While obviously inspired by building simulations such as SimCity, Startopia owes much of its gameplay and solid mechanics to another wildly fun and hilarious simulation, Dungeon Keeper 2. Instead of being stuffed in a claustrophobic dungeon, players graduate to the more complex high-tech world of space station construction and the high-tech headaches associated with it.
After a cute nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, players are led through five tutorial missions on the basics of setting up ship. It takes a few missions to understand the unpacking system, but soon a basic facility is up and running. Basic amenities, however, won't satisfy any civilized race for long. The game gradually introduces new buildings to incorporate on the three different levels of the station: Engineering, Entertainment, and Bio-Decks.
If Dungeon Keeper 2 was a devil's food cake, then Startopia is the three tiered anniversary cake with all the tasty frosting. The buildings are imaginative and well designed. Especially nice is the Love Nest, a bordello of sorts for sensuous telepathic individuals who sit on heart shaped Love Chairs and sell good vibes.
Denizens are both customers and workers with basic needs like food, sleep, and love. Each alien has a unique name and hobbies, which adds to the experience of caring for them. Keeping everyone happy and healthy is quite a chore, but ultimately rewarding.
Having three different playing fields to run simultaneously becomes somewhat of a juggling act. One mission has managers set up a hospital on the first level and entertain those who are healed on the second deck. Neglecting the second deck will garner several warnings from health inspectors, who discover it's full of trash and infested with space rats. The constant running between decks is another facet of the challenge and increases the toughness and depth. As if babysitting three levels aren't a handful, managers must eventually take over adjoining deck sections of the giant donut in the sky. Beware of rival managers also looking to expand.
The graphics and sounds are excellent and enhance the ethereal feel of the station. The music is unique per deck and the Entertainment Deck's rocking beats from the cosmic disco are just what the game's gray Roswell alien doctors ordered. The aliens are alternately cute and menacing, peaceful and violent. Each animation is indicative of the race as well; the four-armed farmers of the galaxy are laid back dudes with a cool stroll, while the brutal Kasvagorians stomp about the station with purpose and vengeance.
Random events spice up life in space. Spies will sneak aboard and try to assassinate your alien population or sabotage buildings. They're easy to spot with their trademark creeping, but hard to stop if they prowl to a different deck during a harried time of building. Solar flares provide welcome energy, the currency of the galaxy which visiting traders will be happy to take off your hands, especially the main trader Arona. Arona's deep Aussie voice and laughable wit will distract you from his sky-high prices. Other events, visitors, and witty comments from your computer assistant abound.
There are minor issues within the game that distract you from the mounting challenges. The camera swivels with the right control key, but often the view strays towards the ceiling or plummets to the floor, a minor irritation that becomes a large problem when frantically fending off attacks or hunting spies. Robot AI is decent, considering the number of areas to patrol, but the amount of trash generated is hard to control, causing you to set aside pressing matters in favor of menial micro-management. These inconvenient frustrations don't destroy the game but may force some station managers into early retirement. The intense gameplay, though, will likely call said retirees back to active duty.
After finishing the single player missions, you can seek human competition for control of the station via the Internet. Startopia also offers a sandbox mode where you can dictate the conditions of the station. Those who can handle the furious pace and are addicted to the frantic fun will undoubtedly return to the game repeatedly for more enjoyable governing fun.
Startopia represents a paradigm shift from a single playing field to three or more. Gamers have to balance developing existing areas with expanding into new ones to achieve success. Finding the perfect balance isn't easy, but those who do will discover a subtle style of gameplay that demands more than other programs of the genre. While not for the uninitiated, the title is well worth the time and energy invested in learning. Any manager worthy of his or her salary should be reprimanded for missing this one.
Graphics: Sharp alien animations and building design. Bio-deck landscapes are incredibly detailed.
Sound: Each level has its own theme and appropriate music. Aliens grunt, squawk, and roar their needs, complaints or approval with startling humanity.
Enjoyment: The minor bugs that crop up don't spoil the game. Gameplay can be complex to the point of pulling hair, but gives way to unusual depth of gameplay with experience.
Replay Value: Lots of single player levels provide the required practice needed to take on human rivals later. Sandbox mode gives gamers control over goals and conditions.
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