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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

GOG.com Replay: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Each month, we'll review a game from GOG.com's copious collection of games and provide you with a rundown of how good it is. At the end, we'll tell you to "Buy It," "Ignore It," or "Think About It." This month's entry is Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, developed by Firaxis and released by Electronic Arts.
What Is It?

A turn-based strategy game released in 1999, in the style of Civilization set on a hostile alien planet, made by the masters of turn-based strategy, Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier. You play as one of seven unique factions wrestling for control of the planet, each attempting to dominate using their own methods.

The Context:

As strange as it seems, Sid Meier lost the Civilization brand name for a while. After he left Microprose to form his own company, Firaxis, the Civilization name stayed behind at Microprose. Microprose exploited it (in every sense of the world) for the lackluster Civilization: Call To Power, a game where lawyers were the most powerful units in the game. I wish I were kidding about that.

The Civ team instead took the Civilization concept to the next level, placing it on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. The series went full sci-fi, with mindworms and monopole magnets sitting alongside citizen recycling vats and Colony Pods.

A lot of the amazing innovations that made their way into later Civilization games, like separate worker and settler units and social engineering, found their start in Alpha Centauri. Considering that the previous Civilization game was Civilization II (a great, if extremely dated game), these were leaps forward for the 4x genre.

Alpha Centauri is very hard sci-fi, if that’s your thing. It’s all about futurism and asks what possible technologies could humanity develop. It goes to some strange places, but it’s a really fascinating look at a potential future.

Other Games Released in 1999:

Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
Final Fantasy VIII
Homeworld


What Holds Up:

Firaxis made sure that every faction in the game was worth playing and could win. If you like to win games a certain way, chances are there’s a faction in the game that corresponds to that play style. You have the warlike Spartans, the faith-based Believers, the economy-based Morganites, the tree-hugging Gaia’s Stepdaughters, the academic University, the diplomatic Peacekeepers, and the Borg-like Human Hive. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, so there’s no one “right” faction.

While many of the units are already fairly sufficient on their own, you’re also able to develop your own new units. For example, with every new battle technology you learn, the game will automatically create a defensive unit for garrisons or an offensive unit for attacking. What if you would like to combine both and make a more expensive offensive/defensive combo? In previous Civ games, you had to sit around and wait until you could research a viable unit.

However, in Alpha Centauri, you don’t have to: Just spend some energy credits to prototype the unit, and then you’re able to put it into production. That flexibility makes quite a difference in game balance. Instead of a pure technological race like previous games, you can make up the difference in technology with ingenuity and money.

Unless you set your difficulty level very, very low, you’ll probably not be able to see everything Alpha Centauri offers on your first playthrough. There’s a bit of a learning curve while you understand what each technology does and why it’s important, but after the initial shock wears off, you’ll find that Alpha Centauri hums along nicely. It’s deeper than Civilization II, far better than Civilization III, and was only recently eclipsed in quality and depth by Civilization IV.

What Doesn’t Hold Up:

Honestly? Not much. Maybe I could whine a little about the graphics, but there’s not much to complain about. If you’re playing a game from 1999, you can expect the graphics to be a little clumsy at times, but even with that caveat they still look totally fine for a turn-based strategy game. Maybe the only thing that’s a little clumsy is multiplayer, but even still, I’m really reaching for a complaint.

Some people complained about “Blind Research” in the game. Instead of picking which technology you would like to learn and then learning it, you pick what type of research you would like to do, after which you receive the technology. I love the system, but there are other people who hated it. You can always turn it off in the options field, so it’s a moot point.

Final Verdict:

Play It

Note: As an astute commenter below has noted, the great Brian Reynolds designed most of Alpha Centauri. He also did most of the work on Civilization II and the fantastic Rise of Nations series. Good catch. He's now at Zynga, wasting his talents on Facebook games. Ah well.