Category: gaming

Raving about Surviving Mars!

Role-playing city building and PVE real-time 4X strategy in a near-future Mars colonization simulation game

Wanted to put out a quick rave about my favorite game of (my) 2019 so far: Surviving Mars (2018), by Haemimont Games (out of Sofia, Bulgaria), published by Paradox (which also published my favorite game of 2015, Cities Skylines)!

Xbox Release Trailer

I bought Surviving Mars on a whim after checking the Steam review metascore, having never heard the game before (kind of the best way to have any kind of media experience, really). I was not disappointed! The title may suggest survival-oriented game mechanics, but I think the best description for the game would be Cities Skylines on Mars. Or as another reviewer wrote: Simcity with soul.

Simulations are one of my favorite game genres (the first game I ever bought was SimAnt, by Maxis) and games like the SimCity and the Sims series’ have provided me hundreds of hours of fun, challenge, and a sense of accomplishment; kind of like growing a virtual garden from scratch and checking it out once completed. The sheer scale of what you can build and simulate produce intricate emergent properties entirely artificial life constructs that are fun to observe on their own. It’s kind of like the Conway’s Game of Life, but with far more variables and a sense of purpose.

Come on USA! We got $8 billion dollars; LFG!

Clearly a lot of love went into this game to both represent a believable martian environment both at the macro planetary level as well as down to the human scale. I particularly love that the game provided the ability to land basically anywhere on the planet, including some historical sites–just to give it a, “this is the real Mars” personality. It doesn’t create any in game consequence though. Just use a little imagination ūüėČ

We’ll check out the Viking 2 Landing Area
Choosing a landing site
Mars is a harsh, unforgiving place… can it be tamed and made livable by soft fleshy humans?

The purpose of Surviving Mars, of course, is to build a self-sustaining city on Mars (Elon Musk would earn his ST:Discovery mention if he can get humanity to this point). This is no novice task — Surviving Mars has you starting with a rocket (imagine the early iterations of SpaceX’s pre-Starship BFR) landing with a skeleton complement of autonomous robots and resources. Living off the land is the only way to get anywhere (as it will be in real life), so much of the early game is a constant hunt for resources; more concrete, more metal, more water, etc…

I spy some concrete and metals behind my ‘murica rocket! Humble beginnings, really…

Through most of this, the early game feels a bit more like real-time strategy / 4X than city building. Unlike Cities Skylines or Simcity, you directly control key “hero” units like Explorers that survey planetary anomalies and cargo rovers that enable a crude point-to-point supply chain management (or desperate resupply to a fledgling satellite colony). The game quests (or “Mysteries” as the game calls them) also operate much more like a real-time strategy game than most city building game scenarios, much to my enjoyment.

Unleash the drones!
Kinda cute little robots!
Aforementioned “hero” units – An explorer, transport, and drone commander (controls drones, duh)

The game has quite a number of random events/quests that give a lot of depth to the game’s backstory. City building games rarely have such things, leaving most to the imagination, but Haemimont’s done something awesome here in creating a single player simulation strategy game that’s more than just a city builder with disasters.

Real time 4x right here
The game has a good sense of humor; and lets you indulge in the dark side
Like any good city builder, there’s a good set of survival metrics to take care of
In this game, running out of resources means death. That’s not surviving Mars.

The game also provides a great ambient atmosphere, thanks to a stellar soundtrack By George Strezov and series of entertaining “radio” options, with a great tie-in to Cities Skylines, which curiously had the Mars radio station (perhaps they’re set in the same Paradox universe?).

I also remember reading somewhere that “real” martian geography was somehow included in the game, but the actual maps appear to be a far smaller set of maps in rotation (less than 10 vs the 50,901 start locations available). Perhaps future expansions can provide more scenario-based maps, or at least a greater variety of terrains.

Minor quips in an otherwise spectacular package.

Also of note, the Green Planet expansion offers an entirely new next step in colony development with the addition of a terraforming dynamic that continues until the entire planet is a lush, Earth-like world.

One of the Green Planet loading screens

LOVED:

  • Near-future space theme has a tech tree and plausibility is more believable than most science fiction
  • Game is challenging, mostly in a good ways! Many Steam reviews complain about the difficulty of Surviving Mars. I recommend auto-save at short intervals (once per sol for me). One temporarily disrupted supply chain can quickly cripple a city lacking redundancy and drive an early stage martian colony into collapse. Many of the same people also describe the game as often “stressful”. That too can be apt, but this is a game that one attains mastery in with experience; and as that occurs, much of these issues can be avoided.
  • Scenarios add unique game dynamics that feel like minigames of their own; adding replayabilty.
  • Visuals are beautiful! See screenshots! After building a massive Martian city, I’d often poke around in Photo Mode for hours taking snapshots of the dynamic ecosystem that is a Martian colony. It also runs reasonably well at 4k resolution on my 5-year old GTX 970 (latter screenshots).

Screenshots

Spectacular stuff! I hope to see more of it!

References:

  • Gamespot review: https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/surviving-mars-review-building-the-final-frontier/1900-6416877/
  • Surviving Mars Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zlapZxOAog
  • Surviving Mars Announcement trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG8b3rCI5rY
  • Surviving Mars Xbox release trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sovutsHwmj8

Awesome Game: Screeps!

I’m here to briefly rave about this game I’ve been playing called Screeps. This real-time MMO AI programming strategy game has managed to get me to spend the last 4 hours writing and tinkering with my own game AI, code, which is deploayed into a substantial persistent universe populated with every other player in semi-competition. A brilliant concept, made by these dudes in Russia.

It’s the best experience I’ve ever had playing around with JavaScript (which, I’ve actually been wanting to work with again for my next project… the last one having been a simple WinJS app back in the WIndows 8 days…). and like software development, a highly satisfying experience when things just work, and an agonizingly annoying one when things don’t work. But whatever your JavaScript skills are today, this game will make you better. (The “CPU” and “memory” quota limitations imposed by the game encourages efficient code.)

Out of my time with this game, I hope to practice development patterns for¬†autonomous agents and to start working with¬†swarm¬†AI behaviors. And of course, as a side benefit, practice JavaScript, which I’ll be using with node.js in a future project! At some point, I hope to apply some of what i learn here in practice in the real world, possibly as we develop drones for defensive purposes.

Now, onto the game…

Simple interface, but insane freedom

The game itself¬†features a simple 2D GUI that can be run in a window or from the Screeps website, where it renders in a browser. You can actually view the world without being a member, but to participate in the persistent universe, there is a paid subscription of around $8 / month (I haven’t decided if I’m going to continue after the first month). It’s cheap though, and as long as it provides me entertainment, I’ll continue to play. The game in the browser scales incredibly well – I even¬†managed to get it loaded on my phone, though the touchscreen didn’t lend to a good experience.

Since you don’t control the units via the GUI, but rather, through code, the bulk of your time is going to be spend in the IDE, tinkering around with your unit and colony behaviors via Javascript code. Finally putting my Game AI programming concepts to use!

I’m pretty proud of my little colony so far; it’s like managing my own colony of ants. Brings back old memories of playing SimAnt as a kid.

The competitive aspect is perhaps the coolest part; very evident even within our own¬†group of “novice” players that there those which are more engaged than others. While¬†their code isn’t visible to you, being an open world MMO RTS, you can see every other player and room. For a few of the more advanced empires, I’ve been trying to reverse engineer useful behavior algorithms to see how to create a general purpose empire expansion code base. AI programming indeed!

Procedurally-generated rooms, mostly. Some substantially better than others. Each symbol denotes a different player’s territory. Because We’re in the “green” novice zone, the massive empires looming just outside can’t touch us. Yet…

I’ve always loved¬†learning with an objective, and the framework of this game is an excellent way to focus on¬†logic. The survival element encourages experimentation, and¬†though I’m¬†still early in the game, I decided to break the peace and send out a few of my “defender” units. You’re competing with every other player in real-time–basically your code vs. theirs, so I figured that I’d want to hone my little empire’s abilities to eventually advance beyond it’s “novice” borders. I went into the nearest player’s base and annihilated their walls, workers, resource storage, and “spawn” (which is where new units are created). This leaves the control point to slowly decay,¬†until my own colony units area¬†able to take over.

Attack!

Such slaughter is the cold work of empire building, though, it looks like, to survive, I’m going to need to know how to fight and grow beyond my own box.

AS for the scale of the game’s persistent univserse, so far, it is massive. The below screenshot is just a tiny segment of the scroll-able space, so it’s a huge amount of virtual territory, though of course, it would have to be, since it includes every other player in this single instance. I can’t tell how much further it will scale though, since right now, the game seems to crawl at around 5-10 seconds / tick. They’ve shared their infrastructure details, which is actually a fascinating read, though, perhaps, they could do something to speed the game up, maybe 2-3x.

My “empire” is but a tiny colony among a massive ocean of empires. Better get coding..

Great game. I will post more about it as I play further! ūüôā

 

‘Life is Strange’ is Awesome! (update: 4k screenshots)

One of my favorite games of 2015 has been Life is Strange, an episodic adventure/RPG developed by Paris-based Dontnod Entertainment (produced by Square Enix). Not exactly a well known developer, their last game was Remember Me (2013), a sci-fi time-bending action/adventure game which while interesting in premise, had me bored within hours by the repetitive action / timing based puzzle gameplay. Poorly sales pushed the company to near bankruptcy and required a critical pivot to survive. Dashing away rumors of collapse, they chose to be smart and bold, streamlining the team and moving to an episodic developer model.

Knowing that this could be their last attempt as a company¬†they began the¬†amusingly code-named “What If?” project. That became the game that is Life is Strange, a game that¬†evolved the¬†time-bending concepts introduced in Remember Me and builds around it a compelling¬†character narrative and mystery thriller. It was beautifully executed too, a focused more refined vision well within what the reduced team could produce excellently.¬†I had started with Episode 1 released in January and had been playing it on the¬†Xbox 360¬†version through Episode 4. Even there, despite it being 10 year old hardware, it was still a visually stunning¬†experience.

Seeing that it was 50% off on Steam over the Thanksgiving holidays, I decided to start and finish a new PC play through. Of course, I was also was hoping for a substantial boost in graphics fidelity on the PC edition.

I was not disappointed.

Among the most visually appealing games of 2015

I managed to play on high settings at PC 4k (3840×2160@60fps) (screenshots below) and while the game may not be as technically stunning as GTA 5 or The Witcher III in view distances or triangle counts, Life is Strange still manages to provide a better cinematic experience and is easily among the most visually memorable games of 2015.

More than performance¬†captured faces and ultra high triangle counts¬†are¬†at work here; in word word, I’d sum it up as the ambiance of the setting and story that they’ve captured in the medium.¬†And it’s not just the graphics, the audio editing is excellent as well. There were several times¬†while playing that I took off my headphones and was surprised to find myself in silence. Whether it’s the slight breeze, or chirping birds or soft diner,¬†the¬†scenes were well fleshed out and felt more real than my¬†artificial indoor confines.

Practicing guitar, something I never did enough of

"Home shit home" - Chloe

Chloe "medicating"

Fremont Troll, Seattle

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Most meaningful¬†game I’ve played since Mass Effect 3

Adventure¬†RPG has becomemy favorite genre and while I love the freedom that comes with a Fallout 4 or GTA 5 (playing both now actually), a clearly told tale with truly likable characters and a solid plot is such a¬†rare gem that I can count them on one hand; such represent the hallmark of why I love the medium. As for Life is Strange, I’ll go far as to say that this was the most meaningful game I’ve played since Mass Effect 3. The story is fascinating, the setting beautiful, characters that are truly likable and entertaining, and as a sucker for nostalgia, I felt that they effectively brought back a mix of old and new; having been set in 2011 and in a high school theme.

The game also¬†has a strong¬†sense of present day reality, a unique trait among games these days where¬†fantasy and science fiction seem to dominate. Even most present day games tend to avoid mention to real-life entities, so the game is unique in that it works hard and succeeds¬†at feeling like it’s not just a believable¬†setting, but one in the real-world.

“Maybe I can sneak in here to watch Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I don’t care what anybody says, that’s one of the best sci-fi films ever made!” – Max

Social media, smartphones, the modern-hipster vibe of the PNW, references to the ongoing drought are all (not-so) subtle reminders that this game takes place not in some far off place, but in our world, and there it succeeds in providing an immersive experience and a compelling setting for the story as it unfolds.

(I won’t go into the story here; plenty of spoilers elsewhere.)

Speaking of which, I’ve only finished PC¬†Episode 1 so far, so back to the game! ūüôā

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The screens don't say it, but 'Facebook' is specifically mentioned in dialog.

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UPDATE (1/12/2016): I recently obtained an Nvidia GTX 970 and decided to finally finish the game in 4k (3840×2160) resolution. I had been playing in 2550×1440 before so I wasn’t expecting a major boost but 4k is double the amount of detail and wow, it is stunning! The below isn’t really appreciable unless viewed at 4k but they make great wallpapers at any scale!