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Startopia Preview

Ben_Silverman By:
T Contains Animated Violence, Suggestive Themes

What do these ratings mean?

Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind.

After years and years of conflicting reports about the existence of extraterrestrials, it's easy to get sick and tired of the rampant anthropomorphism. I guess Close Encounters has had a wide ranging influence, because it sure seems like every alien under the sun (pun intended) looks like a big eyed, earless version of Plastic Man.

But not according to Mucky Foot and Eidos, who like to think that the universe is a bit more complex than two arms and two legs. In their upcoming space station simulator Startopia, you'll have the opportunity to manage and interact with 9 different alien races with hundreds of individual representatives in your quest to take control of an ailing space station.

Developer Mucky Foot is comprised of ex-Bullfrog staffers, so it's no surprise that Startopia bears some resemblance to god sims like Populous and, more directly, the excellent Dungeon Keeper series. But unlike the fairly direct goal-oriented approach of those other games, Startopia combines elements of strategy, simulation and a heaping helping of humor to create a truly unique gameplay experience.

At the outset, you're in charge of one segment of an enormous ring-shaped space station. By building facilities, customizing layouts and terra-forming landscapes, your area will soon begin to populate itself with a variety of bizarre alien types. As your area of influence expands, you'll eventually butt heads with the other 16 segments, leading to a web of diplomacy, espionage, and in some cases, all-out war.

The gameplay is a melange of familiar styles. Similar to Dungeon Keeper and Majesty, you don't directly control the denizens of your station - you influence them. Build a bar to give them some leisure time. Set priorities during attacks to make your Kasgorvian brutes get down to business. Do whatever it takes to keep the bastards happy, because their pleasure directly influences the amount of power you have at your disposal. It's a give and take operation the whole way.

The aliens themselves are impressive in terms of AI and design. From the aristocratic Polkavian Gem Slugs (who, ahem, 'excrete' riches) to the Karmarama (resident hippies/harbingers of psychic love energy), the humor runs deep. The key is balancing the positive traits of each species against their downsides. Too many Groulien Salt Hogs can spoil the broth by freaking out the upper-class residents and possibly going on strike. Hey hey! Ho ho! This oppressive station has got to go!

The means by which you achieve your end - ruler of the station - are really up to you. If you feel like a tough guy and have the proper alien muscle behind you, you can attempt to take over adjacent areas by force. If you're more the pacifist, then trade and diplomacy will be the smart choices.

With a free floating camera system than can zoom in to see the intricate animations of each individual to a birds-eye view of the whole station, it's a remarkable game engine. Expect all the usual eye candy, from fancy particle effects to beautiful bump-mapping. A pretty game, for sure.

Of course, much of the gameplay winds up being a study in management. You have to ensure the happiness of your patrons while maintaining a steady resource flow, all while keeping an eye on enemy actions. The resulting experience is one tailor-made for simulation gamers, and perhaps might even appeal to fans of a more mainstream (if still resource heavy) game like The Sims.

Startopia is shaping up to be a gorgeous, unique game. With intricate gameplay and a healthy dose of the absurd, this could be the space odyssey you've been waiting for.

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