Lightning Review: Surviving Mars

Howdy! This is the first in what I hope will be an interesting set of “short” game reviews. I don’t plan to spend time grabbing screenshots or talking with other people, I’m just going to write my quick (for someone’s definition of quick) impressions and opinions (with words) and move on. Mostly this will be a vaguely organized brain dump.

Surviving Mars

Formally released one week ago (Mar 15, 2018) by Haemimont Games and Paradox Interactive, Surviving Mars is precisely what it says on the tin. It is a game about keeping martian colonists alive.

Nothing witty to share about this screenshot. It’s a secondary landing area where I’m mining rare metals in an attempt to keep up with my electronics addiction.

It costs $40 for the base, non-sale version. There are more expensive editions available, the priciest of which includes a season pass for future DLC for $35 more. The season pass promises 2 full expansions and 2 content packs, and can be purchased by itself if you already have the base game (same total price).

Haemimont is a veteran Bulgarian game studio responsible for Tropico 3-5, Victor Vran, and a number of games that I have not played. I have a generally good impression of them and the fact that they’re not the ones writing Tropico 6 is my big worry for that upcoming game.

Paradox is a Swedish publisher most famous for their complex military strategy games, many of which are the product of an in-house dev studio. They’ve also published a variety of other games, but the bulk of their products are simulators and the bulk of those are military in nature with steep learning curves.

There’s no in-game tutorial this time around (as the community tends to expect for a Paradox title, but not one from Haemimont). But they did partner with strategy game YouTuber Quill18 to sponsor an instructional video series for the game. I watched his first 3 episodes before playing for myself.

The game is available via Steam or GOG. Steam keys are additionally available through all of the normal resellers, including Humble and Fanatical. It nominally runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux… but the Mac build had major rendering and crashing bugs at launch (I was personally unable to get past the game’s initial menu screen). On March 20, they released a patch for OSX builds, but I have not tried it since then.

There is meant to be strong modding support (at least via Steam Workshop), and Haemimont has published a number of sample mods.

I have played 7 hours of the game on Windows plus whatever time I wasted trying to run it on the Mac.

Setup

In Surviving Mars, you are colonizing Mars – from Earth. Colonies may choose an arbitrary location on the red planet to make landfall. A number of named locations are marked on the map, but you can choose wherever you want. Your location affects the colony’s resource availability and danger level – ie, some places are rich in water and richer in ore deposits, some are frozen over and prone to meteor strikes, etc… These numbers go together to affect your score multiplier. I think the game wants us to care about points for some reason.

But before you choose where to land, you choose a sponsor agency and a set of traits for your never-pictured immortal commander governor persona. These affect your initial monetary funding and starting technologies, your base research speed, and the number of reusable ships at your immediate disposal for sending equipment (paid for with money) and colonists (paid for with hopes and dreams). These choices also affect your score multiplier. As if that is a thing that players care about in a game like this.

As one final starting choice, you are told to choose a “mystery” to play through. These are plot events that will trigger as your colony grows. And yes, I believe that they too affect your score multiplier. They’re given vague descriptions so as not to spoil the surprise. Thankfully, “random” is also an option here.

The final decision you have to make before actually actually making planetfall is where to do so. The colony site you chose is actually subdivided into a 10×10 square grid, the specifics of which you know relatively little. You may expend single-use probes to get more detailed information on sectors, revealing available mineral deposits, etc… Actually choosing where to land the first ship requires zooming into one of these square sectors – which are in turn divided up into small hexes. Because space.

It takes a lot of time, radio towers, and occasional imported probes to survey your entire colony site.

From here, you get to watch your ship scorch the ground and kick up dust before unloading any drones and rovers you have. This is what will actually do most of the interesting work in your colony – you can’t expect people to wander the blasted unforgiving surface of the planet digging for ore and building radio towers.

As a final point, you’re then prompted to set up a scanning queue of map sectors to slowly reveal information on (as opposed to burning probes) and choose an initial research goal for your scientists before basically being left to your own devices.

Time

Time in the game is measured in Sol’s… which are strange to me. I mean, a day on Mars is slightly longer than one on Earth… but the game seems to simulate far more than 24 and a half hours every “Sol”, despite the day/night cycle that plagues your solar panels and your colonists’ circadian cycles. Each Sol is also divided up onto 3 shifts, which can be used to schedule workers and factories.

Early game technologies take a few Sols to research (2-5 depending on your sponsor). Ships from earth take a few Sols to arrive (IRL they should take several months at the point of closest approach – but the game doesn’t simulate anything like that). Crops take anywhere from 1 to 15 Sols to grow. Colonists grow older after only a handful of Sols – one of my initial colonists died of old age about 40 Sols into the colony.

So it’s probably best to think of them as years, despite them also being treated as days in a few cases and months in others.

The game also uses Sols as a time limit goal thing for you. When you land your first humans, you have a 10 Sol “keep everyone alive” timer before you’re allowed to ship more colonists – unless you can somehow convince the initial settlers to make babies first, which ends the countdown early.

There is also some sort of looming Evaluation deadline at 100 Sols. I can only assume that this is the game’s general victory condition with points on a scoreboard comparing you on a scale of Atilla the Hun to Dan Quayle.

Resources

In the game, you only have to manage a handful of resources. No units are given for resources, so things simply cost X metal + Y concrete to build and Z electricity to operate.

Water is extracted from wells and moisture vaporators (yes, they went there), stored in tanks, and transported by pipes. Oxygen is produced by atmospheric scrubbers and plants and is also stored in tanks and transported by pipes. The same pipe network carries both O2 and H2O at the same time with no apparent rate-of-flow mechanics to be concerned of.

Electricity is generated by solar panels, wind turbines and radioisotope stirling generators. It is transmitted over wires and may be stored in accumulators to prevent interruptions. Power lines and pipes may both occupy the same hex, so running a bus of all 3 resources seems to be the intended method of operation – however larger grids are also more prone to failures, which manifest by requiring a drone to repair the faulty wire/pipe segment in order to stop a resource drain. Switches may be built into wires/pipes to separate a larger grid into sections, but both types of switch may not occupy the same hex in this case.

Drones and Rovers have internal batteries which they will typically need to recharge from the grid. Drones will automatically recharge from the nearest appropriate location (a drone recharge/control station or the rover they’re attached to). Rovers are dumb and need to be told to recharge, which they can do from any wire they can drive over to. You will get a low power warning before they run out of juice. If a rover becomes stranded, another one can be sent over to give it a jump start.

Concrete and Metal are your basic building blocks and are dug from the planet itself by drones (or by humans working in mines). More advanced building materials include polymers, mechanical components, and electronic components. These have more involved supply chains and have to be manufactured (by autonomous factories or by humans) or shipped in from off-planet although some small supplies of natural polymer can be found on the surface.

Food helps oxygen and water to keep your people not being dead. It tags along on all colony ships (seems to be 10 food per colonist, a 5 Sol supply) and can be grown in various farms.

Additionally, your humans can mine rare metals and your factories can produce “fuel”. Rare metals are either used to make electronics or are sent back to Earth on rockets for sale. Fuel is used to send rockets back to earth to sell rare metals (though they seem to generate some small amount of fuel naturally on their own) and to power flying shuttles.

All of these materials are stored in small stockpiles on the ground, which don’t cost anything to build and can be arbitrarily designated by type. Drones and shuttles can carry one unit of material at a time, and will do so automatically as they see fit. Transport rovers can carry 30+ materials at once, but need to be babysat.

Oh, also there is waste rock, which is literally just a waste product that you’ll stack off in the corner somewhere until you research a better use for it.

Speaking of waste, mars is a dry dusty ball of dusty dust. The dust is coarse and rough and gets everywhere, etc… Things you do (and the weather) can increase the dustiness level of an area. For example, digging large holes generates a lot of dust. Everything around the dig site will be covered in the stuff.

Everything you build (both on the surface and inside of domes) needs occasional maintenance from the drones. This costs time and resources. Different buildings require different materials to maintain. So while some only require concrete or metal, some buildings cost polymers or even electronics to keep running. High levels of dust exposure increases the rate at which things come to need to be maintained before they stop functioning.

Research

You earn a number of research points per Sol based on your sponsor corporation and any other research sources you may have unlocked. Additionally, anomalies on the surface may occasionally be examined by an appropriate rover for a boost in research points and money may be spent to outsource research to Earth scientists.

Wiping the solar panels off occasionally proves to be a promising development.

There are five main research branches, of which only one choice is generally available to study at the onset. As you complete research projects, new (more expensive) ones are revealed along the same branch. Certain anomalies may reveal new tech options as they are examined.

The order that techs are sorted on these lists is semi-random, with some techs always being available sooner than others but the order is never fully guaranteed.

In addition to the fine main branches, there are also “breakthrough” technologies, which are driven by in-game events and are more expensive to research.

Colonists

So far, I like everything about the game… but then the human colonists get involved and everything starts to take a turn for the worse.

Apparently this new colonist generates money for us… but also has a bad gambling addiction and might go into a psychotic rage if she so much as sets eyes on a casino.

So. People.

Ugh.

Colonists have positive and negative traits. These are really just minor sources of chaos noise. Colonists also have a profession that they excel at. They are more effective and happy when they do the job they want and less effective when they don’t. These specializations are also pinned to entertainment preferences because apparently all geologists enjoy drinking but only security personnel enjoy exercise.

They have an age score which means that martian-born colonists start off useless and all colonists eventually get too old to be useful (barring SCIENCE!). They don’t seem to have any social structure that I am aware of – children are simply born and can be sent off to live in special nursery housing facilities, go to school, and grow into productive members of society without ever meeting their parents who live in another dome. I don’t even know if you can pull up a display showing a child’s mother’s name. I don’t think this information is shared in the messaging…

Colonists also have a few need meters to keep full. Comfort, Sanity, and Health are maintained via good housing, good work conditions, access to medical care, and entertainment options. People can stop working, throw fits, ask to go back to Earth, die, etc… if you don’t keep their numbers up.

All colonists live inside big glass domes. Well, big is relative. The domes in the screenshots here are the small domes and they don’t have enough room to build very much – just six 4-hex-per-side triangular wedges that can be filled with buildings that take 1 hex, 3 hexes, or the full 10 of a wedge. Larger domes need to be unlocked with research. The domes require maintenance as do the buildings inside of them, but thankfully only a single power/plumbing hookup to the dome exterior is required.

Colonists will walk a short distance from their home dome, but they won’t like it. Some jobs require them to go outside (like mines, polymer factories, and mushroom farms) but plenty of jobs are indoors only (like research and bartending).

Given the opportunity, colonists will migrate between domes and choose jobs they prefer. If you have a shuttle network, this process is sped up rapidly and can affect a significantly larger area than walking can. But they’re terrible at making these decisions for themselves. You’ll have botanists working mines and geologists working farms from the same dome, and then nobody will stay with the service jobs to keep everyone happy.

You don’t have a good UI overview of the colony population. There’s no way to tell how many people are employed in the wrong job or which people are most likely to snap first. There is no way to bring up any number of useful analytics and details. The research screen is the only thing of its kind, everything else is done in those little overview sidebars.

The sad thing is that Haemimont knows better. They’ve done better.

This is a screenshot of Tropico 5. I asked it to tell me about unemployed citizens, then I filtered by those with highschool education, selected one of those, and asked the sidebar to show me his individual happiness details.

I understand that the developers want you to focus on managing the colony’s infrastructure and let the colonists manage themselves… but it doesn’t work. They conceded the point somewhat and give the player a button to tell a colonist to move to a new house/job… but it doesn’t provide meaningful feedback (I can’t always tell whether the change has taken or not). And when the button does work, it only sends that person off to their new assignment for 5 Sols, after which they are free to mess things right back up again.

But this would all be fine if domes worked together. But they don’t. They are really meant to be 100% self-contained mini-colonies. This is TERRIBLE for things like medical services and entertainment… and space efficiency. So unless you’re micro-managing all of your people, you need to segregate them by job. Miners live in mining domes, Farmers live in farming domes, researchers live in research domes, children live in their own little feral spaces, etc… But you also have to provide services, so there will be some non-specialized labor happening (shopping or entertainment).

Your housing capacity per dome needs to match your jobs required and provided by it precisely, otherwise bad things happen. Or at the very least, inefficiency and frustration happen. Which are bad when you’re trying to keep a bunch of psychopathic dwarves from spiraling into…

You know what? Dwarf Fortress has a better colonist overview than Surviving Mars.

And I have often heard DF cited as having one of the most unfriendly, obtuse user interfaces in all of “current” simulation games. But DF’s UI was really fixed by the modding community. Tools like Dwarf Therapist provide the kind of colonist overview that a game of its complexity level requires to be playable.

So my one hope is that the modding community will jump all over this problem and give us some real tools.

Final Thoughts

My takeaway from the couple of days I’ve spent with Surviving Mars is on the whole positive. I like the underlying game systems. I like the parts that are streamlined. They feel right. I like the approach to science. I like the game’s approach to logistics (more or less).

I can only think of two other games on the market that really fit this specific niche right now.

  • 2015’s Planetbase is a significantly simpler dome-building game. I enjoyed it, but felt like I exhausted all of its options after about 10 hours. Surviving Mars definitely has more than 10 hours of gameplay, and feels like it should be enjoyable for multiple games.
  • 2017’s Aven Colony feels like a much more fleshed-out version of Planetbase, in a more science fiction setting. It is so very pretty. I haven’t actually played it yet, but it’s still receiving regular updates and looks like a more polished but possibly less deep game than Surviving Mars – but this could also simply be the difference between a fresh release and a game that left early access over a year ago.

Surviving Mars has a ton of potential. With the scope of the content teased by the season pass, I am hopeful. But the fact that something as basic as cemeteries aren’t part of the base game and had to be patched in via the modding api? Ugh. Granted, this first-party mod is available at launch… but nothing in the game tells you that maybe you want to peruse the workshop for missing bits of the game. The launch does not feel complete. Core internal systems, etc… may be fully operational… but the game is just missing content itself.

My only real complaints are:

  1. Lack of good colony/colonist overview UI with charts and graphs and a way to click and sort through people and see what they’re doing.
  2. Lack of cooperation between adjacent domes that necessitates weird micro-colony building to achieve any degree of efficiency.
  3. Lack of a good way to automate rovers or give them more than a single command at a time.

Seriously, about that rover thing? As much as it looks like they got a little RTS in our city builder, the similarity ends at appearances. Rovers get a single instruction at a time. The transport rovers can actually be told to gather surface visible resources in an area, traveling back and forth between the sector and a stockpile… but they don’t know how to charge their batteries without being told to do so, and they can’t do anything anywhere near as advanced as your basic Anno-style trade route that guarantees supply distribution between different locations.

My gripes really are just little nitpicky things that I hope to see fleshed out sooner than later – and by Haemimont themselves, not the modding community. If they leave it to modders alone, I will be, as the kids say, disappoint.

So in short, I like Surviving Mars and I’m excited for its future. But I probably won’t be playing a ton more until they patch some more things or the modding community can patch it for them.

Postscript

Yes, I realize that this was not terribly brief, and that it did include screenshots. I couldn’t help myself. But that’s kind of the point. And the idiocy of calling this a “lightning review” makes me smile right now, so… I’m going to stick with it 😉

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