Back in the mid 2000s, I came across a copy of a game called Moon Tycoon at a school book fair. This game would go on to become one of my most played PC games at the time and part of the reason why I grew to like city-builders so much. As such, I was very excited to get into Surviving Mars, the modern-day equivalent of that game.

Pros:

Excellent city-building mechanics. Considering that Surviving Mars is a city-builder, making the actual act of building a city fun should be the game’s top priority. Fortunately, the game not only does make this process fun, but also manages to maintain a nice degree of complexity. It finds itself in that sweet spot of not being overly complex, but not being too simple.

Take the different mechanics to the city-building process for example. You have your resources (such as concrete and metal), your life support systems (which includes water and oxygen), the drones that manage these two, and of course, the colonists that actually live there. All of these aspects need to be managed simultaneously, with emphasis placed on finding a nice balance between them all. You would not want to make the same mistake I did in my first couple games by focusing too much on one particular aspect. In one game I lost my colony due to not planning out my power and food systems properly, whereas another I didn’t put enough focus on production of polymers, electronics, and machine parts.

It is not just that balancing act that makes the process fun though, there’s also research, exploration, and even random events that all add to the experience. I had a lot of fun playing around with the different game mechanics and seeing just how far I could get with certain city designs and such, all possible due to how well the game manages it’s city-building elements.

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Cool mystery system. On top of the whole city-building aspect of the game, there’s also a mystery system at play. By default, every new game is assigned a random mystery, providing the player with more tasks to take on outside of just building up a sustainable colony. For example, in my first game I discovered some strange crystal-like structures growing out of the planet’s surface. Upon further investigation, I found that these structures could be powered to give me certain resources, but at the expense of having more disasters occur nearby. So the whole time I’m building up my colony, I also had this cool mystery system to play around with. Of course, the feature is completely optional, but it gives players something other to do than just city-building and provides for a nice twist in each new game.

Nice aesthetic. If I had to describe the aesthetic that Surviving Mars went for, I would have to say that it goes for that “retro sci-fi” feel, similar to the one seen in older films like 2001 and Solaris. It just so happens that I am also a big fan of that style, so I was excited to see it used here. Not only does it look great, but it’s also very fitting for the level of realism used by the game. Although Surviving Mars does have some realism to it, it’s definitely not on the level of a hard sci-fi work, so this aesthetic fits right in.

Mod support. Having the ability to change game mechanics, add new ones, and fix existing issues are just a few benefits granted by mod support, so I was happy to see its inclusion here in Surviving Mars. In fact, the game even has a built-in mod manager and mod editor, going to show just how much effort the devs put into the game’s mod support. I’m definitely glad for it, as it allowed me to fix a few minor annoyances I had, such as the limited length of passages between domes.

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Cons:

Micromanagement issues. Although the city-building elements may be fun, the game does have a few issues when it comes to micromanagement. These issues are mainly limited to supply and colonist management. For supply management, the game attempts to automatically distribute available supplies as necessary, but it is not a perfect system. There were several scenarios where I needed supplies to fix one thing, but they were already distributed elsewhere and made unavailable. The priority system does remedy this problem to an extent, but does not completely eliminate it.

As for colonist management, the main problem has to do with assigning them jobs and homes. Again, the game does attempt to do this automatically, but it really doesn’t do that good a job. Despite placing buildings for my scientists to work in, they would still somehow end up working in a factory or somewhere else rather than where I needed them. Although the game generally does do a good job with this management, it was definitely a struggle to fix when it messed up.

Poor UI design. For being a city-builder, Surviving Mars has a pretty bad UI. I cannot count the number of times I had problems finding what I needed in the game’s messy UI. For example, the majority of the buildings that are placed in domes have their own sections, but some dome buildings are placed in other sections, such as the electronics factory (which is placed in the same section as concrete and metal extractors, despite those two needing to be placed OUTSIDE a dome). Another example being the subsurface heater, which is located in the infrastructure section instead of the life support section with all of the other buildings that use water and/or oxygen.

Additionally, I had another minor complaint related to the game’s UI: that being the inability to select multiple units at once. Surviving Mars does not have a click-and-drag to select multiple units, so the most you can have selected is just one. Granted, I rarely ever needed more than one unit selected at a time, but it was annoying when I did need to select more than one.

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For a city-builder, Surviving Mars does a pretty good job. The city-building mechanics are top-notch, the aesthetic is great, and the mysteries add an entirely new layer to the game. Even so, the game does have a rather lackluster UI and several problems when its comes to micromanagement, but I still recommend it regardless. It’s definitely the best Moon Tycoon alternative available today.

Score: 8/10

You can buy Surviving Mars on Steam here.

I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.

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