StarTopia Review

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Publisher: Eidos
Developer: Mucky Foot


Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 450 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 8 MB video card, 300 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM

StarTopia gives you control of a donut-shaped space station, with the mission to rebuild it one section at a time. Your station is occupied by a diverse array of alien species all with their own, sometimes conflicting, likes and dislikes. You must keep them happy by terraforming the bio-deck to give each species a little taste of home and by building fun hangouts like discos and lovenests on the entertainment deck. All the while, you must keep your station functioning and your economy humming by putting some of your visitors to work on the engineering deck. Of course, you're not alone out there. Other station managers are competing to take over the station through economic strength or plain old brute force. In space, no one can hear you scream – but they might be able to hear you chuckle through this quirky, humorous, station-building simulation.

Rating:
Rob de los Reyes


My typical style of review starts with a game's good points then raises any issues or negative experiences I had with the game. I'll flop the order here because I think it's worth emphasizing what prevented a decidedly good, original and entertaining game from being a "must-have" game.

And So It Wasn't Written


First and foremost, the game documentation is pitifully lacking, especially for a sim game. Now, I freely admit that I'm one of those odd birds who really enjoy reading a good thick manual. This is not to say that I don't appreciate an in-game tutorial, and StarTopia has that in spades. You'll play, if you wish, five tutorial missions followed by ten regular game missions. Nine of those ten missions are really tutorials in disguise, each emphasizing a different aspect of station management. The final mission is a dress rehearsal for "sandbox" mode, which is an open style of game with configurable victory conditions and a variable number of computer (or human) opponents.

 

It is entirely possible that a tutorial system as elaborate as this, coupled perhaps with a solid in-game reference encyclopedia, could obviate the need for a printed manual. Here, however, the tutorials rather seem to point out just how little you're being told. Discovering which alien species prefer which type of bio-deck terrain and which plants yield which staple goods becomes an annoying memory game. While there is certainly room in the world of game design for discovery through trial and error, the lack of information here seems contrived to create a "puzzle" feel. Worse yet is the lack of documentation with respect to simple game mechanics. How do you set droids to perform various tasks? I got the menu to pop up, but no guidance is offered on how to interpret it. Some slide bars go up and down, but what do up and down represent in this context? And, by the way, if I set a droid to patrol for litter, does that mean he won't do anything else or is it simply a first priority? This is not the same kind of puzzle as the development of a winning strategy, and that's where the fun of discovery lies.

Lord of the Ring


The second major problem is actually, in part, an outgrowth of one of the game's cleverest elements. The three-tiered, toroid space station is a joy to behold. Zooming out from your bio-deck to take a look at your station from outer space never really stops being breath-taking. Looking straight across several connected sections inside the station highlights the station's curvature. StarTopia succeeds like no game I've played in breaking up the standard, rectangular-box-like play area. That said, the nature of the torus limits strategy. Your opponents are always to the right or left. They can't get at you from the top or bottom or directly across. Such limited geography has a tendency to make certain constructions and layouts "right" and others "wrong." Once you've figured it out, you're done. Compare this to Tropico where no two islands are ever quite the same, and the difference geography makes to strategy becomes readily apparent. That lack of strategic variety ultimately limits StarTopia's replayability.

Reading Tea Leaves


Experienced strategy sim players will find the lack of hard data frustrating. There are a handful of basic factors that reflect the strengths and weaknesses of your portion of the station. A display panel gives you the status of your aliens' need for things like sleep, love, fun, spirituality and so on. The status for each factor is indicated by a vertical bar – the taller and greener, the better. Different structures you may build have different effects on those factors, and the results produced by such structures may vary by type of alien using the facility. For example, the two-headed scientist aliens are absolute slaves to "love." Make sure your love nests are well-staffed, and you'll earn their loyalty in a hurry.

The problem is that there are no numbers anywhere telling you what effect anything has on anything else. Do I get more bang for my buck from artwork or a general store? The changes are all so small that the game's reliance on relative measurements has the effect of washing away nuanced choices. The flip side of the coin is that those new to sims or those who otherwise prefer fewer minutiae may actually prefer StarTopia for this very reason.

Accentuate the Positive


Which brings me to the good stuff. As hinted at earlier, StarTopia offers pleasing, original and, occasionally, stunning graphics. The geometry's the thing, and you really have to play around with the camera for yourself in order to get a proper sense of the treats on offer. You can also zoom in and out – in close enough to look your aliens right in their buggy eyes, or out far enough to frame the whole station against the backdrop of a nebula. The alien species are just darn cute, and the different dances they do in the disco continue to make me chuckle.

The sounds and music are also worth keeping on. (Happily, I am finding that to be the case with more and more of the games being released nowadays.) Both sound and music change as you move your camera from deck to deck and structure to structure.

Finally, other than in those areas already discussed, gameplay is clever and fun. Those game controls that are explained are easy to master and soon melt into second nature. There is only one game speed, but the game is exceedingly well-designed for that speed. Certain events send you into a flurry of tense, damage-control-type activities, but not so often that the game runs away from you, leaving you breathless and frustrated.

In brief, I would recommend this game most strongly to those new to strategy sims and to gamers who don't usually care for sims but are looking for a change of pace. StarTopia doesn't take itself too seriously and invites the casual gamer to do the same. The game is not so dependent on a cutting-edge graphics standard or other rapidly developing technology that another month or so of aging will hurt your enjoyment. On that basis, let the price drop a bit to compensate for the slightly limited replayability, then pick StarTopia up and treat yourself to an easy good time. Besides, by then, some fan site may have decoded the game enough to provide that missing detail should you decide you want it.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 7, 2001 10:16 PM.

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