March 1999
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Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

by Jason Morrison

If you've used a computer in the past 10 years you've probably heard the name Sid Meier. He's creator of Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, Colonization and a host of the more active cousins of SimCity. He is one of the few video game creators whose name is known outside, well, a small circle of other video game creators. And deservedly so.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is yet more evidence to this point. Though it's not nearly as smooth or intuitive as the similar Civilization II, it's got a hand up when it comes to interesting story, progression and mood. Set on a planet circling Alpha Centauri in a post-apocalyptic future, you take control of one of seven factions of the surviving humans. Each group has specific goals and philosophies, much like the countries in Colonization, only it's much more integrated in the game. The progress of the game, in fact, takes on the feel of a pretty good sci-fi novel-kinds like the newer British stuff Navin's always buying. But I digress.

Gameplay is much like Civ II. You can build little colony/cities, which take advantage of resources in adjacent territories on the grid-like map. The cities can then start gaining population, building military and exploration units, and generating energy and scientific advances. You have total control over each city and unit, though almost everything can be put on automatic if you want. The goal is to build cities, improve the land, learn new technologies and philosophies and eventually take over the planet-either via conquest, alliance or even a strange ascendance to a new plain of consciousness. Groovy.

The design is also a lot like Civ II, with some subtle differences. They've added a bit of 3-D -- hills, for example -- to the usually flat grid of Meier's previous games. The game information is now presented in oft-times clunky futuristic computer screens and buttons-looks nice but not intuitive at all. And instead of green fields and sandy deserts you now have an inhospitable alien environment on which to build your empire-way cool.

There's a lot more to this game than I've gotten too, I'm sure. The strange native life, the intricacies of dealing with the different ideals of different colonies, and the progression toward technological achievement or ascendance all merit further exploration. Especially the technological advances-where Civilization's advances were fairly straight-forward and Civ II's merely more extensive, Alpha Centauri deals with vaguely-defined disciplines and future technologies that bend the line between science and religion. Play this game a lot and you're bound to get drawn in to it.

Unfortunately, it's hard to play this game a lot because the same little features which set it apart from Meier's other games-the 3-D, the computerized displays, etc.-also make shifting your little military units around very choppy and make it difficult to figure out exactly what's going on when. The game keeps you on your toes, granted, but it also becomes a pain in the butt switching the auto-build off in a city every time you want to look at what they suggest building.

Still, it's a worthy heir to Civilization, and an idea many of us fans have been asking for for a long time. Just don't expect it to be smooth on anything less than a pentium-266, if that.

Buy Alpha Cetauri and other Firaxis games through the Shrub and Outpost

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