Good Old Reviews: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

IanDavis

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Aug 18, 2012
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Good Old Reviews: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri



We kick off the new year with a celebration of the games of Sid Meier, starting with Alpha Centauri.

Pretty much everyone who's experienced Sid Meier's Civilization can testify to its time-warping powers. That "one more turn" often has a way of stretching early into the following morning. Our own [a href=http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_13/86-Alpha-Centauri]Greg Tito[/a] has a tale of it absorbing months of his life away, like some shakespearian witch. While the older Civ titles are largely obsolete, the sci-fi spin-off, [a href=http://www.gog.com/game/sid_meiers_alpha_centauri]Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri[/a] still maintains a loyal following. So, I launched it up again to see if it remains playable in the age of widescreen monitors, or if it was just a cult of nostalgia. The morning light of the following day gave me my answer: yes, Alpha Centauri is still the electronic drug you always remembered.

It begins with space colonists leaving the Earth, because the planet's always greener on the other side of the Kuiper belt. After an unexpected catastrophe, everyone neatly divides according to ideology and decides to fight over a newly-found planet (creatively called "Planet"). That's not just a silly backstory for the back of the box, that's actually a critical element to why Alpha Centauri continues to stand out from every other Civ-like game.

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Alpha Centauri is built around the framework of Civilization, and as such, a lot of it looks like a sci-fi re-skin. Wonders are replaced with secret projects, and workers with terraformers. Cities are colonies, while chariots are scout buggies. But make no mistake, Alpha Centauri is its own game. Each unit is a combination of various components that you can rearrange to your hearts content. It's not as frustratingly complex as many 4X games, but it gives you just enough tactical flexibility to tweak units to fit your style. You can stick with the presets, or you can make heavily armored colony pods mounted on speeders. It's only as weird as you make it.

Early in the game, you encounter the native Mind Worms, roiling monsters that attack with psionic powers and make the heads of lesser men explode. They spawn from nasty tiles of Xenofungus, which hinder movement, strangle resources, and more importantly, produce more Mind Worms. They might look like re-skinned barbarians, but unlike their primitive Civ brethren, the Mind Worms are with you the entire game. In fact, how you decide to deal with them is one of the most compelling reasons to still play the game today.

You see, each faction is divided along ideology. You have the warriors and the peacekeepers, the industrial capitalists and the hive-mind communists. Those ideologies not only give each faction various inherent bonuses (not unlike the governments in Civ IV), but can also influence the story. That's right, Alpha Centauri actually has something of a real storyline revolving around the native life on the planet. At various points, you'll receive text-based interludes describing your leader and his various struggles with the Mind Worms. The planet treats the colonists as an invasive species, one that is utterly alien to its integrated, psionic environment. As a world leader, you can either eradicate the natives, merge with them, or just ignore them; it's up to you. It's a clever design choice that makes you think about the game as more than just a fancy spreadsheet.

I had a really easy time getting back into SMAC, but it might not be quite as smooth to the palate for those weaned on later Civ titles. The interface is large and bulky by modern standards, and many important features are hidden away behind menus. For example, common actions like automating a scout or terraformer can't be found under the right click menu, but rather require you to click the main menu button and dive a few levels deep. It's only an initial annoyance until you learn the hotkeys, but it does remind you how far games have come, interface-wise.

As with so many time-honored games, Alpha Centauri sold poorly in its day. While there are plenty of mods that seek to recapture the magic inside the modern confines of newer engines, nothing ever quite matches up. And that's ok, because Alpha Centauri is still playable. It still has a unique flavor that is unlike anything else. If you've ever lost an evening (or morning) to Civilization, Alpha Centauri is well worth the <a href=http://www.gog.com/game/sid_meiers_alpha_centauri>$5.99 price on GoG.

Come back next Saturday where we'll be continuing Sid Meier month with another game that we can't really talk about just yet.

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Albino Boo

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Come back next Saturday where we'll be continuing Sid Meier month with another game that we can't really talk about just yet.
Intriguing perhaps the much awaited Sid Meier's pimp empire has been released. Watch out for kinky Gandhi and his gimp attacks.
 

Tzzimy

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Dec 23, 2013
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Unbelievable that I read this article just when I bought this game from GoG.com together with Papers, Please before Christmas. And I still felt that chilling thrill in my spine, playing it, just like it was back then when I was a young student.
I never understood why this marvelous game never sold as much as it should. Was it overpriced back then? Too many Civ2 mods and people got tired?
Cannot remember. All I know is that it is one of my best beloved games, I am very happy that GoG.com had it available and I strongly recommend you give it a try! :)
 

Blunderboy

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How did you know I'd got this from GOG just before Christmas?
If you review Dungeon Keeper 2 soon I'll know you're watching me.
 

RicoADF

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Jun 2, 2009
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Heh haven't played that game in awhile, think I'll reinstall it from GoG (already bought it ages ago) :)
I hope 2K does a sequal, or an expansion of Civ V that's basically AC2, it's premise is awesome and as you said no other game has caught the spark since.
 

novem

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Alpha Centaui was the first CIV style game that I played and I have been disappointed by every other one since then. While some of them have introduced new gameplay mechanics, none of them have captured the personality or the feeling of ruling an empire that I loved.
 

tmande2nd

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Seriously I really want to see Alpha Centauri 2.
Or an HD re-release.

I played it cause I got Civ 3, and Alpha Centauri from a friend for Christmas
I still recall dropping a planet buster on Sister Miriam as the Spartans.

"PREACH IN HELL!" BOOOOOOOOOOOM!

Ah good times.
 

Adept Mechanicus

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Alpha Centauri was such a great game. My brother played it back when I was a kid, but I only picked it up last year on GOG. It's rare that I play something that causes me to stop what I'm doing, just to think about the philosophical implications. It's a great example of how to make a game story that feels extremely satisfying even when it's kept to the background. It's like AC4's Critical Intel said: a good game can have a good story with cutscenes and dialogue, but a great game creates story and atmosphere using the rule set. I tried playing Civilization V after Alpha Centauri, and I couldn't do it. In SMAC, I felt like I was creating my own civilization, while Civilization just felt like I was aping a past one.

Also, they never tell you what nerve stapling is, only that it's considered an atrocity. Any theories?
 

Deathlyphil

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Tzzimy said:
Unbelievable that I read this article just when I bought this game from GoG.com together with Papers, Please before Christmas. And I still felt that chilling thrill in my spine, playing it, just like it was back then when I was a young student.
I never understood why this marvelous game never sold as much as it should. Was it overpriced back then? Too many Civ2 mods and people got tired?
Cannot remember. All I know is that it is one of my best beloved games, I am very happy that GoG.com had it available and I strongly recommend you give it a try! :)
It came out at the same time as another, more traditional Civ game. I'm guessing that between the competition, the fact that sic-fi never seems to do as well as historical/fantasy settings, and the ugly choice of world colours that doomed it.

SMAC is the best Civ game I've ever played. Must see if I still have the cd in my collection.
 

Callate

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It's an amazingly good game. I'm sorry to hear it sold poorly; a modern-day, bells-and-whistles sequel would be absolutely fantastic.

I still remember the first time (having already nearly lined up victory) I decided to unleash a Planet Buster. "Oh," said I, "it's probably just the equivalent of a Civilization nuke, killing off some population and spreading polution, right?"

...Heh heh. No. No, it is not.
 

lacktheknack

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Jan 19, 2009
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Adept Mechanicus said:
Also, they never tell you what nerve stapling is, only that it's considered an atrocity. Any theories?
From the icon, I've assumed it's reducing their sensory perception to the point of uselessness.

Other theories include "A device that inflicts (potentially extreme) sensations at will". Think "Push Button of Pain".
 

Shamanic Rhythm

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Hehe. I bought the game off GOG just before I went on holiday (without my laptop). As a Civ veteran who has played every title since 2, somehow I missed SMAC. Now all the other Civ games feel hollow by comparison...
 

Dr.Awkward

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Sid Meier month?

If you can find a copy, I suggest Sid Meier's Sim Golf (make note of the name, there is a difference). Yeah, it's one of the more out-of-left-field games from Sid Meier, but it's something that should be covered.
 

Callate

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One thing I should add:

SMAC did one thing that no Civ game I've seen before or since did: the other players actually seemed to play more like leaders trying to survive than players trying to meet arbitrary win conditions. If total submission was the only way for one of the other players to continue, they'd do it. Compared to various Civ games I've played where some pissant with one city left tries to bluster and throw his weight around, it was hugely refreshing; I rarely felt like I was going to have an alliance broken in the eleventh hour just because I was doing too well, in spite of otherwise being a model ally.
 

blackrave

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lacktheknack said:
Adept Mechanicus said:
Also, they never tell you what nerve stapling is, only that it's considered an atrocity. Any theories?
From the icon, I've assumed it's reducing their sensory perception to the point of uselessness.

Other theories include "A device that inflicts (potentially extreme) sensations at will". Think "Push Button of Pain".
I never could understand why suppressing riots with nerve stapling was so bad thing
We aren't talking about peaceful protests here after all
Nerve stapling is basically taser with larger area effect
Nobody gets killed after all and if taking into consideration that I often got into cockfights with Hive and Sparta, I feel it was justified

P.S. We scientist are men of peace after all. Except times when someone dares to claim otherwise >:)
 

Fat Hippo

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God they need to make another SMAC. I think it could actually be really cool if it was made in the Civ V engine, similar to the Colonization remake in the Civ IV engine.

And yes, I've played Pandora, and was kinda disappointed. Despite ripping SMAC off thoroughly, they captured none of the spirit or atmosphere. They did have a few interesting gameplay ideas though, which I would be interesting in seeing developed further. Just, you know, with a bit more personality this time.
 

Genocidicles

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Adept Mechanicus said:
Also, they never tell you what nerve stapling is, only that it's considered an atrocity. Any theories?
I always figured it to be some temporary neurological procedure that made it's victims more docile and compliant to your rule, seeing as they stop rioting and go back to work.

It was always fun to conquer someone's city and nerve staple the populace just to piss them off.
 

Tiamat666

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Alpha Centauri really stands out among turn based strategy games. The amount of research that went into making the game is staggering. The atmosphere conveyed through the flavor texts and the occasional story progression is great. It also has the best diplomacy and governing system of all games I've played.

It's almost perfect, were it not for that one problem that plagued practically all Civ-like games: a weak AI and a difficulty system based on handicapping you and providing bonuses to the AI players.
 

Tireseas_v1legacy

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Tiamat666 said:
Alpha Centauri really stands out among turn based strategy games. The amount of research that went into making the game is staggering. The atmosphere conveyed through the flavor texts and the occasional story progression is great. It also has the best diplomacy and governing system of all games I've played.

It's almost perfect, were it not for that one problem that plagued practically all Civ-like games: a weak AI and a difficulty system based on handicapping you and providing bonuses to the AI players.
Personally, I think that the map could have been bigger (granted, I think maps should be large enough to effectively allow near-total isolation even at maxing the player/bot count, so there probably isn't a map I think is large enough) and unit design could have used a tutorial to best explain how to efficiently design custom units, but I still view Alpha Centari as pretty much my favorite TBS game EVAR!

The only thing preventing me from buying this on GOG is the question as to whether the expansion is included with the download.
 

Saltyk

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Sep 12, 2010
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Ahhh. Alpha Centari. I haven't played many games of it's ilk, but I didn't have to. None could compare to it. I can't begin to tell you how many hours I destroyed playing this game. Then, or in more recent times.

The Gentleman said:
Tiamat666 said:
Alpha Centauri really stands out among turn based strategy games. The amount of research that went into making the game is staggering. The atmosphere conveyed through the flavor texts and the occasional story progression is great. It also has the best diplomacy and governing system of all games I've played.

It's almost perfect, were it not for that one problem that plagued practically all Civ-like games: a weak AI and a difficulty system based on handicapping you and providing bonuses to the AI players.
Personally, I think that the map could have been bigger (granted, I think maps should be large enough to effectively allow near-total isolation even at maxing the player/bot count, so there probably isn't a map I think is large enough) and unit design could have used a tutorial to best explain how to efficiently design custom units, but I still view Alpha Centari as pretty much my favorite TBS game EVAR!

The only thing preventing me from buying this on GOG is the question as to whether the expansion is included with the download.
It is. I picked it up a few months back.

Also, the largest maps always seemed fairly large. I generally had a few colonies up before I met another group. And could go hours before I met all of the others.