Sunday, February 25, 2007

SpaceStationSim Review

SpaceStationSim, developed by Vision Videogames and published by Enlight Software.
The Good: Accurate components, intuitive solutions to problems, helpful audio and visual warnings, mostly flexible station design, generally self-sufficient astronauts, challenging
The Not So Good: Accessing different areas of the game could be easier, more tooltips on crew attributes needed, tourists are annoying!
What say you? A quality simulation that has just enough to do to keep you busy: 6/8

The area of real-world science that gets the most attention is space exploration. Rockets to the moon, probing Uranus, astronauts wearing diapers: it’s all very exciting. Most space games go for the futuristic tilt of intergalactic warfare, so there is an opening for contemporary space simulations. This leads us to SpaceStationSim, a sim where you build a station in space, more specifically the International Space Station of Doom (doom sold separately). The game gives you a chance of managing this multi-billion dollar operation, because you can do a much better job than rocket scientists, right? The game box claims “Newtons of fun!” (I’m hoping for Fig Newtons of fun, myself). Does SpaceStationSim deliver its precious payload of delight?

The graphics of SpaceStationSim are pleasing. The space station itself is pretty detailed; I imagine that the developers got a hold of some blueprints or pictures of the real life counterparts, and the station looks like a realistic replica. The components fit together fairly well and the results of the freeform game look realistic. The level of detail is also well-done, at least for the individual components of the space station. The astronauts don’t have a great variety in their appearance, but they are on par with The Sims 2 in terms of overall quality. There is almost no clipping in the game, which is commendable since a lot of games fall short in this area. The earth could look a lot better, however. The textures are blocky and there aren’t any cool nighttime effects, as your station seems to be bathed in permanent light. I’m sure the developers could “borrow” some textures from Google Earth to make our home look more impressive in the game. SpaceStationSim features decent voice acting and generally good sound effects, although the tourists are annoying (and the “electric shock” effect when they break stuff is irritating as well). SpaceStationSim has some very annoying background music that doesn’t fit the space theme of the game very well at all. You’re just better off disabling it and running some MP3s in the background. Still, SpaceStationSim has above average graphics that shouldn’t disappoint.

In SpaceStationSim, you will build the space station. Surprise! The game has a tutorial mode, which is essentially the game on easy mode with experienced astronauts; it gives you a feel for the game, although reading through the manual and general experimentation is recommended. You will have a suite of astronauts to do your evil bidding. SpaceStationSim is similar to The Sims, in that you create a custom astronaut, assign them tasks, and build their “house,” although SpaceStationSim adds more scientific things to the equation. You can customize your astronaut’s physical characteristics (gender, clothing), personality (work ethic, courage), specialty (biomedical, materials, science, or engineer), and nationality. Each specialty is geared towards running certain experiments or repairing broken equipment, and hiring astronauts of a certain country will increase prestige (“flags”) from that country. You are limited in the number of personality points you have to prevent the creation of a super astronaut. Part of the game will be spend giving orders to astronauts, although they do a pretty good job of fulfilling their own needs and doing needed tasks. The higher their level, the better their decision making will be, so more guidance is required for new astronauts. The AI is good in the game; this greatly cuts down on tedious micromanagement, leaving you to just worry about the biggest problems as routine tasks will be handled automatically. Tasks include fulfilling your astronauts’ basic needs (food, social, potty), occasionally steering the craft, and maintaining appropriate levels of supplies.

There are a bunch of new components and modules you can add to your station, which will allow for a greater range of things to do (and more things to break). Each additional component requires an investment of “flags,” which is a representation of that country’s investment into the production of the component. Flags are earned by completing experiments (it is a science vessel, after all) and maintaining a positive environment on the station. Each of the game’s objects are housed in a module: habitation modules are for living, science modules are for research, support modules are for expanding your station, structural modules are for power, and special modules are special! You must have the required number of flags, an available connection point, enough power, and a rocket to deliver it before you can order an additional module. Inside each module are components, which help with the atmosphere, entertainment, communications, food, storage, health, water, or provide additional experiments. There is an almost endless combination of objects in the game, and SpaceStationSim gives you the freedom to construct your station in any arrangement, as long as you have the open slots. You will be primarily driven by your astronauts’ and station’s needs. For example, if the carbon dioxide levels are too high, it’s time to purchase and install a CO2 scrubber. If your astronauts are complaining about being bored, installing a DVD player might solve the problem. Since the goal of the game is to accumulate flags, you will also want to install more experimental components. SpaceStationSim generally does a good job indicating which areas need improvement, although you need to remember what the symbols mean, as the game is devoid of many helpful tool-tips. This extends to the astronaut stats as well: I had to look up what each set of colored bars meant multiple times, as the game just wouldn’t tell me if I hovered my mouse over it. The user interface could use some work as well: SpaceStationSim divides all of the information over several screens, instead of just sticking on the main view. You have to “go back” to Mission Control to order additional parts or supplies, and this requires multiple presses of backspace. SpaceStationSim is a well designed game, the user interface just could be more friendly.

As far as simulations go, SpaceStationSim is one of the better ones. The game takes the basic structure of The Sims and applies it to scientific research in space, allowing you to custom build an entire space station using realistic components and to hire user-created astronauts. The graphics are good enough, and the gameplay uses just enough automation to eliminate tedium. There is actually more variety here than in The Sims (at least before the 2,531 expansion packs). Plus, the game can be quite challenging, as bad conditions can deteriorate rather quickly if left unaided. The game lets you know of impending doom, although the user interface could be better. If you’ve ever dreamed of building your own space station like Billy Bob Thornton but just lack the start-up capital, SpaceStationSim is an entertaining substitute.