When Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds left MicroProse to form Firaxis Games, strategy fans were left wondering what would become of the Civilization series. After all, Civilization II is pretty widely accepted as the best the genre has to offer and one of the best games of all time; we gave it a 97 percent rating, the highest we’ve given any game -- until now. Only Meier and Reynolds seemed qualified to follow their own masterpiece, but Firaxis didn’t have the rights to do a third Civ game.
A protracted legal fight began, with Activision, MicroProse, and Avalon Hill all fighting for the right to use the valuable Civilization brand-name. But while various lawyers argued heatedly about who owned the rights to a 12-letter word, Meier and Reynolds quietly worked on an actual game -- one that would turn out to be the truest continuation of the series. That game, Alpha Centauri, is unmistakably the rightful heir to the Civilization throne. It’s also the best strategy game ever made.
Alpha Centauri begins with the United Nations sending a ship, code-named Unity, to a planet that orbits the primary star of the Alpha Centauri system. The hope is that humanity will have a new home here, should the Earth finally reach critical mass. Unfortunately, a reactor malfunction damages the ship and contact with Earth is lost. The crewmembers of the Unity begin to argue about the direction the mission should take; eventually, they break up into seven factions, divided along clear ideological lines. You assume control of one of the factions with the goal of becoming the dominant force on the planet.
Meier and Reynolds perfected their model for turn-based strategy games a long time ago, and Alpha Centauri doesn’t deviate far from the formula. Essentially, you begin with a base and a small number of resources; from those humble beginnings you must develop technologies, expand your empire, and eventually conquer the world. That’s not to say that Alpha Centauri merely rehashes what we’ve seen before; in fact, if Civilization II represented a jump forward from the original Civilization, then Alpha Centauri is a quantum leap past anything we’ve seen.
It’s hard not to gush about all of the additions and refinements incorporated into Alpha Centauri; there’s just so much here. The interface will be familiar to anyone who’s played Civ II, but it has been streamlined and is easier to navigate. The building/research mode has been broken into four areas -- explore, discover, build, and conquer -- which helps you determine what each computer-controlled city governor will research and build. Other welcome additions include borders that define your territory (which prevents the roaming "musket men" that could be so annoying in Civ II), observation posts that let you track anyone in your territory, and a workshop that lets you design units.
Those welcome additions aside, the real genius behind Alpha Centauri lies in its depth. Multiple victory conditions cover the entire spectrum: You can achieve victory with military dominance, economic dominance, diplomatic means, cooperative victory, or victory through transcendence. The diplomacy model has been improved, and the other factions respond more realistically; a threatening tone is not always met with a military attack, and you can bully certain factions into doing your dirty work.
Adding to the intrigue is the United Nations charter: Certain acts (such as nerve-stapling your uncooperative drones) will result in the other factions leveling economic sanctions, and extreme acts (such as using nerve gas) will result in them uniting militarily against you.
On the research and city-building front, you can raise and lower mountains (which impacts local rainfall), build cities on the ocean, and create resource-gathering enhancements. The game’s technology tree is a bit abstract, but there are nice explanations provided for everything; and besides, we’ve already invented the wheel a thousand times in Civ II -- it was high time to move on to the realm of science fiction.
One of the biggest knocks against Civ II was that it didn’t include multi-player support, but Alpha Centauri doesn’t make this oversight. The game’s not quite as much fun in multi-player mode, but it’s nice to be able to play with (or against) another human. The interface is clean, with a straightforward chat feature and a detailed negotiation screen where you can exchange technologies and create treaties or pacts. The turn-based nature of the game makes it a less-than-ideal multi-player experience, since you’ll spend a certain amount of time just waiting for the other person to complete his or her turn. The waiting can be reduced by using the turn timer and other options, but this isn’t a game you should rush through.
Alpha Centauri is not perfect; there are some minor bugs (the game doesn’t always return to an activated unit, for example, and sometimes it fails to display an active unit when it’s in a city). But these are minor points and don’t detract from the gameplay.
Meier and Reynolds have shown again that they are the masters of turn-based strategy games. Alpha Centauri may have Civilization II at its core, but it raises the bar to an entirely new level.