Wot I Think: Aven Colony

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My stint as the governor of an off-world colony has gone a bit pear-shaped. I’ve got aliens to worry about, toxic fumes are floating in from the east, lightning has set fire to my farms and shards are falling from the heavens, smashing into my vulnerable habitats. If that’s not enough of a pain in the arse, protesters have taken to the streets, complete with massive holographic slogans. Playing Aven Colony [official site] is like trying to make a house of cards next to an open window.

Mothership Entertainment’s colony management sim looks a lot like the sci-fi entries in the Anno series, but with its elections, edicts and simplified economy, it’s got more in common with a Tropico where the humour and Caribbean charm has been replaced by a multitude of crises that make Banished seem almost relaxing.

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It doesn’t start out that way, mind. Whether you’re building a colony in one of the game’s increasingly challenging missions, or in the sandbox mode, you begin by going through the motions. You need to construct buildings that generate power and water, farms to feed colonists and habitats to house your citizens. So far, so familiar. And in case you forget to do any of this, the game reminds you by turning these building projects into objectives. The same ones, every time.

Then winter arrives. Winter, it seems, is almost always impending, and it’s a marvel that the entire world of Aven Prime isn’t constantly hidden under miles of ice and snow. It means you have to temporarily bid farewell to solar power and farms, which is unfortunate because you’ll be very much relying on them. It’s possible to plan for this, the worst season, however. Geothermal and wind power is still effective, and greenhouses can ensure that crops continue to grow even when it’s freezing. But it’s still a balancing act. Geothermal power stations can only be built over vents, wind power is weak, and greenhouses contain fewer crops and need more electricity.

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While many of its counterparts use the desire for prosperity to drive expansion, Aven Colony uses the need to survive. Every crisis requires a new building, which requires more power, which requires more workers. It means you always have to be switched on and ready to douse yet another fire, both literal and figurative. It’s got a tension that’s unusual for the genre, but while it certainly makes the game more challenging, it definitely doesn’t make it more fun.

Mariina Hallikainen, Colossal Order’s CEO, once told me that the least popular bit of DLC for Cities Skylines is the Natural Disasters DLC. Players with fond memories of demolishing towns in SimCity demanded it, but it turns out that most people want their cities to remain standing. After a week with Aven Colony, I’d be happy with just getting a break from all the repairs.

It’s the constant busywork that tires me out. Rather than worrying about a single, huge disaster, I’m fretting about a dozen smaller ones that repeat ad nauseum. And rather than smartly planning out my colony and passing laws to improve it, I’m doing damage control, simply reacting to whatever nagging problem is giving me a headache. And it’s never over. Issues are never really solved; they’re just survived until the next time.

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I can’t understate how quickly it can all go down the shitter, either, especially during an election. You can be sitting pretty at 90 percent approval one minute, and all it takes is for power to briefly go out for that number to plummet to 30, ending the game. Aven Colony’s colonists aren’t just quick to turn on their leader, they’re incredibly lazy too. If they have to walk more than a few blocks to get to work, for instance, they’ll get depressed about their commute, and since there’s no transport system and only one type of road, there’s nothing that can be done about that aside from building more, potentially unnecessary, residences closer to their job.

The whole endeavour is, ultimately, Sisyphean. Each “victory” in the campaign is merely a doorway to another trial that’s broadly identical to the last. Occasionally a new mission will add another obstacle, or the map will lack specific resources, but the majority of objectives and roadblocks repeat so that it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress. Not meaningful progress, anyway. There’s a tacked-on narrative running through the campaign that crops up from time to time, mostly in the form of commands tasking you with expanding your colony to a particular location. It’s a sophomoric sci-fi mystery involving a bunch of people you don’t know talking at you through a future version of Skype called, I kid you not, Shipe. It’s joined by Cmail and a Twitter analogue called… Twotter? Twatter? It’s something terrible, anyway.

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Underneath all the relentless catastrophes are the foundations of a mostly competent management game. It’s got all the basics, the fretting about utilities, resource gathering, fulfilling colonists’ needs and desires, plus plenty of overlays and stats to track everything from air quality to how free colonists feel (not very if you’re fond of instituting martial law). Some of the information, air quality in particular, could be expressed better, but everything’s generally clear and rational.

It’s a bit rigid, especially in the campaign, where there’s generally a single right way to develop your colony, but once you start plonking down advanced buildings like research centres there’s a bit more room for experimentation. Inedible alien flora, for example, can be cultivated just like crops, but on their own they’re worthless. With the right buildings and tech, however, they can be combined with other plants, water or flour to create a new resource. This way you can discover new ways to stop your colonists from starving, and you can keep them stocked up on drugs that will make them too relaxed to complain or riot.

I’ve grown to cherish the moments between the storms and the invasions of alien, plague-carrying spores, when I can tend to my farms and concoct strange new narcotics. But it’s also during those moments of calm where it becomes more apparent that the simulation layer is a little lacking.

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Colonists, for instance, all seem to act identically. Every colonist can do every job and live anywhere, as long as they can get to that aforementioned job. And that’s their entire life, aside from brief breaks where they protest their benevolent ruler. There aren’t family units, classes, different ages, education and there’s no social mobility, either. They are merely a bunch of walking lists of the same needs, and the only reason you need to fulfill those needs is to make sure they keep working and re-elect you. It’s all about maintaining the status quo, rather than improving the colonist’s lives so that they, in turn, improve the colony.

This results, unfortunately, in colonies that feel incredibly artificial. Take upgrading homes. In, say, Anno 2070 or Pharaoh, once the needs of a house’s residents are met, the building and its inhabitants are upgraded. There’s a physical transformation, and the buildings can fit more people, but more importantly the homeowners become better off, climbing up the social ladder and taking new jobs. It’s an expression of the positive changes you’re making to the settlement. In Aven Colony, you spend nanites, the game’s version of cash, to upgrade buildings, and the colonists don’t play a role in it at all.

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It’s appropriate that Aven Colony doesn’t use regular currency, because the economic side of things is largely overlooked. There are no taxes, no budgets to worry about, a complete absence of my beloved economic sliders, and only the pale reflection of a trading system – it leaves a gaping hole in the game. Instead, nanites are synthesised from exhaustible supplies of copper and iron, or some alien sludge, and they can be spent on buildings, consumer goods, upgrades and the occasional trade deal. And… that’s it. That’s the extent of the game’s economy.

As much as I crave a deeper simulation, I’ll concede that it might be a bit too much to manage in conjunction with all the threats the colonies face, but dealing with vast green clouds of deadly gas is, surprisingly, a lot less compelling than balancing a budget. One involves experimenting, tweaking, making sacrifices and planning for the future; the other involves making sure you’ve got a giant fan.

In the sandbox mode, where you can tone down the frequency of many of the threats to the colony, the streamlining is even more noticeable. Nonetheless, it’s a more pleasant experience, absent the shackles of the more linear campaign and its accompanying busywork. But by the time I was finished with the missions, I was already burned out.

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Improvement though it may be, it’s still more of the same, including the maps and their accompanying challenges, which are all taken from the campaign. There’s nothing in the mode that really encourages creativity, either. There are no cosmetic items to spruce up the colony because it’s all function over form, and no opportunities for the emergent storytelling that you see in other sims and city-builders. It’s a cycle of survival and expansion, but not much else. Once things start going smoothly, it’s hard to find a reason to keep on going.

I don’t think Aven Colony is terrible, despite these 1,500+ scathing words. The combination of survival and constructing a frontier colony is still an intriguing concept, and Mothership Entertainment have used the alien world conceit to create some novel, if ultimately irritating, obstacles. But the balance is all off, and its slog of a campaign and the attempts at streamlining make this a disappointing extraterrestrial outing.

Aven Colony is out today on Windows via Steam and Humble for £25/$30.

15 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    Good, insightful WIT. Aven’s place on my Steam Wishlist might be a bit wobblier now though…

    • foszae says:

      Geez this took it down from maybe-the-highlight-of-my-city-building-year to maybe i’ll pick it up at 2019 xmas sale.

      • Jay Load says:

        On my list, I think it’s gone from ‘Most Anticipated’ to being off the list entirely. But this might be my fault: I suspect I was really looking for something more relaxing I could play in, and have adventures directing my colony, rather than a goal-oriented, task-heavy busywork engine a la Farmville.

        A shame. It had great potential.

  2. Unclepauly says:

    The pics make it look so good..

  3. Tycow says:

    Someone remaster K240 or Fragile Allegiance and I’ll be a happy moocow.

  4. kraze says:

    Why does this kind of games always looks so generic?
    They’re supposed to happen on an alien planet and yet it always looks like some fantasy rendition of Earth with giant mushrooms and earth-like lifeforms – not to mention buildings also look like by the numbers “sci-fi” – as in a bunch of ‘supposedly’ futuristic shaped buildings with no sense of utility/usefulness.

    And before you say “gee, but you look at the graphics alone, what about the game?!”. But such art is a direct indication of how much effort was put into fleshing out the rest of the game, no exceptions thus far.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      Aside from the fact that not everyone has Morrowind’s or HL2’s, or Dishonored’s(and that was partially composed of people from HL2) design/art direction team; I suspect that it’s a concession to convenience and discoverability:

      Management games all tend to hide a spreadsheet more or less elegantly, so absolutely nothing requires that the buildings look like anything, have any particular intuitive effects, etc; but if yours are pulled from the trope library it will be considerably easier for the player to make plausible guesses about how they work, and often get it right, rather than having to let disbelief drop for a minute, check the values in the spreadsheet, and min-max whatever strange combination of effects the mystery object has.

      Consider Alpha Centauri units vs. Alpha Centauri buildings and secret projects: AC had way more atmosphere than average; but since the units were snapped together from modules based on tech level(rather than being predefined, as in Civ), while buildings and SPs we’re pre-defined; the units ended up being cryptic stat bundles whose awkward names basically just got in the way of knowing what they did(“plasma impact sentinels”? Just give me attack/defense/minerals cost please); while the buildings we’re also stat bundles(everything is, under the surface); but they also had recognisable personality and mostly did things that some sounded like what they should do, so you might need to read the description the first time, or to see exactly how much extra research a “research hospital” is good for; but you could mostly let the spreadsheet fade away and focus on the growth and development of Gaia’s Landing or whatever.

      In an ideal world; you would get both: a Gameworld that is both beautifully alien(or fantastic, if it’s more of a fantasy setting); and so coherent and internally plausible that things aren’t just a thin skin of word salad around their stats; but if you don’t have such a world available, the temptation to make things functionally familiar is understandable.

      It sounds like this game has other vices; and I would certainly agree that, in an ideal world, you would get a beautifully all alien gameworld and mechanics that don’t have you hit ng the stat sheets and forced to ‘play’ it like a numerical optimization problem(unless that’s your thing); but doing so appears to be difficult.

      • kraze says:

        Ah, Alpha Centauri would be a great example for one. And I’d disagree about it having confusing stat representation. To me it was simple enough to understand since it was still basic, its units were spread into three main Civ-like types (infantry, tanks, artillery) with their respective bonuses added to those stats. And each building had info on exactly what it does written under its icon.
        In fact I’d say it’s also a great example of an EFFORT put into it since it’s way more fun than Civ usually is – and don’t say it isn’t since unlike Civ you don’t waste first hundred turns clicking next because of how tightly designed and straight to a point it is.

        But see – SMAC wouldn’t be what it is without its atmosphere and Planet – it still would’ve been a great Civ-like, much like Colonization was – but it wouldn’t be a ‘SMAC’, an instant classic.

        And you don’t need a superb art team since SMAC itself was in many ways on an ‘ugly’ side even back in 1999 – but you need to make it different, make it stand apart.

        I think it’s much like Battlezone 1 vs. 2. They both are more or less the same game, but Battlezone 1 with its real planets is way more interesting and captivating as opposed to a generic tropic-style planets of 2.

        Basically it’s a question of “why would I care or be connected to this supposedly alien world?” and in a management game where huge part of the fun is looking at what you’ve built and how – it’s important.

        Of course all of it is purely ‘IMHO’ so what do I know

        • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

          Sorry if I wasn’t clear: AC is crazy atmospheric (especially given how pretty it mostly isn’t, it’s largely in the flavor text and the voiceovers; plus the game mechanics that do give you a ‘not in Kansas anymore’ feel); but I found that there was a huge contrast between the buildings, where you had no customization, but the purpose/effect was usually easily grasped; despite being less flexible and more familiar sounding, those were where the flavor came through (eg. “Research hospital” obviously adds research and health, just like you’d expect, so instead I mostly remembered that comment from CEO Morgan about how “some civilian workers got in among the research patients and became so hysterical that I was compelled to have them nerve stapled” when I built one; wondered just what sort of work was providing those research bonuses, is this the sort of thing that gives University of Planet their extra drone unhappiness, etc.) Units, by contrast, weren’t hard to understand; but their customizability left them almost devoid of character:weapon tier 1,2,3, etc. each have a different treknobabble name, same with armor; but there were very few occasions where any flavor masked the spreadsheet: different units had different numbers; but no identity(except maybe copters with psi weapons, because those were just scary once veteran).

  5. Carra says:

    Speaking of Pharaoh, I played through it last year and it holds up incredibly well. I think I’ve spent about three months playing nothing but Pharaoh. Building pyramids takes an age but it’s great to your tiny people build it up stone by stone. And it’s properly difficult. Not in the “this storm will kill your city” but in trying to provide your city with everything it needs as it continues to grow.

    The Sci-Fi Anno builders haven’t been able to keep me as entertained. I hope they go back to the past for their next version.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      I realize that this is just part of the ‘feel’ of the series(certainly all the iterations I’ve played; quite possibly all of the games, whether Rome, Greece, Egypt, Middle Kingdom, others?); but I can never quite get past the ‘hauler’ units that distribute goods and services being horrible idiots. I freely admit that my road layouts probably just aren’t good in some way; but cursing all the relevant gods as two or more haulers of a given type wander around in one area while a second starves/pays no taxes/catches fire/burns down is wildly frustrating; while putting up more roadblocks than an eastern Bloc dictatorship under martial law and over supplying services is expensive and eats a lot of space(plus the real high end residents are NIMBY jerks who sometimes resent the buildings that supply them with the services they demand, so your options are even further constrained outside the slums.)

      I realize that the Pharoah’s police don’t have computerized crime databases for predictive policing; but if a vendor, priest, etc. would just think “Hey, I’ve taken the left turn here the past four times I’ve been this way, maybe the guys on the right turn want to buy some pots and worship Ra this time!” my life would be much improved.

      I think this is why the (admittedly somewhat dryer and less lively) mechanism used in classic(ie. not the worthless reboot) SimCity games suited me better: infrastructure had capacity limits and service areas; but the game design mostly assumed that resources were distributed sensibly within the coverage area; not lost on a side street somewhere because of pathing issues.

      • Fiatil says:

        You may want to check out Children of the Nile. It’s a spiritual successor to Pharoah made by a studio comprised of remnants of the studio that made Pharoah. They’re very similar, but Children of the Nile addresses how mechanical the haulers were in the older games.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Iamblichos says:

    Sounds like devs have finally managed to capture what it’s like to run an actual city! Well done, them.

  7. Axolotl says:

    Man, this game looked real nice in previews. Thanks for writing that review, I can’t stand games where the only challenge comes from repeating the same three curveballs over and over.

  8. vorador says:

    What a disappointment. It looks quite nice from those captures, and I’m a sucker for city builders and/or sci-fi. But that the real challenge comes from dealing with RNG events and not with organic growth of your city/colony is definitely not my cup of tea.

    Pass.