Our planet is far from perfect. It’s polluted and overstressed, filled with war, and pushed to the brink of total ecological disaster. But worst of all, it isn’t red. You see where I’m going with this? If you aren’t sold on leaving Earth just yet, you still might want to sit down with Haemimont Games’ newest building simulator, Surviving Mars. Why? Well, like an atmospheric moisture extractor, I’m going to condense everything you need to know.
Haemimont is known for their Tropico titles, and much like those, Surviving Mars has the player building a rags-to-riches settlement that thrives on exporting goodies. I recommend going with New Game as opposed to Easy Start, as this lets you set variables, such as starting funds, perks, and researched items. You even get to choose a landing site, which cleverly effects your playable map’s terrain, available resources, and natural disaster frequency. Then you have scenario names to choose from, from easy to difficult, encouraging potential hundreds of hours’ replay value. If you think this sounds surprisingly complex already, sit tight. In what constitutes the game’s great drawback, Surviving Mars has a learning curve of planetary proportions.
At first, you’ll get a fair amount of guidance. The game will guide you to the “build” menu, from which you’ll want to build a solar panel, and then a charging station for your drones, the robotic worker bees that carry resources and construct buildings. After similar guidance to build concrete and water extractors, the training wheels start to slip off. This is where you’ll have to be experimental, and my best advice is to just scan your eyeballs over available buildings and think to yourself, “what would I want next for a colony?” And then just build it... or inevitably try to and watch it not get done for days and then unintuitively find out you don’t have enough resources. Moreso than in Tropico 5, there's definitely a chronic lack of active information conveyance from here on, with crucial gameplay intricacies buried in the pause menu’s encyclopedia if not entirely unexplained. As you can imagine, this results in hours of intermittent trial and error as you move on to build your first settlement domes. But I urge you; stick to it, because along the way there's a special gaming experience.
Much of that comes down to the setting. I’m sure you’ve seen those eerie photos from our expensive little rovers out there, but there’s something surreal, tangible, and authentic about this game’s depiction of the Red Planet. It’s this feeling of hope, loneliness, and humility that just pours from the screen, thanks in large part to the fact that all of this feels surprisingly grounded and plausible. Natural disasters occur, things break down and wear out, people have hopes, dreams and fears when they move in, and you have to maintain public support by keeping colonists alive, happy, and healthy. Suffice to say, Surviving Mars comes off as a reasonable approximation of the growing pains our species will face. This is complemented by an outstanding soundtrack that perfectly captures this bittersweet spirit. From soaring symphonies to forlorn piano interludes, I just couldn’t get enough of it and don't think I ever will.
Beyond its emotional significance, Surviving Mars is generally fun and entertaining throughout. It’s that “model train” type of satisfaction you’ll get from any good management sim, but with an extra dose of cool factor, as if every object is a piece of a dusty space machine. Outside the domes, your base will have a network of windmills and solar panels, which connects to cables that run everything. Moxies and vaporizers supply oxygen and water respectively, which connect via a pipe system and are also used in fuel production, which occurs in factories, which have to be staffed, and now we move inside the domes. To keep people sane, you’ll need to build gardens and recreational spots such as casinos. All of these will have to be placed carefully to maximize space, especially with your beginner domes. To keep out ne’er-do-wells and prioritize based on your desired industry, you’ll have to exempt people with certain personalities from arriving. And it gets deeper, too. Yes, all of this is dumped on you at once without proper explanation, but when you figure it out, it’s cathartic to watch it unfold. In other words, I was annoyed with the game’s user-unfriendliness, but once I could grasp how things worked, I fell in love.
Finally, I should mention the port job. Being that this is a management simulator, console play was simply never going to be perfect. Text has a tendency to be smaller than needed, and inevitable as it may perhaps be, learning the controls will compound the daunting learning curve at hand. Once you get used to it, it’s definitely functional, but I do have to call into question the bizarre omissions, like the inability to toggle from one object to another of the same type. Regardless, the transition was done well enough that I would recommend buying this based on where you feel most comfortable playing games.
I wish I could sit here and call Surviving Mars an excellent game, because once you get past the eight-ish hours of unnecessary enigmas, it approaches that. It’s rich, intelligent, and deeply moving, succeeding as an entertaining simulation time sink and a profound, uplifting window into the future. And as headache-inducing as it could be, I was always having enough fun to figure it out, and I suppose that says it all. Surviving Mars is flawed, but nonetheless great.