It's a testament to Startopia's fundamentally sound design and attractive presentation that you'll enjoy it despite the fact that, at times, it'll make you feel slightly alienated.
Management has proven to be a lucrative source of inspiration for computer gaming. Almost every managerial career imaginable has been made into some sort of game. In addition to abstract business simulations, there have been games based on managing cities, transportation systems of various types, healthcare facilities, and amusement parks. Even pizza restaurants and dungeons have inspired games that are, when you get right down to it, simple exercises in planning and economics. A few of the better games in this genre have come from Bullfrog Productions, including Theme Park, Theme Hospital, and Dungeon Keeper. So it comes as little surprise that Startopia, a game in which you manage a space station, was designed by a company founded by ex-Bullfrog employees who were in some way or another involved with all three of these. In creating Startopia, Mucky Foot Productions (whose previous credits include the acclaimed action game Urban Chaos) has stuck closely to the management game formula but improved upon it in many ways. Startopia plays like a refined and expanded Dungeon Keeper--the main difference is that it has been relocated to deep space.
In Startopia's campaign, you are charged with rebuilding and running a series of derelict space stations. There's a brief tutorial that introduces the basic game mechanics, but it's in the campaign that you'll really learn how to play. The game follows a simple formula: You set up basic facilities and some moderately profitable ones and hire some aliens to run them. Then you make some money, build more-elaborate facilities, increase your income, promote/replace/fire employees, and repeat. There are numerous ways in which you can earn energy (the game's currency is also your stations' power source), and the 10 campaign missions slowly introduce you to the game's variety of tasks. In one, you'll learn how to build sick bays and heal injured and infirmed travelers. Another will introduce you to the game's simple but fun trading system. Others will teach you the basics of setting up the pleasure deck, which features shops and attractions to please guests and employees alike; and the biodeck, a strange area where you can control the climate and landscape to please the variety of aliens who'll visit your station and even harvest alien plants for tradable goods.
The variety of facilities and recreational facilities available in the game is striking. There are three types of hotels, several types of shops, a handful of bars, and numerous other types of places to keep your guests and residents occupied and happy. You can research and build these items yourself, buy blueprints from traders, or carry out any combination thereof. You must hire employees to run your operations, and you'll also build basic health facilities, manufacturing plants, security systems, prisons, and laboratories. Then you'll research improvements to all of these and build bigger, better facilities.
The campaign is fun, but it sometimes seems like an extended tutorial. There are only 10 missions, and for the most part they go by quickly--not necessarily easily, but quickly. There are some random elements--such as the appearance of traders, as well as the price and availability of their goods--that can make one or two of the missions very difficult or very easy, depending on what you're offered and when. But the real problem with the campaign is that it ends just when you're comfortable with the specifics of running your base. The last mission requires you to put all of your knowledge to use, but it seems like the game is just getting started.
Luckily, the game includes multiplayer options, as well as a flexible sandbox mode that lets you configure and tweak the game to your personal preferences and then begin building and running your station indefinitely--or not indefinitely, depending on how you set it up. You can create specific win conditions or just play freeform. And the abundance of random events--such as pilgrim ships seeking enlightenment from your monks, tourists seeking entertainment, and ambulance shuttles needing medical care--helps to keep things interesting. There's a great deal of freedom in the sandbox mode, and it almost makes up for the lack of predesigned missions.