Take a large dollop of Sim City, add the 3D view of Populous, transport the whole planet, and surely the results must be out of this world?
Take four of the most popular Amiga games ever (Populous, Powermonger, Sim City and Mega Lo Mania). Chuck 'em all together into a big cauldron and mix them up a bit, and a number of things will occur. First, you'll come up with a bit of a strange effort where lots of sheep fly around in bi-planes bombing enemy skyscrapers. Throw it away (or sell it to Jeff Minter, suit yourself). Next, you'll probably pull out a strategy wargame where city councillors cause earthquakes with tactical nuclear weapons. Throw it away.
After that, your next result is more than likely to be a kind of sports sim set in a large stadium, where teams of WWI generals race to be the first to pull heavy cannons up steep grassy hills (you may have seen something like this already in the Royal Tournament which pops up on TV every year just after some showjumping). Throw it away.
In amongst the gooey mess that you'll now have left at the bottom of the cauldron, the chances are there'll be a game not a million miles away from Utopia...
A Raving Egomaniac On Mars
Utopia sets you up on a faraway planet, sometime in the fairly near future. It's an inhospitable place, with an unbreathable atmosphere, ground unsuitable for growing food plants in, and alien civilisations always lurking just off-screen, waiting to pounce on youor new-found paradise just as soon as you get it looking half-decent. Not that any of this worries you, of course. As newly-appointed overall commander of the colony, you have every aid imaginable at your disposal, from hydroponic plants which cultivate crops in an Earth-like atmosphere to ship construction yards which can build all sorts of spacecraft, from exploration vessels to huge warships to nuclear-powered fusion cruisers (there'll be more on them a bit later).
You also need to build and maintain power stations, life support systems and facilities to mine the planet for ores (for building spaceships, tanks, etc) and fuels, and all the time keep up the colonists' quality of life by building homes and amenities for them, controlling birth rate, and so on. All this has to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, too, because the aliens are coming and they're not going to listen when you go "Hang on a minute, I haven't built any tanks yet"...
Does It Go One Step Beyond?
The whole thing is played out in a Populous-style 3D perspective (further Populous elements come from the various types of landscape you encounter), but as you've probably already heard, it plays like nothing so much as "Sim City In Space". The modular design, the various types of building, the need to keep the population happy and the financial juggling are all strongly reminiscent of Infogrames' classic of municipal planning, the only major difference being the fighting element. Then again, this takes quite a while to manifest itself (more on that later too), so for the first few hours you'll hardly notice the difference.
Okay, so far so froody. But what you need to know is, is this Just Another Gold Sim or does it rise up above the crowd and dazzle with ingenuity and brilliant design, enrapturing all those who play it and disrupting reviewers' deadlines for weeks on end? It's Just Another God Sim, I'm afraid.
Still, being no better than Sim City and Populous is hardly a heinous crime in the software world. Utopia isn't anything approaching a bad game and it has many things to recommend it, but at the end of the day I found myself just a little bit disappointed.
After hacking through the extensive manual for an age, I finally felt up to tackling the game, but in play I found it all, of all things, a little simplistic. There's a fairly frantic period for the first couple of years when you try to build up some defences, then it's just a question of beating off alien attacks, clearing up the damage, and getting ready to do it all again.
This would be fine, except that the game doesn't initially seem to give you any chance to actually win. All you can do is slow the enemy down before their next attack, and this can really crush the game's addictive qualities. Still, devote the entire colony to tank-producing, and eventually you'll wipe out the rival city, which leads you to the other big problem.
The other big problem with Utopia is that it doesn't really offer any obstacles to the successful development of the colony. You don't need the thoughtful planning of Sim City to keep your city functioning (i.e. efficient roads, railways, etc) as the colony seems to operate perfectly well with all its buildings crammed together in big clumps.
There's very little danger of running out of money, just bump up the birth rate and keep income tax at a reasonable level and the stuff'll pour in faster than you can spend it. The only real bugbear is the occasional meteor collision which can wreck fairly big chunks of your colony, but a quick injection of cash into research soon comes up with a protective laser system which frees you from that problem. Now and again your workers will go on strike for 'better conditions' but there doesn't seem to be anything you can actually do about this (it isn't even mentioned in the manual) and after a few days they seem to cheer up and go back to work of their own volition.
This eclectic approach to labour relations, though, is just one of a number of slightly worrying budgets in Utopia. You might remember I mentioned fusion cruisers earlier on? After I increased their research budget substantially, my military engineers proudly announced that they'd come up with just such a craft, one which would never need refuelling. Deeply excited, I built a couple and made to send them off on a mission, only to be informed that "That ship does not have fuel to follow your orders". Although all my other spaceships were flying around happily, the mighty fusion cruiser simply refused to budge, and a close study of the manual failed to reveal any special requirements it might have. Not that that stopped the scientists informing me for the next three hours of their wonderful discovery...!
The most irritating bug I found, though, was a geographical one. Having funded my spying operation to a ridiculous level, I was informed of an alien city to the south-easy of my colony. I built up huge defences in the south-easy and sent off squadrons of tanks to attack the aliens, and they all duly trundled off in that direction. Minutes later, the aliens attacked in huge numbers - from the north-west. Now maybe this was an example of their tactical acumen, but it seems plain unfair to me. There are other bugs, but these are the worst I encountered, and I don't want to go on about the negative aspects of the game too much.
Utopia is still appealing on a very basic (!) egomaniac level, the rewarding nature of building things providing a lot of immediate enjoyment. Despite the forbidding manual it's accessible too (much like Sim City was), but at the end of the day it seems to be dangerously lacking in actual game. Building things up is all very well, but if they just keep getting knocked back down again time and time again you may end up getting a little bored.
The Bottom Line
Uppers: Looks good, there's lots to do, it's slick and easy to get into. The balance between sedate city-building and desperate defence is potentially an excellent one.
Downers: Relatively small screen area makes it easy to lose perspective, so that you don't generally have a natural feel for where everything in your city is, but the one really major flaw is the lack of solid results, either in battles or in general.
I wanted to like this, and deep down I do, but the perpetual nature isn't really suited to a game where battles are such a major element. Compared to Mega Lo Mania, it lacks direction, and compared to Sim City it lacks depth. It's good, I'd say very good even, just not that good.