Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri ★★
Year 2060. A small group of colonists leaves the ravages of Earth for a distant planet orbiting Alpha Centauri’s primary star. After a reactor malfunction damages the starship, the crew splits into seven different factions not by nationality, but by ideology.
A NEW WORLD
Alpha Centauri is a Sid Meier’s Civilization spin-off set after humanity begins its conquest of space. Like the original, it’s a turn-based strategy game in which players settle the map, develop cities and research new technology in their attempts to determine the destiny of the human race.
But what will that destiny look like? Since Alpha Centauri covers the future it doesn’t have the historical references of the original game. It’s inherently speculative. Brian Reynolds, the main driving force behind the project, took an unusual hard science approach. Featuring a human-centered narrative, it’s a more philosophical game than we are used to in the genre.
This speculative focus allowed old mechanics to be taken in new directions. A complex terraforming system allows the player, not just to grow farms and build mines but to rise and lower ground to maximize output. Espionage becomes a more central strategy and government choices are replaced by a deeper “social engineering” system full of trade-offs and subtle tactical implications.
These are not mere improvements. They have a deep impact on how the game is played and what strategies become viable. You can take very radical approaches, like not researching at all and stealing other player’s technologies or giving up the ability to fight wars in exchange of wealth.
However, what sets Alpha Centauri apart from other games in the genre are its factions. The game features seven different groups, each with a very different plan for humanity. More importantly, none of them is ever shown to be inherently good or misguided. They are allowed to speak for themselves and justify their own actions to the player.
It’s good science-fiction. Through its even-handed approach to ideology, Alpha Centauri allows players to analyze it from different perspectives. We are not meant to agree with the capitalistic Morganites or think the ethical concerns of the Believers justify their theocratic authoritarianism. Rather, the game offers us the opportunity to engage with radical ideologies in their own context so we can seek our own.
All lines of dialogue in the game are personalized. Technologies have quotes by them, in which they dismiss or promote fears of human experimentation. Each faction has its own way of speaking, even when trading or insulting each other.
The factions are not purely flavour, though. Rather, they approach the game in different ways because they have different strengths and weaknesses. The fundamentalist Believers, with their research penalty and bonuses to espionage play a very different game than the development-minded Peacekeepers.
But even within each faction there are several different options. For example, the Gaians might use their bonuses to develop a strong, ecologically-friendly economy or they might simply capture indigenous life forms and murder their enemies with them. It can even be a combination of both.
This might very well be Alpha Centauri‘s largest mechanical strength. Despite its balance issues, it does have several styles of play and different strategic concerns. It doesn’t flatten the game into a narrow path of getting more resources and growing.
The fundamental problem with Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is that, deep down, it’s pretty much Civilization 2.5. Behind the science-fiction façade you still have your barracks, your granaries and all the problems that have plagued the franchise. Spamming cities every couple squares, stacks of doom and rushing game-breaking wonders is as much of a problem in SMAC as it was in its predecessors.
I’ve found myself actively avoiding war in SMAC simply because it was too click-intensive. Or rather, keyboard-intensive as the mouse is completely inadequate at handling the game. Managing thirty cities and terraforming every tile four times over is already tiring enough before troops, crawlers and PSI get into the picture. The unit workshop, which allows you to customize your units, adds an even larger workload on the player.
It’s particularly painful because these are some of the most interesting features of the game, and they are all buried under micromanagement and balance issues. Optimal terraforming requires moving around dozens of units while “population booms” render careful planning obsolete.
A NEW GAME
What Alpha Centauri needs is a remake. A real one, made by Reynolds or others who care. The core concept of the game is fantastic, and one of the great premises in gaming alongside Ultima IV and Time Agent. But age has caught up to it and I no longer consider it to be a great game.
Sadly, the business and culture of videogames makes such a remake almost impossible. I don’t think neither investors nor gamers would look kindly into Christian fundamentalists becoming a playable faction again, much less explore the moral implications of human experimentation represented by Chairman Yang.
Fans of the game have worked to bring the game a bit into the future. The PRACX mod, which adds not just widescreen support but small interface improvements, is a must for those looking to enjoy the game today. I also encourage the use of either the AI and bugfix patches by Kyrub or in-depth balance mods such as Binary Dawn for more experienced players, as they iron out some of its most glaring problems.
Still, patches and fixes cannot address fundamental design flaws. The underlying game mechanics remain poor, and can’t be stretched to deliver a better experience. I would love to see a streamlined, high quality mod of Civilization V that captured what’s great about SMAC. But that’s what Beyond Earth was supposed to be, and it failed miserably.
Nonetheless, I can’t shake the game out of my mind. There’s a sense of narrative, a wealth of ideas that is not found in the newer, more polished strategy games of today. It feels important in a way that is not affected by its shortcomings, its age or lack of balance.
I am left conflicted by Alpha Centauri. It’s a game I respect in a multitude of ways. But it’s also outdated and flawed in the most mundane of respects. As fun as it might be to think about it, playing it is a chore. Its flaws and micromanagement drag down the experience and prevent me from enjoying its most positive aspects.
|SID MEIER’S ALPHA CENTAURI (1999)|
||Brian Reynolds||DESIGN||Bing Gordon
||Firaxis Games||MUSIC||David Evans|