Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Back in1991, it ms Sid Meier's Civilization that proved just what a turn-based strategy game could do to your social life and sleep pattern. Six years after that, the sequel, Civilization II, brought a raft of extra units and technologies, and an isometric map view - and at well over a million sales it sold even better than the original. So roll on Civilization III, right?
Not quite. Activision and MicroProse own the rights to Civilization and are due to release Civilization: Call To Power and Civ 3 respectively some time soon. However, Sid Meier, the inspiration behind the original games, is now with Firaxis. While he can't use the word 'Civilization' on the box, there's nothing to stop him coming up with the same game disguised by a few zillion tweaks here and there, and a completely new set of units, weapons, races and technologies. Well, Sid is obviously aware of this, because that's exactly what he's done.
Alpha Centauri is Civilization all over again, with the same 'I'll be up to bed later, dear' gameplay and some futuristic intergalactic knobs on. Both Civ I and II ended with one or other of the human tribes developing interplanetary flight, and a spaceship setting off for the nearest star outside the Earth's solar system. That star, of course, was Alpha Centauri.
Mother Of All Ships
Alpha Centauri the game starts with a big mothership orbiting a habitable planet 40 years in the future. When the ship's captain is assassinated, the crew split into seven factions and leave for the planet surface in separate escape pods. You choose which one of the seven crew factions you'd like to play. Unlike the tribes in Civ, the differences are ideological and visionary rather than down to nationality, and the game gives them a very different treatment as well as very different Als.
In short, you have to build an empire all over again. There's a completely new world with rendered 3D terrain to explore, 75 new technologies, 60 base upgrades, 32,000 possible unit types and a much-improved interface to find your way around. In true Civ style, you build a base or two with military units to defend them, and open up new areas while you research bigger, better and more powerful units.
You can direct your research towards an array of new weapons, from quantum lasers to the awesome graviton gun, and there's even the prospect of psionic combat. You can design custom units by bolting different weapons, armour and weird and wonderful special items such as communication jammers or blink displacers to land, sea or air platforms. Units include infantry, wheeled vehicles, hovertanks, sea skimmers, destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft such as fixed-wing types and helicopters. It doesn't work out as well as you'd expect, because with the computer doing the prototyping you always get the best ones anyway. Never mind, you can still have some fun.
There's no pottery, wheel or irrigation in Alpha (this twenty-third century, after all), but many of the advances and secret projects (equivalent to the Wonders of the World) do much the same as their Civ equivalents. The first faction to research 'Secrets of the human brain', for example, gets a second free advance, just like 'Philosophy' in Civil. It doesn't stop there either - recycling tanks equate to a marketplace, recreation commons to temples, and command centres to barracks. Instead of settlers and engineers you get terraformers and pods: the former to add farms, roads and all kinds of improvements, the latter to create new bases.
Hey, Lets Transcend
The objectives are loosely the same, only this time the human race aims for transcendence (yeah, man) by building a successful society and a balanced environment, and removing any enemies by diplomacy or warfare. The research pathway gives you endless variety, as you'd expect, but the AI is a vast improvement over previous Sid Meier titles, and you can win the game without too much bloodshed if that's your sad, pathetic preference. Me, I like a few good battles and plenty of destruction. Then again, that's unlikely to win me many friends.
The planet has some awkward indigenous life-forms, including xenofungus which hinders movement, and the deadly mindworms (roughly equivalent to those annoying Civ barbarians). The maps also lean towards being much more hostile to basebuilding than the maps of Earth, but that's where terraforming comes in. Not only can you remove the pink fungus, you can also build the simple things in life like farms, mines and roads, and take on more complex projects such as lowering or raising the height of the land, altering rainfall patterns and so on. You can also use terraformers like weapons to make the surface less useful to your opponents.
Another excellent innovation is that the game works out the borders between each faction and shows them on the map. Trespass over one and you find yourself on the receiving end of a diplomatic note, the contents of which match the faction's profile. Do the same thing again and some factions actively discourage you from hanging around. This is as good a point as any to mention the superb Al, which really sets Alpha Centauri apart from the crowd. At the highest level, the Al-controlled factions take on real personalities and play an excellent game. Unlike with Civ, you don't get bothered by pointless messages that end up in slanging matches. They only call you when they've something to say - you've just got to work out what you can get out of it.
Pacts Of Life
Diplomatic options include alliances which simply boost trade, pacts, declarations of a vendetta or war, demands to leave territory, or a somewhat less certain peace. You can also initiate technology changes, lending or borrowing credits, handing over or asking for units and bases, and requesting votes in the planetary council. Getting to be chairman is a big benefit.
The clever thing is that you don't feel as though you're negotiating with a few lines of IF... THEN... ELSE... code-the players all behave much as you'd expect given their personalities and goals. During one game, I successfully managed to grab impact laser technology for the loss of something fairly worthless, and formed a safe alliance on my western border into the bargain. Later, when under attack from the east, I got the same player to help me out - but his price was an even neater bit of technology I'd just researched! Eventually, after a draining war lasting 20 years, I made peace in the east at the cost of a base they'd ruined anyway. It just felt... well, real.
Lower down the scale, you can install an AI 'governor' in each base and order it to follow one of four lines of production: conquer, build, discover or explore. It automatically builds units, carries out improvements and researches technologies to employ in those tasks, although you can intervene in the short term if you need to thanks to a production queuing system. It's very handy when you've got ten bases and some front-line action that's taking up most of your time. Even individual units can be Al-controlled. Terraformers can be left to get on with their jobs, scouts sent to explore, and military units given commands like explore, hold, destroy enhancements, stay on alert, patrol or return to base.
Waypoints have also been introduced, giving you the option to send units on a set route - away from enemy units or territory, for example.
The sea is almost as important - and as useful - as land, and you can build ocean bases, farm the sea and even produce minerals. If the plot of land you've been given is causing you problems, the sea is just as good, although slightly more difficult to defend. That said, there are plenty of naval units to choose from.
Alpha Centauri wouldn't be much of a game these days if it didn't include serious multiplayer features. In addition to network and Internet play, there's the good old serial link that, sadly, many companies seem to have dropped, and the option to time turns or make movement non-simultaneous. This means that you can make your moves, then tend your bases and conduct diplomacy without running out of time or annoying your opponents by taking too long.
It's A Cracker
Alpha Centauri might have only just hit the streets, but it already looks like a classic in the making. Beginners needn't worry about the extra level of complexity, because you can switch on various automation options and customisable rules, and there's an excellent Al-inspired tutorial that works with all maps - even ones you've designed yourself. The graphics are a little cluttered, but it's hard to see how else they could have been implemented, although the 3D terrain and step-by-step zoom more than make up for this. For Civ fans, Alpha offers more of the same terrific gameplay, but this time there are so many bells, whistles and completely new ways of thinking that you'll wonder what hit you. Okay, it might be Civilization in a space suit, but it's sbll arguably the best turn-based strategy game you're ever likely to see.
Seasoned Civilization players will be pretty familiar with the way Alpha Centauri works. But just in case you've had your head in the sand for the last few years, here's a quick newbies' guide to how to get started...
1 - To start, select a map: standard, huge or random. You can customise It by altering the rainfall, percentage of ocean and so on. Select one of six difficulty levels, the rules you want to play (again standard or custom) and the faction you want to play.
2 - After Hie animation ot your escape pod landing on the planet, take a good look at where you've been dumped. The pink squares are xenofungus, which reduces movement and affects combat; the grey blobs are rocks, which don't help your agriculture but do boost mineral production; and the blue crystals are cool because you get a mining bonus.
3 - Click on the base square and note how the base automatically harvests the resources on the best squares for producing nutrients (that's food to you and me). You can alter this to enhance mineral or energy production at any time by clicking on another square In the base screen.
4 - By default your first unit is a military one - In the Spartans' case a neat little buggy called a scout rover - but then the base switches to building a colony pod. Sod that Click the Change button In the production box (lower left) and switch production to a cheap infantry unit for base defence.
5 - Exploring is your next priority. You could right-click on your scout, select Action... and then set It to auto-explore, but that's a little boring at this stage. Hold down the left mouse button and drag a line to wherever you want It to go. Note that it will route itself around fungus due to movement penalties.
6 - Look what we've found! The dustbin lid thingy Is a piece of your mothership. With any luck it will give you a free technological advance, or at least an extra unit (a bit like the native villages in Civ II). At worst it will be bulging with alien mindworms but, hey, nobody said Alpha Centaur! was a friendly place.
For years, the uncrowned king of turn-based strategy games has been Civilization, but there's little doubt about the line of succession. Alpha Centauri has scores more units to build, dozens more winning strategies, and a wicked AI that gives even the most experienced solo player a bloody hard time.
What makes Alpha Centauri so fascinating is the added depth and the sheer range of strategic options on offer, none of which bog the game down or stop you getting to grips with the interface. As well as the usual path to victory by way of battering the opposition senseless with a huge array of weaponry, you can also win by building your way to complete domination of the planet, or by forging solid pacts and diplomatic alliances. You can even win by researching your way to transcendence, man's ultimate goal. But before you get even close, you have to get that first base up and running.
The planet looks quiet enough, but you've got to defend yourself from random mindworm attacks as well as from the possibility of an aggressive faction landing close by. Build one unit to protect your base, and another to explore the map for your next base site.
To start with, your number one priority is population growth, because you need people to bring in resources, carry out research and build more bases. After all, there's no use having mines if there's no one on hand to dig out the resources.
A word here about the blind research rule. The default is on, but if you want some say in how your faction develops, switch it off. One of your first tasks is to research Centauri Ecology (El) so you can produce terraforming units and bump up nutrient production.
Look at the land around your home base and note which squares are producing. Now exit ttie base screen and use Shift+R to look at each base square in turn and decide which ones you can improve with forests, farms, mines and solar energy collectors.
Aim for Recycling Tanks pretty quickly (you need DI Biogenetics) as this adds an extra resource of each type to your base square production. If you're being left alone, the Weather Paradigm secret project speeds up terraforming and lets you build condensers. Each one gives you +I nutrients and ups rainfall in the eight adjacent squares.
Never underestimate the value of nutrient production, even later in the game when you've got bases of even 20 population. Half your base squares should always be gathering nutrients, with the rest split evenly between minerals and energy.
Put up more bases as fast as you can. Start building colony pods double quick and don't worry about them overlapping. Each base has 2I squares to harvest and can survive on a third of that until much later on. Build smaller 'satellite' bases of two or three population to help support your military units. Clustered bases enable a rapid response if you're attacked. there's always some blighter who wants to spoil the show, and it's likely to be the Spartans, Hive or Believers. Watch your back if one of them is next to you - they'll find any excuse to attack you, but if you can damage them enough they usually settle for a pact.
Useful techs to go for are BI Industrial Base, which gives you synthmetal armour. On a big map, Doctrine: Mobility (E1) gives you two squares a turn movement. If you spot the chance to squash another faction early on, Applied Physics (C1) gives you lasers (Firepower 2). Social Psych (B1) isn't too appealing initially but it gives you a crack at some good stuff later. Whichever way you go, put some thought into it and stick to your plan as far as possible - dead end research is a waste of time and resources.
If you want to get ahead, it's better to stick to one path and go further along than to spread your research too broadly. If you're determined on a military campaign - or you've got nasty neighbours - don't just stop at lasers. By the time your units mass for the attack, your opponents will have the same. Go for Information Networks (D1) and Non-linear Mathematics (C2) which give you particle impactors (Firepower 4).
Getthose E Numbers Right
Hitting the 'E' key is guaranteed to cause confusion. Most players are probably happy to find a combination that leaves no blindingly obvious weaknesses, and with most factions getting between 40 and 60 different combinations by the middle of the game it's often something of a click-and-play lottery.
The words are irrelevant; what you're looking for is the combination of numbers that gives you good growth and research and still enables you to keep a few attacking units scattered about.The University, Gaians and Believers always have a negative modifier somewhere, but the Spartans, Morganites and Hive come out on top.
The UN Peacekeepers can choose fundamentalist politics and simple economics in the early stages to get positive numbers across the board, but the Spartans get the thick end of the wedge. The democratic, planned, power and eudaimonic option gives them the best all-round combination (a total of +11,) but there's an awful lot of research behind it. The Hive, it appears, can support the most military units without penalty (police/green/power/eudaimonic).
Download Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
2019-01-11 Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri game added.
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