Mark Watney, who struggled to stay alive in "The Martian," was right: It is really, really hard to survive on the Red Planet.
For decades, with help from science fiction and pop culture, Mars has been the "logical next step" for humanity's expansion into the solar system. Space agencies all over the world are working tirelessly toward the eventual goal of sending humans to Mars and one day colonizing Earth's neighbor. But in playing the video game "Surviving Mars," I got a taste of just how difficult survival on the Red Planet might be. Published this year by Paradox Interactive, the title is a complex city builder and survival-strategy game that can be played on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and on Steam. [The Best Space and Sc-Fi Games on Mobile]
Hot on the heels of 2016's "Stellaris," a future-based, sci-fi, grand-strategy game also released by Paradox Interactive, Surviving Mars plops you right on the surface of Mars. You arrive equipped with a rocket full of raw materials, drones and a few prefabricated structures. I quickly realized after landing that this game could be more difficult than I had anticipated — and maybe, just maybe, I should have taken a look at the expansive tutorial, as Mars has seemingly endless ways to kill you.
After a few minutes of grasping at straws on the dusty Martian surface, I swallowed my pride and backtracked to the tutorial. I recommend that all players take this step, even if you aren't a casual like myself, because, while "Surviving Mars" has a straightforward premise, the titular task presents many elements that are difficult, if not impossible, to predict.
As soon as you land, you are overwhelmed with questions. Where should you place your water supply? What's the best way to generate energy? If you have one prefabricated generator, can you make it work for your entire colony? Should you start collecting and storing concrete first? What can you do with your autonomous vehicles? Will a meteor land on the dome you just built? What materials do you need to collect? How much concrete do you really need?
Before you're ready to launch your first colonists to the surface, you need to have a functioning colony infrastructure in place, with oxygen, water and shelter — all of the elements the colonists will need to survive. But in these first steps, the stakes are relatively low. Your drone depot might endure the odd meteor impact, and it will likely take a bit of time to wrap your brain around the lengthy to-do list you have to complete to make your colony human-friendly. But at least you can't accidentally kill anyone.
After I got a decent, albeit shaky handle on my entirely robotic colony, it was finally time to launch a crewed rocket to Mars. But about 3 seconds after my first colonists arrived, they were already borderline hypothermic, so the life-or-death troubleshooting began. Once I had everyone stabilized, everything went according to plan — for a few brief moments. The drones hummed along, toting resources to the universal depot, and the colonists seemed to be getting acquainted with their dome. But it wasn't long before additional problems popped up and I once again had to struggle to figure out why my colonists were homesick or dying.
In this game, you find yourself scrambling to keep your people alive, then suddenly sitting easy with a host of satisfied Earthlings, then scrambling once again. This game ebbs and flows in waves of anxious bursts of survival strategy — your colonists get sick, they're unhappy, fireballs fall from the sky — because endless things can go wrong on Mars.
And new DLC (downloadable content) can make the game even more challenging. There is both a Deluxe Upgrade Pack and a free Mysteries Resupply Pack. The deluxe upgrade consists primarily of additional customization options, skins, a digital art book and a building set. But the "mysteries" DLC introduces three new mysteries, like the falling meteors, for players to try and survive. These include mysterious lights, crystalline entities and a mega monolith.
Despite the game's difficulty, I found it exceptionally fun trying to survive the constant turmoil on the Red Planet in "Surviving Mars."
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Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.