Surviving Mars Review

April 3, 2018
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4
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If you are one of those people who grew up with PC strategy games but now prefer the comfort of your sofa, recent years have seen consoles both increase in raw power and align themselves much more closely to their PC big brothers. Back in the day we had the likes of SimCity, and, to a degree, games like Tropico, but more recently console gamers have been spoilt with the likes of Aven Colony and Cities Skylines, both providing the ability to create large complex worlds whilst throwing in the odd curveball along the way. Brought to us by the makers of Tropico, this adventure is purposely a colder, tougher, experience which starts off in a rather challenging way but if you stick with it, slowly becomes a relatively relaxed and engaging colony builder.  

‍Initially you need to rely on your remote controlled vehicles to help set up a base of operations

Surviving Mars is a little different to your average aforementioned SimCity type adventure, primarily due to its setting and partly to do with its hands-off approach to you, the player.

Mars is a harsh landscape which hasn’t been explored in any substantial way and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to land, explore, scan for materials, mine said materials, call for supply rockets from Earth and ultimately create a working, thriving colony full of happy people who eventually can become self sufficient — thus offering the population of Earth a new home. Initially though, upon landing your first rocket with a handful of remote controlled buggies and some worker drones, just surviving the harshness of Mars is a bit of an effort. This is made a little more challenging as Surviving Mars skews the tradition in games of this ilk to have any form of story or campaign, and more glaringly any real in-game tutorials. What you do get are a few pop-up tips here and there as well as a checklist of things you should be looking to achieve.    

As you might appreciate this makes the first five or so hours of Surviving Mars a mixture of intimidating and frustrating. What is present to get you going is a quick play option set to easy which relieves you of the burden of figuring out the big list of variables within the game. As you get a handle on the core systems, through trial and error, in time you will utilise the new game function and customise your experience. As you become more adept at the core mechanics you can choose to try out any of the set missions available which all come with their own difficulty modifiers and bonus rewards, thus allowing for both variety and replayability.

‍As you progress, rockets can bring in people to create the first colony on Mars

The game throws you in to its initial simple phase which is effectively scanning to find a good spot on a hex map which for the most part is hidden. Discovering sections with resources and research anomalies is a fun little mini game in itself but pretty quickly you will need to grow a pair and pick a location. This then leads us on to the initial ‘Eagle has landed’ phase which will see you making use of remote control rovers to explore and various drones to help you make a start and build the essentials. As you progress, core resources such as metals, water and concrete need to be mined and gathered accordingly to allow you to make some headway with your new settlement. To start to bring people across on a rocket, which can be called anytime for either resources, equipment or people (at a cost of course) you need to be able to support basic human life, so a sealed dome will need to be constructed along with sustainable oxygen, water and food. Whilst this all sounds very simple it really isn’t as drones are doing all the work for you, and being the master in charge you allow automation at almost every turn. This is reasonable given the million things to worry about, but unfortunately it can cause a domino effect at times. Not having a certain metal anywhere near a now broken drone hub could in fact take out the food or oxygen for multiple domes. Along with this meteor showers could knock out a key installation that powers half the colony or, as everything on Mars is subject to degradation, a mass of key cables could stop working and you don’t have immediate access to the materials to fix them. The game balances tranquility and sheer panic equally well and this is what makes Surviving Mars a really nice tactical blend. To add to your arsenal there is a fairly deep tech tree which over the course of a ten to fifteen hour playthrough you will not complete unless you are incredibly fortunate with your random resource finds. The tech branches give you the ability to substantially speed up or improve your colony in a variety of ways and to coin the phrase, it helps you science the shit out of things on Mars.

Graphically the game is an excellent mix of cold and mechanical (as a result of it being a space race builder) but shrugs off this cold exterior with its fantastic day night cycle and the excellent detail on many of the structures you are able to create. Add to this the introduction of pesky humans and everything starts to feel a little bit more like home. Rendered in true 4K on the Xbox One X it’s about as good as it gets for games of its ilk on a modern console. The audio is a solid steady mix which works really nicely with both the look of the game and the atmosphere, keeping itself inconspicuous and a little chirpy as you try to expand before rising to promote a sense of danger and urgency when your whole colony is on the brink of disaster.  

‍Watching your entire base light up during the night cycle in 4K is lovely

The first few hours of Surviving Mars are unnecessarily overly challenging due to the lack of a an obvious campaign narrative or decent tutorials —  a design decision which would totally work for a mysterious walking simulator but a tad bizarre for a complex city builder on a planet that initially doesn’t support human life. That said, if you persevere and figure these things out yourself what you will find is a fairly complex strategy game that nicely marries the city builder itch as well as keeping you on your toes with its survival elements. Surviving Mars gets off to a rough start but in time becomes addictive and rewarding and is especially recommended for fans of the genre.

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Initially difficult and daunting, if you stick with it Surviving Mars becomes an addictive and rewarding strategy game which looks gorgeous in 4K.
Andrew Phillips

I've been playing video games for 25 years, own all consoles and have no affinity to any specific brand - I go where the games are.

Frequently described by gaming buddies as the Leeroy Jenkins of the group - no regrets.