Surviving Mars PC Review

Despite a few stumbles, Surviving Mars successfully combines colony building and survival elements into a gorgeous package.

By Woozie, Posted 15 Mar 2018

Planning and preparation are key in maintaining a colony in Surviving Mars and, although it does stumble at times, Haemimont Games’ latest effort does a pretty good job of making one’s time on the Red Planet interesting. Prior to setting off, you pick a Sponsor which determines the default amount of science you receive per Sol (that’s a Martian day), as well as the number of available rockets and initial funding. Sponsors also have different bonuses attached to them. India, for example, allows building Medium Domes without researching them, while Europe gives extra funding for every researched technology. There’s a choice of leader which adds another layer of bonuses, such as making certain buildings not require power and maintenance, a logo and Mysteries, which are late-game events inspired by various sci-fi works.

Surviving Mars, PC, Review, Screenshot

The first few steps usually involve extracting resources next to the rocket’s landing spot, in order to prepare for the upcoming dome that will house the first people on Mars. Planning needs to go into production structures, alongside cables and pipes which give access to power and water/oxygen, as well as which sectors of the map to scan first, in hopes of revealing further resources. Rockets can be sent back and forth between Earth and Mars to export Rare Metals in exchange for funding, or to bring needed resources or colonists to the colony. Balancing the available funding can prove important in keeping things afloat, since it provides emergency access to resources, should you need them. But it’s not just funding that needs to be taken into account, as rockets will take time to travel between the two planets. Colonists can be handpicked, based on a couple of traits, and it’s best to do so, especially with the first batch. Prioritizing perks like enthusiastic, which grants higher productivity when at high morale, or sexy, which increases the chances of having children, is arguably better than picking lazy people who are less productive at all times. But, if you feel like tempting fate, there’s nothing stopping you from picking only idiots and taking bets on how often they’ll break the buildings they’re assigned to.

Even after colonists land, most of their work will be done inside, or in the near vicinity of domes. That’s why drones, are an important part of the colonization effort. They both build and repair structures, while also aiding in the transportation of resources in between depots. Operating only in the area surrounding a Drone Hub, makes the placement of these structures deserving of special attention, as it determines which buildings can be repaired and which storages can be serviced by drones. They are joined by flying shuttles, later on, that should make transporting resources and colonists possible over longer distances. The problem is that once you get more domes and spread them out, drones and shuttles can turn out to be inefficient, meaning you have to resort to micromanaging your Remote Controlled Transports a bit too much. You can end up with situations where there is a high quantity of a resource near one dome, but another, built way away, isn’t receiving any of it, because shuttles are busy doing something else and no drone hubs overlap. The available transportation methods can work well, but they can also feel limiting as, aside from spamming drone and shuttle hubs, there’s little that can be done. The prioritization of buildings can also turn out to be inefficient at times. There are three levels of priority that determine which buildings are considered first for getting serviced, power and life support, and even so, on certain occasions, I’ve seen drones ignore a broken cable which cut the power to an inhabited dome, because they were busy depositing waste rock somewhere else, regardless of the dome the cable ran to having a higher priority.

Surviving Mars, PC, Review, Screenshot

Efficiency and progress is not only reliant on good planning, but also researching technologies which give access to new buildings and various improvements to the colony. Science is granted by the sponsor, outsourcing, colonists with the Genius trait and Science Labs/Institutes. Then, the RC Explorer, can analyze Anomalies which can grant a flat amount of science, reveal technologies or even Breakthroughs, which can affect your colony in fairly significant ways. Getting colonists that require only one hour of sleep means a higher availability for night shifts; having all your non-medical service buildings worked by service bots, and at maximum efficiency, frees up workforce, provided you’ve the electronics for the upgrade. Otherwise, researching a technology leads to uncovering the next one on its row. The same techs will always be found on the same rows, but their position is randomized with each game. Getting a medium dome earlier can be beneficial, as long as you’ve the resources to build and maintain it. At the same time, getting it later will mean you’ll have to rely on more of the smaller basic domes. The randomization never stood in the way of my colony’s survival, instead, simply expediting some things while delaying others. Everything culminates with extra means to handle disasters, like a turret to shoot down meteors, and Wonders, which are very costly buildings that are quite special thanks to the bonuses they provide.

The survival layer of Surviving Mars is made up of a number of different things. Making a colony self-sustaining can become trickier the further you expand. Overexpansion can be deadly as long as buildings don’t have access to vital resources like water, oxygen, food, or those required for maintenance. Disasters also require a fair share of preparation. Dust storms choke the production of oxygen and water from the atmosphere, Cold Waves freeze water tanks and increase energy costs, while meteors can crack domes or destroy exposed structures. Unless you’re playing on a lower difficulty, disasters will keep you on your toes. While things can, indeed, quickly spiral out of control, leading to the loss of lives, the small number of disasters does tend to grow old a little too soon. The other layer that contributes to the survival aspect is the colony’s positioning. While also affecting disaster types, it determines the availability of certain resources. The choice is up to the player, if they want to see how they can fare with smaller amounts of water, metal or concrete on the map. Geography also varies from location to location. A start in an easier location might give you a lot of flat, buildable land to play with, while amping up the difficulty in a different area of Mars, may position your colony (or vast deposits of much needed rare metals), up on a hill which requires Tunnels to connect to the rest of the map, a hefty investment of machine parts early on. The maps themselves are quite large, however, and if you plan to cover them in domes, you’d best put a good amount of time aside.

Surviving Mars, PC, Review, Screenshot

Colonists come with needs of their own and balancing all of them can be tricky. Basic and medium domes have limited space, so chances are not everyone will be happy until researching the much larger Mega and Oval domes. Low comfort means that colonists will be reluctant to procreate, among other things. While people can be moved to different domes, the UI doesn’t help very much with this. Despite having options to select colonists based on a couple of criteria (specialization, perks, flaws, age), you have to cycle through them individually, using two arrow buttons. This is extremely fiddly, as relocating five people to a specific place, involves manually moving each one to where they’re needed, and possibly, a lot of zooming in and out. Alternatively, you can set filters on domes but I’ve had mixed results with people actually leaving for the dome I wanted them in, especially when they had to use shuttles to get there. Similarly, on many occasions, certain geologists insisted on working in an infirmary where they weren’t as efficient, despite the nearby extractor being quite empty. Colonists can develop perks and flaws over time, based on their performance, educational buildings or the exposure to disasters and resource shortages. While there’s undoubtedly effort put behind making colonists feel different, I never felt close to the people in my domes. The announcement that my last Founder had died left me rather indifferent. I probably moved him around once, when he refused to work in the appropriate workplace, but aside from that, I never saw him, or his peers, as more than a couple of comfort and morale bars I wanted to keep in the green, and text bubbles telling me someone is sad because they can’t drink.

The first few hours will go by relatively slowly, as you go in and out of the Encyclopedia menu, which did make me want for a more interactive tutorial. When you start your second colony, getting to the things you haven’t seen yet will require going through a lot of stuff that’s a little too familiar. While the Tech randomization can delay access to certain buildings, you’ll know what awaits on each row. Despite all its required micromanagement, which includes the possibility of setting up work shifts depending on when power is generated, or increasing the workload at the cost of colonist sanity, you’ll find yourself building the same windmills and solar generators, or dragging the same pipes and cables for a good portion of time. It’s a strange situation where the many varying factors that keep each playthrough interesting can sometimes sink underneath a wave of familiarity that sticks around for a while. At times, I did end up wishing there was simply “more” to do. Part of this happens because of Surviving Mars’ pacing, as it’s quite a slow game. After the initial learning run, I kept it mostly on the highest speed, pausing when emergencies required my attention, and even then, there was a good amount of downtime, broken by the need to babysit a transport vehicle into actually moving resources to a new building spot.  Going into the mid and late game, there will be a string of new buildings that will spice up the handful of familiar motions, alongside Wonders and Mysteries, which can affect the colony in a variety of interesting ways and to different extents.

Surviving Mars, PC, Review, Screenshot

When it comes to its UI, Surviving Mars definitely hits some bumps. Despite taking up a good portion of the screen, it’s a bit cheap when it comes to information. While it does show the total resources in the colony at any given time, production, consumption and maintenance costs are only shown for the last Sol. This makes it so that you’ll have to visit every factory and make mental notes of their predicted output which can vary, especially when their workers become seniors and leave the workforce. As there is no alert when a worker does go senior, unless you’re very vigilant, you can run into situations where a resource shortage appears. Furthermore, when things get busy, you may have trouble finding batches of resources, as there’s no way to track that 34 metal that’s somewhere in your colony and which might just prevent colonists in a faraway dome from dying.

From the hypnotizing wind turbines turning in unison to the cute little drones shining their headlights to see better during dust storms, Surviving Mars’ retro sci-fi aesthetic is an eye-catcher. It’s mostly thanks to small details, like dust gathering on buildings the closer they get to requiring maintenance (which in turn cleans them of said dust) and the contrast of white, round rooftops and busy drones moving about the red Martian landscape. Adding to the game’s welcoming atmosphere are four radio stations with a good variety of awesome music on offer. Spacey synths and country music (of all things) made my stay on Mars soothing, while the quirky hosts’ interventions, and the occasional advertisement, varied things up just enough. Of course, if you want none of these, you can always turn the radio off.

Surviving Mars, PC, Review, Screenshot

Building up a colony and making it self-sustaining, while avoiding death by asteroid, asphyxiation or starvation turned out to be satisfying endeavors. Even with its UI that can use some work and limited options for transporting resources, Surviving Mars kept me coming back to it, just to see how much further I could expand the colony. I was curious for what the next Breakthrough would be and whether or not I’d lose structures in an area where meteors fell often. Things can settle into a set of familiar motions, and the game’s pacing allows for quite a bit of downtime, but a new means to generate power, the prospect of a new dome or the occurrence of a Mystery event do push things forward, making  it easy to overlook the game’s flaws. It might not be perfect, but Surviving Mars’ attempt of marrying colony building and survival elements is, ultimately, a successful one.

Bogdan Robert, NoobFeed
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General Information

Platform(s): Xbox One, PC
Publisher(s): Paradox Interactive
Developer(s): Haemimont Games
Genres: City Builder, Simulator
Themes: Sci-fi, Colonization
Release Date: 2018-03-15

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