You know those games that have all the right pieces but you know your heart just isn’t into it? That’s the struggle I have with Spacebase Startopia right now.
Launching today on consoles and tomorrow, Spacebase Startopia is basically a redux of Startopia, a quirky management sim made by a bunch of ex-Bullfrog employees in 2001.
I loved Startopia. It wasn’t a commercial success, but it had this brilliant blend of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy humour blended with what was functionally Theme Hospital in space. You had a few decks to manage, one for pleasure, one for industry and a “biodeck”, which basically gave you a giant deck to terraform with plants, water and all sorts of life.
It wasn’t necessarily the great sim, but it had a great sense of style. And a large part of that was down to the astonishingly good voice over work from William Franklyn, a British actor who voiced most of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC radio series. Franklyn was a perfect pick for the assistant AI in Startopia: he had that classic snark you get from a British professor, someone you know is deeply unimpressed with your work, but they’re professional enough to go along for the ride anyway.
Spacebase Startopia has three separate voices you can pick from, along with the “updated” version of VAL. It just doesn’t have the same heart, particularly the new VAL voice with its more robotic edge.
There’s a lot less ambient music and noise too, which you really notice when you go back and fire up the original Startopia (or newer city builders/sim games like, say, Planet Coaster). Here’s what Spacebase Startopia greets you with:
The sass is still there, but it just doesn’t land in the same way. It’s like taking shit from Cortana. Startopia at least made you feel like you were a part of something much bigger than yourself, whereas Spacebase Startopia doesn’t quite nail that.
The visual framing doesn’t help, either. Here’s what the biodeck looks like in the original game, and how it’s been redesigned for Spacebase Startopia.
There’s something a little claustrophobic about the whole experience. Maybe it’s a difference in the design in how objects are placed or just the field of view in particular, but the original game felt like you were building out massive, warehouse-like bulkheads. Even the industrial level in Spacebase Startopia, particularly with the more aggressive curve, feels cramped.
Putting the depth of space aside, Spacebase Startopia just feels like it could use a little more polish. For instance, when I first fired up the game, this was the first screen I saw. I was jumping into the first mission, because I figured, hey if you play the campaign, the first thing it’ll drop you into is the tutorial.
That’s not actually the case. You have to manually go into a separate menu for the tutorials. So when people fire up their first mission, they’re going to see this difficulty screen, which just throws a whole bunch of stats that might not make any sense at all. It’s not the biggest dealbreaker in the world, but it’s not well thought out either.
The developers have made some smart changes from the original, though. Rotating buildings with the mousewheel is a nice touch. UI prompts are more readable, even if it results in you having less space on the screen most of the time. The individual models and textures have been cleaned up really nicely, and you can zoom in and get a really great level of detail if that’s your thing. And Startopia‘s worst attribute — the RTS-lite systems where you hired security officers to expel invaders from neighbouring bulkheads — has gotten a complete overhaul.
Even just little things with the UI here, like the way the font isn’t properly centered and the lack of definition, just leaves me wanting a little bit more.
I haven’t spoken much about the actual missions themselves, although they’re pretty standard fare for these kinds of games. Each mission unlocks more and more buildings, so you’re slowly exposed to the full suite of options/problems/nightmares that Spacebase Startopia might entail. One mission has you dealing with a prison population on-board; another tasks you with healing a certain amount of aliens, while ensuring the most infectious ones don’t suddenly start a pandemic.
There’s some outstanding bugs, like on the biodeck where you fill a hole full of water and then it doesn’t properly appear, but the game never tells you why. The terraforming controls don’t have quite the same amount of finesse as the original, and instead of controlling the individual temperature and moisture of a particular area, you now just apply the terrain you want directly on the spot you want. It’s easier, but does it make for a better management sim? I don’t know.
It’s all pretty straightforward in the end, and it’s easy enough regardless of the difficulty for anyone who’s played a lot of Simcity, Cities Skylines and games like this. But the lack of charm and lacking that little bit of extra polish, that slick aesthetic that so often defines sims like these, really hurts Spacebase Startopia. Not being challenged in a sim like this is fine if the setting and sandbox elements are fun enough that you don’t mind.
Spacebase Startopia hasn’t quite nailed that yet, at least not from what I’ve played so far. I’m about halfway through the main campaign, which is 10 missions in total. Each level has taken me about 20 or so minutes to knock off, although your mileage may vary. I’m going to keep working through, largely because I loved Startopia and I really, really want Spacebase Startopia to work. But it’s absolutely not something I’d recommend to others so far, for two simple reasons: I’m not sure Spacebase Startopia brings enough innovation and polish to this genre to justify a $62 investment, especially when games as good as Two-Point Hospital, Planet Zoo or Planet Coaster exist. Secondly, Startopia still plays really well on modern systems. And if you asked me which one was more fun, I’d still vote for the original.