Review by SSpectre

"Alpha Centauri is engrossing, innovative, and just a little unwieldy."

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

The Good:
+ Complex gameplay with dozens of strategies
+ Streamlined interface and mechanics
+ Inventive use of sci-fi setting spread throughout the game
+ Will consume your life if you let it

The Bad:
- Certain factions and technologies are poorly balanced
- Ridiculous game length makes multiplayer a little unfeasible
- A few minor control and interface problems

The first thought of anyone familiar with games when they see Alpha Centauri is “Civilization in space”. And while that's pretty well correct, a more accurate appraisal would be, “Civilization in space, and better”.

The basic layout of a Civilization game is all present: it's a turn-based strategy game in which you build – what else? – a civilization from the ground up by researching technology, constructing cities, keeping your population happy and forming a military, all while dealing with the various other civilizations around you, through diplomacy or violence.

That's as bare-bones a description as I can possibly make. To put it simply, there are more gameplay options in Alpha Centauri than there are pixels. From the start, you'll be surrounded by possibilities ranging from exploration to politics to taming the alien wildlife. No surprise, then, that the crux of the game is a ****load of micromanagement.

You have absolute control over every element of your civilization. You can make your faction a police state, build a mine on every square of the game grid, and create a pact of brotherhood with another nation and become a superpower. Or you can make it a democracy, plant forests everywhere, and commit “atrocities”, turning every faction against you. Some of the options are almost too complex for me to even use (for example, nutrients grow to the west of hills, so you can starve your enemies by raising mountains to their east), but their very existence allows there to be hundreds of strategy combinations.

Individual turns in Alpha Centauri last a long time as a result of everything you have to do, and full games require a massive time commitment. An interesting note is that there's no “story mode” in Alpha Centauri. So when I say “full games”, I'm actually referring to the equivalent of “skirmishes” in other strategy games, just spread over several weeks. What story there is involves seven factions, each with different ideologies, leaving earth to start a new life on an unnamed planet in the Alpha Centauri system. The factions are heavily fleshed out using an extensive list of quotes strewn throughout the game, but it's the kind of game where the story is created as you play it, since Planet's surface is randomized, and factions will act differently with every game.

One of the first things veterans will notice (aside from your research goals moving from archery to quantum mechanics) is that everything has been significantly cleaned up for Alpha Centauri. Your nutrients (used for increasing population), minerals (used for building units and facilities), and energy (used for just about everything else) resources are displayed with convenient numbers at each base, instead of hard-to-count symbols, and improved graphics make it easier to distinguish what's what on the map. There's also a “Datalinks” menu containing information on everything in the game (almost – some rather useful things are kept hidden, perplexingly).

Make no mistake, the interface still dumps an overwhelming amount of information on your screen, so navigating some of the menus (especially the more specialized ones) still isn't the most intuitive activity, even if it has been improved. The presentation's a little bewildering in general, actually. For all their advancement, the world's graphics are still pretty ugly, there are several technical audio problems, and the awkward, unfitting music quickly wears out its welcome. The final point on the nitpicking list is the controls. The game only grudgingly lets you deviate from the order it wants you to move units in, and units' habit of pausing on every map tile adjacent to an enemy gets rather annoying.

On the other hand, Alpha Centauri excels at is using its setting to differentiate itself from Civilization. It doesn't just replace cavalry with land rovers. It introduces Psi Combat, used against alien life forms, in which morale and surprise take precedence over weapons and armour. You can fully customize units using chassis, armour, weapon, reactor and ability components. New victory options include Economic and Diplomatic, the latter of which uses the new Planetary Council feature, which itself contains new features such as changing the water level and revoking the ban on the aforementioned atrocities, which are themselves new features. And that's just the start. Oh, and your rifles have been replaced with Tachyon Bolts, of course.

Alpha Centauri is the kind of game that you can completely lose yourself in very easily. The heavily-intertwined gameplay elements will keep you engaged for hours at a time, but it's the world the game builds that's especially intriguing. Through nothing but periodic quotes and interludes, the seven factions are given believable ideologies and memorable histories. And as a neat bonus, practically every technology in the game is based on real-world scientific theory.

Unfortunately, those factions and technologies are also the root of the game's biggest flaw: lack of balance. Some features (notably the “population boom” where your cities grow regardless of nutrient output) are easily exploited by one faction, but completely off-limits to others. But the most egregious offender is the Planet Buster, a missile that bypasses defences, and can flatten multiple cities and units in a single turn. And is researched before the technology that defends against it (cue facepalm). Yes, its use is considered a major atrocity and will get you kicked out of the Planetary Council, but that doesn't mean much when the Planetary Council is a giant crater covering half the ****ing planet.

A lot of this is probably done to give players a fighting chance on higher difficulties, in which the AI outright cheats, but needless to say, multiplayer games will include a lot of pre-emptive banning of features. Multiplayer in a game like this would, in theory, be an excellent idea; it would allow you to do the more menial tasks in between turns. And for the most part, this works well. Unfortunately, in a game where single-player games take weeks to complete, multiplayer ones take months, which is just as epic as it sounds, but when one player falls behind significantly, it stands to become much less entertaining for them.

A feature everyone can appreciate, however, is the high degree of customization available in Alpha Centauri. Before a game even begins, players can customize the Planet surface, including rainfall and amount of native life, and there are plenty of additional options regarding players' abilities and development. Dedicated players can even create scenarios as special victory conditions.

Alpha Centauri has its shortcomings, but its expansiveness and thorough design make it well worth checking out. If you're willing to invest your time into it and really start exploring your strategies, Alpha Centauri will prove to be one of the best games in its genre. If not, I'm surprised you made it to the end of this review.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 02/24/10, Updated 10/01/13

Game Release: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (US, 02/12/99)


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