Surviving Mars is stranger than it seems

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The cubes are black, and shiny, and mobile. They hover in a neat, impossible stack outside one of my colony’s larger domes, clicking delicately about one another, always returning to the same overall shape, harming nobody. My robot rovers form a cautious circle around them while my scientists scratch their heads and bicker. I look at the cubes, one of the many Mysteries of Haemimont’s deceptively by-the-numbers management sim Surviving Mars, and the cubes, somehow, look right back at me.

My colonists are also looking at the cubes, noses pressed against their reinforced dome walls. The cubes are giving my colonists some funny ideas. One group considers them a threat, and wants me to blast them to bits with high-energy ions. Others hail them as gifts from some alien god, and want them brought inside the domes where they can be worshipped. A third, undecided faction argues that the cubes should be stored for further study. Everybody is at each other’s throats, and everybody is looking to me for a decision.

I um and err, wishing I’d paid more attention during those Big Dumb Object classes at Kubrick High, and settle on a compromise: the cubes will be turned into sculptures, but placed outside the domes, and I’ll keep a few of them in remote depots for my eggheads to pick over. The crisis dealt with, I resume development of my lovely new windfarm in the map’s north-eastern corner. A few minutes later, however, I receive another panicked bulletin from the lab. Oh dear. There are more of the cubes now.

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Surviving Mars is an engrossing but slightly dry variation on well-worn management sim concepts, right up to the point when it isn’t. Broadly, it’s another offworld city-builder about churning out and storing resources so that hardy Simalikes can eke out a placid, vaguely suburban existence within giant, gleaming habitats. The strategic pressures and predicaments are, on the surface, routine, however spiced up by the setting: ensuring that power generators such as solar panels are sufficiently spaced out to allow easy expansion as you add more facilities, for example, or building up a food and oxygen surplus before you parachute in a new wave of settlers.

It’s a mixture executed with a lot of style and panache. I particularly love how structures exposed to the Martian atmosphere are slowly covered by dust, allowing you to distinguish between old and new sections of your colony at a glance. And there are, in fairness, some distinctive ideas floating around in the cauldron of production and resource variables. You can send rockets back to Earth for rarer materials or facilities you lack the means to build, for instance, but this is complicated by the fact that rocket fuel is a) prone to blowing up, and b) produced by refining precious water. Still, the broad strokes are second nature, and for all the skill of the execution, it’s easy to bounce off what appears to be a game of processes.

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There’s more beneath the crust of Surviving Mars than you might guess, however. For one thing, each colonist is a very malleable and volatile entity, comprising sanity, morale, health and comfort stats plus a specialisation such as Engineer and an array of Quirks, Flaws and Perks. Flaws include traits like gluttony or cowardice, Perks cover things like Born Leader, while the currently available Quirks consist, a little bizarrely, of Tourist, Guru and Vegan. You’re given full control over the kinds of people you invite to your budding Martian resort – if you really love punishment, go right ahead and staff it entirely with Lazy Whiners – and there are a number of technologies that let you shape traits and behaviour in the field, corrupting and evolving the game’s somewhat humdrum, extract-build-expand rhythms as you go.

I wasn’t able to probe this side of the game much during the demo, but Haemimont CEO Gabriel Dobrev sketched out some eccentric possibilities. Research cloning, for example, and you can do without the male sex entirely. Pump R&D dollars into mind control, and you’ll never have to worry about citizens going renegade when you neglect their needs. There are technologies that abolish old age, allowing workers to remain productive right up till they cop it, and technologies that let you recycle the dead, much to the outrage of their nearest and dearest. If these structural twists are as dramatic as they sound, the average Surviving Mars endgame will be a strange and enticing entity indeed.

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And then there are the Mysteries, storied scenarios with several possible outcomes that kick in once you’ve taken care of the necessities of Martian existence. You can select them in advance or opt for a random Mystery, and Dobrev estimates that playing through each scenario once should push the playtime past a hundred hours. The range sounds impressive. There are political thriller scenarios that involve your colony’s relationship with mother Earth, and a sleeping pandemic that spreads organically through your habitats. There’s a Mystery that unfolds like a police procedural, and there are Mysteries, such as our friends the cubes, that boost the game into the realm of high concept sci-fi. You aren’t required to embroil yourself in these enigmas when they pop up, but letting things lie is of course a choice in itself.

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The well-oiled workmanlike design of Surviving Mars feels, in hindsight, less like adherence to formula and more like a developer setting the player up for a series of eldritch surprises. If you’re a fan of city-building sims, of course, the idea of business as usual won’t put you off. But for me, the promise of Surviving Mars lies with how an alien environment might stealthily erode what you bring to it, even as you try to impose an old way of life. It’s a game about fetching up against the surface of a new world, doggedly extracting all that is good from that world, and then preparing to react when best-laid plans come undone.

Surviving Mars will be out March 15th.

16 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Huh. I sorta took this game for aiming for a sort of vague ‘realism’ despite the slightly goofy glass domes.

    Honestly, while I’d expect to be annoyed by the magic flying cubes and whatever that underground bubble is, I think it’s reasonable to have that in there. Spice things up, otherwise you just end up watching your self-sufficient colony grow bigger slowly with no real challenge, and that gets awfully dull after a while.

  2. chuckieegg says:

    Research cloning, for example, and you can do without the male sex entirely

    I’m looking forward to the RPS editorial shocker on that one. I’m still not over the Rimworld fracas.

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      “I’m still not over the Rimworld fracas.”

      Really? That’s kinda sad, man. You really need to learn how not to let game site articles bother you for months or years. It’s really just not important enough for that.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        “You really need to not let peoples decisions in programming games effect you for months on end…” oh wait!

        Yeah, I totally agree the decision may have been wrong, or the person involved may have had poor personal beliefs. But I also understand it’s good to have conversations about these things, but not good to attack people.

        This goes for both sides. I do though understand quite often one side is more discriminated against than the other. It’s just we do need to not use attacks but to try and find solutions.

      • FredSaberhagen says:

        Kinda sad… man? Did you just assume his gender?!? … crap, I mean their gender..

  3. Seafoam says:

    Meh, there goes the hard sci-fi.
    Not that aliens can’t be hard sci-fi, it’s just that the focus of the game is now on aliens and not the realities of colonizing mars.

    I suppose it’s more entertaining that way but it’s still a shame.

    • Darloth says:

      The focus, you say?

      Isn’t that usually referring to the main part of the game? Given you can turn all of the mysteries off, or have one entirely related to the politics of space colonization or spreading diseases, I am surprised you decided to go with such a strong statement.

      Could you give a little more detail on how you think the focus of the game is now irrevocably and undeniably shifted, please?

      • Seafoam says:

        Well, the idea of colonizing Mars is a poignant one isn’t it?

        Once you add aliens to it then the Mars colonization becomes just window dressing. Something humanity does for the aliens instead for its own sake.

        Let me think of an example. If in a farming simulator game you can resurrect an eldritch god in the forest by feeding it your harvest, do you do farming just for the sake of farming anymore?

        The choice to have aliens makes it so you don’t colonize mars just to colonize mars. Now its just another alien game, which is fine but it’s a shame nevertheless.
        I know it was the choice to begin with but I’ve learned of it only just now.

    • Someoldguy says:

      It’s never been that focused on the realities of Martian colonisation.

      – solar power is good initially because it’s low weight to transport, but only practical in the 0-40 degree north band where sunlight is higher and dust storms less likely. Once you’re mining extensively your mining robots need abundant power, which isn’t going to come from solar or wind. Nor is the natural light sufficient for growing crops efficiently, so you’ll be needing power to produce artificial light to grow food.
      link to space.stackexchange.com
      link to firsttheseedfoundation.org

      – Only at noon on the equator at perihelion (closest orbit to the sun) is the surface temperature above freezing and even then, because of the very weak atmosphere, the temperature two metres above the surface is much cooler than at the surface. The average temperature is -54c and winter night at aphelion much, much lower. This makes the “cold waves” pretty meaningless – if your colony is built to take the standard martian temperatures then made up cold waves won’t change things. The solution of subsurface thermal heating is also a hugely power inefficient solution and power is not something you have in abundance.

      I could go on, but enough whinging from me because it’s not got the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars colonisation techniques seal of approval. I actually like the sound of more SF weird stuff to encounter with your colonists. It’ll probably be the part that feels much less implausible than their rather bizarre colony building requirements and closer to the mysteries that we encounter in all our favourite SF books and TV shows.

  4. pookie101 says:

    Recycle the dead? I hereby accept Soylent as the Corporate sponsor for this colony

  5. April March says:

    I quite like the idea of having a bunch of weird horror scenarios layered on top of what is otherwise a very dry and realistic sciencey simulator. Two very different tastes that compliment the other quite so. Maybe this will scratch the itch Clockwork Empires didn’t.

  6. Sulph says:

    Props where due: this was an enjoyable read. It’s even sparked my interest in a game that’s in a genre I’m traditionally lukewarm over. Good stuff, Edwin.

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