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The Meridiani Planum is a vast, empty desert of volcanic basalt, and my home for the foreseeable future. There was an accident—I remember a storm, an explosion, and not much else—and now I m alone. NASA thinks I m dead, the rest of my team are on their way home, and the next mission to Mars is five years away. I m pretty much fucked.
The first thing I hear when I wake is beep, beep, beep. A red light is flashing in my helmet, warning me that I have three minutes of oxygen left. I struggle to my feet and scan the horizon. Nothing. I m surrounded by a red, flat plain littered with rocks and craters. Then I spot something in the distance: a curiously geometrical shape silhouetted against the dusky pink of the Martian sky.
The lander! The craft we touched down in, which is stocked with supplies including sweet, precious, life-giving air. It s far away, but I might just make it. Beep, beep, beep. I have to run in bursts, because the exertion of a prolonged sprint will make me take deep, wasteful breaths. I reach the lander and slam the button that opens the cargo bay. It s achingly, painfully slow. The beeping intensifies. Thirty seconds left.
The door slides open and I dash inside, taking the elevator to the pressurised safety of the crew quarters. Tearing off my helmet, I collapse in an exhausted heap. I made it! But the elation quickly fades when I remember that I m still alone on a hostile planet with limited food and water, no way to communicate with Earth, and five years to kill. Not the best situation I ve ever been in.
I could live here in the lander, I suppose. It has beds, food, water. But when the supplies run out—there s about a month s worth in the hold—I ll either starve or die of thirst. I need space to grow my own food and somewhere more comfortable to live.
I venture outside again. Located just south of the equator, the Meridiani Planum is scattered with a crystalline mineral called hematite: evidence that hot springs may have bubbled here millions of years ago. Now it s a wasteland, pockmarked with craters. In the distance, jutting incongruously out of the emptiness, is a strange ridge formation. Curiosity gets the better of me.
The lander is equipped with a scouting buggy—a glorified go-kart, really—which I drive towards the ridge. It s incredibly slow, only marginally faster than walking. When I reach the rock formation, I realise it s the lip of an immense crater: the Victoria crater to be precise. Half a mile wide and seventy metres deep, it s a colossal thing, but not much use to me. I m gazing across it, listening to the eerie, lonely howl of the wind, when a message flashes up on my HUD: Solar event incoming.
I make it back with seconds to spare and wait for the storm to pass. I decide that s enough exploring for me.
Mars is routinely pounded by solar storms. If I get caught in one, even with a suit on, I ll receive a lethal dose of radiation. And according to the data on my HUD, one is on its way. I jump back in the buggy and start trundling back to the lander, which suddenly looks impossibly far away. It s another close call, but I make it back with seconds to spare and wait for the storm to pass. I decide that s enough exploring for me. I ve got plenty of problems to deal with as it is.
I eat a freeze-dried steak for dinner and sleep on a small cot bed in the lander to escape the chill of the Martian night. Near the equator, during the day, temperatures on Mars can reach a balmy 20 degrees; but at night they drop as low as -70. When the sun rises, I decide to initiate phase one of Operation Don t Die: building myself somewhere to live. I unpack the enormous 3D printer stored in the cargo bay and assemble it outside.
What follows is a gruelling three hours of printing out corners, walls, floors and other parts, then painstakingly slotting them together, piece by piece, to create my new home. It s a slow, laborious process that would have been a lot easier if my team hadn t flown back to Earth and left me here to die. I begin by driving metal platforms—the foundations of the building—into the Martian soil. Then I clip on floors, walls, windows, power points, and, finally, the roof. To speed things up I print out two additional 3D printers and make sure they re constantly churning out parts as I build.
Before I snap on the last few bits of wall, I print out everything I need for the interior: a bed, a couch, storage crates, a toilet, a table to work on, two hydroponic stations, and a water dispenser. Then I toss them through the gap in the wall and seal it up. The last step is the airlock, which I ll need to keep the room pressurised. I build a small corridor, equip it with two suit holders, and install a pair of heavy airlock doors. Done. I step inside, close the airlock, and hold my breath. Did it work? EXT. SAFE blinks on the HUD in reassuring green text, indicating that I can safely remove my suit. I did it!
It s not much, but it s a vast improvement over the lander. If I had help I could have built a base with multiple rooms, but for now this will have to serve as both my living quarters and my science lab. I can easily expand later. I arrange the furniture and equipment and end up with a pretty swish-looking pad. I move some of the freeze-dried meals, emergency oxygen tanks, and backup suits from the lander to the hab and watch a gorgeous Martian sunset as I eat dinner. As another solar storm rages outside, I settle in for the night. Tomorrow I can start to sort out the water situation.
Mars may look dead, but the air and soil are rich with resources I can harvest to keep myself alive. First, water. I print out a topsoil extractor, hook it up to a solar panel, and plug in two resource canisters. Then I build a refinery while I wait for the canisters to fill. The yield is low, but by processing the collected soil in the refinery I can extract fresh, drinkable water. I fill a few canisters and store them safely in the hab, plugging one into the water dispenser. I ll make sure the topsoil extractor is running constantly to keep the water flowing. That s one problem solved.
I still have a decent supply of freeze-dried meals, so I can wait a while before I have to think about growing food in this desolate place. In the meantime, I tackle a problem that s been bugging me ever since I finished the hab. In the process of building it I accumulated a massive pile of junk. Mostly parts I printed out by mistake, including a third airlock door. I keep bumping into it as I walk around the site, and it looks messy, so it s time to get rid of it. I refuse to live in in squalor.
I use the 3D printer to construct a cargo truck. It s big and slow, but has a massive bed for storing and transporting stuff. I spend some time gathering all the bits of junk strewn around the base and load them on the back. Then I drive about half a mile away and unload it. I did consider throwing it in the Victoria crater, but I don t think NASA would appreciate me using an area of scientific interest as a garbage dump. I return to base, and it looks much neater. Satisfied that I ve had a productive day, I eat some steak—again—and retire for the evening.
When I wake up, a dust storm is raging outside, but it doesn t look too severe. One of the supply crates in the lander has bags of potato seeds, so I strap my suit on, brace myself, and step outside. Jogging over to the lander I pick up the seeds, grabbing a canister of freshly-harvested topsoil on the way back. The storm has covered my solar panels in dust, which I ll have to clean later. Back in the safety of the hab, I plug the soil can into one of my hydroponics stations, along with a can of water, and plant the seeds.
It s not long before five healthy potato plants spring up. Just so you know, Bowie: there is life on Mars.
I spend the next few days harvesting resources, clearing up junk, and tending to my potato plants. I expand the hab with a small room to put the toilet in, because having it inches from my bed just feels wrong. I m beginning to adjust to life on Mars, despite the solitude. I keep myself sane through routine, occasionally going for a slow drive around the Victoria crater to entertain myself.
Before long I have my first crop of potatoes. I pick some to eat, and save the rest for replanting. It s taken a while, but I m finally self-sufficient. I have the means to reliably produce water, food, oxygen, and power. It won t be the easiest five years, but I should be able to get through them.
I ll keep expanding the hab in the coming years, with more hydroponics stations, more resource extractors, and more rooms. But for now I have everything I need to survive. Who knows, maybe NASA will realise I m still alive and mount a rescue mission? Then I might only be here for two years—the length of a journey to Mars—instead of five. Either way, I ve accepted my fate. I m going to be here for a very long time, so I might as well get comfortable. Now, if you ll excuse me, I have some potatoes to harvest.
When I last played Take On Mars it was a game about exploring the planet with probes and rovers. It was slow, dull, yet strangely relaxing. I ended up playing it for ten hours, trundling around, taking soil samples, listening to the lonely howl of the wind. But since my last Martian adventure, the developers have introduced manned missions and survival elements to the game. Now you can build a colony, grow food, mine resources, and live a second life on the fourth rock from the Sun.
Depending on the scenario—whether it s one that s included in the game or one you ve downloaded from the Steam Workshop—you ll probably find a giant 3D printer in a crate near your landing site. Fire it up and you ll be able to print out the building blocks of what will become your new home away from home. There are corners, walls, windows, floors, doors, beds, and pretty much everything you need to set up a simple habitat. Plug these bits together and you ll soon have somewhere to live on Mars.
It takes ages, though. The first-person building is incredibly twitchy and laborious, and it took me three hours to build a basic lab/living quarters combo with an airlock. But, like the rover exploration parts of the game, it was a curiously tranquil experience. I listened to podcasts and music as I slotted my off-world villa together. And as I finished, the sun was setting, casting a red glow over my creation. It was a satisfying moment, and I felt like a pioneer sticking my flag into the dirt of an alien world.
A recent update added power to the game, and the area around my base is littered with solar panels and cables. You also have to think about your astronaut s health, hydration, hunger, and tiredness. Resources can be mined from the surface of the planet using 3D-printed machines—letting you, for example, combine chemicals and produce fuel to keep your scouting buggy running. You can grow potatoes to keep yourself fed too, which anyone who s seen/read The Martian will appreciate.
Take On Mars is a remarkably flexible game. Thanks to a powerful editor, there are loads of player-made scenarios that involve all different kinds of play styles. Some are about survival, some are about exploration, some are about performing scientific tests, and some are playgrounds designed to let you experiment with the game s vehicles and systems. If you d prefer a more traditional single-player mode, Space Program sees you building rovers, managing a budget, and completing missions.
It s in Early Access and far from finished, but there s already an impressive amount of stuff to do in the game—and more content is constantly being added, both by the developers and the modding community. There are scenarios that are limited by the technology we have today, and others that are more far-fetched, including the ability to explore a terraformed Martian surface with trees and oceans.
Created using real NASA data, the game s variety of Martian landscapes are incredibly atmospheric. From deep, cavernous craters to rolling hills of rock and red dust, the feeling of standing on another world is palpable. It looks especially nice at sunset, and the evenings feel suitably cold and desolate. Mars might be mostly empty, but it s become one of my favourite virtual places to explore. And if you ve had your fill of Mars, there are other locations to, er, take on including the Moon and our own planet Earth, which provide an interesting change of scenery—and gravity.
As I potter around building my base, I have to be wary of solar events. Mars is regularly pummeled by solar storms, and getting caught out in one could give me a fatal dose of radiation. I learned this the hard way when I decided to take a buggy out to the nearby Victoria crater. As I stood on the lip, admiring the view, a warning flashed up on my HUD saying a solar event was minutes away. It was a tense drive back on the impossibly slow buggy, and I made it back to the radiation-shielded safety of my lander with seconds to spare.
Like a lot of sandbox games, you have to set your own objectives to really get the most out of Take On Mars. There are some scenarios with objectives, but a proper mission system is still in development. I find it s more fun to create my own. I m currently challenging myself to create a totally self-sufficient base, where my astronaut can live indefinitely. You can read about that in the next issue of PC Gamer. Or maybe you just want to build, which is fun in and of itself. The community has created some really amazing stuff using the alpha s selection of parts.
My base is a glorified cube, but it s my glorified cube. I love how my lander—which I arrived in, and which contained my starting materials—was dropped in the middle of an empty desert, but now the area is growing, slowly, into a colony. And like any good explorer, I ve made an absolute mess. There are mistakenly-printed bits of junk lying all over the place. I may build a buggy with a truck bed and go and gather it all up at some point. I could dump it in the Victoria crater. No one will notice.
I m basically recommending Take On Mars here, but I feel it s my duty to accompany this recommendation with a MASSIVE WARNING. Not just a regular warning, but a MASSIVE one. Because as fun as it is—and I ve gotten 20 enjoyable hours out of it so far—there s no denying that it feels really janky. The character movement is frustratingly sluggish and clumsy, and the physics are always freaking out. I was placing a bit of wall on my base and was suddenly flung miles into the air, falling to my death. It s a messy, unfinished, buggy game that is still very much in development.
But if you don t mind bugs and deadly physics mishaps, Take On Mars is a very cool, very unique simulator. And if, like me, you re interested in astronomy and space exploration, you ll probably love it, despite its faults. I m personally pretty exhausted by half-finished Early Access games these days, but I ve let Take On Mars into the special club, just cause I love what it s doing—and I can t wait to see how it evolves over the coming months. If you loved The Martian and want to experience what it s like being Mark Watney for yourself, this is the closest you ll get.
At first glance, Take On Mars [official site] seems like the closest thing we have to a tie-in game for The Martian. You could almost call it Mark Watney Simulator 2015, especially now that manned missions are in the game and let you do things like build Martian bases, grow crops, and drive rugged rovers over the desolate Martian surface. Hell, there’s even a mission where you literally have nothing to do inside your base except grow potatoes. It’s just a fecal-matter montage away from being the first act of The Martian.
But I am no Mark Watney. And the Red Planet is a much harsher, weirder place in Bohemia Interactive’s vision than in Ridley Scott’s. Mark Watney is nearly killed by flying debris during a Martian sandstorm. In Take On Mars, no storm is as terrifying and unpredictable as the physics engine.
In what can only be described as a Mars-a-thon week, we’ve witnessed not only the release of Ridley Scott’s book-to-film interpretation of The Martian, but also the news that science boffins have discovered evidence of water up there on the Red Planet. On the ball as ever, Arma makers Bohemia Interactive have now added to the Mars Madness by releasing a Power Update to their Early Access-residing space exploration and survival sim Take On Mars [official site].
Bohemia Interactive's Take On Mars, a simulation of a real-life Martian colonization effort, was originally announced at E3 in 2013. Now it's 2015, E3 has rolled around once again, and Bohemia has released a new trailer (which premiered last night at the PC Gaming Show) and announced a (slightly) delayed start date for the beta.
Take On Mars was actually expected to come out of Early Access this month, but Bohemia said today that a number of factors led it to push things back a bit. A closer look at what's been changed can be found in the latest Steam update, in which the studio said it has grown into "a significantly larger game" than what was announced two years ago, with added features including a manned section, multiplayer support, and new locations like the Moon and Low Earth Orbit. Bohemia also wants to ensure that the beta is as stable as possible when it goes live so it can avoid having to push too many updates, "because this could make the odds of randomly messing things up quite high."
The beta is now scheduled to begin on July 3, and Bohemia said it will do its best to come across with the goods on time. "We really want to, because if all goes well, we should be able to treat you with a very exciting addition to the game sometime after beta," it wrote. "But let's just keep it a surprise feature for now on."
Details about Take On Mars are at Mars.Takeonthegame.com.