Last year I was lucky to be able to review the fantastic Aven Colony, and Surviving Mars is a very similar experience, although first impressions lead you to believe that this new Space Sim-City game is not up to the same quality as last year’s attempt. But first impressions can sometimes be wrong!

Surviving Mars is a simulation video game developed by Bulgarian Haemimont Games and published by Paradox Interactive. It is a sci-fi settlement builder all about colonizing Mars and surviving the process. You will need to choose a space agency for resources and financial support before determining a location for your colony. Build domes and infrastructure, research new possibilities and utilize drones to unlock more elaborate ways to shape and expand your settlement. So, very similar to the aforementioned Aven Colony, but has major differences that I think makes this a poorer game.

Those first impressions then. Unfortunately Surviving Mars has a near vertical learning curve, as there is a lack of any kind of tutorial except for on-screen prompts. But even before the game starts there are a myriad of options available to change which affects how your mission will play out. For example, you can change the Mission sponsor, which essentially changes the difficulty level, and you can also change the Commander Profile which will alter the technology perk available to you at the start, which would normally be unlocked via research. None of this is explained in any way, and does require you to do your own research in order to work things out.

Once you have picked your starting area, you are thrown into the world of building your colony and again, this is not explained at all. There are on-screen messages and prompts, which somewhat lead you in the right direction, but my first attempt and building a successful colony failed, leaving me feeling disheartened at my failure and unsure whether I wanted to restart and try again. Enter the wonderful world of the internet, especially some “lets-play” videos on Youtube. In ten minutes I had learnt more than the on-screen prompts ever revealed. Reading the Surviving Mars Wiki was also a huge help and I came away feeling ready to take on Mars once again. The fact that the game doesn’t provide this service is a huge mistake, and although it is something the developers have planned for a future update, it may be too late for casual players who may have already walked away.

Once this initial hurdle has been overcome, Surviving Mars really shows you what a good game it is. Building a successful colony on Mars is obviously not easy and there are a lot of essential tasks to get right in order to send those first inhabitants to the red planet. When your first rocket lands on Mars, in a location of your choosing, it is equipped with the essentials to get started. You get three RC vehicles, one to analyse anomalies on the planet’s surface, one to collect materials, and one that is in control of a number of drones that will happily carry out the monotonous duties without the player needing to worry. The drones and the materials collected are what you need to start building, and as you would expect, you need to have stable power, water and air systems in order to support the colonists when they arrive. Before the essentials are in place you also need to worry about mining concrete and metal, having sufficient storage, along with having enough food for the colonists once they arrive. Some buildings can’t be manufactured and need to be sent from Earth on additional rockets.

Once this is all in place, and you think you are ready for humans, you can build your first dome, which is the area that the humans will live in. You can build housing, gyms, factories and shops for them to be able to live and work when they arrive. All was going well for me when I took this first step but I neglected to have enough food and a sufficiently powerful water supply, and immediately my colonists started to starve, and the farm in the dome could not grow crops due to the lack of water. Again, Surviving Mars didn’t hold my hand or help at all in this situation and panic set in, before I did the only right thing and restarted in order to put my learnings from failure into place!

On the third (or maybe fifth) attempt i managed to create a successful colony, and here the game appeared to get more challenging and interesting. Surviving Mars then throws a random mystery at you, to really test your skill at both keeping the colonists alive and solving the mystery. These mysteries are the “story” element to the game, as without them, Surviving Mars is essentially an open-world sandbox game. In my case the mystery was a load of black cubes that appeared over my colony, which brought back memories of classic sci-fi movies. However, it’s a real shame that there is so much legwork to do before you are given the opportunity to tackle one of these.

Within the menus there are options to check to see if the various resources are providing enough to sustain life, but this isn’t in any great detail, and was something that Aven Colony does a lot better. There are also a number of research trees that will enable your colony to have different perks dependent on your research, which actually works more like a skill tree. It is really difficult to describe how detailed this game is, as for everything I have tried to detail there are at least two or three things I haven’t had the chance to play with, or had time to investigate. From environmental disasters to unique colonist behaviours (a full colony of lazy drunks for example?), there is a huge amount of content to explore.

Visually, Surviving Mars is gorgeous. Like Aven Colony before it, you have the ability to zoom right in to see how much detail has been put into the animations, when at the standard viewing distance you just don’t appreciate this. It sounds great as well, especially with headphones, as the Mars wind whistles around, making you feel just like you’re on the planet. The control system struggles, and always does with this type of game, and I found myself screaming out for a mouse instead of my Xbox controller. I also had some technical problems with saves from the Xbox One X crashing the game on the Xbox One S, and as the X has had to go away for repair I found myself unable to continue my game.

Would I recommend Surviving Mars? Personally I prefer Aven Colony, as the shorter, snappier missions suit my game playing habits. But if you’ve got the time and the energy for this type of game then Surviving Mars will give you hours and hours of pleasure. Personally I had a tough enough time trying to keep everyone alive on the easiest setting, the thought of the harder difficulty setting is something that keeps me awake at night!