As real spacecraft begin to arrive at the Red Planet, let’s celebrate with Mars-based games like Surviving Mars, where you build colonies, and Tharsis, where you captain a doomed spacecraft
10 February 2021
Deep Silver Volition
PC, PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and One, Nintendo Switch
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Tharsis Choice Provisions PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
THIS month sees a trio of real-life spacecraft arrive at Mars, so in honour of their voyages I thought I’d run through my own jaunts to the Red Planet in game mode.
Mars is a common locale for many first-person shooters, with games in the Doom, Destiny and Call of Duty series all featuring levels on its dry, dusty surface, but they rarely do very much interesting with the setting.
One exception is Doom Eternal, which I reviewed last year. As you fight your way through endless demon hordes, it becomes clear you must journey to hell through a portal at the centre of Mars. How? Why, by commandeering a massive laser on Mars’s moon Phobos and blasting a gigantic crater into the planet’s surface.
Speaking of blowing things up on Mars, the Red Faction series makes a selling point of having “destructible terrain”, essentially letting you knock down walls and buildings to progress through the game. This is still a rarity in video games, partly because of the technical difficulties in rendering destruction on the fly, but also because letting players destroy everything makes it hard to impose any narrative structure.
My favourite of the series, Red Faction: Guerrilla, solves this by throwing narrative structure out of the window, then throwing the window out of the window. You play Alec Mason, a freedom-fighter attempting to overthrow the tyrannical rulers of Mars, but forget all that – what matters here is that you are given mining charges, trucks and a really big hammer and then encouraged to destroy everything in sight. It is incredibly satisfying, even if you are setting the course of Martian settlement back decades.
“Kerbal Space Program lets you build pretty much any spacecraft you can imagine; mine tend to blow up”
If you fancy something a bit more constructive, Surviving Mars, which I reviewed in 2019, puts you in charge of building a colony from the ground up. I enjoyed the challenges of managing water, oxygen and electricity supplies as I plotted out various domed habitats on the Martian soil. The game is just tricky enough that you feel like you are struggling to survive without it being too disheartening when a bunch of your colonists die in a dust storm.
Offworld Trading Company is similar but puts you slightly further into the future, with Mars settled and corporations vying to exploit its natural resources. The game is ruthlessly capitalist and sees you exploiting markets to get one over on your rivals or make a hostile takeover.
If your dreams of being Elon Musk revolve around building rockets rather than becoming a billionaire, Kerbal Space Program is for you. With a bewildering array of capsules, engines and more, you can pretty much construct any spacecraft you can imagine. Whether you can get it off the ground is another matter – mine tend to blow up. Once in orbit, there is a whole solar system analogue to explore, with dusty Duna as Kerbal’s version of Mars.
Finally, for a darker look at what astronauts heading to Mars might face, there is Tharsis. It is set aboard the first crewed ship to the Red Planet, which has been damaged by a micrometeoroid storm, meaning you have to repair the ship and shepherd the crew to safety. Unusually, the game takes inspiration from board games, so you roll virtual dice to achieve objectives such as putting out a fire. This leaves things slightly more up to chance than I would like, making it hard to strategise, but no one ever said getting to Mars would be easy.
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