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On my first go at Haemimontís Surviving Mars, the Martian colony strategy game, I managed to reach a settlement population of around 60. Thatís when I forgot that earthlings needed a stable supply of oxygen. I ran out of money to buy more air pumps, and shortly afterwards, I ran out of earthlings as well. Those that survived oxygen deprivation committed suicide out of despair.
In deviation to standard NASA operating procedure, Surviving Mars is all about learning on the job and figuring out solutions to easily foreseeable catastrophes after they occur. Itís less a city builder, and more an aquarium management sim, where you stuff humans into cute 1950s style glass bowls and try to keep them alive. Astronauts are needy little guys who need a constant food, water, oxygen and electrical supply to not die. You have a finite amount of resources (fuel, metal, electronics etc) to build the life support. On top of that, Mars is covered in dust which gradually crusts over everything you do build and chokes them to a halt. Confounding matters further is that you canít simply tell people to clean or fix things; the astronauts prefer to leave it to an army of robot drones, who you canít control either. With poor management, you can easily end up with a situation where your robots are all preoccupied with building a space casino, completely ignoring the dozens of slightly more pressing oxygen and electric leaks around them.
Some of the challenges in the game are fair. You not making the effort to prioritize your robots, failing to build redundancies into your life support, and not saving your money for essential resources is all your fault. But then there are difficulties which donít make sense or feel badly balanced. You can build an electronics factory to create electronics resources, but when it breaks down, it can only be repaired with electronics resources, which you probably donít have because a) the factory is broken down and b) even when it is working, it produces electronics too slowly to let you save any up. Everything else breaks down without those electronic resources, including the repair drones, resulting in an easy and frustrating game over.
After a steep learning curve, you find yourself encountering Surviving Mars biggest problem; the lack of re-playability. Once youíve built one stable colony, youíve built them all. There is a lack of diversity to your buildings, and all of them are essential, so you will always end up with the same looking clusters of geodesic domes. The only way to mix things up are with story missions involving aliens, androids, and all sorts of fruity concepts, but to progress through each of these you still have to build a brand new, identical city each time.
Surviving Mars is fun during the first 10 hours, but Haemimont Games donít seem to have grasped what mechanics would make the game compelling for committed play.
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