Genre: City Builder/Simulation
Release Date: October 15, 2003
Buy 'SPACE COLONY': PC
Micromanagement is an art. If you do it well no one notices. If you don’t you’re the most unpopular person in the room. Games like The Sims and Black & White test your ability to think about the big picture while fiddling with the details, under pressure. Somehow that’s fun, don’t ask me to explain. FireFly Studio’s Space Colony lets you manage a bunch of space traveling folks with some serious personal issues. Though the game has its problems, it holds up against its competition very well.
The game’s premise is simple enough. You work for a big corporation called Blackwater Industries. In the campaign mode, you’re given a couple of colonists to start with and a couple more at the beginning of each level. The control center is the hub of your colony, where the oxygen, power and medical systems are maintained. Each character has his specialties, though some are smart enough to train. You get a series of tasks on each level that you must achieve, ranging from harvesting space-chickens to protecting the base from alien bugs. Everything you do is made more urgent by the personal demands of the colonists and the fiscal demands of your boss.
If you want to see the epitome of elegance, study Space Colony. Maintenance of the base and its people is handled with a wonderful interface that runs on the left side of the screen. The challenge of a God Game like this is you need to have the tools to see what’s going on everywhere and the tools to guide events in a direction you like. FireFly should be commended for an admirable design job. All the building buttons are lined up neatly in one area. Clicking on one brings up an easy-to-see graphic of all the available buildings. I found that later in the game the screen was filled with the chaos of my colony BUT I could still see the interface well and never suffered due to its design. That’s a big deal. Instructing a character to perform a duty (like stabilizing the energy core or, well taking a shower) is as simple as clicking on the character and then clicking on the area of the colony you want them to go.
SC is similar to other God Games in that accomplishing your goals depends on a build tree or other sequence of events under your control. Need ore? Build an ore mining machine and assign a colonist who knows how to use it. No one knows how to use it? Train them in the library. Nowhere to put the library? Build another dome and make the space. There’s also sim-level tasks which usually requires you to juggle their needs while trying to keep them productive. They can eat, dance at the disco, sleep in their own bed, strike up conversation, even date. And what would a Space Colony be without hostile aliens? As the game progresses you’re given more tools to defend yourself.
When you get down to the nitty gritty though, there are two aspects of the game that stand out to make it an addictive romp. Number one is the characters. These guys are a real treat and some of them should be given an award for best performance. The designers went a long way to making these people real. The voices are absolutely top-notch. I can’t think of a game with better performances. And the characters are crystal clear. You know who they are from step one and, yes, you care about them because of that. From Tami, who is so insecure she can’t go 3 minutes without talking to someone to Vasilios, whose star gazing is not only counter-productive to your goals but hilariously creepy. Then there’s Candy who is the first character I neglect because she’s so irritating. She’s a great example of how big a role the characters’ personalities play in the game. The computer warns you before she arrives at the station that she’s not exactly bright. But nothing can prepare you for this enigma. When she arrives she doesn’t want to help, she wants to shop. She has no skills to speak of but she’s somewhat trainable. After building a library for her to research in she would spend level after level trying to learn the skill. For most folks a few minutes at the desk is all they need. Not Candy. She’d sit there and absorb practically nothing. Instead of being frustrating though, it was funny as hell and I eventually figured out that the best way to deal with her was to put her on base-defense duty where she would often get killed by the aliens or the elements (but no one really dies, they just get sent back home to be regenerated – which isn’t very good for the bottom-line). Then there’s Dean, the clean freak and Charles, the retired business man who loves to say “yes” a lot. The list goes on and on. This isn’t just for show. Each character has to be taken care of in their own special way. Their happiness depends on food, entertainment, social interaction, sleep and cleanliness – all of which is under your control. However, to make this aspect of the game somewhat manageable and realistic these people know what they want and for the most part try to do it, unless you tell them otherwise. The realities of business and fiscal expectations drive a lot of what you do and sometimes that’s at odds with the colonists’ needs. It’s a fine balance that Space Colony does well.
Which brings us to the second aspect of the game that makes it successful – the balance. Balance in a game like this is tough. The sims needs to be smart but not too smart. There needs to be a depth of tasks that’s both challenging but fun. The brilliance of Space Colony is that it takes the best of The Sims, in its ability to make you care about the characters and adds a business touch a la Sim City that makes you balance their needs against yours as colony manager. This isn’t a new idea but FireFly pulls it off with a smooth interface, sturdy AI and an amusing universe. The success is in the details. Instead of just making the business aspect a cookie cutter “make a profit” task, FireFly has a level where your boss has sold all your solar arrays, forcing you to think on your toes and tap into the planet’s geothermal power. Dilbert in space! The computer gives you your tasks with a bunch of corporate speak that not only makes you laugh but makes your characters laugh as well. It’s just really hard to find anywhere where FireFly cut corners.
But the game is not perfect. Some of its downsides are irritating enough to keep it from being a classic. There’s no online play mode, practically a prerequisite these days. The graphics are certainly not shoddy but they don’t look as smooth as they do on the box (surprise!) The character animations are pretty stiff and the 2D sprites smack of 1997. The difficulty level can be a little tough sometimes. When you move from campaign to campaign you keep the progress (or lack of progress) you had before. While this is cool in some ways it also means you better stay on top of things. If you’re getting attacked by alien bugs at the end of one level, they’ll still be attacking you when you get a new level with new orders. While this adds to the replayability of the game, it’s also frustrating at times.
When all is said and done, though, Space Colony has a great campaign, a galaxy mode which keeps you coming back for single missions, a sandbox mode that lets you play in a setting and under conditions of your choosing, and the now-required map editor. Throw in great music, the ability to listen to your own mp3s during gameplay, a damn fine all around gaming experience and what you end up with is a complete package that deserves your attention. Pick this one up, unless you hate having fun.
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