Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Mankind's future in space is a lot like his past on earth
Published by Firaxis Games
Posted on 02/11/1999
CHEATS: Sid Meier's Alpha Cent ...
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FIRST LOOK: Alpha Centauri
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PREVIEW: Sid Meier's Alpha Cen ...
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Shot One The graphics are pretty, but it can be difficult to distinguish units from the terrain, especially when in the presence of heavy terraforming... now where was that Chaos Interceptor again?
"What happens next?"

It is a question that millions of strategy fans have been asking since MicroProse released Sid Meier's original epic masterpiece in 1991. Civilization was a bit like traveling through time—oversee the construction of the pyramids one moment, wonder how it got to be four o'clock in the morning the next. Nurturing human society from the dawn of history made for a compelling experience, and mounting the first human expedition to another world (one of two victory conditions) was a natural finale representing all of our hopes and dreams for the future. Brian Reynolds designed Civilization II (with a bit of help from Sid), and while it was a wonderful remake of the classic game, it still failed to answer the big question. All of human history culminated in a single spaceship on a journey to Earth's nearest neighboring star. What does happen next?

Sid and Brian have since left MicroProse to found Firaxis, and while it has been a long time in coming (eight years is an eternity in the game industry), they have finally come up with an answer. Dismissing the trivial legality of the fact that MicroProse still owns the rights to Sid's original game, there is little question that Alpha Centauri is the real sequel to you-know-what.

Shot Two You won't find Elvis here, but managing the happiness of your people remains an important element of a successful society
The story picks up where Civilization left off. A single spaceship—the Unity—has been sent by the United Nations on a mission to colonize Chiron, an Earth-like planet orbiting the primary star of Alpha Centauri. Along the way the ship's reactor malfunctions, and the crew is prematurely woken from cryo-sleep. With nothing to do for the remainder of their four light-year journey but ask each other "are we there yet?" about ten-thousand times, they naturally fall to bickering. By the time the Unity reaches Chiron the crew has fractured into seven factions, each espousing a separate ideology regarding the future of the mission and their future civilization. Apparently none of these ideologies involve repairing the ship's reactor, because it eventually goes critical and destroys the ship within sight of their destination. The seven factions split into separate escape pods and jettison randomly to the surface of the planet, where they attempt to salvage what they can of the mission.

The player takes over from there. Starting with a single base, the first order of business is to start researching new technologies, build some units, and explore the immediate surroundings. Forays into the strange alien landscape might uncover Mind Worms or seed pods—the former a deadly indigenous life form that lurks in fields of pink xenofungus, the latter a supply cache from the Unity which might contain supplies, functional units, or databases that grant technological advances. Some pods have become infested with native life forms and release Mind Worms when a unit attempts to enter them.

Shot Three One unfortunate feature that carried over from Civilization is the computer players' utter disregard for sensible base placement
If it all sounds a bit familiar, that is because it is. The premise of the story might be new, but the circumstances under which the game begins are nearly identical to those of CivilizationCivilization's game mechanics), but of all the things a person might say upon setting foot on an alien world, "I feel like I have done this before" is probably not the most auspicious. Some elements also lose a bit in the translation—the technological advances are interesting but esoteric, and the Secret Projects lack the awe-inspiring feel of Civilization's Wonders. While this sort of thing is difficult to avoid in a science fiction game, more substantial descriptions would have helped to flesh out some of the more unapproachable concepts. Many of the technology advances offer only a few lines of vague text to describe them, and some of the Secret Projects have even less.

Shot Four The technologies are interesting and well thought-out, but a little more in the way of description would have made them easier to comprehend
That is not to say that Alpha Centauri fails to bring anything new or substantial to the table. There are a number of areas in which it builds on the Civilization framework admirably. The story of the Unity mission does not end upon planetfall, but rather continues in the form of text interludes as the game progresses and the player begins to learn more about Chiron. What the game loses in terms of historical context by moving to a future setting it more than makes up for with its own unique narrative of "hard" science fiction. The planet is a story unto itself, featuring a complex and dynamic ecosystem that reacts strongly to player actions. Players can plant forests that grow and spread, tap subterranean aquifers to create new rivers… they can even raise or lower the terrain. The Planetary Council (which can be convened once the player has the commlink frequencies for all the other factions in the game) can initiate more drastic projects. Melting the polar icecaps will raise the planet's oceans (it is a good idea to build Pressure Domes over low-lying bases before doing this), while launching an orbital solar shade will cause planetary temperatures to drop and cause the oceans to recede.

Shot Five A number of named geographical features such as the Ruins help flesh out the alien world you now call "home"
The faction leaders are strongly differentiated in personality, and their ideologies are an interesting extension of current trends in modern society. Each faction is further differentiated by a simple but important set of characteristics and special abilities that give them an edge in carrying out their own ideology. The militaristic Spartans receive a bonus to their Morale and Police scores, a penalty to their Industry, and they do not have to pay the regular 500rototype fee when building a new unit for the first time. The tree hugging Gaians are strong in Planet and Efficiency (they recycle, after all), weak in Morale and Police, and can glean an extra nutrient from xenofungus. These characteristics make choosing a faction more than an aesthetic decision, and the numerous different styles of play that they facilitate adds a lot of replay value.

The factions occasionally manage to come to terms with each other, and the player has an excellent set of diplomatic options to make use of when they do. Alpha Centauri distinguishes ownership of territory by use of a simple system that constantly updates borders based on the proximity of the various factions' bases. Factions who sign a Treaty of Friendship are expected to avoid violating their neighbor's borders; violations elicit a polite but firm request to leave (players who violate signed treaties on a regular basis tend to lose credibility among their peers in future diplomatic negotiations).

Shot Six Indigenous life, such as Mind Worms, becomes more aggressive when you are causing ecological damage
One of the game's most unique diplomatic features is Pact Brotherhood, an option that provides a meaningful alternative to conflict. Pact Brothers (or Sisters) can move freely through friendly territory, stack with friendly units, and move units into friendly cities. More importantly, Pact Brothers can share in any of the game's four victory conditions—the idea that there can be only one "winner" in the evolution of civilizations is not entirely realistic and creates an environment in which no treaty can be a lasting one. It is refreshing to see a game that offers a real option for peaceful coexistence between allies, and fighting a war against a common enemy can be an incredible experience in cooperation.

One feature that the game could have done without is the unit Design Workshop. Allowing the player to piece together custom units is not a new idea, and the premise is sound, but in practice it is less useful than it could be. The number of interesting abilities available is relatively small, and much of the design process boils down to tweaking weapon and armor strength to make a given unit cost effective (cost rises exponentially when units are designed with multiple strengths, such as attack and defense). Designing and keeping track of new units eventually becomes something of a chore… fortunately you can opt to let the game do it for you.

Shot Seven The Design Workshop is fun for a while, but there are a relatively limited number of viable units that can be made
The custom units have another drawback as well—a lot of them end up looking the same. It can be nearly impossible to tell the difference between two types of infantry, for instance, even if their functions are radically different. Against some terrain they can be difficult to see at all (the banners help, when they are not obscuring another unit), let alone identify… it can make situational awareness a bit confusing (albeit pretty).

It is not a huge flaw… Alpha Centauri has very few real flaws, and only a couple of small disappointments. This Civilization in space has some nifty new features that any fan of its unofficial predecessor will appreciate. It might sit a little short of Transcendence, but at four o'clock in the morning you probably won't even notice.

by Benjamin E. Sones

Requirements:
  • Windows 95/98
  • 133 MHz Pentium
  • 16 MB of RAM
  • 4X CD-ROM
Multiplayer: 2-7 players, Internet, LAN, modem, null modem (supports voice communication)
©1999 Strategy Plus, Inc.

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