I've actually agonised over this review for a number of weeks, trying to come to terms with the fact that this game is essentially an unofficial sequel to Theme Hospital, made by ex-Bullfrog employees. Except it isn't. It's not an unofficial sequel to Dungeon Keeper (or Dungeon Keeper 2) either except for the fact that it quite obviously is. Or not.
Let me attempt to explain this.
In Startopia's single-player game, you play the role of a space station manager employed by various factions to refurbish parts of a network of derelict space stations throughout the galaxy according to whatever these races happen to need a space station for at the time. What this boils down to is basically a ten-level extended tutorial, gradually introducing features of the game to you as you progress towards the final level, directly from hell. It was done back in Command and Conquer, and, quite frankly, in every game with any sort of tech tree that's ever been released. Level one gives you access to sod-all of the tech and is easy, level-the-last gives you the whole tech tree and about ten different opponents, all waiting to destroy you. It's a standard formula, seen countless times before and the game was soundly criticised for following such a standard, but worse, short, single player campaign.
Having played through the game to the end, I'm very nearly inclined to agree, except for the fact that the game is so incredibly well-realised. Your assistant, VAL, is voiced by someone incredibly talented. The trader Arona Dahl is similarly perfect in his role though his accent does switch between something that I think is British Jewish and London (Laahndan). The aliens who inhabit the station don't have voices as such, but the sounds they make are appropriate and even manage to sound relevant, quite an achievement for a series of unintelligible grunts. Each race has many animations for the various actions they perform in and around the facilities of your station and, as a whole, I think they're one of the game's high-points. You can certainly see the influence of the humour and thinking that was put into the creatures of Dungeon Keeper and the diseases of Theme Hospital at work.
The same effort and attention to detail was obviously put into the structures and facilities of the game. Opening the build menu meets you with a straight-from-Theme-Hospital-interface, drag out a room, place the doors, fill the room with the necessary equipment for it to work, add any extras, build, which works fine apart from the odd interface glitch that can see you accidentally removing room items and having to put them back. As an example, the laboratory (again, straight from Theme Hospital) needs an Analyser, a research station of some sort and a door. That's all it needs, but I'll often add in a couple of clocks (brilliantly set to your PC's own clock time), a TV set (helpfile entry: "This is your god"), some lamps to light up the dark corners of the room and maybe the odd plant pot which can later be filled with a plant from the station's Biodeck.
The Biodeck, incidentally, is one of the best executive toys I've ever seen. Basically, it's a completely malleable landscape that can be set to any height or depth to create whatever countryside you like, which can then be set to any sort of climate you like. Then you can add realistic water to flow into any pools you have created. The Biodeck is very simple to use: you'll easily be able to take a barren desert and turn it into an arctic hillside, or create an island paradise in the centre of an ocean. Or you can have a patch of desert in the middle of an artic island inside a tropical ocean... or something. The Biodeck is essentially your station's food supply, but many other things (Hardware Items, Black Market Goods, Alien Artefacts) can be grown there, depending on the climate; as well as this, it doubles as a parking lot for whatever tourists your Leisure deck has attracted to your station, and, with the right people working for you, can act as the base for your church, potentially the most lucrative aspect of the game.
I've written 800 words on the game so far and I know that I've barely scratched the surface. I haven't mentioned the Scuzzers, warfare or the Oroflux yet, nor have I mentioned Startopia's bewitching soundtrack: you'll find yourself hanging around on a certain deck because that's where you'll hear your favourite tune; but none of these really need to be mentioned, I hope, to convince you that Startopia is a beautifully intricate jigsaw of components that combine to make up one of the more thoughtful, varied, games out there, which, despite its "only ten levels" single player campaign (don't be fooled, by the way. They're pretty long levels), actually has the staying power to lure you into dedicated skirmish mode play or, dare I say it, multiplayer (I've played multiplayer Startopia and I don't play multiplayer anything).
Not only a worthy addition to anyone's collection, but a stayer as well. What more can you ask for?Reviewed by: Frosty840