Sid Meier, the man who came up with a little computer game called Civilization that became a PC gaming institution, has managed to reinvent the strategy game genre. For those unfamiliar with Civilization or its sequels, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri begins where Civilization leaves off: your colonists, last seen blasting off into space toward the nearest star, are now building a new civilization on a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. While Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri superficially resembles Civilization, the game incorporates such sweeping changes to the latter's civilization-building model as to give this game a completely new feel.
Alpha Centauri's interface is reminiscent of Civilization, but with a more futuristic bent. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)
Alpha Centauri presents a complex view of the future. Those colonists, while en route to their new home, separated into seven factions. These factions are not based on arbitrary notions such as nationality, but rather ideology. The central crisis of the game is that each faction leader would like to see the new planet developed along their own ideological lines. As a player, you assume the role of one of these faction leaders and work to develop the virgin planet to your satisfaction, all the while attempting to buy, cajole, force, or even beat cooperation from your neighbors as you compete with them for the planet's precious resources.
One of Alpha Centauri's strengths is the amount of work that obviously went into the political models underlying the game. They show a sophisticated understanding of political and economic theory -- while never losing the elegance and humor necessary for a good game.
Alpha Centauri allows you to select your government and economic types based upon all of those in the world today, and a few that have been suggested in literature. You might have a free-market democracy or you could have a centrally planned police state. Additionally, the economic system is treated separately from the political system, leading to wonderful combinations like free market fundamentalist states or planned economy democracies. Dozens of distinct paradigms are possible for organizing your people to face the threats of life on an alien world.
Alpha Centauri has far more technologies and wonders to discover than those offered by the Civilization series. Many of these technologies come from science fiction, but others are taken from contemporary philosophy and the most advanced speculations of modern science. As developments like self-aware machines and superstring theory become available to your faction, the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard seem to fight over new beliefs and their applications to the social fabric.
As the technology becomes more impressive, the timbre of the game becomes more frightening. Just as human equality and earthly paradise become possible, forces within the game conspire to ensure that you can control people more completely. Additionally, the game suggests that more and more control is handed over to machines and questions the viability of that option.
As in Civilization, you can produce both combat and non-combat units to perform basic tasks for your faction. However, Alpha Centauri's method for pricing and creating units is far different. In Civilization, when you develop a new technology, a new unit becomes available at a fixed cost. In Alpha Centauri units are created using all available technologies--no one technology produces a totally new unit. For example, you can go to the workshop and select a new weapon type for your infantry, or new armor for your hovertanks. As you develop new technologies, new unit options become available. Each unit cost is based on a formula that values all options selected. Just like in the real world, new units have prototype costs, and using cutting-edge technologies or multiple functions carries a hefty premium.
Alpha Centauri's graphics seem to have been chosen to accentuate players' anxieties about the future. The game looks dark, with duller colors chosen for graphics and video clips.
Oh, yes, video clips. Alpha Centauri is a full multimedia experience, with movies that play upon completion of secret projects, aural feedback -- the game talks to you -- and user interfaces designed to move and beep for your entertainment. Older Macs will be slowed down by all of these features, but you've got the option of turning off most of the multimedia whiz and bang for quicker play. While the Windows release of Alpha Centauri has been criticized for its the dark colors and spartan graphics, I found the choices made in designing the game quite appropriate. Additionally, considering the game's premises and ultimate goals, the color scheme and graphic design of the game work to stimulate the imagination and provide for an overall enhanced game experience.
You control the action with an easy-to-use on-screen console -- quite a feat considering the complexity of the rules and the number of features under your control. While not perfect, and in no way Mac intuitive, the pop-up menu controls in the console window allow you to handle loads of data and options efficiently. Additionally, you rarely need to leave the console in order to play.
Sid Meier has done it again. Alpha Centauri allows armchair diplomats the opportunity to manage a society. All of our world's debates about government, economics, ecology, and research are addressed within the game, and it's refreshing to not have any ideology presented as preferred or overly powerful. Alpha Centauri is well balanced, and ultimately becomes an interesting test of your own intellectual integrity. It's also an extremely complex game and includes excellent reference material both in print and online, as well as tutorials. It isn't hard to play, but it will take time to learn to play well. It's simply the next generation of strategy gaming.
RATING: PROS: Engrossing sci-fi plot; addictive game play with both single- and multiplayer options; sophisticated and detailed social modeling. CONS: Level of detail may be overwhelming for players new to this type of game; rich multimedia features can tax older Macs. Company: Aspyr Media, Inc. (512/708-8100, www.aspyr.com ). LIST PRICE: $50.