It’s the dog days of summer – painting the house, mowing the lawn, and working the garden (I’ve grown a zucchini as big as a baseball bat) – and I don’t spend as much time reading about or playing computer games as I do in the winter. Game companies of course know this, and respond by releasing few titles of interest. History has taught me that summer releases are almost exclusively B-grade games that would be slaughtered by the competition if dropped into the cock-fighting ring of Xmas releases. That’s not to say that there has never been a good off-season game. On the contrary, there have been some very good off-season games, especially when taken in contrast to the Hot Wired and Dukes of Hazard: Racing for Home of this world. Startopia, I’m pleased to report, is just such a game.
I came into Startopia without really knowing what to expect. The box had sort of lead me to believe that it was something like Dungeon Keeper and there are similarities, but in reality it is closer to SimCity on a smaller scale, call it Sim Space Town, but with bits of Rollercoaster Tycoon tossed in. The combination makes for some interesting gameplay.
You’re the manager of a donut-shaped space station, or rather some fraction of that space station. The station is split vertically into three decks (biodeck, entertainment deck, and facilities deck) and into 18 segments arranged around the donut. You begin with one segment on each deck, stacked up like a sandwich, and you can buy or capture through force other adjacent segments (one deck at a time) to expand your realm. That’s a little confusing as I read it over, but it seems to be the best that I can do. It’s your job to fill those segments with the stuff it takes to support and entertain the various alien species that come by to visit. They need beds, food, medical services, toilets, music, brothels, booze – pretty much the same kinds of things we need to thrive. You get ratings from your guests as to how well you are supplying their needs. You also have to build energy generation, recycling, spaceports, docks, cargo storage, and factories to keep the space station running itself. So all of this is like a Sim Town kind of thing. Furthermore, you’re in charge of balancing the books, buying and building new facilities, hiring workers to run them, and charging money for the tourists to use them. This is kind of a Rollercoaster Tycoon sort of thing. Finally, you have to keep and maintain a security force to deal with the riffraff, and more importantly battle to take new segments by force and keep owners of other space station segments from taking yours. And so it’s sort of a Dungeon Keeper thing too.
In trying to do all these things, the game in some sense succeeds perfectly in almost none of them, and taken as individual game styles almost all of them have been done better elsewhere. The different number of facilities you can construct is kind of limited compared to the usual town building game. The financial model, especially the model for dealing with traders, is perhaps the weakest point in the game. In combat, the victory always goes to the guy with the larger and better-trained security force, strategy be damned (though come to think of it, Dungeon Keeper was a lot like that too). And yet the conglomeration of all of these creates an engrossing hybrid of a game. You wear all these different hats, and need to find the balance of all of the requirements of the space station and its inhabitants. You have only a limited amount of money – should you spend it on a music shop for your guests, which will generate income of its own, or should you spend it on a space dock which would allow you to attract traders to your station? Maybe you should hire a couple extra security guards with that money and try and take a nearby segment (and with it the structures contained within). And what type of deck segment to take, if that is the case? The individual components of the game are not particularly complicated, but keeping the whole deal up in the air at one time is kind of a juggle. During a prolonged battle to take an adjacent segment, my economy went to hell. While busy adjusting my biodeck, most of my security force walked off the job because of lack of sufficient entertainment facilities. Stuff like that.
The game begins with six tutorials to give you the basics, the very basics. So basic in fact that I came out of the tutorials feeling under-prepared. I could work the camera, build buildings, trade, hire workers, operate my transporter buffer to store and manipulate objects on the space station and such, but I didn’t know anything really about balancing all the necessities. The game then moves you into ten missions, but the missions in reality are just extended tutorials – each one dealing more in depth with some particular facility or facet of gameplay. Build a medical facility, run a prison, take over enemy segments, grow stuff in the biodeck – these are the kinds of things that the missions detail. There are different types of alien species, and they have somewhat different needs. They also have different skills and are capable of only certain jobs on the space station – Grays are medical officers, Salt Targs are physical laborers, etc. On the biodeck you adjust temperature, humidity, and water content to grow different crops as well as providing recreation area for your different aliens. All this kind of stuff is covered in the ten missions. But, just as you are getting the hang of it all, the missions are over. Fortunately the game isn’t, because I would have been pissed. The game comes with what they call a sandbox mode. You set up the beginning parameters and the object of the game, and it lets you free build whatever space station you’d like playing for any objective (or none at all for those of you who like the never-ending SimCity kind of thing).
Some of the game’s weaknesses are kind of glaring, and if they had a larger role to play in the overall scheme of things, the game would be far less enjoyable. For example, the only control you have over your security forces is to set up a rally point alarm. Security personnel will respond to it to congregate there, only some won’t respond, or will take their sweet time getting there, so instead of ending up with a formidable force, you end up with stragglers wandering over to your alarm and getting killed by whatever you called them for. And as I’ve mentioned before the trade model is very weak, with certain traders forever buying X for a lot and forever selling Y for cheap almost regardless of how much X you’ve already bought from them or Y you’ve already sold to them. Almost like no economic model is in play at all.
The game even looks like an amalgam of Dungeon Keeper and Rollercoaster Tycoon. Your alien guests are animated in their activities, taking a swim on the biodeck or shaking their groove thang in the Disco. A la Dungeon Keeper, thought balloons over their head shows you their greatest need at that moment be it food or sleep or medical attention or whatever. Most buildings have some animated feature as well – the space dock opening to the outside and winching in a spaceship, the power booster station has an electrical discharge. Neat stuff. The game will support all kinds of resolutions, but I found that 1024x768 got me the best trade off of quality and performance. Even so, during heavy combat or even on just a crowded section of thoroughfare I found that my machine would start to slow down noticeably. Part of that is probably my machine, a P3-450, starting to show itself as a little long in the tooth. But if you’re like me and you haven’t upgraded your machine in 18 months or so, you might want to hang to the lower end of the resolution spectrum as well. By and large sounds are subtle. They are localized, meaning if you have your camera over the disco you hear the music, over a battle you hear the laser fire, and over the biodeck you hear nature sounds. Pleasant, not overwhelming, and varied.
So, if you’re like me and you’ve grown tired of Blade of Darkness (Doesn’t this damn game ever end?), or you’re waiting for Duke Nukem Forever or Max Payne (keep waiting), you’ll find Startopia a nifty diversion. There are probably those who will argue that, as I’ve mentioned, all the pieces of Startopia have been done better elsewhere. I’ll argue that it’s the combination of these that makes it unique, gutsy, and yes, a heck of a lot of fun.