Bring It Back: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Just an image of Alpha Centauri's title page is enough to get me excited.

The Game

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri(also lovingly referred to as SMAC) is a 4Xturn-based strategy game similar to the Civilization series. In face, Alpha Centauri is a spinoff of the Civ franchise and created by the same man whose name appears before every Civ title, Sid Meier. If you’re familiar with the 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) genre of games, then you’ll feel right at home with Alpha Centauri.

The game takes place in the 22ndcentury as a colony ship arrives at the planet Chiron. Seven different factions form and each seeks to control the new home planet. Every faction has a specific personality. The AI models for the different factions make it feel like you’re actually playing against real people.

While this image may not look impressive now, it did 10 years ago.

Alpha Centauri found widespread critical acclaim for its innovative unit designoptions, in-depth tech tree, excellent sci-fi story, and overall superb gameplay. Despite achieving great critical acclaim, Alpha Centauri enjoyed the lowest amount of sales in the Civ series. Although Alpha Centauri received an expansion pack in the same year it was released (1999), no further entries followed Alpha Centauri’s lead.

What Made Alpha Centauri Great

As you can see with this image, Alpha Centauri's city management is very detailed.

So, what makes Alpha Centauri different? Why should it deserve a proper sequel? After all, the Civ series is still going strong and the gameplay is somewhat similar. Well, that’s the thing, you see. The gameplay in the Civ series may be reminiscent of Alpha Centauri, but Alpha Centauri was a deeper game in many ways. First of all, Alpha Centauri had a beautiful and captivating plot. Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of the Civ games have ever tried to incorporate plot into the gameplay. The well-written story provided a channel to a deep connection with Alpha Centauri. Playing the game was almost like reading a good science fiction novel.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Alpha Centauriwas that you got to design your units. The unit creator allowed you to balance a unit’s stats to fit your current needs. All you needed to do was select a chassis, and include various components to grant the unit special abilities or firepower. Creating your own units was like a sort of mini-game. I thoroughly enjoyed making light assault vehicles in the beginning and moving on to veritable death-machines in the late game.

This image shows a sea colony, which is a feature unique to Alpha Centauri.

In my opinion, the one major advantage Alpha Centaurihas over its Civ cousins is character. While the Civ series is fun to play, it is difficult to establish a connection with individual units within the game, or sometimes even with your own civilization. I never felt any particular qualms about destroying enemy civilizations in the Civ games, but Alpha Centauri is something else entirely. Waging war against the religious faction and suffering the promises of doomsday and hellfire was a little disconcerting. Fighting the spartan-like faction was enough to drive fear into heart. Demolishing the tree-huggers green cities just seemed like too rash a decision. In short, Alpha Centauri has personality, spunk, and an endearing difficulty.

What the Next Iteration Could Use

While I don’t usually care much about how good a game looks as long as it plays well, it would be nice to see Alpha Centauri in HD. To be honest, the gameplay is just about perfect and I really can’t think of a way to improve it. This is one of the few times that I would be happy with a reboot of the original. Of course, it would be interesting to see the game go in a new direction. I just don’t have any good idea of what that direction may be.

Realistic Possibility of Return?

The tech tree in Alpha Centauri is detailed and expansive, as this image shows.

In 2011, Good Old Games ( re-released Alpha Centauri on their website. While this doesn’t improve graphics or change gameplay in any way, it does make Alpha Centauri fully compatible with Windows 7 and new hardware. It isn’t a reboot of the game, but it is a step in the right direction.

The chances of Alpha Centauri receiving a proper sequel are rather slim. One of the main designers, Brian Reynolds, left Firaxis in 2000 to form Big Huge Games. Of course, there is always a chance that someone will decide that Alpha Centauri is worth reviving. It would be a wise decision, as Alpha Centauri is still widely regarded as a must-play game, and despite its age many people continue to enjoy it.


Posted on January 24, 2012, in Bring It Back and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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