Thursday, May 17, 2018

Surviving Mars

Y'know those strange games which seem to do so much right that you're actually surprised when you find yourself not fully enjoying them?
Surviving Mars is one of those games.
Like resource acquisition and base-building? Then allow me to extend you a bubbly welcome to the bubble red bubble planet of bubbles. To go along with the by now canonical SciFi image of transparent habitation domes, the overall aesthetic of human structures adopts a sleek, airy, futuristic architecture of soft curves and suspended platforms, something between Star Trek and The Jetsons. Even your drones and shuttles look like Wall-E extras.

It works well enough in itself. Those apartment complexes, mines and factories look like interesting, engaging places to live and work. Unfortunately this safe, cozy rotundity is neither taken to its logical, space-age extreme of floating rings and laser lights nor offset by any other game elements. The writing, as I complained, leaves a lot to be desired in its blandness, and further hobbles itself through pedantry:
Seriously? "Alcohol is not the answer?" Was this thing co-written by Betty Ford and Barbara Bush?

The music deserves special mention, as Surviving Mars pays due attention to this oft-neglected aspect in post-Y2K games. In addition to a standard light techno background music soundtrack we'd expect from such a title, it provides three in-universe "radio" stations with different themes. Unfortunately, two of those three themes are surfer music and a country medley that would've better served Sim Farm. It's all actually rather inspired and even justifiable. Of course your colonists choking on red dust would be nostalgic for blue waves, and all that lively banjo strumming supports the general constructive atmosphere of the game. Still, I can't imagine much crossover between science fiction fans and "fun in the sun" surfer ditties. Something besides easy listening would've been quite welcome. Whatever happened to blasting Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra as the sun crests the horizon?

Unfortunatelier, those radio stations are deejayed by some of the most annoyingly bland, forced, artificially relatable personalities imaginable, enough to make you minimize the game whenever one of their inane little interludes intrudes on your brooding over the latest impending disaster. In addition to their grating bonhomie, their monologues run a very narrow gamut of presumably safe topics from baseball to kebabs to cultural inclusivity. With that, the whole rest of the game's aesthetic is thrown into a new perspective, not just smoothed and sleek and awkwardly restrained, but padded and kid-safe.
Pablum.

Which is a pity, because Surviving Mars is actually a surprisingly challenging and involved game. While it may be marketed as a city simulator, placing apartment blocks and factories comprises barely half the action. Each playable space agency has a slightly different style. Europe, for instance, thrives on research. From the very start, choosing your map involves balancing natural disasters with resource availability. Then comes scouting out your initial landing site and cobbling together a sufficient pile of resources using automated drones and building a life support network before you can even put up your first habitation dome. This robotic aspect continues throughout the game as you keep rocketing precious metals back to Earth and returning with whatever processed goods your colony lacks, all while constantly scouring the map beyond your domes for spare metal and research bonuses.

Take just one possible event and its many outcomes. Wherever a meteor hits it might: break machinery, puncture a dome, disable vehicles, leave behind a small chunk of metal or polymer or even spawn an "anomaly" to be explored for research. Other disasters are less forgiving. I had a very promising colony completely wiped out by an unusually long 6+ day cold wave.

To spice things up further, you're given one "mystery" or randomizable challenge, each run. As with the aesthetics, this can be a mixed bag, quickly descending into annoyance at feeling railroaded, forced to trudge through a specific scenario before you've even had a chance to grow your colony. After it ends, there seems little point in continuing to play. It both cuts into the sandbox appeal of city building in the short term and undermines its continued appeal in the long run. Building domes becomes, after a while, very repetitive as your citizens demand the same creature comforts in each.

Despite Surviving Mars' various high points, it feels hopelessly restricted. Again, it's a pity. This is a professionally made product. It plays smoothly, provides both a fair array of options and challenges, addresses all the necessary bells and whistles... but does so in an unnecessarily self-restrained fashion. Upon trying to quit, you're greeted by the old joke from Alpha Centauri:
Except Alpha Centauri dared to use as its inspiration some of the most daring, spine-chilling, nail-biting of major SF literature, and its gameplay options reflected this. You could be an iron-fisted dictator nerve-gassing your enemies into submission and sinking entire continents. Surviving Mars is like a cheap TV-grade Star Trek script inspired by those much better stories, and despite some engrossing resource management its ultimate lack of scope should make its creators ashamed to quote such a classic.

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