Wot I Think: Surviving Mars

surviving-mars-review

I shed a surprising amount of tears during the founding of my first red planet colony in Surviving Mars. None of those tears had anything to do with the pipe leak that killed 58 people, I hasten to add. For those, I just swore at my repair drones and made more colonists work gruelling night-shifts at the polymer factory so we could patch up the air tubes.

My tears, I’m afraid, came instead at testaments to my own magnificence: when a dusty patch of sand patrolled by listless worker robots and automated factories saw the construction of its first bio-dome, when the first humans from Earth arrived to stake out a new life in this place I had built for them, when the first non-Earth baby was born. Live inside my work, ye Martians, and try not get caught inside a meteor storm.

The elevator pitch for Surviving Mars is Sim City (or Cities: Skylines) on a near-future red planet. It’s a town-building sim but in a place that initially has no oxygen, water or food, and in which freak weather could mean a total wipeout of an ill-prepared colony.

Surviving Mars is almost entirely based on theoretical science and, like Andy Weir’s The Martian and its film adaption (which it owes a few inevitable debts to), occupies a ‘five minutes into the future’ time period. It is very much about the nuts and bolts of, well, surviving and Mars, and that begins with preparing a section of the planet for habitation far in advance of sending over the first colonists.

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You’ll spend your first few hours scratching about in the dirt with a handful of remote-controlled, semi-autonomous drones which can scavenge basic resources and turn them into windfarms, solar panels and powerlines which can in turn power the likes of fully-automated mining equipment. This section of the game lasts several hours, and during that time it feels as though it is the game – gradually transforming this small tract of Mars into a self-sufficient factory. It’s slow work, and lonely work, and it’s also Surviving’s Marsterstroke.

When the time finally comes, when enough concrete has been painstakingly harvested to build basic water and oxygen capture systems and then, yes, oh god, an honest-to-god dome, it is absolutely glorious. The transformational effect on the scene you’ve been staring at for hours, as this huge swathe of blue, green and silver suddenly squats amongst the red rock and dust like an invading jellyfish. And then the transformational effect on your mind, as suddenly there is this new raft of things to worry about.

Build living quarters and hydroponic farms, connect everything with these thick rubber pipes, up the electricity supply dramatically, and request supply ships from Earth to provide resources such as electronics and polymers that I could not yet produce myself. And then… And then the first passengers from home. The first colonists. The first Martians.

This middle-section of the game has several moments during which I positively fizzed with pride. As mentioned previously, when the first child – the first true Martian – is born. When the first native supply line of metals or polymers is established by those brave pioneers. The first time I created enough fuel to return one of the supply ships back to Earth. When the second dome, this one containing a school for my colony’s growing second generation, went up. The creation of my first gleaming spire, the population’s growth to 100…

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It’s an attractive game (with a good soundtrack too), but more importantly it’s fairly adept at keeping superficially complex elements manageable – all these different resources, the distribution of drones across networked hubs, the sealed domes that behave almost as individual cities, and most of all the cables and pipes that act as a nervous system for the entire colony. That’s essential for any good city-builder: yes, many plates must be spun, but clear labelling of which is which takes away a lot of the pain. There is some jank to an interface nowhere near as slick’n’sexy as its stablemate Cities: Skylines, for instance some inconsistency about left and right mouse button to give orders, deselect drones or bring up the build menu, but by and large I didn’t have a problem finding the information I needed.

Which is just as well, as in the wake of polluting the empty planet with people, I very quickly needed a whole lot of information a whole lot more often. Drones don’t need to breathe, drink or eat. They get all they need from a single powerline. Humans? Humans need so much. And they have these frail little minds that freak out at the solitude or begrudge their accommodation or get addicted to substances.

Oh, and they die. Sometimes in very large numbers.

There’s this unspoken suspension of disbelief in any city-building game that some offscreen authority has chosen you as the most qualified entity for the job, that you must have some fantastic off-screen career which informed this. In an earth-bound town management game, the nuts and bolts of laying down rows of houses and waterpipes is straightforward enough that this fantasy is broadly undisputed, but it gets more complex in Surviving Mars.

It’s hard to swallow the idea that NASA would have sent in someone who doesn’t already know innately that it’s not enough to merely be generating sufficient oxygen, water and power, but that vast excesses of it must also be stored in order to provide sols-long backup supplies in the event first one, then two, then three, and at one point five utility pipes burst.

When the pipes burst, 58 people died. They died because I had no contingency plan, because no powerlines or waterpipes had failed during my early hours in the dust with those drones and so I had assumed they were wear-proof, because the lines that failed cut off power from the factories that made the resources required to fix the breaks, and from the hubs that commanded the drones to enact the fixes. It was a terrifying, mortifying domino effect, as more and more of my colony went offline, taking more and more of capability to respond with it, as more lives were lost either to the elements or as suicide to escape the worsening horror.

The only reason my couple of dozen survivors didn’t join their comrades in fertilising Mars’ barren soil is because I managed to summon a rocket from Earth, packed with building materials and expensive pre-fab, instant constructions, just before the lights went out forever.

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I recovered, eventually, slowly, painfully, but it was never the same. My new home had betrayed me, and I had proven myself a poor leader of a new culture. I readily accept this a component part of Surviving Mars’ The Martian Fantasy. Like Mark Watney losing all his potatoes, if I’d had an easy ride it would have been a boring, easy story, and inappropriate for the scale of what I was trying to accomplish. On the other hand, my disaster speaks to some flaws in Surviving Mars that I hope future updates could address.

There is no option, for instance, to make your drones prioritise patching a broken cable or pipe – you can assign high priority to a malfunctioning building, but no such button exists for the vital blood vessels which link them. And so my drones fiddled while Rome burned. Insult to injury is that fixing a damaged cable or pipe takes significantly longer than flat-out building a new one does – but no matter how many additional or parallel lines you lay, one going down still robs the entire network of vast amounts of power, water or air. What I’d give for a roll of duct tape.

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The way to roll with these punches – and, in the mid-game, the cable/pipe breakages come thick and fast – is to have massively over-generated and stored electricity, water and oxygen in order to weather not just the occasional meteor storm, but more importantly just general wear and tear. Another option is to having your colony neatly ghettoised into self-contained networks, so one area’s power going down doesn’t cause everyone in a dome on the other side of the map to freeze to death.

This is all relatively easily enough done if you know about it in advance, and I do to some extent appreciate how much I learned from the calamity, but it was gruelling to have so many hours’ work destroyed because of something the game had done a poor job of explaining. Still, second time around I’m going to have a very different experience, which I am glad of. I will build my colony in neat, self-sufficient modules, no-one will be summoned from Earth until I’ve stored up enough utilities to power a small city for a decade, and I will fast track the branch of the Civ-like research tree that eventually leads to maintenance-free electricity cables. On the other hand, my first dome, my first colonists, their first baby – none of that can feel as momentous a second time around.

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All this, I hope, conjures the sense that Surviving Mars has broadly done its job – to hook me deeply into its construction and maintenance, rather than to repel me with jank and grind, as is forever a risk with a game of this sort. There are some edges that need smoothing, and I don’t feel it does much interesting with the colonists themselves, despite random assignations of specialisms and peccadilloes – which is why I haven’t really mentioned that stuff. There is min-maxing to be done, but for me it was just a matter of having enough people to work all the farms and factories.

A far more significant curveball are ‘Mysteries’, openly science-fictional discoveries that can trigger a chain reaction of choose-your-own-adventure and massive disasters. Like everything else in Surviving Mars, these are slow-burn and primarily about making the ongoing maintenance of your base and its resources even harder, so do think twice about activating one. (If you can figure out how – the notifications that one has been found don’t tell you where it is, so you have to scour the map yourself). They can introduce new important new techs if you can weather their storms, and some spectacular sights, like the below, which I present without comment in order not to spoil how it plays out, but what they primarily do is disrupt your plans on a massive scale.

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In my experience, they’re best tackled when you’re in a comfortable holding pattern and actively want to escalate the situation – or just want to watch the world burn. Or freeze, as the case may be.

Another reason to hold off on them is the Surviving Mars’ construction side did get a little listless once the third or fourth dome went up and it started leaning into expansion purely for expansion’s sake. A fairly staple issue with city-builders, that, but the Mysteries can definitely remix the late game if you choose to.

My most abiding concern is replayability – I don’t really fancy going through the very slow early hours all over again in order to get to the bigger picture stuff once more, and the inflexibility of all those pipes, wires and domes does place a certain ceiling on how much you can visually design your Martian cityscape. There’s not much of the ‘oh, I fancy making a city bit like this…’ of Cities Skylines, say – there is no space for such frippery when lives are so much at stake. Still, though I sometimes grew weary of the donkey-work of cables and repairs, I definitely relish the new state of sustained fear Surviving Mars brings to city sims. It means that even small accomplishments feel so much bigger.

Surviving Mars is out today on Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, GOG and Humble for £35/$40/€40.

32 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Wait, the oxygen/electric/water lines don’t shut off if they’re broken? They just leak all over everywhere? We have automatic shutoffs now, here on earth. Why would we not have them five minute future mars?

    Anyway, dealing with damages is part of games like this. Still, sounds like they have a decent enough start, and it’s good to hear that the game is at least mostly alright.

    • unangbangkay says:

      You can actually incorporate switches and pipe valves into a given section of piping or cabling and shut off flow to a section in case of leakage. It’s still manual, though, and the issue with drones taking longer to repair pipe than lay new pipe still remains.

  2. Pendragon says:

    There is no option, for instance, to make your drones prioritise patching a broken cable or pipe

    You CAN assign a drone to repair a broken cable or pipe, it’s in the detail panel of the drone…

    • Pendragon says:

      OK, I was wrong. That button is only for buildings, not for cables and pipes :-(

  3. Pendragon says:

    The semi-random tech tree and random breakthrough techs each new game should lessen concerns of replayability, at least it does for me.

  4. carewolf says:

    Uhh, available on Linux at launch. I practically HAVE TO buy it then.

  5. Maxheadroom says:

    “I don’t really fancy going through the very slow early hours all over again in order to get to the bigger picture stuff once more”

    It was actually the early game that appealed to me. I watched some guy play it on youtube and the whole struggling to survive with limited resources made it look like Mars (the awesome Netflix Docu-drama mini series) the game.
    Skipped ahead a few videos and now there’s casinos and shopping centres and the whole thing looked like every other sim city clone but with a red tint

    • Nauallis says:

      Also if you get caught smoking in the Martian casinos, word is that they walk you out the airlock.

    • JoeX111 says:

      Is this the Nat Geo series? I ask because you’ve peaked my interest, but I can’t find it on Netflix here in the states.

      • Maxheadroom says:

        yeah thats the one. Not sure where else you’d (legally) find it. Well worth watching though

      • Cinek says:

        Don’t get too excited, it’s basically a paid SpaceX commercial.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      It doesn’t really become a SimCity clone, but it does get boring by mid-game. The charm of the first few hours of intimate micromanagement is lost without being replaced by a more interesting challenge. The power/water/air infrastructure is just tedious. The research “tree” is nonsensical and frustrating.

      By hour 15 or so I started to wish I was playing Banished, which shares some of the same flaws but feels a bit more real.

  6. Someoldguy says:

    I’m looking forward to this but I have to say that their design aesthetic really rubs me the wrong way. They say they’ve used best scientific advice to create this, and that’s certainly true for the robots-first aspect, but then ignored it for everything else and ended up with surface domes full of space bars and casinos, powered by windmills. Ok, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars might have been visually less impressive until the terraforming kicked in enough to permit surface dwelling but it would have felt a lot more real.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The domes bother me too. I think it would have worked better if they had gone full 1950’s sci-fi magazine cover vibe for all the technology, instead of mixing it with a more hard-science approach like The Martian. I guess they felt they needed the domes and vertical buildings to attract the existing city builder audience.

      Anyway, I’m interested, but since there may not be much replay value, I’ll probably wait for a sale.

    • Solrax says:

      I agree. I’m disappointed because I look at the screen shots and the first thing I think is “that isn’t at all like what a Mars colony will look like”. Whereas you look at Cites:Skylines and the amazing thing about that game is that yeah, this is what cities look like. I agree with Zenicetus that they should have gone all in on sci-fi fantasy instead of this.

      I guess maybe what I want is an entirely different game, but I may still buy it on sale.

    • modzero says:

      There’s always someone trying to show off with the windmills things. Thankfully you’re wrong.

      As for underground dwelling, just pretend the dome is a visualisation.

      • Someoldguy says:

        Sigh. The air pressure on the top of Olympus Mons is 72 pascals, about 12% of the pressure at the datum. By contrast the pressure on the top of Everest is 32,000 pascals. It’s not the 0.7% mentioned in your linked video, it’s 0.02%. Yet SM gives your windmills an elevation bonus. They learned a science fact and then mangled it. It is simply science done wrong. For them to be working as efficiently as they can in the Martian environment you want to site them below the datum. There are many parts of Mars where you can be on the surface and thousands of feet below the datum rather than thousands of feet above it.

        It’s not the main niggle, but it is one of them. Like there being no seasons. No meaningful difference between the temperature at the poles and the equator. No radiation risk. So they have to conjure up random cold waves and varying risks of other disasters as a challenge instead of implementing the real ones more accurately. Living at altitude and away from the equator would be hugely challenging in reality. Their version makes for interesting challenges, but the emphasis is very much on the fiction and not on the science.

        • modzero says:

          Oh, so you want science.

          Okay, colonization of Mars is economically non-viable, and any attempt will be a disaster.

          We could make a game out of trying to evacuate the survivors of Elon Musk’s megalomania.

          Sounds like a fun sunday afternoon.

          • bonuswavepilot says:

            I mean, obviously I get what you’re saying here, but… I kind of do want to play that now. If nothing else – Musk is a much more convincing maniacal villain than games generally provide.

          • TrenchFoot says:

            I expect this “evacuate Musk’s worshipers” to be part of a DLC. :)

    • Cinek says:

      I didn’t even know they bothered to make it scientifically accurate to some degree, cause it sure doesn’t look like that with all these domes and windmills.

      It looks like a comic book from ’70s.

  7. Jac says:

    Played this for a bit today and think I’m going to end up enjoying it but I really wish there was a proper tutorial as I felt totally lost at the start despite the tip boxes.

  8. denislaminaccia says:

    Allegedly there is no way to colonise Mars without bringing suburbia with you, with lawns, swings and bars.

    Shame that they didn’t approach it from more hard sci-fi perspective.

  9. zgtc says:

    Looks like what Aven Colony was trying (unsuccessfully) to do.

  10. brucethemoose says:

    I want this now.

    But, this being a Paradox (published) game, I’m going to sit on my hands and give it a bit more time in the oven. Paradox games age better than fine wine, and I don’t want to burn myself out right at the start.

    • Cinek says:

      Some still suck after patches though. Some are abandonned pretty quick. Some get only cosmetics with little to no gameplay depth added. That’s the thing with Paradox – you never know what you’ll end up with when you buy something outside of their main serieses.

  11. Kamestos says:

    So, get your ass to Mars ?

  12. necurbanapauperem says:

    Well this slipped me by, but it’s current position on the UK Steam Charts led me here to get a second opinion.
    I can’t help but feel the conciet that you are building a colony purely for its own sake, could have been embellished. Maybe a random (or chosen) set of characteristics at the beginning. “Your government type is Monarchy, your corporate sponsorship contract states you must build 14 bars, your citizens follow a bizaare religion that uses x oxygen to cremate them upon death irrespective of need elsewhere”.
    Sim City was my no.1 growing up but I’ve skipped most of the sequals and similar games because they’ve never struck me as sufficiently different in scope or replayability. Rimworld and DF throw a really good random start into the mix to ensure it. A £35 game seems a risk with my proclivities as much as it sounds a blast the first couple of times… Certainly one to watch though!

    • Someoldguy says:

      You can get it significantly cheaper via key resellers but it’s probably worth holding off a little for bug fixes and improvements. Perhaps until we know what the “season pass” worth of DLC is going to offer. Right now the closest you come to a tutorial is watching youtube let’s play videos.

      Like Alec I’m getting satisfaction from the achievements first time around but shuffling the order of tech advances around a bit and picking a more challenging sponsor isn’t going to make enough difference to make a new play through exciting. Much of the difficulty comes from the map RNG anyway. You can land in an area rated as high for water, survey several tiles with water chance and find none at all. Or you can probe a single tile and find water, rare metal and concrete all within easy reach of a starter dome. The difference between those two starts makes the map difficulty percentage almost meaningless.

  13. Hypocee says:

    NASA SpaceX. NASA has neither the money nor the mandate to get one person to orbit, let alone colonise Mars. SpaceX was founded for the purpose and the rockets look like the ITS/BFR, though granted there are only so many ways to land on Mars.

  14. TomBombadil says:

    Marsterstroke: saw what you did there :-)