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Atomic Society - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Novel niche for a city-builder
  • Scavenging with town leader is something to do while not building things
  • Rebuilding society after an apocalypse leads to interesting moral quandaries
  • Re-purposing old structures

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Micro-managing town leader
  • No mini-map or hotkeys to jump to specific locations
  • Population is inefficient at managing their needs
  • Ridiculously short range of resource-collectors
  • Wild swings in population
  • No transport infrastructure
  • No wildlife
  • Can't leverage existing groundwater
  • Maps feel dead and stale
  • Generally lacks content

Overall Impression : D-
Boring, miserable busy-work

Atomic Society - cover

Developer:
Far Road Games

Platforms:
PC (via Steam)

MSRP: $15 USD

Original release date:
9 August 2021

Genre:
post-apocalyptic city-builder

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
12 hours

ESRB Rating: N/A
MegaBearsFan Parental Rating: mature children because of:
references to sex, cannibalism, and other violence

Official site:
www.farroadgames.com/

After going back and revisiting Cities Skylines for its Airports expansion and being thoroughly underwhelmed, I decided to did into my Steam backlog for some other lightweight city-builders. Far Road Games' Atomic Society had just left early access in August of 2021, so I went ahead and downloaded it to give it a try. And I was underwhelmed again.

Atomic Society just doesn't have enough content to keep me playing for very long, and the content that it does have is not nearly as engaging as I would like for it to be. It is a town-builder with a post-apocalyptic theme that seems to be heavily inspired by Fallout (possibly by Fallout 4's settlement customization mechanics). In fact, despite being a town-builder, Atomic Society requires the player to create an avatar character whose backstory is that they had emerged from a fallout shelter and is attempting to lead a band of wasteland survivors to a new home. So yeah, it's basically what you get if you imagined Fallout 4's settlement management in the form of a top-down city-builder instead of a first-person shooter. Sounds good on paper, but Atomic Society is far from the best possible take on the subject matter.

Imagine the settlement-building of Fallout 4 ... but without any of the personality.

Wandering alone

New buildings are few and far between. Because this is a post-apocalyptic game with very scarce resources and population, the total number of structures that need to be built is relatively small (though multiple copies of many basic buildings are required, and I'll be talking about that soon). As such, most of the actual game consists of micro-managing the Town Leader. This Town Leader is usually the one who has to build new structures by hand, and who has to go in and salvage materials from ruined structures and vehicles.

In fact, micro-managing this one character is so critical to keeping your town running, that the SPACEBAR (of all buttons!) is assigned the sole function of automatically selecting and centering the camera on the Town Leader. Usually, I would expect the spacebar in a town-building game to do things like pause or unpause the simulation, or to bring up the build menu or some other important management menu. Nope. In Atomic Society, the most important button on the keyboard is for selecting the Town Leader.

The Town Leader will be doing most of the scavenging, building, and repairing.

Micro-managing the Leader wouldn't be so annoying and tedious if the U.X. for managing him were a bit better. For instance, it would be nice to have a widget in the corner of the screen somewhere that shows what the Town Leader is doing at all times, and a small overview of his current inventory. There's not even a mini-map or hotkeys to quickly navigate to important locations on the map. It would also be really nice if the player could queue up actions for the Leader. Without being able to put multiple actions in a queue, I am stuck having to pause the game every few minutes to check on what he is doing and manually assign him to his next task. I'm constantly stopping the game to tell him to run to a salvage site, then back to a stockpile to drop off the materials, then out to build some building, then somewhere else to repair some building before it collapses, then back out to another salvage site.

All this babysitting gets very tedious, very quickly. Worse yet, when it does come time to actually build things, the need to manage the Town Leader can often get in the way and disrupt the flow of settlement-planning.

It doesn't help that path-finding is completely broken. I'll tell him to go to a ruin site or to deposit his inventory in the nearest storehouse, and he'll circumnavigate the entire map to get there instead of taking a direct route. Or he'll pass by right by a storehouse to get to a different one further away. And if I want him to go to a specific nearby storehouse that he refuses to path to on his own, the only alternative for me is to take manual control and walk him across the map myself using the W,A,S,D keys. It's just miserable.

Wasteland surrender

You'd think that a population of hardy apocalypse survivors would be diligent workers. Well, in Atomic Society, you would be wrong.

Part of the reason why micro-managing the Town Leader is so crucial is that the population moves painfully slowly and is, thus, horribly inefficient at handling the town's basic needs. Things fall apart quickly, and life spans are ridiculously short, and the time that it takes for a citizen to gingerly walk part-way across the map is often long enough for their tasks to catastrophically fail.

Having a single Scavenger Hut within range of multiple ruins and trees is exceedingly rare.

The short range of service buildings, and the slow speed of residents forces the player to build a crazy amount of certain key infrastructure. Scavenger Huts have an especially frustratingly small radius of effect. It's rarely more than big enough to encompass a single ruin and maybe a couple of trees. Scavengers can travel further to scavenge ruins, but their slow walking speed makes this incredibly impractical. This leads me to feel like I need to build new Scavenger Huts near almost every ruin in order to keep the supply of salvage coming in an even remotely regular fashion. But even with multiple Scavenger Huts, I'll still need to supplement the materials supply by manually sending my Town Leader out to more distant sites to scavenge.

Each of those Scavenger Huts will also likely need to have its own whole satellite town built around it, since it's impractical to expect citizens to walk from the main settlement to the Scavenger's Hut to work, and I can't build roads, bridges, tunnels, or even vehicles to help speed up movement across the map. And even if I do build a well, canteen, first aid tent, latrine, and shack, the citizens will still often decide to walk across the map to get those services from other locations, which takes them away from doing their damn jobs for extended periods of time. And that's if they haven't died of thirst or hunger or illness on the way.

This entire settlement is collapsing, despite being covered by a fully-staffed Repair Shack.

Seriously, a town of a couple hundred people should not need so many public toilets! In fact, as soon as the game begins, and I build a latrine as one of the first buildings in the new settlement, the game starts bugging me about how there's only enough toilets to service 50-something percent of the population, and people immediately start getting sick and dying from poor sanitation. Like, they survived in a barren wasteland for Far-Road-Games-knows how long, presumably pissing and shitting in irradiated bushes and streams, but we're to expect that they all start dying now because they have to share a toilet?

Similarly, I never seem to have enough Crematoriums. And there's no option to build a cemetery to simply bury the dead -- I guess because they're afraid people will come back as zombies? I'm constantly having issues with dead bodies spreading plague because the handful of undertakers are obnoxiously slow about actually picking up the corpses.

And I was never able to figure out how much food and water-producing buildings I needed in order to fill my town's needs. The entire play time with the game, I was constantly being nagged about how there isn't enough water, and that I needed to build more water buildings or canteens. Except I couldn't build any more because I didn't have enough population to work them. Which is kind of a silly concept to begin with. Why do wells and dew-collectors need multiple workers? What do these workers do? As far as I can tell, the people in this game need more food and water than is possible to produce, and also still be able to work any other buildings.

Multiple latrines are required to service
the starting population.

With no way to view the paths that people take to get water, food, sleep, or other necessities, it's also impossible to optimize the placement and availability of service buildings such that people don't have to walk large distances to get to one.

Maybe this wouldn't be a problem if people didn't seem to have such short lifespans. I haven't actually tracked a single individual in the game to find out how long they live, but I swear these people must only live for a year or 2. I'm also constantly being nagged about how I don't have enough elderly care for all the old people. The combination of rapid aging and frequent plague outbreaks leads to constant wild swings in population. My town will go from 200 population back down to 120, then back up to almost 200 in a matter of a few in-game months, and I can never really figure out why.

Keeping up with the resource demands of all these redundant buildings can get difficult if the player isn't constantly, proactively sending the Town Leader out to scavenge for materials. The single Leader character salvages more materials in a shorter period of time than a fully-staffed Scavenger's Hut, in yet another flagrant example of the horribly inefficient population. And because the Town Leader is the only character in the game who can sprint, he usually ends up single-handedly building most new structures because the Leader can finish construction long before the NPC engineers and builders have even arrived at the site.

Nuclear family values

About the only interesting idea in the entire game is the law-giving mechanic. Citizens will engage in several vices, crimes, or expressions of identity, and the player will have to decide whether to criminalize these activities, tolerate them, or even encourage them. These range from murder, to cannibalism, to prostitution, to vegetarianism, to homosexuality, to patriotism, and a few others. All of them come with the additional risk of innocent people being falsely accused and punished, which can hurt overall morale.

Each moral issue has its own pros and cons, and each solution has its own give and take. Murder or cannibalism, for instance, will obviously reduce the population, but they can also provide extra food in a game in which food and water is in very short supply.

Moral decisions have trade-offs. Even evil laws have practical rationalizations.

I can be a morally progressive leader who does the right thing by tolerating (or even encouraging) people's exploration of their sexual identity and to grant reproductive autonomy to women. But I'm going to see a lower birth rate because of it. Being tolerant on these issues will come at the cost of much slower recovery for the work force when one of the inevitable plagues or water shortages leads to deaths, cremation services fail to dispose of the bodies in time, and disease and death spirals out of control.

These moral quandaries are only quandaries because of the exceptionally harsh nature of the post-apocalyptic setting. Each has trade-offs, and I feel that they all have generally fairly well thought-out gameplay ramifications. If only the rest of the game around these decisions were better and more robust.

But then again, my attempts to be a tolerant, benevolent leader were thwarted by a milestone objective that required me to convert half the population to my belief system. This is another frustration that is characteristic of the game: that it teases at offering real choices and opportunity for player expression, but then it takes that choice away, by design. I can't create a community in which all are welcome. I can't create a network of satellite towns to take advantage of the geography. From what I've gathered, there is exactly one correct and viable way to build your town, and that is in a tight cluster with a crap ton of service buildings in the center so that nobody has to walk too far to get to them.

Barren waste

The maps themselves are also fairly un-interesting. They are very static and lifeless. I guess that makes sense for a post-apocalypse setting, but absolutely nothing happens on the map.

Aside from building occasional satellite towns in the hope that maybe people will actually salvage some resources, the map feels pretty meaningless. All the water is irradiated, so settling near water is pointless and unnecessary. There's no way to ever purify it (that I ever found), nor are there any watermills, trade docks, or other structures that provide some economic gain for being near rivers or large bodies of water.

Steep cliffs can limit movement, and force people to walk long distances around obstacles to reach certain infrastructure. And as I mentioned before, there's no options to build roads, bridges, tunnels, or other traversal infrastructure to reduce travel times.

Maps are too lifeless -- even for a post-apocalyptic setting.

In fact, it's really not worth building near cliffs or in valleys anyway. Even though the game includes defensive buildings and weaponsmiths, there are not bandits or raiders that will attack the town. So having natural barriers for defense is not necessary. There is an optional bandit questline that can potentially damage structures, but it's played entirely through dialogue boxes.

There aren't even any wild animals (mutated or not). No bison to herd into pastures or hunt for food. No horses to tame for riding or as beasts of burden. And no Deathclaws or equivalent to protect your citizens from. Everything is just completely static and sterile.

In fact, the game map doesn't even feel particularly hostile either. There are no season or weather. No harsh winters, or hot summers. No toxic rain or dust storms. Aside from the inability to drink from any of the surface water on the map, none of the map is particularly toxic or irradiated. I can build farms anywhere on the map that I want, and as many as I want, as long as I have the population to work them. Games like Banished and Dawn of Man may not be set in post-apocalyptic wastelands, but their environments feel much more harsh and threatening. Atomic Society, despite all the promise offered by its unique premise, is just boring and stale by comparison.

So much wasted potential

In one map, I came across a skeleton clutching a journal. I thought that maybe if I sent my Town Leader there to examine or scavenge it, there might be some kind of quest. Maybe it would task me with doing something, like exploring ruins, or building certain structures in certain locations, in order to get some kind of reward. Nope. It was just some flavor text.

I thought this journal would start some kind of quest.

This is characteristic of Atomic Society. It does the bare minimum to make a city-builder work, and to throw in some exceedingly-difficult post-apocalyptic flavor, but isn't able or willing to go any further. Aside from the handful of moral issues that the game presents the player, Atomic Society does not even come close to exploring the potential of its setting and theme. To the game's credit, it does follow through on the idea that most post-apocalypse stories are less about the apocalypse itself, and more about how people treat each other.

I get that it's a post-apocalyptic game, and it should be challenging. But all of the design decision that make it challenging feel completely asinine and sometimes, outright cruel. There's so few viable ways to actually play the game that optimizing everything to the degree necessary to be successful just feels like miserable busy-work. I kept thinking that if I just played a little more, it might "click", and I would start to enjoy it. But the more I played it, the more I regretted having done so.

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