Should I Buy? – Sid Meiers’ Alpha Centauri

First of all, are you a fan of the Civilisation games? Then yes, yes you should. Alpha Centauri is a spinoff to the long running Civilisation series that was released back in 1999 and was the first game by new studia Firaxis games that was established by Civ creator Sid Meiers and Civ II designer Brian Reynolds. It’s a sci-fi take on the empire building Civ series that manages to be different enough not to feel like a retread.

The basic premise is that humanity really bungled the whole ‘environmental’ deal and now the UN put together a mission to send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri in order to find a new planet to inhabit. The best of the best were chosen, and only the Captain’s force of personality could keep the disparate crew together. Unfortunately, he gets assassinated and infighting arises, leading to seven factions taking their own escape crafts and landing on the planet.

This is how the game opens, with the craft of your chosen faction making planetfall. Each of the different factions gets different bonuses and penalties based on their ideology. For example, the University of Planet gain bonuses to research, but their open information policies leave them vulnerable to espionage. And with each faction and their leader having their own quirks and personalities, this creates seven very different competitors.

For example, when you’re planning your economical structure you might decide not to use Free Market Economics in order not to antagonise the Hive (a Communist-like collectivist society) who’re your powerful neighbours. But maybe they get into a disastrous war with the Spartan Federation fifty turns later, and you’re free to change your policies to gain more commerce, or to build up an army to attack them while they’re weak. But whatever you do, you’ll annoy someone. Though the computer’s predisposed to be aggressive, gaming the system like this can be quite fun.

Some of the basics of the Civ formula have undergone a change too. Instead of barbarians, you instead encounter native lifeforms. These spawn from patches of ‘Xenofungus’, and are tied into an overarching plot about the planet itself. If you act in a preservationary way towards the Planet’s life forms, it will largely leave you alone. Then again, you can be aggressive in pruning back that Xenofungus to gain resources.

There’s also the way technology and units are handled. Though you can turn this off, a default rule is that you don’t choose the specific technology you research, instead you choose one of four priorities. These are ‘Build’, ‘Explore’, ‘Conquer’ and ‘Knowledge’, the same four general directions you can give city rulers. To get the best deal you’ll have to research everything but early on it can be handy as you don’t have to navigate the confusing tech tree and just get exploration technology etc.

Instead of fixed units, different technology unlocks different components that you can use to build units with. Don’t worry, the game does make unit blueprints automatically, but if you want to make a troop transport with a faster engine or a soldier trained in psychic warfare, that’s totally up to you. The problem is, the names the computer gives things are very generic and so you can’t just tell at a glance whether you want the Laser ECM Squad or the Laser ECM Battery.

The technologies themselves deserve particular praise. Despite the science it was based on being over a decade old, it actually holds up quite well to current thinking and if you stop for a moment to read its description or think about the implications of what you’re building it’s some surprisingly deep stuff. Here’s a team that loved classic sci-fi. Some of the stuff here feels very thematically close to writers like Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov.

Although Chaos Theory unlocks a Chaos Gun? Yeah, that one makes no sense.

Still, by late game you can build things like a self-aware colony and a Cyborg Factory. Oh, and the video when you build the Dream Twister is pure nightmare fuel.

Though this game’s attempts at experimentation with the Civ format does a lot of things right, there are a few missteps. The actual interactions you can have with different factions feels like it should be a lot deeper, the town governor AI is atrocious and the opponent AI is way too aggressive. Not to mention that the UN Council has like, five things you can vote on. And one of them is a one time only event.

All that aside, this game is just as much a timesink as the Civ games with a more narrative approach, really interesting tech and quality writing in all aspects that gives this game a thoughtful tone. I recommend this for strategy fans in general and Civ fans in particular.

Price: $6.99 – (I’ve only included the price in dollars as that’s all the site gives and the price in pounds can fluctuate, but it’s roughly £4.20)


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mitch Allan
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 19:22:54

    Pretty much the only way to make Civ better is to do it IN SPACE.
    If this thing runs on my machine, I am absolutely getting it – thanks for the great review and bringing it to my attention…

    *doesn’t come out for days*


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