Surviving Mars for Xbox One and PC could be the grand sci-fi city-builder you always wanted

I'm a huge fan of city management games, and for me, it doesn't get better than Cities: Skylines. I was overjoyed to hear that Skylines' publisher, Paradox Interactive, would be working with the developers of Tropico, Haemimont Games, to bring a similar title to market. Say hi to Surviving Mars.

As its name suggests, Surviving Mars is a city builder with a sci-fi survival edge. Your task is to land on the surface of Mars, colonize, and survive the harsh conditions thereon.

Similar games have attempted to tackle this sort of gameplay on Xbox One, including Planetbase and Aven Colony, but after being spoiled by Cities: Skylines, I found their feature sets to be lacking. After going hands-on with Surviving Mars at Gamescom 2017, I'm happy to report that likely won't be the case with the Haemimont Games' attempt.

Depth and complexity

At Gamescom 2017, I went hands on with an early PC build of Surviving Mars, which is slated to hit both Windows and Xbox One. On PC, the game sports similar hotbars and context menus designed for mouse, as you might expect, whereas the Xbox One version will use a combination of the d-pad and radial menus, inspired by Cities: Skylines. The developers told me that because Surviving Mars has been built from the ground up for a gamepad in mind, it has been a far easier process than back-porting gamepad support, as was the case with Skylines.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer volume of features, buildings, and opportunities for creativity and micromanagement. One of my big criticisms of games like Planetbase and Aven Colony was that there simply isn't any room for creativity, each building and population zone has set requirements, which eventually forces you to follow a somewhat mindless pattern when it comes to expanding your base. In Surviving Mars, there will be tons of cosmetic options, including changing the way buildings look, in addition to multiple types of buildings that serve similar purposes

If your citizens are unhappy, building a bar might help, but that might also generate alcoholics, which comes with additional problems. You see, each individual colonist in Surviving Mars has his or her own stats to worry about and micromanage. There are things like happiness, thirst, and air quality, as you might expect – but there's also sanity to manage. If your colonists feel that life is hopeless floating on the red planet, they could end up killing themselves. Pretty grim.

But here's the thing, Surviving Mars has been designed with scientific accuracy in mind, too. Many of the mechanics, habitats, and materials you will harvest are at least inspired by real-world proposed solutions to the issue of life on Mars.

The map I played on was impressively huge, divided into quadrants you could zoom into at will. Each quadrant was explorable, and offered different types of resources to unearth and uncover. In our demonstration, I was pointed to a specific patch that could be mined to create building materials.

One of the primary materials you will have to harvest in Surviving Mars is a cement-like subtance, obtained by raking specific types of soil on the surface of the planet for refining. Mars is full of rare minerals which can be shipped back to Earth for trade and profit, and trading for goods you simply cannot obtain on the barren red deserts of Mars will be quintessential to survival out there.

The red devil's in the details

Even at this relatively early stage in development, I was surprised by the level of detail Haemimont Games has managed to inject into the game. You can call in rockets from Earth to bring additional colonists and ship trade goods off-world, but it's not a simple case of clicking through a menu. You have to choose where the rocket lands, and even that can have consequences.

I landed a rocket downwind of one of my habitats, which caused it to get blasted with red dust, which raised its maintenance requirements. Thankfully, you have an army of little droids who will travel around, shifting goods to where they need to go, and repairing things at will if you have the resources.

After my rocket had landed, a troupe of colonists came bouncing out, striding across the planet. Haemimont told me that because of Mars' lower gravity, humans would theoretically be able to reach a relatively high speed striding across the planet this way. As such, citizens move around much faster outside of the habitats than they do within them. That's not because habitats have artificial gravity, though.

When inside habitats, colonists wear weighted suits. This is because it's expected that spending long periods of time on a planet with lower gravity would wreak havoc on an individual's muscles and over all strength, due to the simple fact it's easier to move around on Mars.

Every aspect of Surviving Mars has been developed with scientific theories in mind.

The weighted suits ensure that Earth-like gravity is simulated, and general strength can remain at a decent level should the colonists ever return home.

Every aspect of Surviving Mars has been developed with scientific theories in mind, reaching for a future when space colonization won't only be possible, but probable. The game will also sport an extensive research tree to help you learn about some of the methods scientists have proposed for colonizing Mars in the real world, as well as bolster your stats and limit your weaknesses. With new tech and units thrown in for good measure.

It's an inspiring prospect in the real world, for sure, but what about sci-fi fantasies?

Aliens and sci-fi fantasy

Naturally, in among all this talk about science, I had to ask if there were any plans for aliens to appear in Surviving Mars.

Colonists have to manage hazards like proper resource management, meteorite impacts, and deadly sand storms, but what about more exotic threats?

Surviving Mars will feature more science fictional problems, through what the Haemimont Games calls the "Mystery" system. While on the planet, different Mysteries will present themselves to be researched and resolved, which could result in uncovering alien artifacts, or even aliens themselves.

The studio wasn't ready to go into too much detail on these features as of yet, but they sound like something that will keep Surviving Mars fresh and engaging, giving us some more fantastical features to play with.

Extremely promising

Surviving Mars was already one of my most anticipated Xbox One and Windows PC games, but after going hands on, I think it's probably my most anticipated. The sheer amount of features, opportunities for micromanagement and creativity is incredibly exciting, and there's that secretive Mystery feature to look forward to as well.

Ever since The Martian movie landed, I feel as though it has been a race to truly nail the fantasy of space colonization through a city builder-type simulation game, and Surviving Mars could be the one that truly, truly nails it. If you're a fan of Cities: Skylines, science fiction, and survival games, I'd say Haemimont Games deserves your undivided attention.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!