With all the attention surrounding the recent release of Black & White, it's clear that there are many people out there who still have fond memories of the work of Peter Molyneux's old company, Bullfrog.
Whether they can be classified as a fan base or a support group is hard to say, for while the legendary Guildford developer has had more than its fair share of successes, the equally spectacular failures and near misses make up just as big a part of its legacy. Nonetheless, over the years no other gaming studio has put forth as many original titles or carved out their own niche so effectively.
While Bullfrog itself has stagnated somewhat since the buy out by Electronic Arts six years ago, a number of developers have fled the company's confines to form their own studios and extend the beautiful chaos that many crave. Amongst these was Mucky Foot, whose debut game Urban Chaos received some acclaim but was generally overlooked by press and fans alike.
With their second title however they are returning to more familiar turf with a very Bullfrog-styled game called Startopia. The premise is simple : you run a space station (or part of one at least) where your goal is to attract as many aliens as possible by providing the accommodation and services which they require. It has the building and management of the classic Theme games, along with the confrontation and creature development of Dungeon Keeper, all wrapped in a fresh new approach. The idea that you have to keep an eye on the happiness of neutral creatures in addition to managing your own staff and army also opens up a lot of interesting scenarios.
Like all of us, visitors to your station have certain biological needs that must be met for them to survive. That means that they need to eat, sleep and defecate in order to live. Not taking these needs into account can set the scene for mucky feet and hostile encounters. Sleep, for example, can be had in anything from berths (which are little more than sealed bed compartments, similar to the infamous Japanese hotels) to luxurious hotels. While some visitors won't mind sleeping in plastic coffins, others will expect a little more if you want them to stick around.
Each space station in the game is a spherical ring called a torus, which is broken up into three different levels and sixteen radial segments on the inside. Each of the three decks has a distinct purpose and is connected by elevators to the other levels so that every visitor on your station can move freely between them.
The outermost level is the Tech Deck, which is where all the work gets done. Here is where your employees toil for you to create new toys and research new technologies. This deck is also where incoming ships arrive and your Energy Collector is located, making it the most essential deck of the game, because without it you will have no visitors. Energy is the primary currency of the game and you will earn more as aliens arrive in your space station and use your services. This is then chanelled through a glowing gem called the Energy Collector, similar to the Dungeon Heart in the Dungeon Keeper games, which is the source of your power.
The middle level is the Pleasure Deck where your creatures go to unwind. Here activities include drinking, dancing and even amusement rides, and different items are either dropped in as completed units to be activated by your droids or laid out like rooms in Theme Hospital or The Sims, drawing walls, doors and windows before laying out the interior as you see fit. Maintaining your Pleasure Deck will be important for raising morale, which keeps the energy flowing in and the population happy, as well as attracting richer aliens.
The last deck is the glass-domed Bio Deck that, unlike the other utilitarian decks, gives your creatures a taste of the great outdoors. Here you simulate the home worlds of different creatures so they will feel more acclimatized to their new environment. You can adjust the landscape using a special brush tool, raising or lowering land, adding or removing water and increasing or decreasing humidity and temperature. As the level's name implies you are actually building an ecosystem here, and interesting things can develop on their own if you're not careful.
Of the forty or so types of alien in the game there are eight different races that can join the ranks of your crew, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and prejudices that must be taken into account when determining the station layout. Everyone on your station has his or her own identity and experience level, and under the right circumstances some individuals can even develop unique abilities, such as the regular boffin who can turn into a super scientist capable of developing special types of weapons.
The races are balanced to form a quilt of interdependencies and prejudices that can be woven in many ways depending on your objectives. There are the Thyorian Grekka-Targ, communications specialists who are prone to becoming hackers if they don't have enough work to do. Hanging out in the bars and brothels of your station will be the Kasvagorian, the warrior caste, whose violent tempers can turn on whoever is around. Complementing these are the Dahenese Sirens, temptresses who provide the inspiration for most of your working stiffs. Opposite them are Zedem Monks, religious fanatics who are always on the lookout for new converts.
Rising above it all are the hippie-like Karmarama, who spread good or bad vibes depending on how they feel. The Groulien Salt Hogs on the other hand are indifferent to their surroundings, and make up the lowest levels of your workforce. Rounding out the species are the X-Files styled Greys, who staff medical areas, and the research workhorse Turakken who have a head up on the competition. Beyond the aliens in the market for work there is a super race, the Pulvakian Gem Slugs, who are only attracted to the finest stations but can spit out gems of pure energy which will greatly enhance your power.
The hiring and management of aliens involves a number of subtleties that can't really be deciphered at this point given the complexity of the game, but a few details have emerged. For example, employees don't contribute to your energy total, so recruiting the most powerful isn't always in your best interest since they also give out the most energy. Employees are the only ones that will advance your technology and aid your expansion though, so you will have to hire some of them sooner or later.
Some creatures are room-specific, such as the floating DJ in the disco, and one, the Orophux, is even a room in itself. You also have an army of droids at your disposal which, like the imps in Dungeon Keeper, keep your station running and need no coddling to make them happy. Droids can be moved anywhere on the station via a transportation beam simply by picking them up with the cursor, so they can immediately be sent wherever they are needed. There are different varieties ranging from maintenance to security, all of which need to be maintained regularly to prevent them from breaking down.
Other aliens in the game fall under the heading of uninvited guests, such as vermin that can get into your food supply and hostile creatures that evolve on the Bio Deck. You can also find yourself fighting rival station keepers, although combat is controlled in the same indirect fashion as the rest of the game - the player instigates a raid or defensive manoeuvre and the game then decides who does what on your behalf. If direct confrontation isn't your cup of tea, you can also use spies, saboteurs, assassins and mutineers to get ahead.
Rounding out the features that everyone seems to crave these days is multiplayer support, complete with a Gamespy lobby server. This will pit up to four station masters against each other, fighting for control of the entire station. And then there's always the question of the release date. The latest word from one of the developer droids toiling away in one of the darker tech decks at Mucky Foot is that Startopia will arrive on earth some time in June.
It's often the little things that have been the downfall of many otherwise great games of this ilk in recent memory - Sierra's city building series and Bullfrog's own Dungeon Keeper games come to mind. Melding satisfying conquest into what is primarily a resource management game has always been an elusive goal to say the least, but the good folks at Mucky Foot are well on their way to achieving this. If not .. well, as many a Bullfrog fan has been known to say, "there's always next time".