Games have always been obsessed with bleak visions of the future. All the better to justify combat: a mechanic so central games practically raised us on it. To let go of combat means not only to ask players to adapt, but for creators to envision radically different ways of playing. But this correlation between the post-apocalypse and combat is why I don’t really understand games like Surviving The Aftermath. Currently in Early Access, it’s the second instalment in Paradox Interactive’s “Surviving” series, following the terraforming sim Surviving Mars.
That’s right! Surviving is a series now, and it’s one marketed with a slightly strange tone. “Introducing pollution!” says the update video by developer Iceflake Games in bold letters. In it, a designer cheerfully talks about how radioactive deposits are now more dangerous than ever. I… can’t wait?
In Surviving The Aftermath, you’re tasked with building a colony on an Earth ravaged by unnamed catastrophe. Resources are scarce, radioactive waste bubbles up to the surface, mutated creatures gobble your colonists and every now and again, and meteor strikes destroy your hard work.
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Surviving the Aftermath (just Aftermath from here on out) does for city builders what The Last of Us Part II does for action-adventure — it makes the genre progressively more gruesome, but can’t come up with a solid reason for why that’s necessary. I just keep thinking one thing; as time goes by, the things you are afraid of actually happening don’t make for enjoyable games.
This one starts off just like any other management sim. You have a bunch of people standing on a plain, cold and hungry, so you build them a few huts to sleep in and a trapper to produce food. A well placed in a water-rich area regularly produces, well, water. Instead of managing single colonists and telling them what to do, you assign work areas to buildings. Anyone working in that building will then head off to the assigned location. After the fundamentals are all dealt with, you build a gate. A gate allows even more people to join your colony while providing a purpose to the specialist: a type of colonist whose only task it is to scout areas on a separate world map, scavenge there for items, and fight rival gangs.
I’m just not sure where Aftermath fits. The first game in the series, Surviving Mars, was a standard city-builder with a sci-fi twist. Apart from the occasional danger, which all games of this genre share, Mars being more inhospitable than Earth allowed for an interesting tech tree and an immediately recognizable look.
Aftermath wants to bump up the challenge while sticking to genre essential pacing. You know, the one where you can either fast forward occasionally or use the time to paint your toenails and do a crossword. However, chill city building and survival don’t go together. 11 bit Studios’ Frostpunk, the popular survival builder set in a snowed-out apocalypse, understands this. It gives you a tough challenge, but it doesn’t draw the experience out — providing set campaigns with scripted goals that you can beat. By comparison, survival in Aftermath feels less like a mechanic and more like a setting. You do the same things you would in any other city-builder, but with extra were-rats.
If you want to make things less chill, you can take things up a notch by using its detailed difficulty settings at the beginning. There you can increase the frequency of catastrophes, the scarcity of resources, and the overall look of the procedurally generated map. Do you want nature to have survived, or have it all flattened to a wasteland? How calm are your colonists in the face of danger? Every decision raises or lowers the difficulty until you end up with a certain percentage rating. When you play Aftermath for the first time, you won’t know what 60 percent difficulty, the percentage I ended up with, actually means, however. What I do know is that in its current state, Aftermath can throw a lot at you and make it simultaneously too simple and way too difficult to deal with it.
An example: you can up the challenge to a point where colonists start becoming aggressive from thirst immediately. At the same time, you can lower your resources so much that it takes time to build your first well. The balancing was so off at first that half my colony died before the first life-saving drops came through the tap. Okay, I admit I was trying to break the game a bit, but I succeeded by simply choosing a higher difficulty.
Even if you decide to go for something more level, many options to handle dangerous situations are often missing. On my second attempt, I spent several in-game days simply building away at my colony. That was until the mutated animals that guarded a plastic deposit started attacking the colonists hunting for scrap there.
“Your colonists are being attacked,” a pop-up told me. “Do anything you can to help.” But there turned out to be precious little I could do. When I told my colonists to go elsewhere, they would, only to remember there was still work to do and wander back to the deposit… I tried to change the work area for the recycling building, which did nothing for the colonists already being mauled. They wouldn’t disengage. They couldn’t fight back, either, and I didn’t have enough control over any colonists to fight in their stead.
In another case, an attack on my gate warned me to reinforce it accordingly. I would’ve done that, if Aftermath had given me any tools to do so. I pressed a button to start the defense of my own gate, at which point a landmine (?) took every bandit out. I didn’t know gates even had landmines. I still don’t know if I could’ve readied my colonists for combat somehow, or built other defenses. The game otherwise leads you through almost three hours of tutorial. Which makes me think this is an Early Access content hole just waiting to be filled.
As for things that seem much easier to solve than they should be: if a colonists gets infected with radiation poisoning by repeatedly traipsing through pollution, there’s nothing you can do but watch them die. If a building gets contaminated, on the other hand, you press the repair button for the building. Et voila! The evil is defeated.
Overall, for a game asking me to literally survive the aftermath, I don’t have a lot of tools to deal with disasters other than reinforcements. Once tragedy strikes, all I can do is watch it happen. In the case of colonists dying in droves, it stopped me playing because I had no way to heal them or get new workers without waiting at the gate or waiting, or for colony kids to grow up. A critically low population just leads to more death, so I was progressively unable to keep things running. It was like a fire that would not be put out.
In its current form, Surviving the Aftermath misses any element that restores hope. It plays like a game that plays itself, where the algorithm can destroy everything at a whim, leaving you powerless after several hours of gameplay. It’s 2020… I’m very tired, and that sort of commitment feels like a lot to ask. For now, it’s Surviving the Aftermath’s most poignant semblance of reality that even building a colony on Mars sounds more inviting.