Review by Denouement
"It's Funny Cause At The Rate He's Goin When He's Thrity"
Alpha Centauri is an empire-building game developed by Sid Meier, in the tradition of his Civilization series of games. This game is Sid Meier's first independent game. Microprose, for which he developed Civilization I and II, got into a little tiff with Meier, so he jumped up and left with a lot of his team to start a new company, Firaxis. Alpha Centauri represents Firaxis' first efforts to develop a game.
In the Civ games, one method of victory was to be the first nation to land a spaceship on a planet circling Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth's Sun. This game takes up from that point: the colony ship has landed, but the colonists have broken up into factions and scattered over the planet. Now you must lead your faction to not only survival, but global preeminence. Along the way, not only must you face other human factions, but you must deal with the harsh planet, and its native life forms that plague you at every step.
Sid Meier hasn't changed his fundamental formula: those who have played a game from the Civilization series will recognize such concepts as happiness, production, commerce, and food, and will adjust easily to managing their cities. However, gamers who are completely new to the genre won't have a hard time, since these concepts are both refined for efficiency and thoroughly explained in the manual. Roads and railroads are also back. There are no barbarians, but the planet does spawn life forms that look like tumbleweed, which will randomly attack your bases and need to be defeated. While everything has a new name in this game, avid Civilization fans will find that Sid Meier has kept the principles of the game pretty constant.
For experienced Civilization players, the first thing you will notice is that in this game the different tribes are divided by more than just name; each has significantly different attributes that affect the gameplay. There are seven total factions in Alpha Centauri: the environmentalist Gaia's Stepdaughters; the uber-Communist, controlled society Hive; the research-driven University faction; the commercial Morgan Industries (can anyone say ''Microsoft''?); the religious but not so friendly Lord's Believers; the militant Spartans; or the benevolent UN Peacekeepers. Each faction offers an incredibly different game and this contributes a lot to the replay value.
The second big new concept is that of ''unit customization.'' In Civilization, when your nation made a technological breakthrough, you were granted the ability to build a new military unit: Riflemen, Cavalry, Stealth Fighter, etc. In Alpha Centauri, you are granted a new hull, chassis, weapon, or accessory for a unit, and are then obliged to create the units you need. The game automatically adds some of the most obvious units to your list of designs, like the basic terraforming vehicle, but you can create your own units for speed, power, defense, attack, etc. This feature is cool and original, and allows you to create armies exactly to your needs (I like to build a light scouting unit, followed up by anti-air units to protect my troops and heavy assault tanks to crush the opposition). However, it is carried off somewhat badly. The slider that shows all your unit designs is very unwieldy, and the game doesn't make any effort to erase units that are obviously obsolete. At the same time, there is a cap on the total number of designs you can have, so you must go back and delete obsolete units yourself. User-friendliness problems like this detract from the fun of this new feature.
Graphically Alpha Centauri is second-rate. However, considering the ugly nature of this planet, I wouldn't want to see it at ultra-resolution, and graphics tend to be a secondary concern in this genre anyway. The menus are nice looking and have a futuristic feel, with white and colored text on black backgrounds. To me they are reminiscent of the touch-screen computers on Star Trek: The Next Generation. As far as sound goes, the game is well above average. The music of the game is unobtrusive and fades into the background as event sounds overwhelm it. The different weapons all have good sounds attached to them, that add to the futuristic combat feel of the game.
Alpha Centauri will probably find its most ready fan base in Civilization players like myself, and the game has a lot to offer us. New concept make the game a little different, and the seven different factions give it even better replay value than Civilization I & II. For everyone else, the game does have a slightly different appeal than Civilization. A completely peaceful victory, while a potential route to victory in the earlier games, is no longer a real option. War and fighting play a much bigger role in Alpha Centauri than in Civilization, though peaceniks can still play UN Peacekeepers faction and try to last it out. Alpha Centauri is nothing new. Still, when you're finished with Civilization II, go out and pick this up, and the fun will start again. And when you're done.....well, there's always Civ III!
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/18/02, Updated 04/10/03
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