I think a lot about an old, abandoned Cities: Skylines save of mine. The first major thoroughfare that I’d built off the highway served as a the backbone of my city, and I kept upgrading it and tweaking it to deal with the growing congestion around the interchange. But traffic only got worse and eventually, in desperation, I convinced myself that the only way to prevent the heart of my city from choking on congestion was to build an ugly, hulking overpass running above the city’s grid layout.
It was a disaster, ruining both the neighborhoods it serviced and generating catastrophic traffic jams in every direction. It was unsalvageable without hours of work, and so I abandoned my city to start a fresh one. But even though it’s been years, I still sometimes find myself thinking about those traffic patterns, and start revising road layouts in my head. I remain fascinated by those systems and the beautiful city they let me create, and subsequently destroy.
It’s a fascination I never quite feel with Surviving Mars, the Martian citybuilder from former Tropico developer Haemimont. The focus on “survival” for your fledgling Martian settlement means that most of its systems feel cramped and utilitarian, and yet the planet itself doesn’t feel dangerous enough or challenging enough to make survival itself an interesting goal. It feels more like building a giant Habitrail for a family of hamsters, with the aesthetics of The Jetsons crossed with a tech company corporate campus. It’s not a game I find myself thinking about after I’ve put it down and, or sometimes even while I’m playing it.
Surviving Mars' basic elements are familiar from 2016’s Offworld Trading Company, the space capitalism RTS from Soren Johnson’s Mohawk Games. Your first and last priority is ensuring that your colony has sufficient power, oxygen, and water to run its buildings and support life. But those resources scaffold via raw materials and production buildings into other resources—like polymers or electronics—that are critical both for maintenance and more advanced buildings. Eventually you can even start exporting valuable resources back to Earth.
In practice, this mostly amounts to running power lines and piping from production buildings into habitats, with a few redundant systems thrown in for the occasional malfunctions (like leaks or short-circuits). Those, in turn, are typically repaired quickly by your herds of robo-workers. While there are a few things you can to to improve efficiency by minimizing wasted production cycles and reduce the odds of malfunctions, for the most part your Martian colony starts running itself from the moment you take care of its basic needs.
That’s fine and even typical for a city-builder. Cities: Skylines never tries to crush you, and you have plenty of latitude to ignore most of your city and trust that it will continue functioning at a decent-enough level to prevent disaster. There are other models: the Anno games tend to be a little more demanding, with delicate production pipelines and multifaceted demographic systems that make it a challenge to ensure you have the people, the facilities, and the resources to keep everyone in your city thriving.
The upcoming Frostpunk or the cutesy Kingdoms and Castles are both about building a city to survive and resist a variety of threats (and maybe you could even add They Are Billions to that list). But each of these approaches gives you some incentive to try and make things better, whether to avert disaster or simply to give you the satisfaction of watching a city achieve every greater prosperity and quality of life.
I never felt that same pull with Surviving Mars. Once basic necessities were taken care of, it was a question of making sure each habitation dome had the right amount of housing for the production buildings it serviced, and the right amount of amenities to service the housing. Once that balance was achieved, there was little left to do except move on and continue strip-mining the planet at a different mineral deposit—which often meant building all the same stuff somewhere else on the planet, and then transporting goods from one base to the other to ensure everyone can perform maintenance and power their production buildings.
Haemimont’s earlier Tropico games suffered from some of these problems as well, but they were better-masked by the lushly gorgeous islands where those games took place, and the buoyant atmosphere of life in a dictatorial tropical paradise (even if that atmosphere was produced by indulging in a lot of stereotypes and gags about exploiting “banana republics” and the people who live in them). Surviving Mars is less lively and rewarding. I got bored building my settlements, and I was even less interested and satisfied watching them run.
Surviving Mars does try to evoke a feeling of wonder and exploration, but those efforts never really feel woven into the game’s fabric. A different “mystery” of Mars can occur in each new game, but they unfold practically independently of the city management tasks you’re performing, at least until their later stages. Likewise, sending your little exploration rover out to scan “anomalies” hardly feels like facing the unknown, or touching the face of God. It feels like vacuuming science-points out of the ground. In the end, everything comes back to advancing your colony up the tech tree in order to build more of the same.
Which started to feel kind of pointless. Disasters, like meteors and the like, can strike your colony but if you’ve built redundant systems you can probably weather the damage. Resource scarcity becomes an issue as your voracious mines and extractors deplete the planet—a dynamic that I dearly wish this game interrogated more, as your bases leave scarred and ruined landscapes in their wake. But what is it that you need to service? There’s nothing I aspired to achieve with my colonies, no grand design I felt any pull to build. My colonists moved from their homes to work to recreation buildings and back again.
I survived Mars. My reward was a self-sustaining economic engine serving no end greater than its own perpetuation. It was dozens of millions of miles from Earth, and I felt like I’d gone nowhere.