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Out of This World 

Game On

Houston, we have a problem

Whatever endless fascination we once had with outer space has evaporated in a hail of plasma-rifle blasts and alien battle cruisers. Where kids once revered names such as Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, these days "Samus Aran" and "Master Chief" will get a bigger schoolyard response.

The final frontier has slipped from humankind's destiny to the generic background for countless video games.

"SpaceStationSim" illustrates the challenge of selling space to a generation raised on technological gee whiz. A good-natured Sims in Space, this game lets you manage the construction and operation of an international space station. From hiring astronauts to launching payloads of equipment into orbit, the title balances realism with a bit of fun. Keeping oxygen levels up while reducing carbon dioxide and boredom, the player carefully metes tasks to astronauts staffing the station. At mission control, it pays to keep an eye on Earthly budgets and stick to planning for that next launch of supplies.

Using pieces and parts from American, Canadian, Japanese and Russian space agencies, players cobble together something that looks vaguely like a real international spacecraft. Different components serve different functions - such as science, support or habitation - and plug into the flying conglomeration like Legos. Cutaway views provide a peek into the extraterrestrial life of the space-station crew as they go about the tasks of turning equipment on and off, managing experiments, practicing orbital docking and fixing equipment that always seems to be going on the fritz.

Developed in collaboration with NASA, the simulation does what it can to make soaring into the stars - or at least spinning around Earth in orbit - amusing. The trouble is, other than some comic bits like the sudden arrival of a space tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, the game emphasizes how much more fun it would be if you could shoot something. Little green men from Mars might not fit the facts of space science, but they do add drama to floating around in zero gravity.

Sadly, shooting is inherently more fun than balancing the delicate ecosystem of a cramped space station. All the big-budget money that goes into producing something like "Halo 3" helps the "Halo" universe look that much cooler than real life. The problem with a game like "SSS" isn't that it strives to put some educational meat on its bones. It's that no one has invested the kind of money it takes to make simulating life in space high-enough fidelity to compete with what gamers have come to expect from games set in space.

In this way, "SSS" suffers the same fate as many "serious games." Because money in the games industry goes toward fantasy, fantasy, rather than reality, seems like the only thing that can succeed.

Who's It For: With a heavy emphasis on realism, you ought to have a keen interest in space before blasting off with this title.

If You Like This, Try That: When space simulation turns into a grind, why not try "Space Colony?" More science fiction than science fact, this management game lets you build and run an off-world space community - complete with misfits, troublemakers and space creatures.

Best Part: This game answers the age-old astronaut question: How do you go to the bathroom in space? The answer: In the bathroom.

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David Thomas

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