Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Reviewed by: Doug Reed, send e-mail
Published by: Firaxis Games, go to the web site
Requires: Win95/98 or higher, Pentium133 or faster, 16 MB RAM, DirectX 6 or higher compatible video card, 4x CD-ROM, 60MB Hard drive space
MSRP: $42.95

Anyone who has played computer games has probably heard of Sid Meier, but to us "old foggies" he is a very familiar name indeed. Unlike John Carmack, who has designed only action games, Sid has designed a wide variety of titles (albeit mostly strategy 'tis true). Sid was once quoted as saying that the most important question a designer should ask was "Is it fun?" It sounds obvious - but so many game designers get it wrong! Over the last decade and a half, he has been responsible for such hits as F-15 Strike Eagle, Mig Alley Ace, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Pirates, Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier's Gettsyburg, and the one game practically everyone has heard of - Civilization. With all deference to Doom fanatics, Civilization is the greatest game yet created for the personal computer. Civilization was updated a few years ago by Brian Reynolds for more modern 486 and Pentium computers, but the basic game and engine remained the same. Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier, both of whom originally worked at Microprose, have gone on to form Firaxis games and produce their own titles. Alpha Centauri is the spiritual descendant of Civilization and Civilization II, using a game engine that is nearly identical in look and feel to Civilization II. In fact, the game begins where Civilization and Civilization II leave off - with the arrival of a colony ship at a habitable world circling the twin stars of Alpha Centauri.

If you've played Civilization and Civilization II, there is a lot that will be familiar about Alpha Centauri, albeit with different names. Barbarians are mind worms; energy is credits; Wonders of the World are Secret Projects; all of Alpha Centauri was obviously built from the foundation of Civilization. There have been some noticeable changes, however, especially in the areas of the interface, the automation of your facilities, AI quality and most especially in terms of those barbarians that keep popping up. If you're expecting to just hop right in and start playing, think again. This is not the Civilization (I or II) that you remember. New technologies abound and the ability to design your own units is a very nice touch. Diplomacy is much deeper and improved, with AI providing a more interesting challenge than in previous games. I've played the game, read the manual and looked at Usenet posts - and I'm still finding more depth to Alpha Centauri all the time. You can even customize particular text files (and the designers tell you where to find them) to provide yourself with an entirely new game.

Much has been made about the 'poor' quality of the Alpha Centauri graphics engine, relative to current standards. Yes, this is not up to the standards set by Total Annihilation, but so what? Neither was Starcraft, and at least one on-line mag gave Starcraft game of the year honors. It should be noted that Alpha Centauri can be played on pretty much anything above a Pentium 133, while Total Annihilation requires at least a Pentium 166MMX. I personally like the graphic look of Alpha Centauri and have a hard time understanding other player's complaints. I should warn you, however - expect Alpha Centauri to consume you even more so than did Civ or Civ II. Why? Because even if you think you've mastered the single player game, you can still go online and bash human opponents. Yes, that's right, unlike Civ or Civ II, Alpha Centauri comes multiplayer enabled right out of the box (and Microprose just released the multiplayer version of Civ II!). Multiplayer can be played on a LAN or the Internet and can be played using either simultaneous turns or ugoigo (that's You go, I go to you non-wargamers). You can even use your microphone to send nasty little comments to your enemies! Hotseat play was not originally included, but has been since added in a feature enhancement that you can download.

The automation in Alpha Centauri is incredible. You can automate everything in the game, including the governors of your cities, military units and terraformers (Alpha Centauri's equivalent of Settlers). What makes it special is the degree to which you can control the automation. Firaxis claims it is the most sophisticated automation yet and I think they are right. You can dictate to governors which areas to focus on and then further control what they build and how they spend energy. Terraformers can be fully automated or automated to produce certain improvements (and even to just help their own home base).

Another nifty trick is that besides the seven possible factions you can play, there is an eighth opponent - the planet itself (the only stupid thing in Alpha Centauri is the planet's name - Planet. Couldn't ya do better, Sid?) The planet is 'alive' and reacts to your intrusion - the greater the injury, the greater the response. Mindworms and xenofungus are a plague, at least until you figure out how to control them. On the other hand, take a green approach to things and the planet will also respond - in a positive fashion. Weather is a factor, to a certain extent - you can pollute too much, resulting in global warming and melting of the ice caps. Beware this happening because your colonies can quickly wind up underwater!

There are a number of ways to win as well, from defeating everyone to being elected Supreme Leader or achieving "transcendence". In a bow to other Sid Meier classics, resigning the game gives you a score and ranks you with humorous book titles you might publish as a result of your stature. And as I mentioned before, just about every aspect of Alpha Centauri can be customized.

Alpha Centauri was the early front-runner for game of the year, a title it eventually won. It's the penultimate turn-based strategy game from the masters of game design. Try it. You won't be sorry.

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