At the first public showing of Startopia, it was amazing to see how much the development team at Mucky Foot Productions was able to accomplish within a relatively short 14-month time frame. The 3D engine looked incredibly polished, the various creatures walking around the station were well animated and detailed, different structures operated properly, and the bio deck was fully functional. Of course, there were a few major details missing - such as music and an actual user interface - from that initial build, but it seemed as though Mucky Foot was well on its way to getting the game finished on schedule for late 2000. However, even Startopia couldn't avoid the inevitable delay to 2001, which has struck so many other games originally slated for a 2000 release.
Fortunately, the latest build shows that Mucky Foot is indeed making progress on the game; the user interface artwork looks nearly complete, there is some new music in the game, and there appears to be a few new faces wandering about the station. Unfortunately, Startopia is still understandably riddled with bugs at this point, which makes it difficult to examine certain aspects of the game and leaves us with more questions than answers.
The first mission in Startopia starts off simple enough, as you are placed in command of a once great space station that has fallen into a state of disrepair. An advisor, with a British accent and a slight attitude problem, welcomes you to the station and gives you your first assignment, which is to unpack a group of crates located just underneath the massive energy collector. Instead of finding out what's in the crate after actually opening it, you can simply move the mouse over the crate, and the name of the object appears inside. This feature is somewhat unnecessary in the initial moments of the first mission since the aid essentially tells you what's inside each crate, but, undoubtedly, this minor detail becomes of great use later in the game when the crates begin to pile up. Unlocking the three crates reveals a spaceport, which is necessary for the first batch of aliens to arrive on your station, as well as two scuzzer droids that assist in the construction of the different structures in Startopia. After building the first set of structures, your advisor continues to give you instructions on what to build, and soon the first set of aliens - usually the hardworking lower class species known as the salt hogs - arrive at the station. Of course, at the same time, both you and your advisor realize you're quickly running out of open construction areas in the small section of the station in which you start out, so you're now able to open up a new section of the station. In this new section, pieces of garbage are scattered across the ground, and rather unique-looking rats scurry across the floor. Keeping garbage in the station generally attracts the wrong type of aliens, so your advisor quickly tells you to get rid of it by building the recycling center.
Recycle, Reduce, Reuse
Building and making efficient use of the recycling center is, surprisingly, an important part of the first mission - not only because it introduces you to how the structure functions as a secondary energy generator, but also because it teaches you how to hire your first set of employees. Once construction of the recycling center in the new section of the station is complete, your advisor tells you that you need to hire employees to operate the facility. Since they're accustomed to the task, the salt hogs are the perfect employees for this type of situation, but you can't hire just any salt hog you see. Each alien has different attributes, and they affect the way each one performs after it's hired. Some aliens have high dedication and loyalty levels, but some lack skill. Others may have a high skill level and little or no dedication and loyalty, so finding a balance between the employees is crucial for maintaining a successful and efficient recycling center. Whether it's security or sanitation, the same rule applies to just about every other space station aspect that involves employment. But for some odd reason, no matter how hard your employees work or how much trash the scuzzer droids help pick up, your advisor still tells you to help them out and pick up some of the trash yourself.
This brief routine of picking up garbage around the station provides an excellent opportunity to learn how to use the game's camera. The mission defaults to a midrange side view of the starting area within the station, but with a menu located in the upper right-hand corner, you can manipulate the view to show every part of the room. The circular object in the menu lets you pan around in full 360-degree motion while the slider to the right lets you increase or decrease the elevation of the camera. This comes in handy when you want to get a closer look at what's going on in the station or if you just want to take a look at some of the odd actions performed by the various aliens. Of course, zooming out gives you a better perspective on where you can build new structures and on how well individual sections of the station are developing.
After completing the demeaning task of collecting garbage scattered across the station, you receive a distress call from a ship - it says that it must dock immediately because it's carrying a sick ambassador. Unfortunately, your station isn't initially equipped with the ability to treat sick aliens, but to help remedy the problem, traders traveling throughout the galaxy offer you different goods, among which are sick bays. Like the recycling station, the sick bay requires employees in order to properly function, and right around the time you construct the station, the alien race known as the greys appear. The greys are the only aliens that can work within the sick bay and provide treatment to others, but you must once again take special notice of the individual characteristics of each grey on your station before making one an employee.
Once you have a sick bay set up on your station, you can actually watch the ambassador walk over to the sick bay and receive treatment from the grey inside. To give an idea of how detailed this relatively insignificant sequence is, the monitoring device in the sick bay actually circles around before emitting a small pulse of red light that engulfs the patient. Small details like this are plentiful throughout Startopia, and a good way to get a good look at most of them is by entering the game's sandbox mode. This mode lets you take complete control of the station without worrying about the pressures of outside forces, like an advisor or passing ships that require assistance. The main objective is to just build and keep your alien residents as happy as possible. This mode also lets you take a look at some structures and areas that aren't available in the first mission, such as the siren love nest and the bio deck.
Though Mucky Foot has apparently opted to place clothes on the sirens, the underlying premise of their primary structure remains somewhat questionable. Essentially, aliens enter the love nest, where they either sit down at one of the waiting stools or approach one of the sirens sitting in an ornate chair. After a few seconds, the sirens emit a bolt of electricity around the unsuspecting alien, causing it to float in midair. The siren love nest is actually important in keeping the aliens at the station happy, but the sirens can overrun the station with lovesick aliens if you don't manage to keep a careful watch over their activities.
Occasionally, the alien residents want to get away from the rigors of living within the cold metal walls of the cargo areas in the station, and the perfect place for them to go is the bio deck. The bio deck is probably one of the most visually impressive aspects of Startopia because you can manipulate the entire landscape within seconds. Another nice feature of the bio deck is that you can actually move the camera outside of the station to look at the new landmasses you've created through the station's windows.
Though the initial delays are disappointing, Startopia is still an incredibly interesting game. The current build gives a solid feeling for the sandbox mode and of how the different missions in the game function. For the most part, the main objective in either mode is to keep your aliens happy at all costs. When they're happy, they produce more energy for your energy collector, and this allows you to buy even more goods and structures from traitors, which then leads to an even more magnificent station. Unfortunately, some of the more complex units appear to still be off limits (or they are just incredibly hard to get due to the instability of the build), and battles between station agents are not quite part of the equation yet. With the exception of a few strands of music while you're opening doors on the bio deck, Startopia's sound consists mostly of environmental effects. It still remains to be seen if Mucky Foot can successfully incorporate all the features originally planned for Startopia.