Posted Wed Sep 21, 2016 at 12:00 PM PDT by Levi van Tine
The Mothership has landed.
'Aven Colony' is a recently announced city management sim from Mothership Games, scheduled for release in early 2017. It has entered early access/beta on itch.io and Steam, so we took a trip off to Aven Prime for a few hours to see what life as an space governor is like. (Note: the Steam beta is currently private.)
Development on 'Aven Colony' has been humming along quietly for over two years, so the beta has much more content than I would normally expect from an early access game. Several different planetary biomes are available, each with their own environmental traits and missions. As you might expect from a human settlement, food is the most important consideration (after air I suppose, but no problem there because these colonies are hermetically sealed against the thin atmosphere of Aven). Colder colonies have a more difficult time growing food, as do deserts and wastelands. In one mission, the lander has been blown off course far from fertile soil, so the nascent colony must trade for food until it has accumulated enough resources for big greenhouses.
Each scenario plays out not unlike the town building sims that have come before, like 'SimCity' and 'Tropico'. Underneath the mundane layer of buildings is a huge network of overlays that relate the status of the citizenry. These people need to be fed, watered, entertained, employed, and housed in order to function appropriately and more importantly, keep electing me as their planetary governor. There are underhanded ways to manipulate them of course, like a steady supply of narcotics I can crank out from chemical distilleries to keep them pacified and happy. Drug use has to be carefully monitored - the withdrawal effects are usually much worse than if they had never used them at all, so a steady supply and decent healthcare is necessary to avoid deleterious effects.
The game gives plenty of resources to manage drug use and a great many other social trends. Automated drones carry out the governor's orders by building and upgrading the structures vital to the colony's survival. Power, water, agriculture, mining, crime, and even air quality must be monitored and constantly expanded to provide for growth. There are several speeds available, but things happen quickly enough that I usually stay on 1x. Instead of feeling nagged by constant requests and objectives, I love micromanaging the colony (requests and objectives do come often, but at least they have worthwhile rewards). My first few colonies kind of sucked, but I could quickly raze sections and rebuild them when I had learned how to properly manage roadways, commuting, employment statistics, and so forth. The citizens walk everywhere and thereby require an extensive system of tunnels to get around, so to reduce their commute, each section of the colony has to have a level of self-sufficiency. If I build all of the apartments in one part of town and the science/engineering district somewhere else, these lazy workers have to march across the city to get to work, and they don't particularly enjoy that.
The planetary votes that hit after the colony reaches a certain size have a singular purpose. If I focus solely on growth and trade, neglecting to build creature comforts like parks, VR booths, and retail centers, happiness will be low and someone else will be elected. Frequent polls inform me of what I need to work on, and combined with the informative overlay system, I only have myself to blame if the people are suffering. This differs from 'Tropico' where happiness and law enforcement are more difficult to use properly. In 'Aven Colony', the interface is sharp and clear. There are a few quality of life issues of a minor nature, such as the inability to stop iron production for the whole colony when I want to export that particular substance (instead, each ore facility has to be individually modified), or the mill not being able to queue up a certain amount of flour instead of running through my entire wheat supply. These are things that can probably be tweaked before release if Mothership so desires.
Trade with the orbital ship is very important. Not all of the harvestable materials are immediately useful; some have to be processed in mills or other buildings to get any value out of them. These projects must also be researched and farmed. Despite its importance, the trade system is a little thin and I wouldn't mind seeing more options for resources, like being able to cherry-pick certain rewards or a few more levels in the value chain. Even with the current resource system, 'Aven Colony' is the rare management sim where I don't have to wait around or speed up time extensively for things to happen. The colony has so many different systems to manage that I had nearly the perfect level of engagement at all times.
Powered by Unreal 4, 'Aven Colony' looks very pretty even in this early stage. It has a convincingly alien palette, with truly weird flora covering the planet's surface and involved environmental effects to go along with the seasonal changes. There are a few creatures that can occasionally plague the colony ("creep" is a contagious building infector that functions like fire in other sims, for instance), and they have an equally strange appearance. On some maps, mission objectives require the colony to study or interact with local artifacts, which provide another layer of involvement other than "grow this colony as big as you can" (which is still a very fun objective).
For some time now Steam has been flooded with early access games of all stripes. Some of them are worth the cost of entry and many are not, but 'Aven Colony' is firmly in the former class. It mixes realistic sci-fi with likeable, easy-to-learn management mechanics. There are many scenarios listed in the menu that aren't yet playable, so hopefully we can expect more missions and objectives from Mothership in the months before release.
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