How can you create an original game these days? The answer, according to designers Graeme Ing and Robert Crack, is to take out the best bits of previously successful titles and incorporate them into a new experience. Using the urban simulation concept of SimCity, they've added a Populous isometric-3D view of the proceedings, injected elements of wargaming and trading, and set the whole thing in space. Utopia is the result... in almost every sense of the word.
As commander of a new space colony, you have complete control over the people and resources of a distant planet. Build a laboratory here, start a mine there, trade your goods with other worlds, arrange sports events, and so on. Don't get too confident, though. Do a bad job and you could get assassinated by the disgruntled colonists. That's if they haven't all been wiped out by a virus, food shortage or outright war!
There's always something that requires your attention in Utopia. The art of the game is balancing all the factors. It only takes one aspect to get out of control and things seriously start to go wrong. Thus, you must keep an eye on the 'Quality of Life' percentage rating which gives you an indication of how you're managing the colony. Disasters can also occur, like viruses and collapsing mine-shafts, so warning messages and flashing icons keep you informed of the latest crisis.
Your colony begins with about one hundred colonists, ten buildings and an average amount of cash. The world of Utopia is controlled through a selection of icons and 'spreadsheet' screens where you fiddle the financial and personnel figures. These may seem daunting at first, but they're extremely easy to master and manipulate via the mouse. Your colony is made-up of a variety of buildings, each one providing a specific service or product. The Chemical Plant, for instance, extracts fuel from the ground while hydroponic pods grow food. Construction is simply a matter of selecting the appropriate building and site, then waiting for the colonists to strut their stuff on the scaffolding. Building is just a part of the whole picture, you'll also have to manage taxes, recruit technicians, prevent over-population and generally indulge in megalomania.
Unfortunately, not everybody is out to help your dreams of the perfect place to live. The inclusion of an aggrieved alien force is where Utopia fundamentally differs from SimCity and more recently Moonbase. It's all very well and good building your very own Utopia with fancy sports halls and hospitals, but what happens when an enemy assault force suddenly pops-up and kicks your ass? Further employment is pretty unlikely, unless you've properly prepared for this eventuality. Firstly, you should place priority on tank construction yards because they're quicker and cheaper to make than spacecraft. You can also defend yourself by constructing laser turrets and missile launchers around the outskirts of the colony. Radar buildings forewarn of imminent attack and fully-fledged military dictators can even found a secret surveillance unit to spy on alien activities. Your defences will soon be put to the test when the enemy strikes with their unique weaponry and tactics. Will it be a short skirmish bra drawn-out war?
As you can probably tell, life as a colony commander gets complicated real fast. Helpful advice can be gained from a group of experts, including a civil engineer, financial consultant and psychiatrist. The latter reports on such things as population density, crime rate and morale of the colonists.
The real beauty of Utopia, and what really strikes you about the whole affair, is the open-ended nature of the gameplay. Players can take it where they want without being restricted to a set of preprogrammed goals. The only limit in this game is your imagination. There are no strict rules to follow and nobody actually 'wins'. You simply select a path to play and the simulation then reacts to your decisions. You're free to trundle down a military route or be a friendly colony commander. A total pacifist would be blown to bits by the aliens of course, but you could go for a defensive stance instead of creating a huge army. Get the idea? The basic game comes with ten different scenarios, complete with specific aliens, modes of attack and terrain. Gremlin is already planning an add-on datadisk with more extraterrestrial challenges to conquer but co-designer Graeme Ing refuses to reveal anything about them at this stage.
Utopia has something for everybody. Even if you normally stick to shoot'em-ups or trip on text adventures, go grab yourself a game. You'll be hooked in minutes and absorbed for months. Who needs originality with software this good? Not me, that's for sure!
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