I’ve been surprised by Surviving Mars. You play as the grand organizer of a Martian colony. People are leaving Earth for various reasons, and you’ve gotta get a working planet going for them all the way out on Mars. You start constructing things and discovering the surface of the world with your robots and, eventually, you bring human beings to live in giant domes filled with houses, industrial buildings, and all of the other things that you might expect from a city builder game. I expected to love it. I don’t. I can’t figure out why.
One reason might be that the game has very little interest in giving you any sort of tutorial. On the game’s main menu there is a button to click that takes you to a YouTube video, but beyond that you are on your own. Starting a game means being dumped, unceremoniously, onto the surface of the planet. Sometimes you get a tooltip that tells you what you might want to do next, but that’s it. It is, in a word, confusing.
Maybe my expectations were wrong. I thought that Surviving Mars would be something akin to Cities: Skylines, the wonderful city builder experience that plops you down on a patch of dirt and asks you to build a city. In that game, you manage water, power and cash flow, and as long as your citizens have the first two and you have enough of the last one, everything works out great. Surviving Mars is different because there are explicit goals that make it feel more deterministic at every stage.
The opening of the game, for example, has you gathering resources with robots in preparation for bringing humans to the planet. There’s only so much that you can do in this part of the game, and it’s clearly only a preparatory phase. And it’s frustrating, to some degree, because it’s not as if the game ever really radically changes during this part of the game. You gather concrete. You put down oxygen, water and power lines to make domes habitable for colonists. And you make your way to the next phase.
This puts Surviving Mars in the uncomfortable place of being somewhere between a strategy game and a city builder. There seems to be a clear set of optimal ways of playing the game that make for the best possible colony. That’s the strategy element. And there is also a wide range of freedom within those general optimal methods, and that’s where the city builder elements kick in. In the same way that I can place neighborhoods in Cities: Skylines, I can organize my giant habitat domes in various ways around the surface of Mars to impact how, when, and under what conditions my colonists can interact with and between them.
That, sadly, is the problem with the game. Surviving Mars has too much strategy in it for me to turn on some music and just start building a world like I might do with Skylines. On the other side, it is a little too slow and freedom-enabling for me to play it the way that I enjoy playing strategy games. It seems to be the kind of game that is perfect for a person who enjoys crunching numbers, managing their domes, and looking for emergent stories that happen among the denizens of Mars. There is probably something really great in Surviving Mars if that describes you.
Sadly, whatever the Venn diagram of desires are that produce the optimal Surviving Mars player, I am not it. I’ve started several games so far, and I’ve yet to find the willpower to struggle through and get to some kind of end game condition. And that’s a shame, because there are some fascinating things going on with the game, particularly a start condition called “Mystery” that nails down some narrative planks for each game that you play. Basically, it determines a set of events that happen while you play, and this is the kind of broader structure that I would love in a game like Skylines.
I’m in a weird place because I know that Surviving Mars is probably excellent for someone who is not me. If you enjoy Paradox games like Crusader Kings II but not city builders, then this is probably a great bridge for you to relax and play. If you like managing numbers, resources, and people, then this is the game for you. What I wanted was a more freeform experience that allowed me to design and fiddle with Martian landscapes to my heart’s content, and this is not the game for that.
Surviving Mars was developed by Haemimont Games and published by Paradox Interactive. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.