Aven Colony (Xbox One Review)
For the longest time, city builders have been dominated by Sim City. Everything else was a cheap imitation, or added something of a little twist to the whole deal. These days, however, we have loads of different options: be a dictator in Tropico, deal with micro-managing, weather and other tiny minute details in Cities: Skylines, or even delve into the latest Sim City and its updates to its formula. It’s evolved into a great little genre if you like managing people, roads, and other important things.
In comes Aven Colony: a city builder that tasks you with setting up colonies on Aven Prime, a planet that is not Earth. Its premise isn’t entirely unique (Planetbase on Steam comes to mind) but it does have some interesting little mechanics, and seems to take the basis of a game like Cities and adapt it for its own purposes.
First off, as opposed to most city builders, you don’t need to worry about roads and traffic. Instead, because the planet you’re colonising has an atmosphere that is carbon dioxide based, all of your buildings are hermetically sealed. This means that your workers and colonists travel around via tunnels, so the only thing you have to manage here would be air flow and commute distance. This immediately means that it’s never at the front of your mind, so you’re not always thinking about road layouts and the best ways to make sure traffic doesn’t get congested. It’s a relief, to say the least, though there are many other things to worry about.
The game works on a day/night cycle that is actually more like a yearly cycle with two seasons. At the end of the ‘day’ it’ll get dark, the ground will freeze over and lightning strikes can happen around your colony. This winter affects power and food production, and can mean your colony struggles if you don’t prepare correctly. This adds a great little variation on how most of these builder games work, as you’re not only worrying about cash flow and your colonies happiness. You’re literally trying to help them survive, even down to creating your own food, or trading with the colony ship, which makes this game feel different and more complex.
Power, for one thing, isn’t as simple as plopping down power plants, solar panels and so on.. There are a few different ways to produce power, and all come with benefits and drawbacks. Wind turbines, for example, are cheap and can run during winter, but they don’t produce much power. Solar panels produce more power, can be upgraded through to Tier 3, but don’t produce any power during winter. Geothermal power plants however, can work just fine during winter, but are limited to being placed on specific points on the map. They also have a habit of making the air quality go down, so there’s a big problem if you forget your air filters. The last power plant requires a specific resources, but produces a lot of power.
When trying to feed your colonists, you have a couple of different options, with farms and greenhouses able to grow food on fertile ground around your colony. There are some instances, however, that mean there isn’t much (or any) fertile ground around, which requires you to start trading to get food for other resources that can be mined in the game. Some of these trades can be very beneficial, especially if you stock up on certain resources and need to clear some storage space. This becomes a bit of a priority priority in terms of what you need to manage, as you won’t be able to create more buildings if you can’t fit any of the building resource, called nanites, into your storage facilities.
The missions within the game also give you multiple different objectives to help guide you through, rewarding you periodically with what you need for your colony to keep going, whether it be food, nanites or anything else that could be useful down the line. It’s actually refreshing to have short and long term goals to follow, as sometimes city builders in particular can feel a bit aimless and easy to get lost in what to do next. This guidance certainly helps with that.
Of course, with all this going on, similar issues will crop up if you’re familiar with the genre. While traffic and the like aren’t problems that will continually arise, keeping your colonists happy will. Whether it’s keeping the air quality up, ensuring there’s enough entertainment for everything, keeping unemployment down, dealing with plague spores and other alien threats; there’s plenty to keep on top of and tweak until you get it right. It’s not an easy laid back ride, and as the missions progress and introduce you to new concepts, old and new problems can arise meaning your attention has to be divided equally between as much of the colony as possible.
It does a lot of these things well, however it can be a bit of a chore to navigate the user interface on console. Playing on Xbox One does work well enough, but the UI design can be a bit finicky to navigate, even after sinking many hours into the game. It can also be a tad slow to respond, especially when dealing with the large number of notifications you can get when you have multiple buildings operating at once. Sorting through overlays so you can view the status of different areas of your colony can also be a bit unsatisfying, as you have to go in and out of the menu to change them or switch them off. You’ll need to do to fix some of the problems you can see with these overlays on, as it makes the buildings transparent to the point where it’s difficult to tell what building is where.
Unfortunately, the UI isn’t the only problem. When your colony starts to grow past 500 citizens, the game’s frame rate will start to chug, and can slow down to the point where it’s almost impossible to play. As this can happen while working on a specific objective for a long time, it can completely ruin a save, meaning you have to power through the slow and unresponsiveness that comes with the extremely low frame rate, or start over from an old save, or from scratch.
Technical issues aside, the game still draws you in for more. With little conversations between characters on missions propelling an intriguing little story forward, there’s a lot of potential here. It’s an engaging and satisfying experience, and gives you a different experience from the Sim Cities of old. If you like to manage things in games, it’s probably worth looking into. Just remember that people don’t like to commute, and they’ll always find something to complain about. It wouldn’t be a city builder otherwise.
Editor’s Note: We are fortunate enough to have Chris Peebles, formerly of XBLG, contribute this piece to the site. You can find his works on sites like RealmOfGaming or find him on twitter @Sitoxity. You can even watch him play an eclectic mix of games on his YouTube Channel.