Good Old Reviews: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

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Good Old Reviews: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri Cover

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 Greg Tito 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, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 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.

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 $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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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.

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! :)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Tzzimy:
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.

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.

Adept Mechanicus:
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".

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...

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.

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.

lacktheknack:

Adept Mechanicus:
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 >:)

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.

Adept Mechanicus:
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.

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.

Tiamat666:
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.

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:

Tiamat666:
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.

The Gentleman:

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.

I also had this "tick" for a looong time that bigger equals better. I wanted all my civ games to be "epic" and practically always played the largest map sizes available. Until I realized that quite a bit of the fun is lost in the late game phase of civ games because every turn takes forever, and gameplay starts feeling like a chore because I have dozens of cities to manage.
So I started playing the medium maps and have been quite happy with them ever since.

The same thing applies to units, improvements, technologies... I always wished there were more of them until I downloaded some Civ IV mods with an INSANE amount of content. That's when I started to appreciate the relative simplicity of vanilla.

lacktheknack:

Adept Mechanicus:
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".

One of the great things about SMAC is that they leave a lot of detail open for the player's imagination. Many of the interludes and descriptions of secret projects are small snippets taken out of context. It allows the player to let the imagination run free trying to fill in the blanks.

I always assumed that nerve stapling was a form of high-tech lobotomy, turning the subjects into mindless but productive zombies.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan:

Some civilian workers got in among the research patients today and became so hysterical I felt compelled to have them nerve stapled. The consequence, of course, will be another public relations nightmare, but I was severely shaken by the extent of their revulsion towards a project so vital to our survival.

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sid_Meier%27s_Alpha_Centauri#Morgan_Industries

Saltyk:
It is. I picked it up a few months back.

Excellent...

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.

Tiamat666:

I also had this "tick" for a looong time that bigger equals better. I wanted all my civ games to be "epic" and practically always played the largest map sizes available. Until I realized that quite a bit of the fun is lost in the late game phase of civ games because every turn takes forever, and gameplay starts feeling like a chore because I have dozens of cities to manage.
So I started playing the medium maps and have been quite happy with them ever since.

The same thing applies to units, improvements, technologies... I always wished there were more of them until I downloaded some Civ IV mods with an INSANE amount of content. That's when I started to appreciate the relative simplicity of vanilla.

I enjoy both complexity and simplicity, but the size issue is more because I prefer to have a very defensive early-to-mid game with an opportunistic late game (i.e. I play the backstabbing ally or go all in on their largest fortifications first and play clean up with the rest). The nice thing about Pre-CivV Civ games (including Alpha Centari) was that you could stack units and move a substantial number in a relatively covert manner (as opposed to Civ V's one military/civil unit per space mechanic which makes armies much smaller and more difficult to maneuver). There's no such thing as a near-stealth invasion in Civ V

I spent/wasted/invested so much time into Alpha Centauri. I've thought for years it had one of the best unit creation systems. The ability to custom design a unit to serve exactly the tactical function you need it for always felt like such a move forward in strategy gaming. I'm surprised more games haven't used it.

Keneth:
I spent/wasted/invested so much time into Alpha Centauri. I've thought for years it had one of the best unit creation systems. The ability to custom design a unit to serve exactly the tactical function you need it for always felt like such a move forward in strategy gaming. I'm surprised more games haven't used it.

I have mine somewhere, my manual belonged to someone else though... :p

The Fallen Enchantress games have an even greater level of "messing with individual units" than AC did. Also, it remembers the units you create, so the AI for that faction can break them out as well... unfortunately the rest of the game isn't as good.

Callate:
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.

Yes, this was one of its best features for sure. So much that it made subsequent Civ games all feel like a step backward. Surely a better AI system would be a priority for a primarily single-player series like Civ/AC...but unfortunately it's only got worse. By Civ 5, you could pretty much predict the exact turn your inevitable backstab was going to happen.

Keneth:
I spent/wasted/invested so much time into Alpha Centauri. I've thought for years it had one of the best unit creation systems. The ability to custom design a unit to serve exactly the tactical function you need it for always felt like such a move forward in strategy gaming. I'm surprised more games haven't used it.

same here. picked mine up for five bucks at a TJ Max software bin(incidentally same way i got X-Com on floppy back in the day). best part of getting a Windows 7 laptop was being able to play it again(that game did NOT like XP at all...). this is probably my favorite game of all time.

as for the folks clamoring for sequels, i think the reason we haven't gotten one is that there's some legal problems with the rights(i think EA still has them if i remember correctly).

Such a great game, I bought this at Costco sometime around 2000-2001 as part of this "Buy one, mail some shit in, get one free!" offer EA was doing at the time. I think it was $5 for this, and I sent in to get Nox. I spent more time with this than I did Nox to be honest. I'll still pop Alpha Centauri in and play it from time to time. Not all that long ago I found the Planetary Pack that also has Alien Crossfire on the disc at a second hand shop and that got me back to playing it again.

Saltyk:

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.

The maps are pretty big, but where it places each civ can be very random. As an example, I started one game as the naval race, and was placed next to two other civs, such that my first city's borders were shared with two other cities! On the largest map!

Quit right there out of annoyance.

Still play this game, one of my favourites. Thought admit it suffers severely for old UI. something like Alpha Centauri with UI of Civilziation 4 would have been awesome. I mean there is no technology tree at all in that game. Other than that i think the game is great. It does get tediuos once you populate half the world but that is always with civ games.
I would pay A LOT for AC2.

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

Yes, it is, and you can run both expansion and non-expansion game (expansion disrders the balance somewhat, while original one was very balanced).

blackrave:

I never could understand why suppressing riots with nerve stapling was so bad thing

Imagine if you could lobotomize your workers into midnelss slaves, and some real world country would start doing it. what would be the reaction of the rest of the world?

Remembered playing this in my schooling years. Kept me up many a nite just for that 'one more turn'. It was incredibly addicting and I was more of a fps quake/doom player which attest to how good the game was at sucking the player in.

Even the sound effects and low key music had a sort of hypnotic effect. No game had ever had the kind of effect on me as SMAC did. Would love to see a remake of this game with updated UI/AI and graphics to today's standards..I'd buy that in a heartbeat.

Strazdas:
Imagine if you could lobotomize your workers into midnelss slaves, and some real world country would start doing it. what would be the reaction of the rest of the world?

*tisk, tisk* followed by "let's move our cheep manufacturing jobs there."

Always used to annoy the way the AI placed it's sea colonies. Even your closest ally would place cities to exploit your land cities' improved coastal tiles. I started so many wars to reclaim sea territory from that ass of an AI. Only way round it was to place colonies you didn't really want or need to protect your oceanic borders.

Anyhoo, best Civ game of all time, and no mod that tries to recreate it ever really captures it. Social engineering was the best government system they ever came up with and I never got why they immediately abandoned it in Civ 3. And then there's the terraforming and the rainfall patterns. Genius. It's the go to Civ game.

Loved SMAC - still do. The Expansion even more so (Sweedish pirates, HO!)

Even compared to things like Civ5 I'd say this is better.

The unit customization, based on tech advances, is something I've only ever seen on SMAC. No other civ game has that feature.

Also the social engineering feature, same thing

In short: Love the game, best civ game ever.

Xeorm:

Saltyk:

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.

The maps are pretty big, but where it places each civ can be very random. As an example, I started one game as the naval race, and was placed next to two other civs, such that my first city's borders were shared with two other cities! On the largest map!

Quit right there out of annoyance.

never played the expansion, but almost every game i played the fucking Hive tended to get a continent to themselves, resulting in them being way to entrenched to do anything other than play nice diplomatically with them once i found them(usually towards the endgame), even with the tech bonuses of playing University. though at that point i'd usually annihilated the Believers(because fuck them) and made Morgan my bitch(because fuck him too, but the other factions tended to frown on me wiping him off the map after he surrendered).

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