Mars. The great red planet. It’s been fantasised about in every form of media available. Video games are no exception and Surviving Mars is the latest proof that us humans just can’t wait to get our arses off of Earth.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was lamenting the lack of PC-style mouse-heavy games on consoles. I’ve long wanted to play my favourite real-time strategies on my big telly with my precious achievements/trophies. We’re still not living in that ideal world, but we’re slowly but surely getting there.
Surviving Mars is a real-time strategy game. You won’t be running around Mars blowing the heads off of aliens. You won’t be the heroic white American chomping on a cigar after successfully invading the planet. And you won’t be racing around in futuristic pod-racers. No, your adventure on Mars is far more regular. Far more dull. And dull is good. Dull is very good.
In Surviving Mars the people of Earth have decided it’s time to colonise our closest planetary neighbour. There’s no real reason given for humanity’s leap across the stars, or at least I didn’t notice one. It seems to be a case of just wanting to do it. Fair enough. I can get on board with that way of thinking.
Your job is to land safely on Mars and then get to work readying the inhospitable planet for the arrival of the first human colonists. You’ll start off by placing your supply rocket in a suitable area. Once you’ve touched down on Mars’ dusty surface you’ll deploy your goods and get started on the task at hand: turning this motherlover in Earth 2.0. And no, it’s not easy. Not by a long shot. But make no mistake, it is fun.
Initially, I found Surviving Mars to be overwhelming. One moment you’re picking your landing spot, the next you’ve different vehicles and a dozen worker drones flitting around, waiting on you to give them instructions. The game doesn’t hold your hand, not properly anyway. More like it let’s you grip its pinky finger for dear life in the hope you’ll be lifted off the ground and into the comforting embrace of the game and its infinite knowledge. You can hope all you want because it’s not happening. The game will give you slight hints, like what building you should probably build next. You’ll also get hints towards your progress. Start building a habitation dome too early and the game will gently remind you that humans require oxygen and water to survive, so you’d best make sure you’ve got the means to provide for the meat sacks when they eventually arrive.
It took me a few hours to get completely comfortable with the game’s user interface. Ordering units to do something requires you to pull down on R2, move the cursor with the thumbstick and, for example, press the cross button to move your unit. It’s baffling and it’s perhaps why I think Surviving Mars will fare better on PC than on consoles. I’m not saying it’s unplayable with a DualShock 4, but it would be much, much better to use a proper mouse.
Anyway, I did manage to get my head around the controls, but it took just as long to get my head around the game and my objectives. Like I said, the game doesn’t hold your hand. You’re left to figure out a lot of things by yourself. Opening the build menu gives you different sub-menus with various buildings and equipment to buy. It’s daunting at first as there’s only a short description accompanying each build, but my simple-man way of thinking led me to just use common sense. I quickly came to the following conclusion: It’s Mars, dickhead, there’s nothing here. Build everything!
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as my poxy brain had me believe. It’s all good and well setting the foundations for 10 different buildings, but without a steady supply of materials you ain’t gonna be building much of anything. In this respect, Surviving Mars follows the RTS rulebook to the letter; set up base, scout your surroundings for minerals and what have you, then get to work mining the shit out of everything within reach. It was the same in the first Command & Conquer, as it was in the first Age of Empires, as it is in Surviving Mars. And that’s totally fine. Once I realised that, I was soon on the right path. Took me long enough…
It’s satisfying to watch you small dust bowl grow from nothing into a thriving colony. It’s difficult to get there, mind you, as landing and setting up shop is only half the battle. While there may be no green monsters, their’s natural disasters and the horrors of bureaucracy to contend with.
Once you’ve finally turned a small part of Mars into a hospitable spot for a few humans, you may have already come across one of the game’s aforementioned enemies. Yes, I’m talking money. Space missions cost money and if you want more resupplies from Earth because you’ve jeffed it up and need a bail out, it’s gonna come out of your budget. You’ve only got so much cash to spend, and then you need to think about the weight of what you’re shipping. It’s not especially deep in that regard, but running out of money during my big expansion was a total pain in the arse and I promised myself I would mention it in this review.
The main antagonists of Surviving Mars are the natural disasters. Mars is a volatile place and you can expect dust storms to roll through your slice of Space America from time to time. You’ll have to contend with power outages, damages, and even just general maintenance; if you don’t maintain you buildings and equipment, you’re going to end up with a dome full of dead people. Check your stuff regularly!
As Surviving Mars is a sandbox game, there’s no real story to speak of. Like me, you’ll make you own stories and you’ll tell them to anybody who is willing to listen. In my case I am yet to find that special person, but maybe one day I will…
So while there is no narrative to speak of, I can’t really say that’s a terrible thing. I like the chilled nature of being able to just sit down and do whatever I want without there being the pressure to move on to the next objective. Sure, you get hints that tell you what you should probably be doing next, but they are just hints. How you expand your colony is completely up to you. You can keep it low-key if you want, or you can spread humanity around like a rash. Your choice.
There is something extra, though. They’re called “Mysteries” and they’re completely optional. You can play 10-15 hours of Surviving Mars and never come across them. And that’s fine. That’s your choice. You’ll be the one who discovers these small stories with their events and what not, so it’s up to you if you want to delve a little deeper and find out more.
It’s no surprise that Surviving Mars has turned out to be a pretty good game. It’s made by the same developers behind the Tropico series, so there’s some good talent being put to work on Surviving Mars. What I’m interested in seeing is how far the game will go with post-launch support. That’s not to say what’s available to play on day one isn’t enough, but I’m just personally interested in seeing what else could be brought to the martian table.
I’ve come away from Surviving Mars knowing two things: I never want to leave Earth, and I really, really want consoles to hurry up and start supporting mouse and keyboard. My only real complaint with this release is that it’s cramming too many commands into a controller, but I suppose that’s just the nature of the platform.
On a technical level, Surviving Mars does nothing wrong. I never encountered any bugs or glitches, though the initial loading does take a minute or two. Graphically you’ve got what you would expect from a real-time strategy game; the little units move around nicely, the buildings look suitably futuristic, and Mars itself is… red and dusty, but it all looks great and comes together to give you a believable strategy game, even if it’s steeped in sci-fi silliness.
RTS fans, rejoice, for there is another city-builder on PS4 that is actually worth playing. Just bear in mind that you’re going to need to set a few hours aside if you’re a newcomer to the genre, and even die-hard RTS nuts would do well to take their time and learn the game’s systems. It’s a decent game and I expected nothing less from the team that’s made its name making RTS games.
Surviving Mars PS4 Review
Surviving Mars has its flaws, sure, but they're inescapable when you're dealing with complex RTS systems on a console that doesn't allow you to use a mouse. Once you've got the controls nailed down and you've started building your colony, everything just clicks into place. It's a deep, rewarding time-sink of a game that should keep RTS fans happy for many, many sols.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using PS4 Slim.
Chris has been writing about gaming news for far too long, and now he’s doing it even more. A true PlayStation know-it-all, Chris has owned just about every Sony console that ever existed. Trophies are like crack to this fella.