Aven Colony PC, PS4, Xbox One
Win a couple of referendums and you’ll unlock the ability to impose martial law; this isn’t brilliant for morale
During an age of melting ice caps and continentlong algae blooms, the idea of trading Earth for an unspoilt planet has increasing appeal – witness the antics of Elon Musk, a billionaire hell-bent on transporting thousands of people to Mars by the end of the century. Mothership’s elegant, if slightly placid, Aven Colony is a timely reminder that humans are quite capable of taking their problems with them. The lush garden world you’re called upon to terraform has its perils – from drifting gas clouds to parasitic spores that clog up vital machinery – but every indigenous threat pales before the needs and foibles of your supposedly hardy settlers. Their demands are myriad, from a wider range of dining options and less congested residences to beefier community policing and access to a super-mall stocked with the latest robot butlers. Fail to meet those demands (to say nothing of trivialities like drinking water) and you’ll be sent packing at the next referendum, assuming your subjects don’t emigrate (or expire) beforehand. It’s more like playing the mayor of a gated suburb, at times, than colonising a mysterious frontier.
Either way, it makes for a restful, moderately satisfying strategy game that plays like a hybrid of Cities: Skylines and Offworld Trading Company. Aven Colony is a pure building sim, with no units to fuss over save for self-piloting construction drones and off-map expedition shuttles. Beginning with a homely tumble of landing pods, you’ll gradually raise each colony to a state of self-sufficiency, stretching out a hermetically sealed tunnel network towards resources such as iron deposits, geothermal vents and fertile soil. It’s easy to lose yourself in the click and gleam of the grid-based architecture, but leave the underlying variables unattended for too long and citizens may take to their rooftops in protest. A protesting colonist is not a productive colonist. Win a couple of referendums, however, and you’ll unlock the ability to impose martial law; this isn’t brilliant for morale, but will at least ensure that the people running your air filters get back to work before they all die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Aven Colony’s campaign spans just nine maps (a tenth, Cerulean Vale, is a pre-order exclusive for now), from loamy lakesides that support vast agricultural yields but are low on iron deposits, to glacial plateaus fringed by spires where you’ll have to rely on trade for sustenance. There’s also a sandbox mode which allows you to replay maps with custom settings, such as more frequent hazards, but there’s no map generator at the time of writing. It’s a sparse feature set, and the campaign is a little lacking in backbone. Every type of building is available from the off, so progress through missions is devoid of intrigue, and the story doesn’t help: it’s yet another tale of extinct alien races and mysterious artefacts, dotted with grating banter about, of all things, social-media gaffes.
Aven Colony is patently a work of fantasy – it skims past the question of how exactly human beings have made it to Aven Prime – but it takes inspiration from the work of Professor Abel Mendez, who studies potentially habitable exoplanets at the University Of Puerto Rico. He suggested the use of giant crystals as a plausible terrain element and provided input on the choice of crops, which range from rice and melons to curious native plants. According to his NASA bio, Mendez’s research is motivated by the threat of global warming, a preoccupation that perhaps informs the emphasis on climate as a variable in the game, and renders its endorsement of fullblown industrial capitalism as each colony’s desired end state a little problematic.
If the writing is bilge and the broad strokes of base management are unexciting, there’s a lot of cleverness at work in Aven Colony’s crevices. Take the changing of the seasons. The planet’s slow rotation means that night is essentially a miniature ice age: outdoor crops won’t grow, thunderstorms threaten to set buildings ablaze (and in the case of our review build, crash the PC) unless constructed within range of a lightning tower, and solar panels are half as effective. Having to prepare for such scarcities helps break up the flow, punishing you if you rush to claim distant mining sites before your colony is secure. It also invites a pleasing spread of tactics. You might aim to churn out food through the darker months by investing in expensive, power-hogging greenhouses. You could fall back on the off-map economy, selling gold and nanites to other colonies in return for shipments of grain, or you could bet everything on generating a huge surplus while the sun is up, then ration consumption till spring. In general, there’s a gentle flexibility to Aven Colony’s design that rewards imaginative solutions to problems. Many buildings serve more than one purpose. Wind farms, for instance, can be spun backwards to blow away gas clouds before they seep into vents. Atmospheric condensers can perform electrolysis to generate oxygen rather than water, improving air quality nearby. Lightning conductors are both a defence and a means of topping up your colony’s batteries, allowing you to ride out winter power shortages. Tougher missions draw these qualities out, particularly those that ask you to move beyond subsistence farming to commodity capitalism, which involves an extended production chain – when you’re struggling with rolling blackouts and malnutrition, it’s hard to justify setting aside land and power for inedible crops and mills.
A generous assortment of visual overlays allows you to monitor your settlement in depth even as its scale threatens to hide the key workings from view, flagging up greenhouses that are a chore to reach or habitats where the mood is prickly for want of places to shop. They also make certain flaws more apparent, like the slightly arbitrary way the game calculates commuting distance or areas where pollution is high. It’s perhaps more a problem of communication: Aven Colony offers two tutorial missions but leaves you to work out the intricacies on your own, which is admittedly a source of satisfaction. A wider problem is that after a few hours, the prospect of visiting an alien planet is lost, strangled by the mundane pressures of community management. Suddenly those hermetically sealed tunnel networks take on an additional significance. It’s less a trip to another world than a slice of this one, warts and all, carefully preserved in the middle of a bewitching, inaccessible wilderness.
MAIN Dense urban areas attract crime, though it takes a while to build to critical levels – it’s often better to wait for it than construct police hubs in advance.
ABOVE Settlements are largely shaped by access to resources (and the local wildlife) – in this desert map, you’ll leap from one patch of green soil to another.
RIGHT The game’s Unreal Engine world is more soothing than it is breathtaking – shadows orbit structures and wildlife swoops over the map as the day passes
ABOVE Expedition centres allow you to send an upgradeable shuttle on missions – reclaiming relics, rescuing explorers – for small rewards. It’s hardly XCOM, admittedly, but it does create a little late-game intrigue