The first few hours of Aven Colony are bliss. Even for someone more drawn to the science fiction element than the city building, there are enough interesting elements at work to pull you in and keep you enthralled. The pacing is near perfect, the visuals are colourful and interesting to behold, and the setup is compelling. It's a great intro that suggests that Mothership Entertainment may have crafted a classic.
Unfortunately, that extremely positive first impression doesn't quite carry on past the first few hours, and it's not long before you'll find yourself bumping into some of this sci-fi city builder's more niggling limitations. While there are a lot of positive things to report, our initial enthusiasm did dissipate a little after a while. Still, the first five or six hours offer superb entertainment, and even after that it's still an engaging experience.
The setting is pretty straight forward; you're put in charge of various colonial outputs on the surface of Aven Prime. It's your job to establish several small communities that are robust enough to weather the elements on this strange planet. This is done via several missions, each one giving you a specific challenge to overcome. Most of these challenges are defined by the map that you're playing on, although you get a constant stream of smaller objectives fed to you as you play.
The campaign gameplay is somewhat guided, largely because of the objectives that are handed to you, and in some respects, it feels very on-the-rails as you expand your colonies. The composition of each individual base will be different from player to player, but because of the mission structure, you know that they're pretty much all the same at the end of the day. There is some freedom to expand as you see fit, but doing so is almost always to the detriment of reaching your ultimate goal as efficiently as possible. On top of that, it becomes clear after a while that some of the systems aren't as complicated as they first seem, and once you've found your feet much of challenge is dissolved by your understanding of the game's systems, the joy of discovery making way for busywork.
The gameplay is very much defined by the map that you're playing on, which makes it a strange decision to launch without a map editor or generator. You can put down the campaign if you get tired of the hand-holding and don't mind passing on the narrative aspect, and in the sandbox mode you can tinker with the various starting conditions, but you can't change the map nor it seems your starting point on it (although this is different when compared to the campaign). This leaves games played in the sandbox mode limited to largely the same challenges of the ones in the campaign, just without the narrative to drive you forward in a particular direction. New maps, or even an editor so we could make our own, would have allowed for much more gameplay variety for those either finished with the story or looking to play without the constant mini-objectives popping up every five minutes.
The campaign does ask the player to complete some varied objectives within the scope of the city building setup. One mission early on has you exploring different energy sources that in turn throw up environmental concerns that your colonists must overcome. Another mission has you building a long and thin base across an icy wasteland, while another tasks you with building a sprawling colony of farms over a huge area of lush grassland. Towards the end there is a timed mission and another where you have to take advantage of some of the more complex systems, harvesting alien plants and then using facilities to convert these items into useful resources.