Ever have one of those conversations about those magic games you decided to boot up before dinner, just to get a look at it, and the next thing you knew was 4 a.m. and you were still hungry? Invariably, in such conversations, Sid Meier's Civilization is cited as one of the worst offenders in creating "bleary-eyed next day at work, but boy was it fun" syndrome. Well, be warned: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is another one of those games that can make hours pass like minutes, a game that makes you put a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas next to your computer desk so you don't have to get up all weekend.
Created by Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier, the team that brought us Civilization II, Alpha Centauri is clearly the spiritual sequel to that game. Civ II ends with you leaving behind the conflicts of Earth to make a new life on Alpha Centauri. This game picks up with a colony ship reaching that system, but it turns out that moving to the stars doesn't change mankind's basic nature. Before the colony ship lands, the crew splits up into seven factions with different priorities for the new world. Each decides to land on its own and try to remake the planet in its own philosophical image.
Thus, it turns out that life on the new planet is going to be much like the life man knew on Earth - exploring new territories, setting up colonies, and using diplomacy and war to deal with the other societies. To this effect, gamers will find that Alpha Centauri's gameplay looks and feels much like Civ II's. The map perspective is similar, the command interface is virtually identical, and there are nearly direct corollaries between some of the historical and science fiction elements of each game. Sure, mindworms may take the place of barbarians, and you may create Planetary Datalinks instead of the Great Library, but gameplay will feel instantly familiar to any Civ II player.
However, this is true in the same way that Starcraft will feel familiar to any Warcraft II player. While Alpha Centauri shamelessly borrows the elements that made its predecessor magic, the game here is much richer, more sophisticated, and better tailored to individual styles of playing than Civ II.
A big concern with moving to a science fiction realm is accessibility. After all, even those of us burdened with a typical American public school education are familiar with the basics of historical civilizations and the progress of technology throughout the centuries. But xenofungus, cyberethics, and polymorphic encryption are new concepts to everyone. To keep from overwhelming you or requiring you to memorize the manual beforehand, Firaxis has created a well-done interactive tutorial which can walk you through each interface window the first time it pops up, and warn you if you're neglecting important game elements. In addition, there's a well-done Datalink help system with detailed information on all the game's controls, technologies, and units. The help system is thorough enough that you may not even need to crack the game's 250-page manual. You should, though, as it includes excellent background information, as well as a number of handy charts.
Gameplay is the familiar exploration/discovery/building/conquest model. You'll establish cities, explore the area around it, and build both military and research infrastructures. As in Civ II, you can build farms and roads to make your economy more useful and productive. Be aware, though, that this is an alien planet, and the ecosystem may not react kindly to manipulation. In fact, the planet is in many ways another player to compete with. Handle it properly and it can be an ally, allowing you to tame the dangerous mindworms that roam its surface and use them against your human enemies.
Alpha Centauri takes automation to a new height, with features that will be welcome to gamers who don't enjoy management and to anyone who has dozens of units and cities in the latter stages of a game. You can put governors in charge of cities, with a priority to explore, discover, build, or conquer. The governor will then choose which units and improvements to produce (of course, you can jump in at any time and alter the production queue). Similarly, units can be put on autopilot, allowing formers to automatically terraform, scouts to explore on their own, and so on. Those who enjoy micromanagement can leave everything in manual mode and manage every aspect of their society.
The game features a very rich technology tree. While almost all technologies are available to all players, the varying strategies used by each faction helps keep everyone from having the identical endgame forces. Particularly cool is the design workshop, which lets you create custom vehicles using available armor, weapon, power, and chassis combinations. You can create heavily armored defense forces, or go for cheap, speedy, and plentiful troops for massive attacks. The ability to upgrade units (at a cost) keeps you from being saddled with outdated forces. Further, the scenario and map editors, as well as modifiable "rule" text files, will allow you to create a wide variety of custom scenarios.
Alpha Centauri's most impressive aspect, though, is the faction AI. The seven factions have very different priorities - economy, religion, peace, environment, knowledge, survivalism, and authoritarianism. These philosophies not only come through in each faction's play styles, but also in how they react to what you do in the game. Warlike behavior won't endear you to the UN, and the Believers aren't thrilled about high technology. Commit atrocities such as nerve stapling to keep your population orderly and nobody will like you. As in real life, though, if you get powerful enough, everyone will want to be your friend.
Winning the game can be done in a number of ways. Conquer all the other factions (alone or with allies), win a diplomatic victory by being elected supreme ruler, corner the global energy market to gain economic victory, or go for the gusto and complete the Ascent to Transcendence secret project. (From the description of this, though, it sounds frighteningly like donning your Nikes and going off to ride a comet.)There are few nits to pick with the game. Some minor bugs exist, such as free armor on air vehicles, but many were fixed with the 2.0 patch and more will be zapped in 3.0. Diplomacy can be annoying at times - you may wonder how Sister Miriam can suddenly break your alliance and join with Colonel Santiago to attack you, when just 30 turns back Santiago was eating into Miriam's territory. However, such inexplicable choices do occasionally happen in real life, and overall diplomacy is better handled here than in any prior strategy game.
Alpha Centauri's multiplayer support is well done, with simultaneous movement that keeps you from having to sit around while other players make their moves. Particularly nice is built-in voice chat, very handy for gloating to enemies when you take one of their cities. Of course, turn-based strategy games require a fair time commitment, and getting players together for multiplayer sessions can be difficult. Firaxis has a free matchmaking service at www.alphahq.net. The first patch added play-by-email support, so when a game runs long you can save it at the end of a turn and continue it via email at your leisure, and then pick it up again "live" later.
Although it may feel a lot like Civ II on the surface, Alpha Centauri is a much more refined game. As has been the case more often than not, Sid Meier's name in the title signifies quality. With its top-notch diplomacy, civilization building, and wargame elements, Alpha Centauri is the new pinnacle of turn-based strategy games.