|Ive always thought that a major reason for the
popularity of the 4X "god game" genrewhich includes games like
Civilization and Civilization II and now Sid Meiers Alpha Centauriwas that it
let you act out your fantasies of control on a world-historical scale. I mean, there's
nothing that quite compares to obsessively ushering every aspect of a civilizationyour
civilization--from its unwashed beginnings to ultimate global domination. It kind of
spoils you for games whose goals are less epic, you know, stuff like killing deer or
whipping up on the local zombies or winning World War II.
The genres high water mark was reached with 1996s Civilization II, a game so good that the only fault anyone could find was its lack of multiplayer. And everyone, of course, expected a quick sequel. Ha. Ha ha. Much sordid legal wrangling over trademarks held up development of Civ III, finally leaving Activision with rights to the franchise. (Their god game--Civilization: Call to Power--should be released in the next couple of weeks.) Unfortunately, these dreary squabblings also left the men most responsible for the first two gamesSid Meier (to games as Hendrix is to guitars) and Civ II ubermeister Brian Reynoldsmore or less frozen out of the franchises future. Undaunted, the two formed up their own company, Firaxis games. Their first release, Sid Meiers Gettysburg!, was a smash success that got the company off to a fine start and whetted Civ fans appetites for the upcoming Alpha Centaurithe game that takes up where Civ II left off.OK, before I get too far into the review I have to address the "is this just Civ II in space?" question, even though I find it tedious and annoying. The answer is, in many ways, yes. If youve played Civilization II, youll find many of SMACs general game concepts and mechanics to be quite familiar. I seem to be one of the few that finds this to be a good thing. I mean, I loved Civ II, and I really didnt want the sequel to be a turn-based/ real-time hybrid that included jumping into a 3D battlefield to fight off invaders. But the answer is also, in many ways, no. Though the overall form of SMAC is much like Civ IIs, there are many differences that lend the game a sense of depth and vision that its predecessor lacked.
One of these differences is the games setting and premise. In SMAC, you take control of one of seven factions that have fled earth in a spaceship and seek to colonize a habitable world in the Alpha Centauri system. Though initially launched under the auspices of the United Nations, the mission hits a snag when the ships passengers are awakened from cryosleep four years early. Of course, the delights of faction soon make themselves known, and by the time the ship reaches the planet (named, with a flourish of originality, Planet), its passengers have divided themselves into seven distinct factions.One of the intriguing things about the factions is that they are divided not by race or nationality, but by ideology. The Morganites (in a tribute to J.P. Morgan, perhaps?) are hardcore capitalists who want to turn a buck above all other things, the Gaians are environmentalists whose primary wish is to live in peace with the planet, and the Spartans are survivalists with a military bent and a nasty temper. The University of the Planets faction is hell-bent on research and ensuring free flow of information, no matter what the ethical costs, and The Believers are a group of testy religious fundamentalists who think of the planet as their promised land. The Human Hive embraces a pretty fair approximation of Stalinist principles--authoritarian, isolationist, and militaristic; and the Peacekeeping Forcesyour everyday humanists--take it upon themselves to try to keep these diverse factions from each others throats. This, of course, is a forlorn hope; some factions are just hopelessly incompatibleMorganites and Gaians, for instance, dont have a lot to talk aboutand the Spartans will pick a fight just for the pure T hell of it. Finally, the planet itself is a factionif you abuse it, it will make you pay, usually by sending boils of mind worms--a very nasty indigenous life form--after your units.
By the way, the portraits of each factions leader are both nicely done and nicely diverse. Only one white guyand hes a Russianshows up as a faction leader. The leader of the Morganites is a dapper black man, the Peacekeepers leader is an East Indian man, and the Human Hives leader has the look of an Oriental Dennis Rodman. Three of the factions are headed up by women: the Spartans ass-kicking Hispanic Colonel Santiago, the Believers severe Sister Miriam, and the Gaians demure and Gaelic Deirdre. Its nice to see a vision of the future thats not exclusivelyor even predominatelywhite and male.Each faction also has its own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the Spartans have high morale but eschew wealth, which doesnt do much for their economy; on the other hand, Believers fight fanatically but distrust secular science, so their research efforts are hamstrung. The factions add a nice role-playing aspect to the game, and the manual wisely suggests you choose a faction that you can identify with. Though some have complained that the factions lack personality, and that their choices of economy and weaponry should be more restricted than they arefor instance, the fungus-hugging Gaians can make nukes and use em if they wantI frankly disagree. Historically, ideological factions invariably change over time and oftentimes gleefully embrace contradictions. That can happen in the game--and if it does, it happens because of a players conscious abandonment of his or her ideological commitments. You want to betray your free market or religious principles for expediencys sake, you can go right ahead and do so. Just like in real life.
Of course, you can also look at this as evolution rather than apostasy. One of great things about Alpha Centauri is its sense of possibility. Whereas Civ II ended in the near future, Alpha Centauri begins there. You pretty much knew what was going to happen in Civ II, but with Alpha Centauri youre in uncharted territory. This sense of creating a future, rather than recreating a past, gives SMAC a sense of vision that earlier god games lacked. And since you can win in four different waysthrough conquest, diplomacy, economics, or "transcendence," games dont necessarily end with the "last man standing." The provision for allied victories is a nice touch as well.The games expanded vision is complemented by its increased depth of gameplay. Make no mistake, this game has a very steep learning curve. On any given turn you might find yourself building additions to your bases, overseeing resource production for each base, building specialized units and putting them into production, conducting terraforming operations, managing your economy, making decisions on your research agenda, deciding what sort of government youd like to institute, conducting diplomacy, and, of course, fighting wars. This micromanaging can be exhilarating; it can also, at times, become overwhelming and even tedious. Fortunately, you can automate some of these decisions; each settlement has an automatic governor who can be given a fairly specific agenda, and terraformers can be automated as well. Though neither of these auto features will govern nearly as well as you can, theyre a great tool for beginners or for when your empire outgrows your attention span. The games interface is excellent as well; most of the basic information or commands youll need are on the main screen, and the deeper stuff is only a click or hotkey away.
The game is so deep, in fact, that during your first several games youll be a bit lost, and probably wont use many of the games new featureslike the ability to design your own units or manage each bases resources. And you can probably win without doing so. But as you get deeper and deeper into the game, youll gradually get lured into making more and more of these decisions.Initially, youll likely be a bit baffled by the games technology tree as well. Its divided into four pathsexplore, build, conquer, and discover, and you can focus your research efforts on any combination of these paths. When you get really familiar with the tech tree, theres an option that allows even greater control of your research efforts. But familiarity comes slowly; the technologies in SMAC include such things as Industrial Nanorobotics and Monopole Magnets. Theyre not all that well explained, and it takes a while to figure out what they lead to and how they help you. Once you get the hang of it, the tech tree is pretty nifty, but it could have been made a bit less painless to learn.
Ive been pleasantly surprised by the games AI; though they have occasional lapses, the AI-controlled factions are mostly pretty sharp, especially at the higher difficulty levels. They do particularly well at diplomacy. Unlike opponents in many games, SMACs factions usually behave quite rationally, even though that often includes sneaky and duplicitous behavior.
The games graphics, alas, dont quite live up to the overall excellence of the rest of the game. I can live with the pinkish planet, but the games 2D sprite units can be difficult to tell apart, and things do get cluttered. But even though the grahics are a bit disappointing, theyre certainly better than average for your run-of-the-mill turn-based strategy game.
Finally, the game supports multiplayer in about every mode imaginable. I havent tried this myself yet (thats what Spring Break is for) but from what my reliable sources tell me, the game is stable and enjoyable in multiplayer.
The bottom line on Alpha Centauri is that after three weeks of hardcore gameplay, I havent come anywhere near getting to the bottom line. Every time I play it, I learn a new strategy or tech combo or think up a cool new unit. Civilization II was a great game; it was a lot of fun to play. Alpha Centauri is something moreit not only gives you a game to play, but a chance to create your own vision of the future.