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'Alpha Centauri' is a perfect blend of sci-fi and turn-based gaming

March 1, 1999
Web posted at: 4:30 PM EST

By Brad Morris

(CNN) -- Sid Meier's "Alpha Centauri" is a new turn based strategy game from Firaxis, and although there aren't any references to "Civilization" in its manuals (due to legal reasons, I'm sure), this great grandson of "Civilization" should probably have been dubbed "Civilization: The Next Generation."

It's hard to write a review of "Alpha Centauri" without mentioning "Civilization" because it shares so much with its ancestors. Designed by Brian Reynolds with help from Sid Meier, who designed "Civilization" and "Civilization II," this game is not revolutionary, but it does take evolutionary steps. It adds a wealth of new game features to the basic formula of "Civilization," while simplifying and even removing other features. Overall, this game is a very satisfying blend of science fiction and turn based exploration and conquest.

A warning should come on the "Alpha Centauri" package: "Warning, contents can become highly addictive when exposed to strategy game players. Firaxis Games is not responsible for lost jobs, ruined relationships, lack of sleep, or forgetting to bathe. Use at your own risk."

"Alpha Centauri" is derivative of "Civilization," a game that challenged players to build up a civilization on Earth, starting from building a few cities until the world is conquered. In "Civilization" each player took on the role of one of the major races/cultures of Earth, building various "EthniCities," managing city growth, while worrying about technological advances and its neighbor's territorial goals. Part of the fun was discovering real technologies, in approximately the same timeframe as the real world did (I knew I was having a good game when I discovered industrialization in 1750).

"Alpha Centauri" is based in the distant future when space pioneers from earth colonize a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. The technologies in the game are all of the speculative science fiction type that might be discovered during the next few centuries. It's not obvious what happens when a civilization discovers fictional advances such as "Silksteel" Alloys or "Polymorphic" Software. This makes the game harder to understand, but the new technologies are thought provoking and become easier to deal with after more game play.

"Alpha Centauri" lets you pick from seven ideological factions instead of ethnic nations. There are the technocrats (University of Planet), the environmentalists (Gaia's stepdaughters), the central control freaks (The Hive), the capitalists (Morgan Industries), the gun lobby (Spartan Federation), the religious zealots (The Lord's Believers) and the humanitarians (The Peacekeeping Forces).

Each one of these factions has inherent strengths and weaknesses. There are also different victory scenarios to choose from, including diplomatic, economic, technological, and conquest. These roles and different victory conditions allow good flexibility in strategy, and it's fun to pick the opposite faction and play under radically different preconceptions.

Managing your cities in "Alpha Centauri" is much the same as in "Civilization II." Each city is comprised of 21 squares, which produce various amounts of building materials (minerals), economic currency (energy), and food (nutrients).

The amount each square produces depends on the basic properties of the terrain, and what improvements have been made to the land. Specialized units called formers improve the terrain, while a colony pod is required to build a new base. Formers can also raise and lower the terrain, making it possible to build land bridges to help conquer new territory. It's also possible to produce sea formers to improve your ocean squares, as well as sea colony pods, which build bases under water.

A major part of "Civilization" that hit the cutting room floor in "Alpha Centauri" is a trade feature. In general I think this is a good thing, since trading was always confusing in Civilization II. Instead, you get a trade bonus for every faction you have a treaty with, and an extra bonus if you negotiate a global trade pact.

"Alpha Centauri" also features a planetary council, which allows initiatives to be passed that give certain bonuses. The game also replaces barbarians with native life forms. These are integrated well into the story of the planet's ecology and history. "Alpha Centauri" replaces minor tribe huts with robotic seed pods from your spaceship. These seed pods contain various goodies and nastiness and are evenly distributed on land and in the oceans.

Another major difference is how military units are used. They can be customized by putting together chassis, armament, armor, reactors, and special abilities. Military units also have a seven level morale system, from green to elite. These new options give the player a lot more flexibility but it also makes it more complex.

"Alpha Centauri" replaces governments with a complex system of social engineering. As different political, economic, values are learned, you can put together a custom social system which combines the right elements to fulfill your current tasks. For certain play situations, a planned economy coupled with democracy might be best, while in other circumstances fundamentalism combined with green economy may be better. Again, the player gets the tools and the freedom to decide how to best manage their faction.

"Alpha Centauri" provides a first rate graphical and sound experience. My only suggestion in the game production would have been to include an index in the manual.

The game supports up to seven players on a LAN network, or 2 to 4 players on the internet. But as with "Civilization," the game design of "Alpha Centauri" favors playing in single player mode against the computer, which makes for shorter games.

"Alpha Centauri" boasts many improvements over earlier games of the genre. Cities can queue up to nine units or base improvements to produce and saved games can have more than eight characters in their name. The automatic save feature will save the last 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 20 and 30 turns, making it easy to go back to just the right time to avert catastrophe. Moving a unit long distances will trace the route and how many squares it will take to get there. Governors can be set up to automatically control base production with either balanced, explore, discover, build or conquer priorities. Die-hard "Civilization" addicts will love these features because they make game play less tedious.

It seems like the team at Firaxis has come up with some wonderful improvement to a computer game classic. I wonder, however, if they weren't a bit too conservative in their approach. Taking a game like "Civilization" and not ruining it is important, but so many of the elements in "Alpha Centauri" seem lifted directly from Civilization that I think the designers were scared to try anything truly innovative. The quality of the game overcomes any lack of originality, but I wonder what would have happened if these world class designers had really let loose.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri provides a wonderful science fiction game environment with a wealth of new features. It's a worthy successor in the "Civilization" genre of games. The depth of game play is tremendous, and the replay value is enhanced greatly because of the different factions and success strategies.

Civilization fans and science fiction buffs alike have something to celebrate.

Alpha Centauri requires a Pentium 133, Windows 95/98, 16 meg of RAM and 50 megabytes of hard drive space. Just remember to shower every once in a while.

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