Beware of he who would deny you access to information...
August 19, 2019 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Alister MacQuarrie looks back at two decades of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (Eurogamer). With innovative gameplay concepts like 3D terrain, customisable units, planetary terraforming, and a richly-developed sci-fi setting complete with seven faction characters and an official novel-length prequel story, Alpha Centauri remains beloved amongst strategy gamers. posted by adrianhon (41 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
Please don't go.

The drones need you.

They look up to you.
posted by Foosnark at 6:42 AM on August 19, 2019 [29 favorites]


Alpha Centauri is masterful. Definitely going to dig into these soon. I always went full diplomacy Space U.N. though I have now aged and the Space Hive Communist Bugs call to me.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:50 AM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


No other game I have ever played did such a good job balancing deep immersive lore the game built in with player-created narratives. The hours I spent in this game, oh man.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:50 AM on August 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


A good article about a good game.

Twenty years, my god.
posted by Fraxas at 6:58 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


I almost always played as University or Gaians, and wound up terrorizing the other factions with mindworms or psionic drop troops and helicopters. And then I'd realize later how vile a tyrant I was, trying to create my own utopia by force.

Later on I started considering transcendence the only valid victory condition, and tried not to conquer everyone else in the process.
posted by Foosnark at 7:00 AM on August 19, 2019 [11 favorites]


I've only written fanfic for one thing ever, and you know, it just might have been SMAC...
posted by adrianhon at 7:00 AM on August 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


Thanks for mentioning the prequel story! I really enjoyed reading it back in the day, and it's just another indicator of the quality of Alpha Centauri that, just as a bit of promotional fluff, they decided to write _Seveneves_ 20 years before Neal Stephenson got around to it.

@adrianhon Show us your fanfac!
posted by Balna Watya at 7:03 AM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Dear Lord Gaia, no. That would be a bad idea for all concerned.
posted by adrianhon at 7:09 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


Alpha Centuari raised so many ethical decisions. Should you use those expensive but oh-so-satisfying planet busters to inflict megadeath and impose your will? Do you force a vote to raise the global sea level to flood your opponents? Is it OK to use the expedient nerve-stapling procedure on inconvenient citizens?

The answer was always yes, but I am glad for the opportunity to think about it.
posted by AndrewStephens at 7:19 AM on August 19, 2019 [17 favorites]


The background and well-developed characters enables *roleplaying*, which is what makes SMAC (and, IMO, the first two Master of Orions) so interesting. Playing the Morganites feels different from playing the Gaians or The Lord's Believers, not just because of a stats difference, but because you start to think "what would Nwabudike Morgan do?"
posted by JDHarper at 7:21 AM on August 19, 2019 [9 favorites]


I almost always played as University or Gaians

Same! Sometimes the U.N. and very occasionally the Morgans. Rarely the Spartans or The Lord's Believers or the Hive: even as role play something made me very uncomfortable about each of them (especially The Believers).
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:28 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Show, don't tell. That is what they got so right with the tech tree and other bits of lore. Well, that and it is really good writing, too.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:36 AM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Every faction leader felt so full formed and defined by their quotes, philosophies and backstories that to this day I still detest Miriam Godwinson. #Spartansforthewin
posted by Molesome at 7:43 AM on August 19, 2019 [11 favorites]


That game was definitely lightning in a bottle. It's worth contrasting to Civilization: Beyond Earth to understand just how magic the final product of Alpha Centauri was. Civ:BE isn't a bad game. But it's not a good one either, and reskinning a Civ game turns out not to be enough to make a game about futuristing terraforming. I think it's all the personality in the backstory that made it so special, along with the voice acting. Also, the nerve stapling.

It's funny, I've gone back to play Alpha Centauri a few times and it's always disappointing. In big part because it's just old, and all videogames have gotten better. But also so many aspects of the game don't work. The unit designer, for instance, is nuts. Not only did they create an enormous game balance challenge for themselves letting the player design their own units, but it's very easy to fall down a useless micromanagement rabbit hole designing and upgrading over and over. Way too complicated for the fun it creates.
posted by Nelson at 7:43 AM on August 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


Alpha Centuari raised so many ethical decisions. Should you use those expensive but oh-so-satisfying planet busters to inflict megadeath and impose your will? Do you force a vote to raise the global sea level to flood your opponents? Is it OK to use the expedient nerve-stapling procedure on inconvenient citizens?

Yeah, but what are the ethical decisions?
posted by Etrigan at 7:46 AM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Such an amazing game in so many ways. I wonder if I still have my Loki Games disk for their port of SMAC to Linux?
posted by octothorpe at 7:47 AM on August 19, 2019


I've never played this because I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours playing Sid Meier's Civilization III. If this game is even more absorbing, I won't have a life.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 7:58 AM on August 19, 2019


As much of a fan as I am of the Civ games, I never played this. Maybe I should seek out a copy.
posted by nubs at 8:07 AM on August 19, 2019


GOG.com has an available version that will run undr Windows 10.

Bought it last time an Alpha Centauri thread came up. Still fun.
posted by Windopaene at 8:10 AM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


I still regularly quote Sister Miriam Godwinson in conversation which is a testament both to how effective the lore in this game was and how insufferable I am.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:20 AM on August 19, 2019 [13 favorites]


The latest Civ expansion feels like it's dipping its toes into a future world / seeds of Alpha. They're definitely trying to make the game playable and interesting beyond the information age, with seasteading and offshore wind farms, and of course, reflecting climate change. Civ 6 always felt like a race to get to mechanized infantry, and then once you got there, throwing everything into space race or whatever initiative you wanted to win on. I wouldn't mind them taking the Civ 6 engine and rebuilding the asset library for an Alpha Centauri remake. The Morganites need me to build more bore holes.
posted by msbutah at 8:21 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


I’ve stopped playing Civ 6 since every win ends up being a religious win. Since the computer is so bad at handling religion I wind up invading those close to me to stop them proselytizing and then proselytize away the native religions in the cubs far away. It got kind of boring, but it was the only way to stop th computer from getting a religious victory.

I think they remade something close to it in Civ: Beyond Earth on the Civ V engine. Firaxis called it a spiritual sequel. I played it for a couple of days then stopped. It’s execution left something to be desired.
posted by jmauro at 8:48 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


I can't recommend YouTuber Yaz Minsky's video Sid Meier at the End of History: the Philosophy and Politics of Alpha Centauri enough. It's really good.
posted by lumensimus at 8:53 AM on August 19, 2019 [8 favorites]


Came here for the message when you quit the game, was not disappointed!

I think I usually played as the University, Sea Pirates, or Gaians, and somehow every game ended up with a blood feud against the Believers. They did such a great job making every faction distinct and memorable.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


For those who haven’t played it, Alpha Centauri is a game set in the near-middle future, as remnants of mankind flee an earth utterly ravaged by nuclear warlord Mahatma Gandhi.
posted by cortex at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2019 [26 favorites]


jmauro: "I think they remade something close to it in Civ: Beyond Earth on the Civ V engine. Firaxis called it a spiritual sequel. I played it for a couple of days then stopped. It’s execution left something to be desired."

Yeah, I was excited for C:BE and ended up playing 2 or 3 times and forgetting about it. It just felt like a quick reskin of Civ with space names for technologies.
posted by octothorpe at 9:23 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Thanks to this thread I have now discovered that Steve Jackson's GURPS Alpha Centauri is a thing and I will be writing a strongly-worded encouragement to my DM.
posted by Molesome at 9:27 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Civ: BE was an interesting concept, and had a lot of good ideas, but the execution just wasn't there. For example, the web-like tech tree was a good idea, but the actual arrangement of techs was a convoluted mess without much thought or testing behind it.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 9:30 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


GOG.com has an available version that will run under Windows 10.

My current install routine:

- Install Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri™ Planetary Pack.
- Download SMACX Thinker Mod and unzip where I have installed Alpha Centauri.
- Download and run the latest installer of Pracx graphics enhancement patch (currently PRACX.v1.11.exe )
- Download SMAC in SMACX mod and copy the thinker\ac_mod folder from the zip file to my install folder.
- create a shortcut on my desktop to terranx_mod.exe and name it "Alien Crossfire"
- create a second shortcut on my desktop to terranx_mod.exe with the command line parameter -smac and name it "Alpha Centauri"


If I want to play with the expansion I use the first shortcut, if I want to play with the original tech tree, I use the second shortcut.
posted by Pendragon at 9:53 AM on August 19, 2019 [19 favorites]


I played SMAC a fair amount when it first released, but I was never very good. It has been sitting untouched in my GOG library for years and, because of this post, I'll set aside some to play it this week. Looking forward to it!
posted by wintermute2_0 at 12:59 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


I was obsessed with this game! It scratched an itch that Civ could never really reach for me. I still have the manual, which is somewhere in the 'long novella' range of page counts. (I miss actual game manuals. Now it's all tutorial levels and hoping you figure it out before you get stomped.)

I've also just downloaded it from GoG, here's hoping it hasn't been visited by the suck fairy!
posted by lovecrafty at 2:16 PM on August 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


I'm partly through the podcast, and it's really interesting. One thing that Reynolds brings up right near the start is that by moving from Earth's history into future space, the design team realized they lost all of the narrative and understanding that already exists. It makes intuitive sense that if you develop the technology of currency, you can build a marketplace, and that will boost your economy. Or that if you research chivalry, you can develop knights, who are (in their time) expensive, powerful and fast warriors. And even that, say, England's history is strongly tied to the mercantile and maritime in a way that Egypt's isn't, or whether you'd prefer to have Gandhi or Genghis show up with a military unit near your underdefended city. So players can grasp this stuff, and they can concentrate on playing more than trying to figure out arbitrary benefits.

This limitation, that future technologies and societies and leaders don't have the same resonance as the historical ones everybody knows, led I think to the narrative strength of the game. When Sheng-Ji Yang says that "it is every citizen's final duty to go into the tanks and become one with all the people", it helps contextualize both what the recycling tanks are and also what the Hive's societal outlook is. Or when Academician Zakharov says he still has the rat that went through the matter transmitter and "the damage was not so great as they say", you get a sense of the limits and possibilities of the technology and on his ethical framework.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:43 PM on August 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


I’ve stopped playing Civ 6 since every win ends up being a religious win.

I gave up on Civ 6 because I found it impossible to win on Immortal. Yeah I could prolly do it if I went for a religion victory, but a religion game in civ is so impossibly boring I couldn’t be bothered. It’s like going for a military victory, except you only have like 5 or 6 different kinds of units to play with. Boooooooring.
posted by panama joe at 4:37 PM on August 19, 2019


I've bought this game four times and I still needed to require it a few years ago when I did the install on my new laptop because my disk was corrupted. It is my second favourite game (after NetHack).

Alpha Centuari raised so many ethical decisions. Should you use those expensive but oh-so-satisfying planet busters to inflict megadeath and impose your will? Do you force a vote to raise the global sea level to flood your opponents? Is it OK to use the expedient nerve-stapling procedure on inconvenient citizens?

I mostly play as the peacekeepers partially because I don't want to use any of those things to succeed even in a game. Well maybe the sea level raise/lower and also I've often starved my opponents for rain or strategically placed settlements in transportation bottlenecks even if means building several colonies (to push back boundaries) right at the edge of the opponents control zone. Basically it's probably a good thing I'm not God Emperor though if I was we'd have glorious maglevel high speed transport linking every community.
posted by Mitheral at 5:25 PM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


I’ve stopped playing Civ 6 since every win ends up being a religious win.

That's... weird to me. I've never seen the computer get a religious victory, nor have I ever had a religious victory where I didn't decide in advance to go for one and completely beeline a religion from turn 1.

What difficulty were you playing?

on the SMAC topic, I heard that Beyond Earth was greatly improved post launch by patches and expansion but I haven't gone back to it yet. Perhaps I should give it a go. But I'm so tired of these "spiritual successors" that mostly keep the form but radically change the spirit. That's the opposite of a spiritual successor! The opposite!

Even the new XCOM did that. Now, it made something different and excellent in its own right but a spiritual successor to the original it isn't. Master of Magic, Master of Orion, you name it... nobody makes spiritual successors.
posted by Justinian at 7:03 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I feel like "spiritual successor" in games generally maps semantically to "Intentionally doing the same sort of thing but with a different IP", though obviously people will sometimes (a) be more handwavey than I'd like about what qualifies as "the same sort of thing" and (b) just use the term differently.

So by that rubric: XCOM isn't a spiritual successor to X-Com. XCOM is a franchise reboot by a different designer with a different design philosophy. X-Com was a spiritual successor to Laser Squad, and Gollop's upcoming Phoenix Point is a spiritual successor to X-Com heavily influenced in design terms by XCOM.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is kind of a perfect specimen of a spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, in the "different in branding only" category. Same designer, same design philosophy, made years later with different IP by necessity but also allowing the game to be free from that brand's luggage.

Is Dark Souls a spiritual successor to Demons' Souls, or was the navigation from point A to point B there *too* direct? I don't actually know offhand why they made the branding move from the original to the newer trilogy, but it might be a good test case for taxonomy.

So I guess I'd put it at Civ:BE being a spiritual successor to AC, and just not a very successful one. Folks are explicitly trying to revisit an idea, years later, in a different form and a different toolset but with eyes on that very specific idea. I think the spirit is in the intent, not in the execution, basically; to the extent that it disappoints as not being AC after all, it's because people made the easy connection (including folks working on it) to the idea of AC as an organizing principle and touchstone.
posted by cortex at 8:57 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


(Unelaborated aspect of that rubric is that a spiritual successor doesn't require, but does allow for, some significant variance in the design details. It can take some liberties and still be a spiritual successor! The real test is whether those liberties actually do jibe with and overall serve said spirit or not; the original design document per se isn't the spirit of the thing, the, uh, spirit of the thing is the spirit of the thing.)
posted by cortex at 9:31 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I heard that Beyond Earth was greatly improved post launch by patches and expansion
That trend towards shipping premature games is really hurting games which require time investment: Civ V was never really finished because the piecemeal dribble meant that the game had odd gaps and balance issues. I saw Beyond Earth but by the time the patches came out mostly only the hardcore fans were still playing it so the reactions needed to be taken with a grain of salt.

I was hoping that Phoenix Point was going to be a good X-Com sequel but it’s dead to me since they screwed over the Kickstarter backers and didn’t even bother to notify backers that they weren’t going to get what they were promised until a year after the release.
posted by adamsc at 5:19 PM on August 20, 2019


For those buying SMAC to try it out, I strongly suggest playing with a keyboard that has a full numpad. It makes movement of units much easier. I actually bought a cheapo usb one to play on my laptop.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:56 PM on August 20, 2019


Alpha Centauri ruined Civ for me, and to some extent the 4X genre. Like, I know latter Civs are mechanically better games, but I just don’t care. Who wants boring old history when they could have this strange, living world, and colourful characters with believable motivations instead of a 3000 year old nuclear Gandhi.

Endless Legend is the only game that really comes close for me. It’s quite different in its science fantasy setting and more limited in scope, but it does get that alien world as a character thing.
posted by rodlymight at 9:03 PM on August 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


(Potentially) good news, rodlymight: The makers of Endless Legend and Endless Space, Amplitude Studios, are making their very own 4x totally-not-civ-game called "Humankind". What I like the most about the Amplitude approach is the non-symmetrical faction setup where every race/faction has unique mechanics are aren't simply reskins with slightly different bonuses. That's how you keep the game fresh. Reports are they are taking this approach again with Humankind.

The screenshots don't like exactly like they're making their own Civ game. Nope, not at all.
posted by Justinian at 10:17 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


« Older Duck Duck Dog Doodle   |   Everyone we know is paying the hospital already. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments