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Surviving Mars
Game Reviews

Surviving Mars

A comprehensive settlement experience introducing realistic possibilities – and dangers – of colonizing the Red Planet.

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Mars survival fascinates me – I hope to see it my lifetime, or at least see the beginnings of a settlement. Surviving Mars is a settlement management builder that explores this concept in surprising depth and left me impressed with how detailed it was about other world survival. Though I’ve played similar games in the past, this is the first one that made me stop and think, “Hey, this could actually become reality someday.”

There’s a lot of ground to cover here (figuratively and literally), but it all starts with choosing a place on Mars’ surface to start building. There are places that give you access to resources like concrete, water, and metal. Deciding where to build can be difficult since a colony needs water to survive and all you have to work with are little droids and a scanner. At this point it’s up to you to get the foundations built for your first colony and, depending on what you choose, this can be a difficult experience.

I chose to go the easy route and went with the “international” option to give me access to plenty of cash and resources. There are other elements that are removed too to allow new colony builders to learn the mechanics before diving into the game’s harder modes. Even on a supposedly “easy” level I found myself struggling to figure out how to gather simple building supplies like concrete or how to keep my droids fully charged.

But I learned. Setting down power lines connected to turbines and solar panels is how my drones could recharge. They’re the key building force you’ll be using so you want to make sure they have stations where they can access to refill their energy stores. When the sun sets the solar panels don’t generate any power, so you need to set down batteries to make sure all your systems continue to work after dark.

My site of operations was a mess of power cords being tossed around like string and putting down turbines and solar panels wherever I thought they fit. While I was waiting for those to be built, my focus moved to operating my rover to gather hard to salvage materials like metal from meteors that would crash onto the planet’s surface.

But nothing stays tranquil on the War Planet: just when I thought I was pulling ahead there was always something else calling for my attention minutes later. I learned the hard way challenges are thrown at you left and right. If I wasn’t picking a new area to scan to scour for resources I was choosing what to research so new buildings could be built and upgraded. It’s a constant balancing act of where to invest resources because later they’ll have a huge impact on whether your colony thrives or dies.

And this is just getting everything ready before the first humans arrive, once you have a colony going then the real challenge begins. Do you make everyone productive and focus on growing or keep people happy? How much space should be dedicated to entertainment and another for education in the domes you’re setting down? If you choose the wrong balance you’ll have unhappy colonists and productivity can take a deep nosedive. Skipping over bringing humans to the red planet isn’t an option either since you need them to produce research points to upgrade systems and buildings and to harvest rare materials like metal.

Depending on which mode you decide to play, you’ll probably dip into figuring out what to sell to keep your people thriving and growing into the future. There were times I had to order supplies to be delivered to the planet because I couldn’t harvest them on my own.

I had difficulties reaching the colony stage since I suffered setbacks trying to make sure everything was ready for my first “dome” – essentially bubbles that contain your small colony that can be connected to each other later so you can have areas purely dedicated to entertainment, research, etc. While I did manage to get at least one colony going, the systems they needed like a farming area, food, and water soon became unavailable. The surface of Mars is a harsh environment and unless maintained, solar panels, buildings, etc. will decline over time. Even destroying them is not an option since you have to research demolition for the debris of the component to be removed. If you “destroy” it, it just leaves behind the remains so you’re forced to work around it.

The colonists need maintaining by keeping their happiness levels up, giving them options to shop, do research, and – most critically – stay alive. Even when my colony failed it still felt amazing to consider the amount of detail and micromanagement that went into making sure they stayed alive (as long as they did). In more difficult modes, the mentality of the colonists is harder to maintain since they can suffer from something called “dome sickness,” which I imagine means they feel trapped or regret their decision to relocate to Mars. It can be mentally exhausting, but it’s a challenge I’m so dedicated to overcome that I started a new save to see if I could conquer these difficulties armed with this new knowledge.

There’s a stunning amount of depth and complexity to Surviving Mars, though the experience is better for it by introducing challenges it’s easy to imagine the first colonists will face if/when we ever decide to reach for the stars. Just don’t get overwhelmed by it all, as you’ll be rewarded for not just managing the limited resources, but thinking critically and thoughtfully. Even if think you’ve experienced everything the settlement genre had to offer – as did I – this is the first that made me step back and take a critical look at what a future on the Red Planet may hold.

About the Author: Nia Bothwell