By Lewie Procter on April 25th, 2011 at 9:00 am.
Alpha Centauri has a special place in my heart. It’s a sort of spin-off from the Civilisation series (but don’t tell the lawyers), released way back in 1999. It’s not available to buy digitally (EDIT: Now available on GOG.com), but it had a Complete Edition reissue on the Sold Out range, available on Amazon US/UK. It’s essentially Civ in space.
Or is it?
Yeah, it is. But it’s also quite a lot more than just Civ in space. The premise is as humanistic as they come. 22nd Century Earth is dying, and rather than go down with the planet, a group of colonists escape on a UN ship. Destination: Alpha Centauri. We never really find out exactly why they had to leave, but it’s easy to imagine a dozen different ways that Earth could become uninhabitable in the next 100 years, and the reason doesn’t actually matter much. Watch this lovely looking intro video to get an idea of how much of a grown up game this is.
Divided not by nationality, but by ideology.
That’s a core principle of Alpha Centauri. There are seven factions in the base game, seven more in the expansion, each with their own principles and beliefs. Rather than perks loosely based on history, each faction has strengths and weaknesses that reflect the ideology of the leader, or indeed, the player. The University of Planet is an interesting faction, it has strong faith in science and so receives a nice research bonuses, but I’m always drawn to the economic strength of the capitalist
Morgan Savy Industries.
Scattered across an alien world, cut off entirely from the rest of humankind, and with – initially – no way of contacting the other factions, you build your new home on “Planet”. You start off with one base, and perhaps a scout unit (depending on the faction), and from there it is fairly open ended. You can set about planning which units to build, which colony pods to set up more bases and expand your faction, which formers to manipulate the environment in your territory and build roads for fast movement, what military units to defend your base and borders, and which scout units you will use to explore the planet and attempt to make contact with the other factions. Or perhaps you might want to focus on enhancements to your bases, concentrate on population growth, or save up credits to fund plans further down the line. The open-ended sandbox nature of the game rewards strategic experimentation, and is rarely entirely predictable.
Guiding you up the tech tree are your research priorities. By choosing to focus your energies on developing technology to help you “explore”, “discover, “build” and/or “conquer”, you can open up new unit types, new base enhancements, and all sorts of other interesting strategic advantages. If you choose, research can be a useful bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, you can flog research to other factions for credits, swap for any useful research they’ve developed, or perhaps just show them some compassion in a time of need. Sometimes I’m generous, and I’m not sure if it is out of some bizarre digital altruism, or hope that AI will remember to return the favour sometime down the line.
Once you’ve got a bit of research under your belt, you’ll be able to initiate secret projects. These are large investments which will take many turns to develop, and provide some kind of permanent bonus. They’re all part classic sci-fi, part real world science, and partly from the fantastic imaginations of the people at Firaxis. Each secret project can only be completed by one faction, and can often offset a particular faction’s weaknesses, so there’s always race to get there first. Upon completion, you’re rewarded with another classy video showing what huge leap in human technology you’ve accomplished. Look at the pretty birdies.
Gradually you’ll start to encounter the other factions, and once you’ve swapped phone numbers you can access the diplomacy options through the comlink. You can speak about the other factions behind their backs, make all sorts of financial dealings, sign a treaty or pact of brotherhood or attempt to convince them to ally you in a war against another faction. Once you’ve got in touch with everyone, you can call Planetary Council, to vote on planet-wide decisions on things like trade and terraforming. If you can convince (or bribe) enough people to back you, you can run to be Chair of the Council, which is one of the victory conditions.
Or you can develop the biggest guns, and expand your new human empire through military conquest. When you take over an enemy base, you gain control of any secret projects developed there. The high tech arms race means that as the game goes on, both you and the other factions will be improving their offensive and defensive abilities throughout the game, so you have to be careful you don’t start a war you can’t finish. But it’s not just your fellow humans you have to be scared of.
As a turn based single player/asymmetric multiplayer strategy game, Alpha Centauri works, and it works well, but there’s a bigger story going on than just what the humans are doing on Planet. Without giving too much away, indigenous lifeforms start appearing, and the story of Planet unfolds in prose interludes. These skippable vignettes give you an insight into the mind of the faction leader you’re role playing, and nicely build on the wider narrative thrust of the main game.
On a hostile planet, the rest of humanity left behind, you forge a brand new civilisation in your image. You’re cut off from earth’s legal and justice system. There are no consequences for your actions beyond how your fellow factions respond. You’re a long way from home, and it’s up to you whether you stick to any UN agreements signed on Earth. It’s Lord of the Flies by way of Isaac Asimov. Anything can happen at the edge of space. Who knows what kind of weaponry your neighbour might be developing? Perhaps you’d better strike first.
The setting creates a kind of tension that is missing from a lot of similar strategy games. On the one hand you are motived to act in the interests of the greater good, with the hope of establishing sustainable survival for the human race. On the other hand, you’ve got to be responsible for your faction. No one else is going to keep the mind worm’s from melting all of your civilians brains in the night.
Alpha Centauri is a hugely solid strategy game that is highly replayable. For longevity, there are highly customisable rule-sets and difficulty settings, and you can customise how Planet is randomly generated, and each of the 14 factions lend themselves to different playstyles.
Some of the little details really set it apart. There’s the voxel based unit workshop and terrain system, that I’m not exactly sure what they do beyond “look damn cool”. There’s also the datalinks, a huge resource full of information about plot and game mechanics to spend hours getting lost in if you’re the type. There’s also some fairly dark humour in some of the choices you get to make, and some of the best dialogue boxes in gaming.
Alpha Centauri still holds up fantastically well. If you can get past a slightly problematic interface, and some of the menus looking a bit tiny at modern resolutions, then AC is still to this day unsurpassed in many areas. Wonky AI rears its ugly head from time to time, but more often then not the computer controlled factions behave rationally. I strongly recommend getting the complete version, which includes the Alien Crossfire expansion. Without the expansion, the game won’t run properly at 1920×1080.
It’s telling how much love there is left for Alpha Centauri. Every time there is a new Civ game released, someone starts putting together an Alpha Centauri mod (see Crazy Spatz’s Alpha Centauri Mod for Civ5 or Planetfall for Civ4). EA aren’t too keen on revisiting their old games it seems, but I’m not sure if I’d want to play a new Alpha Centauri that wasn’t helmed by Firaxis, and lead designer Brian Reynolds left Firaxis shortly after AC shipped. Still, it’s probably highest on my list of “Games what I wished I could download”, and EA even have their own DD service.
It’s hard to say how much of my love for Alpha Centauri is a result of nostalgia. Probably not all that much, because it wasn’t until a good few years after release I first played AC. Maybe around 2005? I definitely think its aged better than Either Red Alert 1 or Wing Commander: Prophecy which I got in the same box set. I urge you to give it a try, and perhaps it will find a special place in your heart too.
I need Alpha Centauri. I look up to it.