Surviving Mars is a highly competent city builder where you’re tasked with establishing a self-dependent human colony on the red planet. Whilst initially confusing and overwhelming, its systems ultimately fit together logically, its AI goes about its business without incident and the UI and controls are largely unremarkable. Reading a colonist trait made me exhale a small amount of air from my nose in merriment (“Sexy: Greatly increased birth rate”), its visuals are clean (but unspectacular) and its soundtrack is “inoffensive to nice”.
It is also painfully dull and largely squanders the potential of its unique setting. Even after just a few hours of play I was so bereft of motivation to play on, something the hugely uninspiring in-game checklist of milestones serves to enforce.
You see, Surviving Mars is a game about waiting. Wait for resources to be collected, wait for research to complete, wait for the rocket to land, to refuel. Wait for the first colonists to have a good first week before, presumably, they all hop on Tripadvisor to write glowing reviews, attracting others.
It is a game about taking the only real next decision in front of you. Want a dome to house colonists? That needs water, which needs power and a pipeline. Need fuel for the rocket? That needs a fuel refinery that needs water. All of these things need concrete or metal that needs to be mined (which needs a storage depot and a place to put your empties). How do you get water? At a painfully slow rate from the atmosphere or you can find it in the ground (which needs you to have found some on the randomly generated map, which requires you to wait for scanning).
Never once did I feel like I was having to make a tough choice. And maybe that’s partially my fault; on reflection the default easy difficulty is far too much of a crutch. It gives you almost unlimited time and resources to get going, which steals what I’m led to believe is the game’s strongest suit; a never-ending feeling of tension and fear that the colony is about to collapse in on itself. (Power generators need maintenance – if you lack the resource to do that then bye-bye power, water, oxygen, colonists…) But even at harder difficulties I can’t imagine the build order to be any different. You need the same raw materials, found in the same ways. The mental accounting you would need to do for each resource would just get more involved and demanding.
At times, in amongst all this waiting, I would browse the build menu for what to opt for next, only to face a brick wall. ‘Polymer factory’, that sounds useful. Requirements: either the technology to build it (which has to be both discovered through pot luck) or a prefab (which you can order via a rocket, with no consequences at easy difficulty – other than more waiting). But it also needs colonists to work it, so that’s more domes to build, more colonists to wait to arrive. And more water, oxygen, food to support the new dome.
In some ways, this makes Surviving Mars an almost perfect simulation of how space colonisation likely feels. Lots of waiting, baby steps, incremental growth. In both the game and reality, its purpose is the same – to find somewhere to exist and just get right on with existing. Surviving Mars doesn’t really have any greater objective than to get bigger, or any notable narrative. I’m sure additional challenges will be thrown in along the way (and the challenge mode would likely mix things up too), but ultimately you succeed by reaching a point of equilibrium. Producing enough materials to sustain the life, with your automated drones doing much of the heavy lifting to keep the whole thing going without incidence. Whilst an optimistic take on the future of human life, it’s just not an exciting game to play and doesn’t ask any of the big moral questions that colonising another planet would force us to answer.
Criticism of its linearity and lack of end-goal can also be thrown at other games in the genre – such as Cities Skylines or Sim City – and on reflection, I’ve never been huge fans of those either. Sure it’s initially intriguing to set up a complicated, interconnected hive of human activity, and watch the game simulate it all without your intervention. But there always comes a point where I tend to glaze over.
That said, I’ve greatly enjoyed Rimworld, a title with an ostensibly identical challenge; land on a foreign world and survive the harsh terrain. I’ve played that for tens of hours because of the randomness, the human drama, the way it creates stories. That’s a game that even on easy difficulty will kick your ass unless you are switched on from the get go, where every decision has an opportunity cost. And there your micromanagement isn’t moving a space rover to pick up metal before dumping it elsewhere, but about optimising job orders or keeping your people safe – things that feel impactful and important. Knowing that all of that is possible elsewhere within the genre makes it very hard to justify sinking more time into Surviving Mars, or even recommending it to others.