As I started mission 5, and the same cavalcade of missions barraged me, I groaned audibly. “Build a lightning tower!”, “Build a geothermal generator!”, “Build a nanite processor!”. For the fifth consecutive mission, I was plugging through the same monotonous tasks. Aven Colony is less like Cities: Skylines, and more Tropico in space.
When I first booted up the game, I was imaging a city builder on an alien world. I had had no exposure to the game aside from a tweet from PlayStation stating the game’s release in July, so I was going in blind. For the duration of the first campaign mission, I was in No Man’s Sky mode – enjoying every moment, but with a nasty surprise looming behind me.
Aven Colony is visually stunning in a variety of ways – the backdrops provide glorious xeno vistas, and the buildings look gorgeously sci-fi. The plants and animals on the planet contribute to what feels like a real, living atmosphere that you’re part of.
Duly, for Mission 1, it feels like there’s going to be a great depth of features. You’re introduced to the immigration centre, allowing new colonists to come and go. There’s a trade depot, allowing you to send what you produce in the colony offworld in exchange for items you cannot produce like entertainment robots. Another interesting aspect are the roads – these are sealed tunnels that connect your colony, and you can watch your colonists traverse these paths. Rather than cars or trucks, you watch your own citizens drift along the passages. You can find out their names, where they live, and what they do. Learning how to connect the buildings to the tunnels, and using construction drone hubs to expand the building reach of your settlement is fascinating. It all belies the fact that there’s very little depth here – the No Man’s Sky effect as I previously mentioned.
Once you’ve learned these basic mechanics, that’s essentially it for the rest of the campaign. What you learn in mission one is carried over until the concluding ninth mission. If you were expecting a Cities: Skylines experience, peg back those expectations now. If you were expecting Tropico and enjoy that style, you may very well enjoy this. There is no traffic management, no production lines, no zoning policies, no public transport, no emergency services (save for police), no graveyards, no garbage issues. There’s very little to manage here aside from food, water, housing, electricity, and the game’s currency – nanites.
Buildings can be upgraded one or two tiers using nanites. Farms can be upgraded to produce more food, and nanite factories may be upgraded to produce more of the currency itself. There are very basic production chains. For example, you mine iron then that’s sent to produce nanites. This works without any sort of player interaction as the iron is mined then arrives immediately at the nanite factory. It doesn’t congest the tunnels for example, forcing the player to design intelligent and efficient pathing. It just magically appears at the destination.
This is the game’s key downfall: there’s just no complexity to grasp. In Prison Architect, another building-management title, every time I got to the midpoint of a prison, I would see my mistakes staring me in the face. I would note those failings and know not to make them again when I started my next game. In Aven Colony, I never had that feeling of learning from a mistake.
Sometimes my food production would be low, so I knew I had to build more farms. Sometimes my water was low, so I knew I had to build some more pumps. These were simple problems with even more simple solutions. I wanted to make mistakes here, and wanted the game to punish my errors. Oddly, one mission, at a colony site rich for farming food and plants but lacking mineral resources, I was playing on mental autopilot. I was smashing through every mission that popped up, paying little attention to any of the counters. It was then that warnings started flashing red informing me that the food had ran out, and my citizens were protesting. Oddly, it was summer – a prime farm season, and their protesting was blocking the farms from working. The colony had enough farms to feed everyone so if they had got back to work, things would have been fine. Yet, the mission spiralled out of control because of the protests. There is an edict to impose martial law on your colonists, but what sort of leader would do that?
There is a touch of depth to be found at the research centres and mills. Certain inedible alien plants can be grown, and these can be combined to create foods or other products. There are entertainment buildings that can be built, but these have very little impact other than moving some happiness sliders for your colonists. The similarities to Tropico are many. When you build something that people can work or inhabit, you can see their portraits.
You must build housing units rather than zoning residential areas for example. You can issue edicts like Tropico, including the aforementioned martial law. There are elections every few years, that you must survive. The basic trading network is similar, being able to produce something and send it to the colony ship, akin to trading with the Soviet Union or the USA.
There are some basic threats that must be dealt with in Aven Colony that force you to at least pay attention to what you’re doing. Slow moving aliens will move into your colony, infecting some of your buildings. Sometimes geothermal vents will leak, spreading toxic gas into your colony. Occasionally, there will be ice showers. Again, this highlights how simplistic the game is. There are aliens invading your colony? Build the ‘Scrubber Drone Hub’ and the game will take care of the problem automatically. Toxic gas emerging? Build an air filter. The hail stones break some of your buildings? Hit the repair button. I wish these problems had required me to problem solve rather than just build an easy fix to the issue.
The most common complaint I’ve received from colonist drones was how far they had to commute from their home to their work. The most easy fix is to build a new housing unit closer to their job, but it’s extremely inefficient. Building entire housing structures in fairly remote areas of the colony seems like a waste of resources. Most of the colony tends to be clumped together, but there are some mines and farms that stretch extremely far from the main hub. Surely some form of colony monorail would be an easier solution to long distance travel. Having different forms of transportation would have ensure that the player had to think ahead, planning efficient routes through the colony.
Some missions are also strangely off tempo. In mission one, there is a discussion about a staff member who ventured out to photograph the vegetation on the new planet. In a cliche twist, he ‘tweets’ a picture of his butt to the whole colony rather than send images of his finds. This all happens out of nowhere and seems so out of place – there was no humour leading up to this point whatsoever. In a later snow mission, the focus is on mining resources as there’s very few places to grow food. In order to complete the mission, you have to build a stadium. A stadium? In the frozen tundra? It seems so sloppily tacked on that it’s insulting. Why not have the completion goal be having ten mines working simultaneously? It fits with the theme of the mission, instead of being a random objective.
Although this sounds like an extremely negative review, Aven Colony isn’t a bad game; it’s just a simple game. It looks good, and it’s easy to pick up and play. The lack of depth really hurts though, and there’s very little reason to go back and play again. I think there’s a fairly solid foundation here – the core mechanics all work okay. What it desperately needs is some depth which could be added with DLC in the future.
- Very pretty
- Extremely easy to pick up and play
- Nice building snapping mechanics
- No complexity
- Repetitive and boring mission structure.
- No transportation options at all
Wrap up: Aven Colony is a distinctly average game. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. It is the true image of mediocrity. If the developers add some DLC that improves the complexity, it may well develop into a solid city building game.