Genius is not at all like toothpaste. While Crest can issue a new brand and proclaim it will make your teeth 20% brighter than the last one, or assure you that this tube contains 15% more gel than any one previous, Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier just can't quantify their genius for turn-based strategy. Nor can we.
Certainly, it would be convenient for Firaxis and EA to be able to put a stamp on the box of Alpha Centauri explaining that it is simply 10% more ingenious than Civilization II. It would make our lives much simpler if we could offer a definitive "15% less brilliant than Civilization II," to solidify our critique. Instead we have to dabble with the murky uncertainties of opinion and explain what, this time around, is closer to perfection -- and what is further from it.
But you see, the looming specter hanging over it all is perhaps the most important part, and so it bears pointing out right away: Alpha Centauri is brilliant, ingenious, wonderful (in the 'full of wonder' sense), and -- dare we say it -- important. So, its failings compared to Reynolds and Meiers' previous turn-based outing certainly do not knock it from its lofty perch.
The stated goal of Alpha Centauri is to create a future history. While Civilization II recreated the building of a culture throughout human history, AC transplants its culture to an alien planet far in the future. And these cultures are not united by geography or race but by the far more powerful bonds of ideas. Each faction, and there are seven in Centauri, is unified by belief in a principle, be it pursuit of knowledge, tree hugging, faith in god, or the almighty dollar. By centering the game around ideas rather than earthly notions of culture, Alpha Centauri is freed to explore a boundless horizon.
Firaxis has made the game all about the development of these colonist factions on their new terra firma, a place they call simply Planet. As the game progresses, we see bits and pieces of the evolving Planet culture as every technology advance, every new building constructed is underscored by a reading from a text authored by one of the faction leaders (the actors reading these texts are terrific, by the way). In addition, the game is occasionally interrupted by story interludes where we learn more about Planet and the ultimate goals of the game.
As gameplay goes, Centauri is very similar to Civ II, with resources named something different, and more factors influencing your faction's development. The game features a social engineering screen where you decide if you will be a money grubbing police state or a tree hugging people that want knowledge above all else. As you engineer your society, your decisions have profound impacts on what parts of your society will develop -- economics, military, scientific labs, etc. The system works quite well and does give the feeling that every faction in the game is completely different.
What is peculiar about Alpha Centauri is that its successes are its failings. First, it is entirely too similar to Civ II. So much so that it is impossible to avoid comparisons. This includes graphics that look roughly comparable to a game that is many years its senior. Its graphical conceits that are superior primarily revolve around larger images for units and 3D terrain. In addition, the game uses the same ways of conveying information about terrain as Civ II did, yet it has many more factors. So any given square may have four or five little icons on it, often growing confusing.
Second, is that this game is unlikely to have the eternal staying power of Civ II. While it is improved in many, many ways over its predecessor, its forefather will be on hard drives long after Alpha Centauri is erased. In creating so many specific and fascinating details about the efforts of these colonists to unlock the secrets of Planet and survive their exile from Earth, the game becomes entirely specified. While Civ II keeps you at arms length from the people you are moving around, allowing you to think of them as pieces on a board, AC convinces you these are people and you are their leader. While this makes the game amazing, it cuts into its replayability. The game is no longer pure strategy and, once you feel you have unlocked its secrets it's not clear why you should play again.
The Bottom Line: Alpha Centauri has a purpose and a theme. Its purpose is to build a possible tale of humanity's future on another planet and let you control the destiny of one people in that struggle. Its theme is the discovery of what philosophy, what ideology we should pursue in the face of a clean slate on a far away world. That it has these two things make it a brilliant flight of fancy from two masters of strategy. However, if we could only take one game to a desert island, it would still be Civ II. While this one isn't 10% better than its predecessor, it hardly matters. It will makes your monitor shine.