You’re either going to love or hate Surviving Mars. It’s as simple as that.
And it’ll all come down to what kind of person you are. Are you determined and persistent? Do you enjoy the fact that failing miserably will only make you better prepared for the next time you attack a problem? Are you a guy or gal who likes figuring out how things tick, all on your own?
Those are all necessary traits for successful gameplay here. And so, just like the colony you’re trying to build, your enjoyment all depends on you.
When you dive into the average E10+ building-simulation title, you generally can expect a little hand-holding to begin with. But Surviving Mars doesn’t have any patience with that sort of mollycoddling. This is about survival, so don’t go looking for tutorials. You need to figure out how things work on your own.
Your initial mission is to land on the rough, rocky, nearly uninhabitable Red Planet with just a few automated drones and rover vehicles at your command. Then you must find a way to build a working base and establish a permanent human colony. On the positive side, this big-old planet—with its rare metal, concrete and water deposits—is all yours to play with. It’s a wide-open sandbox (literally!) to explore, excavate and build in. And you’re the only one making the rules.
On the negative side, all that comes with a really steep learning curve. Then there are the constant cascading disasters that befall you as raw materials inevitably run out: Tornadoes blow through; wires, turbines and generators break down; meteor showers wreak havoc. And, of course, all that red dust creeps into everything. When you finally get the domes and generators functioning, and the first colonists show up, then you have to keep those folks from, well, going crazy. And don’t forget famine, dehydration, cracking protective domes, oh, and strange alien artifacts.
Ain’t Mars grand?
Now, that may sound as if I’m painting this game in negative shades of space grey. And, in a sense, I am. Because even though the game’s rating and cover art suggest this is the kind of contest that gaming tykes can gleefully dive into, it’s really not. On the other hand, for the right person (of any age), for someone with a knack for micromanaging critical details, this game can offer a very rewarding challenge.
Surviving Mars does include some gameplay elements to make things a bit easier (even if they’re not completely evident at first). For instance, you have different Martian locations to choose from. You also can pick from several Earth organizations to help you in your mission. Making good choices in these areas should give you sufficient leeway and resources to learn the game’s build-and-manage ropes.
You’re still going to run into trouble. You’ll still potentially receive written notices that some of your teeny-tiny residents have become so depressed that they’ve taken to drinking or even committing suicide. (You might get an angry missive with the word “h—” in it, too.) And you’ll still have the power go down, leaving some colonists suffering, before you figure out how to get it running again.
Learning which technologies you need to research versus which infrastructure goals you need to launch immediately can be a trial-and-error process. But it’s an engaging—and sometimes surprisingly satisfying—one. At some point, the process starts to click. You’ve invested enough time to know how to avoid common pitfalls as well as discerning which strategic priorities matter most right now. Eventually it dawns on you that Surviving Mars is boosting your tactical, problem-solving and project-managing skills while it’s testing your patience.
Hey, you may also find yourself desiring to try a tougher mission with fewer resources at your back. And wanting to layer on a mystery scenario after you’ve mastered the heavy lifting of taking care of your Martian necessities. Political-thriller scenarios and planet-side sci-fi alien cube conundrums offer still more surprising ways to spice up the basic sim gameplay here once you’ve mastered the basics.
That’s when this deep-space strategy/management slog might just start feeling like the equivalent of a comforting cup of cocoa on a bleak Martian day, or like that extra tank of oxygen you forgot you had when the atmosphere generators start to sputter.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.