[Disclosure: A review key was provided for the contents of this article]
When I previewed the PC version of Aven Colony at the end of June, I called out how simple and accessible the game is, and how it had clearly been designed to provide a rare and enjoyable console experience. I have now spent about a week playing the PS4 version, and I can confirm that this is a console-focused experience. However, if you’re a PC gamer looking for a slightly less demanding strategy game, and the extra-terrestrial setting appeals to you, then read on, because Aven Colony might still be worth a look.
I’ll begin with some simple comparisons between the PC and PS4 versions, which appear to be very similar to me. Graphically, neither version is exceptionally beautiful, but the game runs well on a PC at recommended specification, and it is no slouch on the PS4 Pro either. There’s no noticeable drop in framerate as you pan and zoom, despite the fact that cities can grow fairly sizeable. The user interface comprises of identical symbols and styling between the two versions, but the console version comes with several controller friendly improvements that make it much easier to play with a gamepad.
Having played several levels on both the PC and PS4 Pro back to back, I can also say that the gameplay experience is consistent across both. Take the first proper mission, Vanaar, for example. This mission tasks players with creating a functional colony that is capable of supporting an Earth History Museum. Alongside Stadiums, these structures are among the most expensive and power intensive structures in the game, so reaching the point where you can build one can take quite a bit of time. Whether you play on PC or console, the game treats you just the same, and you’ll need to develop many areas of colony before you can go for the end game.
This might seem quite jarring for some console gamers. The idea that two (very) brief tutorial levels is enough to throw players right into the deep end of a city building simulator is unusual, with most similar games that do make it to console providing considerable hand-holding. However, it’s not a bad thing in Aven Colony, because despite how brief they are, the tutorials will have told you everything that you really need to know, and it still holds back some of the nastier otherworldly surprises like spores and sandworms.
The overlay system really is great in Aven Colony. How often have you played a city building game and been told that people are starving or diseased or dying, but you couldn’t work out why? Here, as part of that super intuitive UI I mentioned, you get a range of overlay’s, each of which shows crime, air quality, employment and so on. If you see an area highlighted in red, you can go and work out why.
And you will. You will see red areas. Why? Because basically, if you didn’t, then you wouldn’t be doing anything in Aven Colony. This is a game where slow and steady expansion is relatively safe, and in some ways, I might even call it relaxing – especially in the Sandbox mode with some of the environmental settings turned down low. In the proper campaign however, you’ll almost never have the chance to sit back and relax, because the guys who made Aven Colony have identified that they need to keep the player occupied.
One mission (still early in the game) basically says “sorry, but we crash landed. You can’t grow anything here, so you’ll need to scavenge drop pods and trade with orbiting ships.” “Great. Thanks.” You’ll say to yourself with a sigh; but actually, you will be thankful, because what makes Aven Colony fun and challenging is exactly that kind of thing. You’re on an alien planet. You’re responsible for fifty or sixty souls. They are going to die (or at least have a bad time breathing slightly unpleasant air) if you don’t make this into a functioning colony. So you’ll dig your tunnels towards the first supply drop, you’ll build your habitat structures outwards towards the only fertile land, and you’ll setup that Trade Hub and make the best of it.
Getting back to the point I started a long time ago, in a paragraph far, far away, the overlay system is often the only way to determine if you’ve expanded too far, too fast. Using these overlays and balancing the need to expand with the limit of your infrastructure really is the crux of the gameplay in Aven Colony, and the kind of challenges I’ve highlighted here are just a tiny sample of what the game has to offer. This kind of forced excitement feels fairly natural and it makes the game fun, but it can’t mask the biggest problem with Aven Colony…
The issue is that whilst I think Aven Colony is fun on both PC and console, it does reveal basically its entire box of tricks very early on. In the first proper mission, you are aiming to create one of the two mega-structures in the game. If you can do that, you can do anything. You will have seen almost everything. From there, the simple systems and relatively flat resource gathering and improvement systems begin to show their limitations, and the fact that direct management of the colony, its buildings and occupants is so limited doesn’t help.
To summarise then, Aven Colony is an attractive, thematic city builder in space, that works well as either a limited but relaxing sandbox, or when played as a series of hard-nosed objectives. The longer I spent indecisively floating between either of these ways of playing, the more bored I got. I had to drive myself to push forwards in line with a given objective, rather than playing as I usually would by battening down the hatches and dealing with progression later. On the plus side, this does give players options about how to play, and all of the mechanical things I haven’t mentioned here (But did in my preview) are still very solid, making this a very safe investment for city building fans. In all honesty, unless you hate the idea of building your own offworld colony, then you should: