. Or how technologies in the tech tree are randomised, so they’ll never be in the same order across games. This one really strikes me as weird. It’s cool how the breakthrough technologies are randomised between games, but I like my normal tech trees to be follow a logical progression. The game speeds are quite slow as well. You’ll likely find yourself running at max speed once you get the hang of things. Anything slower than that and it feels like the game is running in slow motion.

There’s some other odd things too, like how colonists will run out of domes without a space suit to reach a rocket or dome miles away, and suffocate along the way.

The game supports mods, and its Steam workshop already has over 500 mods with various quality of life improvements (like a resource info bar the top of the screen), new sponsors and more. I hope to see some of these features added officially into the game at some point.

Overall, Surviving Mars is equal parts frustrating and addictive. A bit more guidance for new players would go a long way to help with the steep learning curve, while more information in an easily accessible format would really help with building a sustainable colony and dealing with problems before they’re disasters. If it gets ongoing support like Cities Skylines, the future could be pretty bright for Surviving Mars.

Good

  • Beautiful graphics
  • Easy way to lose dozens of hours
  • Addictive once you get the hang of things
  • Intriguing mysteries
  • High replayability

Bad

  • Steep learning curve with very little guidance
  • A failure or shortage in one building or resource can lead to a cascade failure
  • Randomised tech tree is just... weird

Summary

Surviving Mars is an addictive city building survival game with a rather steep learning curve. It may take you a few attempts to build a sustainable colony, but chances are you'll feel pretty good about it when you do. Or, your colony might be wiped out by a rogue AI.
7.5

Good

Gamer, geek, LEGO fanatic. I also love Pathfinder RPG, The Sims, cross stitching, crochet, and sci-fi and fantasy movies, games & books. And animals.

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