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Surviving Mars brings hard science to colony-building

Not a god-awful small affair

During the opening hours, you won't see a single person in Surviving Mars [official site]. It's a bold choice, having impersonal robots out there laying the groundwork of a colony, but the benefits are immediately obvious when watching the game in action. There's a certain Factorium-like mechanical satisfaction to the flow of metal, creating supply chains that stud the surface with structures. The great advantage is the gradual shift from a red planet to a green planet though, even if those bubbles of green are few and far between.

More than any other city builder I can think of, Surviving Mars has the potential to show the life of a settlement, and it does that by beginning in a dead place.

I expect a certain amount of comedy from space colony management games. Whether it's a comedy of manners stemming from the weirdness of alien visitors or a series of hilarious misadventures sparked off by a lack of oxygen or gravity, there's room for all kinds of emergent farce. Surviving Mars goes a different route, treating its subject matter with a scientific seriousness. You won't need to understand the chemical processes that go into creating a liveable atmosphere, or the dirty secrets involved in growing your own poo-tatoes, but you'll be spending time ensuring basic resources are available rather than micro-managing colonists and their relationships.

There's still plenty of work to do and the game won't be released until sometime next year, but even the alpha footage we were shown at Paradox's Convention last week was impressive. Visually, it's a little austere but that fits with the tone, and makes the eventual colourful colony bubbles seem all the more dramatic. There should be a real sense of achievement in the transformation from dust and death to parks and recreation.

To get there, you'll be laying lots of pipes and power lines, ensuring that generators (solar and otherwise) are hooked up to the buildings that require them, later doing the same for water and other resources. The surface of the planet is randomly generated once you get in close, and one of your first decisions involves picking a landing spot.

The pre-landing part of the game was the least convincing part of the presentation – you select not only a landing spot but a sponsor for the mission, which determines how much cash you have to spend on materials, rovers and pre-fabricated buildings. The combination of funds and the qualities of your starting area determine the game's difficulty, which can be seen on screen measured as a percentage. It's neat to be able to adjust the challenge in such detail, but there's a risk that all of those choices will feel like difficulty sliders rather than important decisions about the future of your colony.

What I don't want to end up with is a situation where picking a harder difficulty means I'll spend a couple of extra hours doing busywork just to get things up and running. A big part of Surviving Mars' appeal will be in that path to the first secure inhabitants, and building a colony dome is your first obvious long-term objective, but if the foundations needed to get to that point are always the same, it might not be a very rewarding journey the fourth or fifth time you take it.

And what happens once the colonists arrive? You can expand their colonies, adding new buildings for work and leisure, and eventually you could build more domes, creating a network of life. The actual construction and management is the core of the game, but there will be Martian mysteries developing alongside your colony. These can either be selected randomly, so that they're an actual mystery, or selected by the player. Haemimont weren't sharing many details but I'll be amazed if one mystery doesn't involve a big face and other traces of intelligent life.

As long as there's no sad Gary Sinise discovering the secrets of the universe.

I was in the room for the Surviving Mars' announcement and I was slightly concerned that Paradox were simply trying to replicate Cities: Skylines in space. It'd be understandable, given how successful that game has been for both them and developers Colossal Order, but putting a layer of red dust and chrome on top of a conventional city-builder wouldn't make a convincing colonisation sim. After seeing the game up close, the most surprising thing about it is how little it resembles an Earth-based city-builder.

Sure, there are water pipes to lay and power cables to connect, but the environment is so harsh that it creates a separate layer – there are safe spaces for life, and hazardous places in which only machines can work. The inhabitants are precious, almost cargo to be stowed rather than functional parts of the colony. That will change, of course, as they start to work and play, and eventually breed. The game will track all of your achievements on the surface, placing them on a calendar, and the birth of the first Mars baby will be a significant milestone.

If I'm still not clear on what will happen beyond that milestone, it's fair to say I'm looking forward to finding out. Surviving Mars might successfully combine the satisfaction of efficient systems with its resource-gathering robotic vehicles, and the aesthetic pleasures of a finely landscaped living area.

It's the fragility of life in those domes, and the fact that bringing living creatures to the planet is an achievement in and of itself, that is most interesting. City-builders tend to see a settlement getting larger and denser as time goes on, but the colonies in Surviving Mars remind me of towns and villages at the edges of the world: self-contained and in need of great effort and infrastructure simply to survive, let alone to expand.

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