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Review: Aven Colony (Steam)

Introduction

Aven Colony is the Sci-Fi city builder I’ve been waiting for a long time. It expands the subgenre’s first few modern forays on Steam and it obviously surpasses the scale of both Earth Space Colonies and Planetbase, two decent colony simulators in their own right. But Mars can’t hold a candle to Aven Prime which is presumably the next garden world in line to harbor humanity’s ceaseless efforts of expansion and discovery. The game I’m reviewing today is a stellar development debut from the aptly named Mothership Entertainment LLC and published by industry veterans, Team17 Digital Ltd.

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Story

Even if you may choose to play Aven Colony in its Sandbox Mode (featuring 10 large maps in the base game), I strongly recommend you start with the Tutorial missions and then focus on the Campaign Mode. The learning curve may not be very steep, yet you’ll need all the advice you can get since this title does a few things differently from the colony sims I played and reviewed in the past. For starters, it shifts the focus from a single colonist or just a handful of them, to building a sustainable colony capable of housing hundreds of newcomers in the span of just several Sols (in-game definition of a solar year on Aven Prime). The planet has been surveyed already, its resources, challenges and potential threats are known to Mission Control and the Colony Ship which shall coordinate your ground-based development and assist through trade and supply drops, as the situation shall demand it. By the way, as a player you step into the shoes of a former mayor of New York which has now accepted to serve as Governor during the initial colonization of Aven Prime.

It does have a similar name to Mass Effect’s Eden Prime, but fortunately you don’t have to worry about any Reapers now. I’d like to think that the name was picked since it sounds more closely to “Haven” and humanity apparently needs this after a devastating war which left Earth’s resources in a precarious balance in regards to its remaining population. Thus, Aven Colony is a fresh start in a strangely welcoming environment which features diversified biotopes with climates that range from temperate to arid, tundra and their subsequent extremes, deserts and permafrost. The wildlife is  unexpectedly benign, until you meet your first Sandworm (not quite as large as its Dune counterparts) and hovering Creeps (resembling Zerg Overlords) which can harm both your colony’s structural integrity and their inhabitants. Sadly, no “Space Marines” are offered as a permanent solution for Aven Prime’s hostile life forms. Since there are no tank-sized insects that might cause any real damage, we’re not close enough to Starship Troopers just yet.

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The Campaign mission structure is linear, with secondary objectives to remind you what new buildings and topics you should focus on next, while the main goal is usually the construction of a “Megastructure” from the building browser. There’s no surprise that the structure selection is encompassing all aspects that may lead to a comfortable colonial lifestyle, but as with any city builder, the construction efforts must be carefully managed, same as the resources which demand incremental improvements for the sake of constant colony growth. In other words, even if it’s the long road to success, expanding cautiously will minimize the risks of suffering any resource shortages or disgruntled citizens. The aforementioned Aven Sol is divided into just two seasons: Spring and Winter. Unless you build many greenhouses, Spring will be the only harvest season available for the farms your colony shall rely upon. Winter in Aven Prime can be quite unforgiving, forcing you to stockpile food reserves and also consider energy back-up solutions, since solar panels are 50% less efficient. I fondly remember a similar added challenge in the shifting seasons gameplay mechanic used by Banished. A bountiful spring will cancel out even the harshest winter. Play it safe, play it smart.

Graphics

A sight to behold, Aven Colony is skillfully powered by the Unreal Engine 4 in a manner that provides both stability and as many options that a screenshot enthusiast could ever hope for. First things first, the frame rate when running the game maxed out, depends on your resolution but I found a sweet spot around 2K which never dropped below 50 fps no matter how much I filled the maps with new structures. By contrast, 4K starts promising enough yet it quickly dips into 30 fps territory when you begin developing your colony. I stuck to 2560×1440 and never looked back. The control scheme offers plenty of room for customization, but I really wish there was an undo button which would spare players the trouble of restarting from an autosave point if they misplaced a building. At least you can plan your structure expansion while the gameplay is paused.

Zero crashes or glitches to report while the options to zoom, pan the camera to any angle, hide the HUD in its entirety and even Nvidia Ansel support (nice selection of filters to further customize the screenshots, if you’re using a more recent Nvidia GPU), prove that Mothership Entertainment really cares about players that like forging their own desktop backgrounds. For my review writing purposes, this serves as a secondary use since I rely on my own screenshots of the games I write about, before consolidating my opinion in their case. A recent update has added the Cinematic View (available once you’ve built the colonial VR Center) and Hovercar Chase Cam which is self-explanatory and a very cool method of admiring your carefully-planned colonies.

Audio

All sounds are well represented, whether we’re talking about voice acting (narrator/adviser banter) sound effects or a soundtrack suitable for our Sci-Fi setting and topics. The chit-chat between the Mission Control and the few advisers which think they can anticipate Aven Prime’s next surprise, is always a source of comic relief. And obviously, the Governor has to sort things out. That’s you, remember? Overall, the music could use a few more tracks but even as it stands now, I can hardly complain since the gameplay is demanding my full attention constantly. The voice acting is always the part that interests me more than the other sounds, since it literally speaks volumes in regards to production value and a dev team’s dedication to their projects.

Gameplay

Each mission starts with with pre-built modules that are meant to be a temporary base of operations for your future city planning. You can recycle all the structures that have been placed by the construction drones (Artificial Intelligence is portrayed as being “shackled” in Aven Prime, meaning that it’s aided and supervised by humans at all times) but curiously enough, you can’t manipulate any natural obstacles such as rock formations or sandworm nests. Perhaps some terraforming would help? Makes more sense to turn this fictional planet which is already featuring plenty of water & life forms into a more hospitable place for rapidly growing  colonies than altering the lifeless Red Planet (Mars).

Speaking of environments, Oxygen is not on Aven Prime’s “menu”, so your colonists rely on well-ventilated tunnels for travelling between buildings. At least until you built the proper hovercar infrastructure that befits a colony of this stature. Long-distance travel shall no longer be a commuter’s worst nightmare. Decontamination is also important since airborne viruses will spread like wild fire among the citizens that aren’t shielded from this deadly threat through efficient ventilation and adequate healthcare.

Politics are also simulated, through two inadequate choices. Either a dysfunctional democracy or a full-fledged dictatorship. Why? Well, even the original Tropico (among my first PC games) knew that you can’t simulate democracy through single-candidate elections. Even if they’re referred to as “referendums”. And why does this dangerous slope lead to dictatorship? It may not seem severe at first glance, but Aven Colony offers to its players quite a few policies which can restrict the colonists in several ways, from water and food rationing (desperate times require desperate measures) to immigration/emigration ban (“no one enters, no one leaves”, doesn’t really encourage freedom) and outright Martial Law. That’s the last step you can take, in controlling all aspects of your citizens’ lives. The colony’s not much of a safe haven now, is it?

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That doesn’t sound like fun for most parties involved other than the tyrant itself. By having these options however, you’re given the chance to properly role play exactly what kind of colonial governor you see fit, for either duty or pure malevolence. Of course there’s a Surveillance Mode through which you can zoom in even further and spy on your citizens from every single tunnel section. Make Big Brother proud!

Verdict

The city building subgenre of strategy has had its very own renaissance in recent years. True, historical backgrounds are no longer in the spotlight, but I’ll gladly take the Sci-Fi (relatively) peaceful exploration and colonial development over “pew-pew” and killing aliens/demons/you-name-it at every turn. There’s plenty of action to witness and manipulate within Aven Colony. You just have to think it through and be very patient. You must also be creative beyond “drawing” smiley faces from bullet holes on a wall. Save rush B for another time and colonize new worlds for a change! Aven Colony even has Cards and Achievements, but at this point, they’re just the cherry on top of a delicious cake that no strategy fans should miss out.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

 

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