Review: Project AURA

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Review copy provided by developer

“Great idea, poor execution” is the death of an absurd amount of games. Honestly you’ll probably get a longer list of games that didn’t live up to their potential than games that did. I don’t think the execution of Project AURA’s concept kills it, in fact I’ve found myself thinking about how to optimize my industries and build my political connections whenever I’m not playing it now. But it holds it back powerfully, in ways that will ensure that not everyone who would appreciate Project AURA actually will. If you’re ready to study (as in literally study org charts and nutritional guides) and puzzle out unexplained systems, you’ll find an intensely gratifying sim to sink time into.

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Guess what, the world ended again! It was global warming this time, but a few vaults of freeze-dried humans packed themselves away through the apocalypse. Their only hope of survival is a new kind of planned colony, an oceanic platform devoted to renewable energy and recyclable resources, all under an energy dome protecting the populace from cataclysmic rains. You’re the administrator of this bold new endevor, and it’s up to you to plan industries, develop new technologies, and negotiate with the remaining megacorps for the resources needed to make your experiment a success.

I was drawn to Project AURA by way of Anno 2070 and my deep, abiding love of providing tea and rice cakes to future hippies in their plastic cities. And while this is a city builder after a fashion, the true emphasis is on meticulously organizing a functioning colony. Your defrosted citizens are yours to assign to specific jobs, feed specific diets, and entertain through mandated recreation activities. The production chains for the resources you need for your colony are more involved than any I’ve ever seen in a game, and revolve around extremely low-level materials like plastic compounds and metal shavings. And instead of just building workplaces and queueing up goods, you’re going to be spending a silly amount of time staring at org charts.

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I’m not kidding, and to illustrate I’ll walk you through the process of producing alpha polymers, the game’s most basic building material. Most resources in the game are made from garbage salvaged from the ocean, so you’ll need to build an alpha hangar and buy an alpha aircraft off the global market for it. Then you’ll need to staff it with a director and a pilot, two of twelve available colonist classes. Finally you need the alpha salvage mission, which is generated from a purple blueprint created at your tech labs. All of these elements, the hangar, the ship, the colonists, and the mission need to be arranged on the hangar org chart by connecting their task nodes, and then you set the specific operation and duration from the mission. That gets you plastic garbage which then has to be recycled at a recycling plant with its own director, recyclers, and mission created from a green blueprint. This turns plastic garbage into plastic conglomerate, which is sent to the plastics factory to be sorted into alpha, beta, and gamma conglomerates, the alpha conglomerated ground into alpha plastic flakes, and the flakes melted into alpha polymers. That’s three sets of blueprints and colonists just at one facility.

Every resource in the game goes through a process like this, and only gets more complicated when you start assembling ships and advanced buildings from second tier materials. It’s not just plastics either, as you’ll need wires, circuitry, memory cards, metal ingots, fertilizer, salt, seeds, fruits, and much, much more to operate your colony. It takes three stages of refinement to produce edible seaweed, the most basic foodstuff for your colonists! Early on you’ll be operating out of just one recycling plant or hangar too, so you’ll constantly be in your org charts, swapping missions from organics extraction to metals, plastic recycling to organics, E-waste disassembly to control panel manufacture, and so on. And this doesn’t even touch on the lab processes for unlocking research and making basic blueprints for missions.

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The thing is, this process is only really complicated while you’re learning to do it. There’s a decent set of tutorials that teach you basic concepts and a short campaign that puts it all together, but you’re still going to be reaching for how to build your own drones and unlock corp buildings and create advanced materials. Once you’ve got it, it’s not hard to set up the production chains and watch everything hum along, churning out polymers and batteries. It’s the getting it that’s hard, and with a game this complicated it’s even harder to work out on your own. Hours into the game I was still struggling with producing building materials, enough so that I missed the deadline on an important month-long mission. And once you master one concept, five more are lined up waiting for your attention. Currently I still have no idea how to get my power grid stable for the colony, as there are no obvious power buildings or upgrades available.

Put simply, Project AURA is too complicated in ways that have no discernable benefit. Why are there org charts? Why do you have to develop blueprints just for buildings to perform basic tasks? Why can’t you assign roles from a master task menu instead of opening two dozen individual org charts? Why do you need money as a limiting factor on new recruits? Why do you have to salvage AND recycle AND sort AND grind AND melt plastics to use? These elements don’t provide many if any interesting strategic options, and instead throw up barriers to understanding and appreciating the game. It’s not even abstracting things in realistic terms, which makes it harder to understand why you have to use nebulous innovation points to produce a green document, which gets programmed with a memory unit into a green blueprint, which gets magically turned into the process for recycling poop from your residences.

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With all that being said, I like Project AURA. I might even love it, once I fully understand the power grid and corporate diplomacy and research trees and half-dozen other systems that confuse the hell out of me. But there are obvious problems with the design, some which would be as easy to fix as adding more tutorial missions or cutting out a few interim steps. The problems run deeper than that, though, but they are still surmountable by dedicated, invested players. I know there are folks out there who yearn to assemble complex, efficient machines and that’s essentially what your colony calls for, with incredible room for optimization and even some for strategizing. I wish I could give this one a full-throated recommendation but for now it’s a qualified one, aimed solely at those with the patience for spreadsheets and the will to decipher complex tangles of systems.

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