David Bowie once asked: "Is there life on Mars?". After playing Surviving Mars for many hours we can comprehensively answer that "yes, in the virtual world there is." So, while these Major Toms were blasting off to the red planet, we sat back and planned the future of humanity. Paradox Interactive, who published one of the best city building games of recent times in the form of Cities: Skylines, are taking us on an out-of-this-world adventure developed by Haemimont Games, the studio which gave us Tropico 5. With that in mind, this new game has all the pedigree it needs to rocket to the top of the charts.
And so to the sandbox we go, bearing in mind that, much like certain other Paradox Interactive published titles, there is no campaign mode and very little in the way of missions. You can select certain events to play out during your game and there's the scenario itself, but that's the limit in terms of story. Instead, it's just a very open sandbox experience with no real end. You set up your conditions right from the off, making it as hard or easy as you would like (to an extent). You decide who sponsors your colonisation effort, so for example, if you want an easier ride you can go with the international space program who give you loads of funding, while flying the flag for a country like Russia is a little trickier. Afterwards you can pick your personality type, which depending on your choice, gives you different tech or equipment.
Your involvement in the narrative side of things, on the other hand, is more or less optional. It's based around events that happen later in the game and can include Aliens, AI issues and so on, and it doesn't really affect your sandbox experience too much. They can be set to random so you're not sure when and what will happen, but it's not really an authored story as such. They come way after you're established, so by that time it's a welcome break from all the building and surviving. After you've picked your initial settings, you fill up your rocket with the stuff you need including materials and pre-fab buildings and head off on your new adventure to boldly go where only Matt Damon has gone before. Trust us when we say don't send your colonists too early and until you're well and truly ready, or the founding members won't be around too long to enjoy the sunsets.
In a nutshell, it's like the sequel to the film The Martian, in game form (sadly without Matt Damon - although the game does quote him at one point). You land on red terra firma and start initially with drones and landers to explore the world around you. You reveal new terrain and resources, such as concrete and water, with probes that scan the surface. These resources help you to construct and expand your colony and eventually start to build domes where the brave souls will live. People go about their daily business and have jobs and various character traits such as alcoholism and being a hippie (this element of the game doesn't seem overly developed, however). If you don't keep them amused, or their buildings maintained, then before long they can start to go a little stir crazy and kill themselves (which is probably not what you want). When you get dumped on Mars, there's not much of a tutorial other than a few notes that drop down from the top, but these help you to get to grips with life far from home. The interface and controls are really simple to manage, though. When you finally get a bit more settled, you can start trading with Earth and things get more stable, but the initial stages are a little red rocky.