Those of you familiar with Sid Meier’s Civilization should remember that one of the ways to win the game was to build a spaceship and launch a new colony in the Alpha Centauri system…but they never explained what happened after they got there. So, obviously, 1999’s Alpha Centauri must fill in those blanks, right? It’s right there in the title!
Well, yes and no. There’s a bit of retroactive continuity explained at great length in the manual about a U.N. colonization mission that falls apart after the mysterious murder of the unseen Captain Garland, but for all intents and purposes, this is window-dressing for Civilization In Space. There are only seven different factions to choose from, but they do represent the entirety of the political and philosophical spectrum, from the theocratic Believers to the Peacekeepers, the remaining vestige of the U.N. and the old order on Earth.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice here is that pretty much all of the concepts of Civ have made the conversion here. You crank out Colony Pods to expand instead of settlers, giant treaded terraformers instead of workers, and so on, so Civ veterans should have no trouble at the helm here. Research is still a major component of the game, with all technologies being broken into four groups: Discover, Explore, Build, and Conquer. This is useful if for no other reason than the technologies you’re researching start at 21st century level and quickly veer off into the science fiction realm, so you might not know right away what purpose Frictionless Surfaces or Eudaimonia serve. There’s also an option, unseen in other Civ games, for “blind research”, which randomly selects breakthroughs for you, although you can prioritize one or more of the four categories to increase your chances of making a discovery in that category.
The other major difference you’ll probably notice from Civ is that Alpha Centauri is decidedly more driven by its internal narrative. Blurbs that accompany new discoveries and the videos that play when Secret Projects (the Alpha Centauri equivalent of Wonders of the World) are completed are usually quotes by one of the faction leaders that provide a bit of insight into each of the characters. There are also intermittent entries in “The Book of Planet” that pop up as the game goes along. Interestingly, the world itself plays a role in the proceedings, especially the ubiquitous xenofungus, which serves both as an obstacle for movement and a spawn point for Planet’s defenses.
Oh, by the way, SPOILER ALERT! As you progress through the game, you begin to discover that the random alien attacks are not, in fact, random, but that the planet is sentient, and in fact, one of these methods of victory here is to achieve transcendence and sort of merge with the planet itself. I really applaud the designers for creating an intriguing story besides “build a civ, smash the others”, and I dug how the designers framed both the player and the factions learning bit by bit more of what is actually going on around them.
Of course, for those of you not interested in that tree-hugging transcendent dreck, and just want to smash the others, that is definitely encouraged here. In fact, in a cool bit, for those inclined to tinker, there is a workshop feature that allows you to create a unit from scratch, starting with a chassis, then adding on engines, weaopns and special features, allowing you to create units for special purposes, like extra psi defence for fighting aliens or nerve gas pods for putting the hurt on enemy bases. Air and sea units are also present, although aircraft don’t show up for a hefty chunk of the game, as do nukes, in the form of Planet Busters, which not only wipe out whatever they target, but also literally liquify the surrounding terrain. Mind worms, the equivalent of barbarians, can also be captured, depending on certain factors, and can be bred later in the game, allowing you to turn the tables on the planet itself.
There’s quite a lot to fiddle with, especially for a game fairly early in the Civ series. The social engineering feature allows you to boost certain qualities of your faction, at the cost of others, kind of like changing civics in later Civs. The United Nations is replaced by the more ad hoc Planetary Council, the governor of which gets economic boosts as well as near-absolute veto power on the various motions the Council can vote on. Diplomacy serves a substantial role here, mostly allowing players to trade techs, borrow/lend money, and try to finagle each other into joining wars, but backstabbers be warned; your integrity is tracked and factored into the diplomatic process, so those who frequently violate treaties or commit atrocities will find it harder to make friends and their list of enemies growing. There are also certain acts, like using chemical warfare or nerve stapling (a form of riot control for unruly bases), that are classified as atrocities and will get you in hot water with the other leaders…after all, even on an alien planet, society has rules, dammit.
As with most games in the Civ mold, there’s enough going on here to make it seem overwhelming, especially to those new to the genre. There are tutorial scenarios here, and a pretty substantial help feature, including the datalinks, which contain more information about the game than anyone could ever need. I will say, though, that these methods are not ideal, and the best way to learn is to dive on in and take your lumps along the way, learning what does and doesn’t work for you. It especially becomes sticky late in the game, when the sheer volume of units and bases on the board make micromanagement damn nigh impossible. Luckily, you can delegate most of the day-to-day operations to the units themselves, or to governors for your bases, and the AI does a pretty reasonable job of not screwing things up.
Now, it needs to be mentioned that the atmosphere for this game is tremendous. The background music fits perfectly with the futuristic setting, the robot voice that makes announcements sounds properly cold and detached, and the planet itself looks appropriately alien. The voice acting, which could sink a game like this given that it’s so prevalent, is nothing short of spectacular; nobody’s accents feel fake, nor their deliveries seem contrived or cheesy. The videos associated with Secret Projects are also quite good, although compressed to a rather small window, and do a quality job of combining live and animated footage. There is a bit of dark humor to be found, as well as some surprisingly thought provoking questions asked about the nature of humanity, which again, is pretty remarkable to see in a strategy game.
Despite the fact I give Alpha Centauri the full five snowflakes, there are a couple of issues that people might have, although most are reflective of personal taste instead of the mechanics of the game. First off, if you’re playing this off of the physical disc, you might have some difficulty getting it to run properly on a modern machine, although I can attest the GOG version worked fine for me. Second, while the game is open-ended, your choice of faction is going to influence how you play fairly heavily due to each faction’s intrinsic bonuses; you’re probably not going to have an easy time building an economic powerhouse with the Hive or be the leaders in technology with the Believers, so ultimately, you’re probably going to pick one faction and stick with them. Third, while the story is a pretty compelling feature that sets Alpha Centauri apart from other Civ games, once you’ve played one game to completion, well, you’ve probably seen everything there is to see, storywise.
Despite those quibbles, I wholeheartedly recommend Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and feel it deserving of the highest praise. It’s familiar enough to Civ veterans to get into quickly, and the unique setting and storyline give it that little something extra, and hopefully would encourage those who normally don’t care for the 4X style of gaming to give it a go. It’s definitely the kind of game that gives you that “just one more turn” mentality, and it’s definitely worth coming back to, even if you’re spoiled by the more modern iterations of Civilization. Just remember though, once you’re in, you can’t leave…the drones need you…they look up to you.
Classic 4X gameplay made even better by a unique setting and a well thought-out storyline that’s excellently told and acted.
If you’re new to the genre, the learning curve can be steep, micromanagement is difficult in the late game.