STAFF REVIEW of Mars Horizon (Xbox One)

Monday, January 11, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Mars Horizon Box art While there’s a slew of management and space sim games on PC, there’s not nearly as many for console players. Some games like Kerbal Space Program did eventually make its way to console, but it was a poor console port at launch, didn’t run well and was very unintuitive with its controller use. So, when a decent space management sim makes its way to console, I’m excited to check it out, as was the case with the recent Mars Horizon.

While the screenshots may make it look simplistic, there’s a somewhat deep management game underneath that has you leading a space program in the hopes to not only take man beyond Earth’s orbit, but eventually a Mars landing as your ultimate goal. To give some legitimacy to their game, developers Auroch Digital actually teamed up with the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring some authenticity to their simulation game. While it is a short experience overall, it took me by surprise with its addictive gameplay once you start to get the hang of all of its mechanics.

While there’s not really a campaign in the traditional sense, you’ll begin with a few tutorials but then be left on your own to figure out how you want to manage your space agency in a race to reach Mars on a manned mission against other nations. While you have your ultimate goal, you begin further in the past, so you’ll need to make smaller steps at first, like launching a satellite into orbit, reaching and landing on the moon, and eventually further and more distant planets.

You begin with a modest budget, but your budget comes under review each year, resulting in a larger payroll the more progress you make. Every new mission and mechanic is slowly introduced, giving you new things to learn little by little until you start to get the hang of it. You’ll only be able to afford and send one mission into space at a time, though eventually you’ll be handling a half dozen simultaneously with some well thought out planning.

You’ll be sending small unmanned rockets into orbit at first, and it will be a long road until you’re sending astronauts to the moon and beyond, but every action you take will determine your success or failure. Do you take some shortcuts to try and be the first to land on the moon, or delay a launch because of poor weather? It may seem quite basic at first, but it becomes much more robust and involved once you start to reach the final era of missions.

You begin by making your space agency, choosing from one of five different agencies, and while each has their own bases, rockets and traits, they all essentially play the same for the most part. You’ll create a base, design rockets and manage nearly every aspect of your space agency as you make every decision to further your journey to Mars. You’re going to need to make many strategic decisions, such as which astronauts to hire, which rocket components to use and when to plan every launch. Every choice will matter, and even if you make all the ‘right’ decisions and precautions, there’s always a random chance that a critical failure can occur, setting you back crew, time and money.

How you decide to pursue the space race is completely up to you, such as focusing on researching spaceship parts, improving your base or what missions you can partake, but in essence you’re going to have to work on all facets to be successful. You’ll also need to handle the diplomacy aspect of your relationships with each of the other agencies and press as well, though you’ll eventually be able to do cooperative joint missions if your relationship reaches a certain friendliness. That being said, the lack of a multiplayer mode was disappointing as I would have really enjoyed to ‘race’ against a friend to see who could reach certain space milestones first.

You’ll begin with just missions for Earth, eventually opening up the Moon and other planets. Each planet is basically a hub for missions, some campaign based and other ‘extra’ missions that will give you bonus rewards when successful that will help with your bank roll, experience and even perks for your rockets. Each mission has different lengths, distances and how long it will take to complete, so when you start to have multiple missions happening simultaneously, you’ll need to balance many things at once. Even though missions occur turn-based, month by month, you’ll still need to keep an eye on many facets at once to plan accordingly. Thankfully you’re able to make time move forward a month at a time at any point, or directly to the completion of your next mission or event.

There’s research trees that doesn’t cost anything to start enabling, but each one takes a certain amount of time to complete. There are three trees: Missions, Buildings and Vehicles. Missions are how you’ll eventually ‘unlock’ planets’ missions to orbit and other special missions once you’ve done enough research.

Sometimes though to actually go on that mission you’re going to need certain buildings on your base, which is where the second tree comes into play. The Buildings research is where you’ll unlock larger launch pads and other bonuses. You only have a certain amount of grid space to place all your buildings though, and you’ll also want to layout your base with strategy though, as certain buildings will get bonuses for being attached to other specific structures.

All of this costs money though, which you’ll earn from completing missions. Certain missions will require specific payloads or rockets, which also cost money, so there’s a balancing game you constantly need to play until funds start to roll in. With no real cost to research things aside from time, you’ll eventually unlock everything with enough time and patience.

With each mission you’ll have a specific payload that’s going to be sent into space, and to do so you’ll need to make sure you build a proper rocket that can not only hold the weight of your payload and reach its destination, but that you can also afford it. You’ll actually get to design your own rockets, with better and larger components costing more money and taking longer to build. You’ll eventually find pairings that work well for most missions and you’ll want to constantly use, as those parts will level up and become better in time once they reach the maximum level of five.

There’s a lot more that goes into launching a rocket into space though aside from the hardware itself. You’ll also need to consider many other facets, like launch reliability, weather and more. Once your payload and rocket has been built over the course of a few months you’ll then choose a crew, if any, the strategy you want to take like bonus reliability or extra currency, then you'll choose a launch date. This will open a calendar, showing ideal and not so ideal launch dates. Again, you’re in a space race, so do you delay a launch by a month or two for better weather, or risk possibly having a disastrous launch?

Once you’ve researched the whole components tree, you’ll have plenty of different rocket parts to choose from, some historical as well. In the beginning you won’t have many money issues, but eventually the costs for everything will start to skyrocket, so you’ll need to be pickier in what components and missions you choose. Eventually money and other resources won’t become an issue, but it takes quite some time to get to that point.

Visually, Mars Horizon is simple and clean, and given that it’s mainly a management game it’s very menu based, so there’s usually not a lot to look at. That being said, the UI is designed very well as it is simplistic and has been console-fied. You’re generally always only one button away from doing what you want to do, so a lot of work has gone into making it very accessible and easy use with a controller, which I appreciate. Even though there’s a slew of menus you’re constantly going through, it’s quick and simple to navigate. As for the audio, there’s some background ambient music that plays, but there’s absolutely nothing memorable otherwise. The countdown for launch and the rockets blasting off is fun to watch and listen to for the first few times, but eventually you’ll skip these scenes after a repeated launches into space.

With multiple factions and difficulties, there’s technically some reason(s) to play through the campaign again once completed, especially if you missed any achievements the first time around, but honestly, there’s so little replay value as there’s simply not enough variation with the different factions. So, once you’re done with the campaign, there’s really not much reason to start it all over again unless you want to challenge yourself on a harder or custom difficulty.

I honestly was expecting to be quite bored with a management game that is quite menu heavy; however, once I started getting the hang of how to prioritize my research and start to make enough cash, I became hooked at trying to win the space race to Mars and furthering my reach into our solar system. It might not have much replayability, but Mars Horizon might just be something that you'll be positively surprised with if you give it a chance.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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