Review: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (PC): New Planet, Old Conflicts

Review: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (PC): New Planet, Old Conflicts

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There’s something about 90s games that leaves me with a sense of nostalgia. Given that it’s the decade I grew up in, I guess it’s these games that became staples of my childhood. Try as I might to understand them, however, there’s only so much an 8-year-old can understand about the finer intricacies of games. However, coming back now as a 21-year-old, it’s fun to revisit these old games. Of course, one of these fantastic titles that’s still pretty popular today is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a redux on the Civilization  franchise that has you colonize a planet in the next closest solar system to our own.

Before I begin, it’s important to note that Alpha Centauri , though clearly dated now, was a huge success back in its day. Having first been released in 1999, it received critical acclaim across the board, receiving a 92/100 on Metacritic–which is pretty high. Though SMAC  (as it’s referred to) is commonly compared to Civilization II , it’s not Civ  in space, however as you could imagine, the comparisons are inevitable given the overlap in gameplay principles.

Despite the game’s success, however, it sold the fewest copies of any Civilization  game to date. Don’t let the sales fool you, though: SMAC  has quickly burrowed into my heart faster than a mind worm, to a hapless colonist’s brain tissue.

Review: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (PC): New Planet, Old Conflicts

This new interstellar setting is actually one of the aspects of SMAC  that makes it quite interesting. It’s refreshing to see a Civilization  game outside of our own solar backyard, and given the sci-fi nature of SMAC , the creative possibilities are then endless. Chiron–the world the U.N. ship “Unity” crashes on–otherwise known as “Planet” needs to be tamed in order to make way for its new human settlers.

You choose one of seven factions, each with its own vendetta. To name a few, you have the Spartans, a group of warriors and soldiers who specialize in… well.. soldiering; the University which comprises mainly of scientists who only wish to understand Planet and conduct their research; and the Fundamentalists, ultraconservative Christians who consider Planet to be a sort of New Eden and wish to spread the one true faith.

Whomever you choose, you have to terraform and alien world, creating farms, solar collectors, and forests while exterminating what’s called the xenofungus, a mat of mold from which hostile alien life forms seem to grow from. As your colony grows, the native fauna become more and more angry (as you could imagine), but you’ve come this far away from home; you have the technology to fend off any foe, extraterrestrial or otherwise.

It’s through technological research that the game really shines, offering a load of depth where other Civilization  games lack it. For example, though there are only a few “base” units to choose from, new technology makes way for new equipment, weapons, armor, and platforms, allowing you to customize your own forces for specific purposes. As you become more advanced, some of your units might become obsolete, so it’s always smart to go back and review what tools you have at your disposal.

The depth of unit creation is then countered with simplicity of resources. As opposed to newer Civilization  games, SMAC  only focuses on three main resources: nutrients (food), minerals (productivity), and energy (currency). There are no notable luxury or strategic resources or as much variance in terrain as the later titles, but in all honesty it’s an unfair comparison, given that Civilization III, IV,  and V  came out after Alpha Centauri. However, I feel the need to mention this as new gamers to this title will notice the absence of a feature they’ve grown accustomed to–though this is by no means a bad thing. I mean, come on, it was the 90’s.

Review: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (PC): New Planet, Old Conflicts

When it comes to combat, it’s pretty straightforward: you select a unit and send it to the square you want it to attack. The game uses attack, defense, and speed statistics that are augmented with up to two special abilities, but numbers and superior technology definitely make wars easier.

All of this mechanical simplicity makes the game bearable, given the steep learning curve and minimal interface. It took me a while to get used to making actions by right-clicking and selecting the option I want via a drop down menu, and though there’s helpful tips that pop up once in a while, they aren’t the best at explaining concepts.

This is left for the Datalinks, SMAC‘s version to the Civilopedia which outlines all units, buildings, technology, and anything else you can think of. As thorough as it is, gamers nowadays might not have the patience to read through it all to learn what they need (or want) to know. Trial and error, however, is the best way to learn, allowing you to form your own strategies and gives you reasons to play over and over again.

If singleplayer starts to get stale, the multiplayer mode is extremely fun. There are a lot more dialog options to choose from to interact between NPCs and other players, allowing you to share map information, technologies, and form treaties and alliances. The one gripe I do have is that each player takes their own turn, one at a time, rather than simultaneously. Though, again, a nuance of later games, this queuing does bog down gameplay, but I suppose patience is key to any strategy title, right?  If anything, it gives you time to review relationships with other factions and fiddle around with unit configurations.

All in all, Alpha Centauri  is still an awesome game that was ahead of its time. I mean, people are still playing it almost 15 years later and I can definitely see why. Right now, you can grab the game for $5.99 on GOG. You’d be crazy to pass that up, especially if you’re a fan of sci-fi strategy and the Civilization  series.

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Anthony Magestro

Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.