by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
A popular theme
I am from a time when it was nearly impossible to have a serious conversation about space colonization with a grown-up. People would laugh it away as frivolous, impossible or unnecessary. Today men with brains as interesting and formidable as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are saying that the only hope for mankind is to get off this planet and no one is laughing. Whether driven by that scary, all too possible scenario of an uninhabitable Earth or the lure of exploring the unknown, taking mankind into space has become a very popular theme for games.
Aven Colony jumps onto that bandwagon in the form of a colony management sim slash city builder in space. It has all the bells and whistles you would expect from a city builder on planet Earth but it spoons in generous helpings of futuristic space sauce. It’s a solid idea for an ultimately solid game. Unfortunately solid isn’t always all that much fun.
It comes easily
It took me a while to put my finger on why it wasn’t. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Aven Colony - from a technical perspective everything functions really well and building a colony is a very smooth experience. As with any city builder, you provide food and housing and continuity first before worrying about less urgent things like security, research and happiness. Being on an alien planet does add a few more steps in between. You will need fresh air and a constant stream of energy to keep the intakes and filters going for one thing. Then there are drone scrubbers that deal with infestations and processors that turn iron and kelko sludge into the game’s only building material, nanites.
Plopping all of these onto the planet’s surface really is a smooth experience - too smooth. A steady supply of nanites is easily set up, food comes too easily, happiness comes too easily, everything comes too easily really. It’s almost as if the game was designed to be a free-for-all sandbox more than a challenging game. The alien flora - and some of its fauna - will occasionally throw something your way that the game calls “crisis” when you are setting up a new map, but even in the highest difficulty setting I never experienced anything that I would remotely call a crisis. I’ll give an example. Exploding geothermal vents send streams of toxic clouds in the direction of your colony at regular intervals. It took me all of about 30 minutes to decide I would ditch the intake fans that allow these clouds to enter my settlement in favor of air filters that are impervious. The trade off? An extra worker, an investment of a few more nanites and double the power. Electricity is cheap, nanites are almost free, and workers are easy to come by. None of it costs a dime to maintain once it has been installed. Crisis avoided, permanently. Along that same vain, I avoided farms that stop producing food during the winter, water pumps that required a fresh source of water and I doubled up every solar panel so that my colony would not be without power when the cold season starts.
Everything that you produce is thrown onto one big heap and you’ll rarely notice the existence of individual foods or materials. Colonists will keep coming as long as you feed them something, anything really. Vaccines only need water, but you don’t need them. There are drugs that enhance output or promote happiness but you don’t need them. There are more than a dozen food types but providing half of that is more than enough. Trade can bring in some of the goods that you cannot produce yourself but... you don’t need them.
Research is the same smooth experience - once the research center is built, all you need to do is select which items you want to research. There are no prerequisites, you don’t need any resources, it just goes. Select all of the research options in one go and the center will plug away at it requiring no further intervention from the player. Even the potentially great fun Expedition element is too easy. Once you’ve built the expedition center you open a map of the planet and send an exploration vessel to explore and investigate. This could have been where Aven Colony set itself apart but it’s little more than selecting a point of interest - multiple if you feel like it - and letting the vessel do its thing. Your only interaction after that is reading the lacklustre text notifications that summarize the materials you got, the people you rescued or the rover you repaired.
And it’s not just the gameplay that is a bit listless, the visuals are equally unexciting. The buildings are all greys and browns with the occasional blue or purple thrown in for good measure. With grey being the predominant colour everything in your colony looks very samey unless you zoom in. Zoomed in there is actually a fair bit of detail but nobody manages a colony zoomed in. Different biomes offer a bit of visual variation but unfortunately the developers did not capitalize on these to offer variation in dangers or even weather. Solar panels have the same yield in the desert as they do in the jungle, all planets throw creep and plague spores at you and winter is as long on the icy map Azara as it is on the desert map Sandy Gulch.
A good city builder provides a constant balancing act between keeping your people fed, happy and healthy. That should be doubly so for a city builder set on an alien planet with countless unknown dangers lurking in every corner. Aven Colony does little to deliver the struggle of a space colony, or any colony really, and that is a missed opportunity if I ever saw one. Even if you’re not looking for that experience, there is little to recommend it as a regular city builder - it’s just too easy.
Fails to capitalize on what makes space colonization interesting.