Startopia Preview

The creators of Magic Carpet and Theme Hospital are working on a god-game of their own. Can it stand up to Black & White?

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In an age when developers frequently delay their projects and spurt the phrase "it's done when it's done," it's refreshing to see a nearly complete and utterly robust game undergo a short development cycle. It's even more impressive when a developer undertakes an incredibly ambitious project and still manages to avoid long delays and vague release dates by hitting important developmental deadlines. In a relatively short 14-month time span, Mucky Foot Productions has developed an astonishingly detailed graphics engine and gameplay that blurs the boundaries of traditional genres in the company's second entry, Startopia.

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What exactly is Startopia? Like a few other notable games, Startopia is difficult to place in any single genre. The best category to fit it under would be the god-game genre, but even that classification is somewhat misleading. At its most basic level, Startopia is a strategy game where you assume the role of a businessperson with an opportunity to turn a derelict space station into a hospitable habitat for alien refugees dispersed from their homes because of interstellar war. Of course, there are other businesspersons that see the same opportunity and will stop at nothing to ensure their own success. Sounds easy, but with more than nine different alien species with nine different attitudes all occupying the same space, your plans to make a profit may be derailed rather quickly.

You start off the game with a newly acquired space station, which is composed of three main decks - the lower deck, the central deck, and the upper bio deck. The lower deck is where most of the grunt work for the station occurs and where most of your industrial and technological structures are built. Cargo from passing ships, technological research, and general production are the main focus of this deck, and when given a job, aliens will spend a large portion of their time here.

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The central deck is the most important of the three because the alien population spends most of its time here. Living quarters, shops, bars, and other entertainment facilities are all built on this level and each structure influences the way this deck operates. For example, building a seedy bar or a run-down hotel will produce a low-class area that attracts a particularly nasty group of aliens, but constructing a posh bar and a respectable living area produces a middle- or upper-class neighborhood.

The bio deck, as the name implies, replicates an entire customizable biosphere where you can manipulate the temperature, humidity, and even the amount of water to your liking. Lowering the temperature and raising the moisture levels will produce snow, while raising the temperature and removing moisture will create a desert landscape. Even the topography is customizable, allowing you to make hilly or flat terrain. One of the bio deck's primary functions is to provide food, which can be accomplished in two ways - the land in the bio deck can either be farmed or used to tend livestock-like life-forms. Either way, food harvested on the bio deck is much more nutritious than food served from a food replicator device and is therefore more beneficial to the aliens on your station. How you interact with each deck has a profound impact on how successful your section of the space station is - if you don't keep the aliens happy, your rivals will overtake your section of the station with ease.

Growing Pains

With only three decks to work with and some poor planning on your part, open space becomes a rare commodity quickly, but thankfully, the space stations in Startopia are designed to accommodate growth and competition among the three other players - computer or human controlled. If your structures are taking up too much room on a particular deck, you have the option of opening doors located on either side, but doing so moves you closer to your opponents who are inhabiting other parts of the station, this causing a possible confrontation.

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Other players will react to your presence depending on what kinds of aliens are roaming about your decks and the civilization that spawns as a result. Creating a violent and hostile civilization results in other players forming alliances to fight off your control of the station. Conversely, a friendly civilization will appeal more to other players, making chances for a beneficial alliance much greater. How will you know which aliens are friendly and which are predisposed to violence? Mucky Foot designed each race to have a specific look, attitude, and special "ability"- learning which species you want on your station shouldn't be difficult, but knowing the background of each alien is incredibly helpful and absolutely necessary.

A reciprocal relationship between the station and its residents is clearly visible in Startopia. The civilization you create wholly depends on what kinds of structures are built and what kinds of aliens are attracted to your space station - seedy bars attract violent aliens and violent aliens demand seedy bars. Knowing an alien's special abilities, its likes and dislikes, or what living situation it prefers is crucial in determining which strategy to employ, and there's plenty of variation in each alien species. Let's take a look.

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Greys: Chances are if you watch Unsolved Mysteries or one of the many FOX specials dedicated to the subject of UFOs, you will immediately recognize the greys. Featuring an oblong head, large black eyes, and a humanoid body, the greys are the most common of all the alien species found in Startopia. Their exploratory nature helped them spread across the galaxy and avoid extinction. The greys are an incredibly useful species to have on a station, because they have extensive medical knowledge, which makes them perfect employees for your station's sick bay, and their curious nature will drive them to explore facilities you provide on the station. Greys are nonviolent and their unassuming demeanor allows them to get along with most other alien species.

Turraken: The only species in Startopia carrying two brains, the Turraken are an incredibly intelligent race, and as such they focus their skills on technological research. The Turraken are a valuable asset and should be a major part of every space station, especially if you want all of the latest technological advances at your disposal. With their interests solely devoted to technology, the Turraken are on shaky ground with races that despise technology, like the Zedem monks.

Thyorian Grekka-Targ: The Targ have an unusual mix of abilities. They can process more data than other species, making them useful for gathering information on your station. Interestingly enough, they can also collect data from the other players on the station, so they are the perfect spies. But there are some negative impacts of having Targ on your station. If you don't give them something to do or don't keep them busy, they'll start poking around your facilities and meddling with computer systems, making it a little more difficult to keep everything running smoothly.

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Karmarama: For an accurate description of the Karmarama, you needn't look any further than the late-1960s peace movement. The Karmarama's are environmentalists whose main goal is to achieve harmony with their surroundings, but apparently, achieving harmony takes up most of the Karmarama's time, so they are one of the least productive alien species. However, when the Karmarama reach enlightenment, they send out psychic energy that infuses surrounding beings with positive feelings, thus increasing their productivity. The Karmarama seemingly spend most of their time on the bio deck, but performing any acts of aggression against the Karmarama will make them protest around the structure involved, making it difficult for work to get done.

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Zedem monks: The Zedem monks are the religious zealots of Startopia. They devote their entire lives to the Sun God of Orbastang. Though they will not directly let other species into their religion, they do preach to other races, and when they have too much time on their hands, they will attempt to convert other aliens by using a device called the "penance suit." This device converts other alien races into Zedem monks, and if left unchecked, the entire station can turn into a Zedem monk colony. The Zedem monks are not on good terms with the technologically oriented Turrakens, and they despise the Dahanese sirens.

Dahanese sirens: Spotting sirens on your station shouldn't be difficult. The race of half-naked winged women serve as the love doctors of Startopia in that they give love to and receive love from other alien species on the station. Without them, the aliens will never fully enjoy their new life on the station, and their production levels will drop off as a result. However, like the Zedom monks, if the sirens are left unchecked, their influence on the station can get out of control because they seduce other aliens on the station, causing their work efficiency levels to drop. The seduction abilities of the sirens are so powerful that they can even seduce Zedem monks, who normally frown upon the sirens because of their provocative lifestyle.

Kasvagorian: The Kasvagorians are the warrior race, but normally their noble attitude and quest for honor prevent them from engaging in any battle, unless it's for a just cause. Obviously, the Kasvagorians can be the perfect soldiers for your station, but they can also play the role of security guard quite well. If they aren't given an outlet for their aggressive nature, the Kasvagorians act belligerently and start random fights. The Karmaramas don't get along very well with the Kasvagorians because of their opposing natures.

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Groulien salt hogs: The salt hogs are the hardest-working aliens and the easiest to attract to your station. They only demand some food and a place to sleep. If the salt hogs are mistreated or not given enough work to do, they will stop their work and strike, which can debilitate any space station and grind productivity to a halt. Unfortunately, due to their lower-class association and dedicated work ethic, the upper-class gem slugs and the Karmaramas don't hold the salt hogs in high esteem.

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Polvakian gem slugs: Gem slugs are members of Startopia's upper class. They are the hardest alien race to keep happy, and even worse, they have no obvious special abilities. But when they are excited, the gem slugs produce waste called "turdite," which can be converted into energy. Because of their high-class status, gem slugs don't get along very well with the hard-working salt hogs.

Droids: Though they have no special benefits, droids are the most useful of any creature in Startopia. Their lack of emotional needs makes them absolutely loyal to you, and the sheer variety of droids available means you can assign them to a wide array of tasks - from janitorial duties to security positions. While you don't need to worry about the emotional status of droids, they do require care and regular maintenance or they will inadvertently cause accidents around the station.

What Does It All Mean?

Knowing each alien's attributes is absolutely critical for running a successful station, because you'll want to keep them as happy as possible. Checking the status of your aliens is an easy task that can be performed one of three ways. Bubbles appearing over the head of each alien express their needs. If an alien needs entertainment, a bubble with balloons in the center will appear over the alien's head, or if an alien needs sleep, a symbol for sleep will appear - just like in The Sims. Another method lets you zoom in on an individual alien and ask it directly what it needs by clicking on a series of icons. If you think an alien needs love, then you click on the heart icon and the alien will respond accordingly. If you click on the sleep icon and the alien responds with a yawn, then it would be a good idea to build some sleeping quarters. This detailed method of interacting with aliens is a helpful but otherwise time-consuming task that can detract from your primary goal of keeping every alien happy. The last method is less obvious than the others, but you can see if aliens are happy based on how they act around the station. If the aliens are happy, they place their trash in receptacles and go about their daily duties, but when they're frustrated, the aliens throw the trash where they please and leave graffiti all over the station.

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As odd as it sounds, the energy emitted from happy aliens is the major form of currency in Startopia - there is no regular money. Employed aliens get to keep their energy in exchange for work, so you must strike a balance between the number of employed and jobless aliens on the station. One of the first objects you will build is the energy collector, an artichoke-like structure with a metallic globule suspended in the middle that expands and contracts as it gains and loses energy. Thankfully, the metallic globule is not the only indication of how much energy is stored in your part of the station. A special menu that can be placed anywhere on the screen tells you how much energy you have, and how much you're consuming. Unfortunately, the energy collector can only supply energy to a relatively small space, but with the use of power generators, you can extend your energy supply to other sections of a deck, making expansion to other areas much easier.

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Building specific structures to meet the needs of your alien residents not only keeps them happy, but it can drastically influence the way they act and how other players on the station view your new civilization. For example, if your strategy is to overtake the other players on the station with brute force, or if you want a fortified station that can defend itself in case of attack, you need to build structures that appeal to the Kasvagorians. Low-class bars, run-down hotels, and gladiator-like entertainment are all things that Kasvagorians enjoy, and these objects basically serve as magnets that draw Kasvagorians into your station. Interestingly, there are some side effects to building structures that appeal to only one species. For example, the two-headed Turraken scientists normally don't do research that contributes to violence, but if they're constantly exposed to questionable forms of entertainment, like gambling in the casino or going to bars, their morals and the kind of technological research they do will change accordingly.

Not Just A Sandbox

Just about every alien can be corrupted to a certain extent in Startopia, but structures are not the only factor determining what kind of crowd you get on your station. You have the ability to manipulate other options, such as security levels, which have a drastic effect on your station. Security systems monitor what kinds of aliens come into your station by checking for diseases and ensure that the aliens don't cause any trouble during their stay. If security is turned up to 100 percent, the number of aliens actually coming to your station will decrease due to abuse of police power, but dropping security levels to zero will allow criminals and disease-infested aliens onto your station and will drive other aliens away. A perfect balance in the level of security must be found much in the same way that you need to balance the kind of structures you build to ensure diversity and happiness among the aliens.

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Plenty of time is spent building objects, giving aliens jobs to do, and keeping the general space station population happy, but Mucky Foot Productions stresses that Startopia is not simply a "sandbox" game, meaning Startopia doesn't just have endless building and management. To give some direction and motivation, you are sporadically given objectives that must be completed before you can expand any further. For example, one mission may require you to convert the station into a weigh station for cargo ships. Another mission requires that you make a heavily fortified station that can defend itself in a region of space infested with pirates. Other missions require that you deal with smaller problems like plagues, space energy beast invasions, or "rowdy Kasvagorian hoofball fans." All of these missions lead up to a final confrontation with Arona Daal. Arona has the largest station in the galaxy, and being the businessperson that you are, you want to take his station from him.

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Startopia is an impressive game, and it's even more impressive when you take into account that the game is only in its 14th month of development. The station and various structures all look great at the standard camera distance, but as you fly around the station to take a closer look at your creations, you will see just how detailed Startopia is. You can actually see Turrakens working in their technology research labs, sirens dancing in the disco, and the greys hanging their heads in shame after losing energy in the casino. Other details, like a ship flying into the cargo bay in real time, are just so mesmerizing that you almost forget you have a job to do. But perhaps Startopia's greatest feature is that it appeals to a much larger audience than typical strategy games attract. Startopia takes pieces of gameplay from different genres and puts them together in what looks to be an incredibly fun and involving game.

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