Reviewed: November 17, 2003
Released: October 14, 2003
They say that in space, no one can here you scream. With Space Colony, the latest release from up and coming game developer Firefly Studios, it might be more fitting to say ‘no one can hear you laugh’ because if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the echoes of your loud guffaws will be bouncing around the cold dark expanse of space while experiencing this light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek Space Colony simulation.
Eschewing the dark somber overtones used so often by other space themed games, Space Colony is a sim with more than just heart, it’s an adventure into the wild, the wacky and the otherwise just plain funny aspects of life aboard a 22nd century space station colony.
Flash forward to the year 2153 AD. Earth’s natural economic resources have been exhausted, prompting humanity to go forth and explore the far reaches of the galaxy in search of, what else?… Profit. As a result of these monetary efforts, society is now split along economic lines between the haves and have nots – those with credits are known as Spacers, while the working stiffs of society are called Landers.
Our story centers on the adventures of a young 23 year old Lander named Venus Jones. A veteran of several Space Colony expeditions, Venus is now an expert on setting up and running space colonies on unexplored planets, whose ultimate objective is always the same, to tap the natural resources of the planet and make a profit. Longing to return home to her family on earth, Venus just needs to complete one more mission before earning enough credits to retire a wealthy young woman. Over the course of Venus’ adventure, the cast of Space Colony will expand to include a diverse group of interesting characters, each with a story of their own.
Interacting with the world of Space Colony is a breeze, thanks to the super-intuitive setup provided by Firefly. Selecting colonists, assigning them to different tasks, buying upgrades and keeping tab on all the general hub-bub around your space hub is simply a matter of pointing and clicking with the left mouse button, while the right button serves as a quick and easy ‘cancel’ button that moves you out of menus and allows you to backtrack when second thoughts arise.
Those who remember Firefly’s outstanding debut, Stronghold, will have a good idea of what kind of interface to expect. Managing a remote colony in outer space is a wee bit different from controlling knights and serfs in the middle ages however, and there are some key differences between Space Colony’s gameplay and Stronghold’.
As with any sim game, maintenance and expansion are the two key elements guiding the course of the game. In the beginning, you’ll start out on a remote backwater planet with just Venus, her partner Stig and a small base (aka Bio-dome) with menial operations to oversee. Your initial objectives include routine food harvesting and base maintenance; taking care of power, oxygen and life support levels. With each succeeding episode the scenario becomes complicated just a bit more – new colonist arrivals and additional objectives are introduced as your base grows in size and complexity. Balancing these two critical objectives, the influx of new workers and the obligations of running a space station for profit forms the central challenge of the game.
Maintenance is absolutely essential. Managing your colonists is just like managing sims. Using all the resources at your disposal, you must provide for their physical, mental and emotional well being. Happiness levels for your colonists are the ultimate indicator of all these factors, and since a happy worker is a productive worker, it’s in your best (profitable) interest to make sure they’re well taken care of. This also translates into an efficiency bonus for non-human base maintenance, as a happy colonist provides more work time to keep your base trim and fit as opposed to a depressed or sick one.
Fortunately Firefly makes it fun and easy to keep Venus and Co. up and running at peak efficiency. You’ve got a ton of choices – purchase exercise equipment, saunas, lounges, disco dance rooms, ATM machines and other enhancements that improve the quality of life of for your workers.
The versatility of these ‘sim’ space colonists makes them quite interesting to manage. In addition to having unique personalities and backgrounds, which typify some of the funniest stereotypes imaginable, each colonist has their own separate set of skills, not all of which will help you earn more credits, but which add a dimension of hilarity and fullness to this cast of space castaways. You can educate them and improve their skills, send them off to chat with co-workers or get a workout at the gym. Help them interact with other colonists and romance can bloom, ignore their basic needs for human interaction and watch tempers flare. In fact, the list of characters is as diverse as the things you can do with them.
The list is too exhaustive to cover here, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing with delight at the drunken antics of Tami Labelle the aging cowgirl, Daisy Willoweed’s non-conformist neo-hippie attitude or the valley girl accent and general clulesslessness of Candi Simpson. Their personalities enchant, and their varying degrees of utility will both confound and challenge you. Candi for instance, can’t perform any of the vital station functions like monitoring power or oxygen levels. She can shop however, and if you take the time to educate her in the library she can develop space chicken farming (don’t ask) skills to rival those of Billy Bob Perkins, another colonist whose personality mix of Forrest Gump and Jimmy Carter will certainly get a few laughs.
After a while, interfering…er, guiding the lives of your colonists will become second nature to you, as the bright, colorful interface and sound cues will alert you to any possible distress your colonists may be experiencing. They really do make it easy, and will complain loudly or simply send you a personal message directly if something in their lives needs to be remedied.
Aside from maintenance, the other main task that will demand your attention is exploration and harvesting. This is a Space Colony after all, not the Love Boat. You can’t spend all your time managing your colonists lives without expecting a little gratification vis-a-vi the sweet sound of credits landing in your bank account. In order to get the money ball rolling, you’ll need to assign your colonists to various industries. In early episodes this is strictly limited to basic things like food harvesting and iron ore mining. As the story unfolds and your operations expand new economic objectives will arise, such as the very lucrative (yet time sensitive) space chicken farming, which will require the construction of a space chicken harvesting unit. This is where the game can get a little tricky, and Space Colony loses a few brownie points for not making it easier.
Essentially, as your operations expand and the need for more storage space arises, the real challenge becomes finding space to place your extra buildings. Later on in the game this situation is alleviated somewhat, but during the first five episodes I began to feel starved for space sooner than I should have. A bigger sandbox is what is called for here, and although players can realize this to their hearts content in the game’s ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Sandbox’ modes, the main adventure is where its absence is most glaringly apparent.
One of Space Colony’s most favorable aspects is its strong production values and highly polished presentation. The dark expanse of space just got a whole lot friendlier. Taking it’s cue from Stronghold, Space Colony features 3d-like models moving about on a 2d map. The downside to this is that you’ll be unable to move the map around and view your structures from different angles. The upside is that Firefly has taken all the cute object animations that you loved from Stronghold and made them even better.
You’ll be able to see your colonists boogie to the rhythm of the beat in the disco, chat and smoke in the lounge, ride space bikes around the planet surface and perform their work duties in splendidly realistic fashion. This is particularly true for food harvesting, where the unit operation animations for the space chicken harvester (morbidly hilarious) and the nutrient extractor combine the best aspects of futuristic realism and space humor.
Cinematic cutscenes are also included to help further the story, and are done quite well. As I mentioned earlier, Space Colony’s strongest graphical point is its overall presentation, blending a beautifully ornate space motif into the games’ interface at each point. Display screens look futuristic, personal messages come by way of a sleek pop up video screen and the dossier intro’s to each new episode are chock full of holograms, bio’s and personal communique’s that all sport the quintessential 22nd century look. Overtones of Starcraft and Star Wars can be felt just on the periphery of the game, and they serve the environment well.
The presentation aspect of Space Colony carries over to it’s polished sound production as well. All of the in-game sound effects contain the beeps, whirls and buzz’s that one would associate with a mechanized, robotic future. I absolutely loved the robotisized feminine voice that comes up over your intercom, and warns you when you’re about to quit a game – an extremely nice touch. Your colonists each contain their own unique dialogue, and when they dance in the discotheque they each get down to their brand of favorite music.
The ambient in-game music pipes up when the level first begins or when an objective is completed, and unobtrusively trails off after a minute of so, leaving you to concentrate on all the fine details of your delicate operation. By far and away the best music from the game comes in at the introductory menu, a funky blend of R&B, Synth Keyboards and a funky Bass Guitar with Drums backbeat that goes from zero to hip in no time flat and stays there. It’s the kind of sound you’d expect to hear from turning on the radio instead of starting up a video game.
Several other selections similar to that await you throughout the game, and the in-game menu allows you to choose from each selection once it’s unlocked. Not to tread too hard on an oft used phrase, but it’s a shame that no can hear you in space – these are the kind of tunes that make the great wide yonder a groovy place to be.
In addition to the campaign mode that follows the adventures of Venus Jones, Space Colony offers two additional modes of play, Galaxy and Sandbox. In Galaxy mode you’re able to forge your own career path with three different Star Systems to work in, each of which offers different missions involving separate objectives grouped by category: people, economic and military. In Sandbox, you’ve got free reign to follow your hearts content with no specific mission objectives – be as greedy or philanthropic as you’d like.
Space Colony doesn’t offer any multiplayer mode, which is a bit of a shame. On the one hand, you’d wonder how on earth a game as detailed and slow moving as this would make an interesting multiplayer match, but on the other hand, several distinct possibilities exist for making a potential Space Colony multiplayer experience unique. Co-op mode comes to mind: working together to manage a Space Colony would add immeasurable fun to the game, as well as going head to head against corporate rivals to earn certain amounts of money, achieve a vital goal, or see who can attract the most tourists to their station. Galaxy mode is meant to fulfill this gap to a certain extent, but it would have been nice to at least have a multiplayer option available.
With Space Colony, FireFly has achieved something very unique. They’ve taken the concept of outer space exploration and melded it with The Sims, presenting it in a glossy and highly playable package. The small personal touches that abound throughout the game are evident of quality production values, and these shine through in both the game’s outstanding interface and its spot-on motif.
The lack of multiplayer options and non-3d interface hamper the fun a bit, but are more than made up for with engrossing gameplay and constant humor. Those in the market for a light hearted Space Sim with excellent production values and compelling gameplay should give this one a try.