Alpha Centauri

I could barely contain my anticipation when the most respected designer in the industry announced a new development company, Firaxis Games, and unveiled a title that essentially sent Civilization into the 22nd century. Now that Alpha Centauri is here, it serves as a welcome reminder that some guys just flat-out know how to make a great game.

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I could barely contain my anticipation when the most respected designer in the industry announced a new development company, Firaxis Games, and unveiled a title that essentially sent Civilization into the 22nd century. Now that Alpha Centauri is here, it serves as a welcome reminder that some guys just flat-out know how to make a great game.

To be fair, Alpha Centauri sports a credit marking it "A Brian Reynolds Design," but the fabric of this game is all Sid Meier. His fingerprints are all over both the form and content of this epic strategy space-opera, which, like the Civilization games before it, manages to be both fun and formidable.

The story begins shortly after the turn of the millennium, when the United Nations kick-starts a plan to rescue humanity from the strife that has engulfed Earth. Assembling a selection of leaders, scientists, philosophers, businessmen, theologists, and soldiers, the U.N. loads this nucleus of human achievement into a starfaring ship called the Unity. The ship blasts off for Alpha Centauri �a habitable planet orbiting the primary sun of the nearby solar system. Sounds like the genesis of a perfect new society.

Perhaps not. In a Stanley Kubrick�like twist, a reactor malfunctions on board the Unity. The resulting crisis splinters the crew into seven factions organized around a leader in each of the dis-ciplines (business, science, military, and so forth). As the Unity reaches the new world, referred to simply as Planet, the factions decide to go their own ways�each to colonize a different part of the surface. The opening cinematic concludes with the seven landing pods breaking away from the ship.

Your game begins in 2100 A.D., with each turn moving the calendar forward a year, as in Civilization. The first step is to customize your game: You can select a faction, its goals and strengths, and set the particulars for the new world you�ll be conquering.

Except that conquer isn�t quite the right word. Alpha Centauri is deeper than that, and smarter. The game can be won through military conquest. It can be won through diplomatic negotiation. It can be won through economic wealth. It can even be won by pure spiritual transcendence.

Whoa. Not your daddy�s wargame, ladies and gentlemen. As your faction establishes its first base and begins exploring, terraforming, and settling, you�ll get many flashes of Civilization. The basics are broadened here to address the colorful realities of interplanetary migration; in addition to the usual base-building and city maintenance, you�ll have to cope with the exotic crises that surface on this alien world.

The design team had some real fun throwing these extraterrestrial curveballs. The Mind Worms, for instance, slither to your bases to attack by paralyzing your citizens with fear, then burrowing into their skulls to lay larvae in their brains. Not pretty. Fields of xenofungus throw natural barriers in the way of your terraformers.

But the real enemy, as the game constantly suggests, is the human intruder. You�ll re-establish contact with the faction leaders and begin the depressingly human exercises of negotiation, intimidation, and inevitable military conflict. Trade and commerce are necessary to the growth of your society, and you�ll open trade routes with other groups.

The leaders are modeled on subtle and interesting personality schemes. The lovey-dovey religious lady is a ruthless war-maker when she gets into a conflict. The brainy scientist can occasionally demonstrate a profound arrogance that makes his scientific breakthroughs a terrifying threat to his neighbors.

One especially nice quality of Alpha Centauri is that it successfully juggles depth and richness with simplicity of play. It has a 250-page manual that you probably won�t ever really need to read. Tutorials and in-game pointers keep you on track and introduce you to new features as they pop up in the unfolding game.

I kept being wowed at the subtly misanthropic theme that spreads throughout Alpha Centauri. As your society grows and expands, it also becomes noticeably less efficient. Bases waste a growing percentage of their resources�all reflecting what the designers call "the principle of diminishing returns," shorthand for programming in the self-negating tendencies of human nature. You spend a lot of your time fighting off these ageless threats to utopia with the ageless promises of technological advancement. And as the tech gets more and more complicated, so do the problems.

The science and technology of Alpha Centauri makes for a creative science-fiction backdrop (even if it�s sometimes a little too reminiscent of the Master of Orion tech tree). Nonlinear mathematics, empathic psi-tech, chaos guns that take the "superstring" theory of chaos physics and turn it into a devastating tool of war�the list is long and varied. Einstein�s advice to scientists, that they "work for the benefit of mankind�never forget this, amid all your rods and gauges and equations," keeps coming to mind as the race toward the technological, theoretical, and philosophical endgame progresses.

And what an endgame. The real brilliance of Alpha Centauri is not in its nuts and bolts, which are quite honestly not a big leap beyond what we�ve played in previous god games. Its brilliance is in a seamless and convincing storytelling that begins with the opening cinematic and never stops unfolding, developing, and engaging. With each new expansion, each contact, crisis, and step closer to ultimate resolution, Alpha Centauri is a hell of a yarn. It has the gripping page-turner quality of the best of Isaac Asimov. As the single-player campaign builds to its final showdown, the ramifications of the final theoretical discoveries elevate Alpha Centauri from great strategy game to science-fiction epic.

Alpha Centauri also employs some of the multiplayer features that made Sid Meier�s Gettysburg! a lively online experience� simultaneous moves for competing players, plus cooperative play that lets you make treaties and then team up against opponents. Who knows? Maybe seven players will launch a game of Alpha Centauri and develop peacefully alongside one another until they proclaim mutual cooperative victory.

Or maybe they�ll break out the chaos guns. I�ll bet on the latter. In any event, they�ll have a lot of fun doing it. Alpha Centauri is a bright star in Sid Meier�s firmament, and an ambitious success for Firaxis.