Outer space has always been ripe for colonisation in gaming and has been staple of RTS and city building simulations ever since the arrival of Utopia: The Creation of a Nation back in the 16 bit days. That was very much Sim City in space. That was followed by the genre classic, Alpha Centauri from the legendary Sid Meier which again took another classic off world (this time, it was Civilization that got its extra terrestrial stripes). There has never been a true successor to Sid Meier's game - even Civilization: Beyond Earth left fans wanting.
While Surviving Mars may not be the successor that fans of Alpha Centauri might have wanted, it is still an original and worthwhile take on a surprising uncrowded genre. The game starts out with an area of Mars that is ready to welcome the first human feet - or, at least it will be once the basics are in place for the first colonists. You must first find the best landing site - near the resources that will be essential for the first colony - water, metal and concrete are absolute requirements for your first settlement so using your initial four probes you really need to come lucky with at least one of them to be in with a chance of getting off to a good start. With luck you'll find the perfect landing zone and set about the construction of your initial dome.
The first rocket will contain a few drones and enough material to get you started with your first solar panel, concrete extractor and water extractor. From that point on it's a case of exploiting the resources around your first landing site to ensure you have the materials to expand further. You can call in more help from Earth on further rockets as you struggle to find the materials you need - you have a limited budget though so be judicious in your choices.
Surviving Mars offers a pretty good tutorial mode that introduces you to the concepts of resource gathering and building your colony. It takes you through the interface whilst not being totally in your face and your first game in this mode will feel no different to later outings other than the fact that that the experience gathered will inform how you do things next time around.
It isn't until you have your first dome in place with somewhere for your first colonists to live, play and work that you'll be able to launch that passenger rocket from Earth - and doing so brings more resource management as you decide which people will be best suited to giving you the skills you need in the first Martians.
One thing that Surviving Mars does brilliantly is evolve - once the first humans move into your initial dome you'll have to start worrying about their needs - not just their water, food and oxygen, but also the things that keep them happy in other ways. Each colonist has their own personality and you need to cater to that to ensure that they keep their sanity and feel happy living a few million miles away from home. Outside of your dome you're only restricted by the distance your drones are able to travel, but inside space is tight and it's a little like a game of Tetris as you decide how to fit in what you're going to need for your first residents - obviously somewhere to live, which alone takes up a sixth of the space, but are you hoping to have families and kids? If so, you'll need a school, maybe a nursery and almost certainly a playground. But what about entertainment for your first adults? a bar? a shop? AND what about food production and research?
Mars itself brings its own challenges too - not only in the environment and resources but also in the ecosystem with things like dust storms being a real problem. If you rely on solar energy you might find that the Martian nights become pretty hard going for your facilities and residents unless you plan ahead, and you can expect plenty of issues and breakdowns being, as you are, on the edge of humanity. If that's not enough Surviving Mars throws in a fair amount of background story that leads to political machinations and wrangling with those far flung Earthlings, and what about the Martian natives? Are they out there? Let's just say - there's more happening on (and under and over) the surface of the red planet than we might imagine.
What feels like a slightly simplistic game on first impression rapidly becomes a deep and rewarding experience which throws challenges at you frequently through resource balancing issues through to natural disasters - those dust storms playing havoc with your power generation ability and occasional asteroids you see impacting on the wider map prove a real threat as the game goes on that will throw you really hard to overcome curve balls if you're not adequately prepared for them.
Visually, at first the game feels a little simplistic - nice clear graphics but little in the way of textural depth. However, as you colony grows and more and more elements come into play the graphical simplicity becomes a necessity - you can see what everything is without the need to zoom in and the style brings with it its own stunning aesthetic. Similarly the audio adds a level of atmosphere without creating a depth without forcing itself front and centre, allowing the gamer the opportunity to envelope themselves within their settlement's growth without interruption.
The combination of a gentle learning curve coupled with a huge amount of depth as the game progresses makes Surviving Mars an essential strategy purchase. The game embraces it's science fiction background rather than uses it just as a canvas and the mysteries that are unveiled ensure that there is plenty of replay value to the game.