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Alpha Centauri was, as far as I can remember, my introduction to the Civilization series and, by some strange coincidence, released ten years ago today. In the years between Civilizations two and three, the legendary Sid Meier and Firaxis games released this dark slice of 4x strategy. Upon reaching a Space Race victory in Civilization, the completed spacecraft sets off on its journey into distant space, to escape the strife on Earth and colonise a new home for mankind. Alpha Centauri is what happens next.

The spaceship, Unity, never makes it to its destination; well, bits of it do. The passengers are awakened early from their cryo-sleep to discover that an unknown saboteur has crippled the ship, and their ability to communicate with Earth. Unable to agree on a solution to their predicament, they split several groups and, as the Unity finally arrives at Alpha Centauri, descend onto the lone hospitable planet, Chiron.

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The competing survivors of the Unity are divided into seven different factions. One of the best features of AC is that the leader of each one is a character, rather than a portrait you see on the diplomacy screen, and this is reinforced through the various audio logs that accompany new city upgrades and technological advances. They actually feel unique, with their own agendas and ideologies, rather than the superficial differences between the dozens of the Civilization factions (Civ is a victim of its own setting, though, whereas AC had the freedom to do whatever it wanted). They’ll hate you for having a system of government that goes against their own and certain factions, that have directly opposing values, will instantly despise each other- the scientists of the University and the devoutly religious Believers, for example. This does, however, does lead to a certain amount of predictability. Unless you use the options to randomize the personalities and agendas of the factions, the democracy of the Brother Lal’s Peacekeepers is always going to be at odds with the police State of Chairman Yang’s Hive. It’s the unfortunate price for having set characters in a 4x game.

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Then there’s Chiron itself (often referred to as Planet), which could be described as the eighth faction. It’s alive, and it doesn’t like you. Unlike the barbarians of Civilization the aggressive fauna of Chiron is more  than just a random group of units that vanish after the factions get properly established. They are a constant threat and only get more vicious as you continue to disrupt the planet with your presence. As the anti-bodies of the planet, building an empire with high levels of pollution is going to see swarms of Mind Worms knocking on your door to express their dissatisfaction.

The ecology of the planet also opens up an entirely new form of warfare. Building up a synergy with the planet allows you to capture Mind Worms for your own ends, and certain technologies will even let you to form your own writhing armies. The terraforming units that are required to build the farms and solar collectors that supply cities with resources can also be used offensively, making it possible to control the rainfall in enemy territory, and  even go as far as to lower the terrain to create natural barriers, or drop opposing cities into the sea.

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A whole new era of human history requires a whole new technology tree, and AC is a futurist wonderland of Synthetic Fossil Fuels and Retroviral Engineering. These also lead into one another wonderful feature: the ability to build your own units. Instead of a single set unit, research unlocks weaponry, armour, and special abilities that can be combined to create forces that can be tailored to specific situations. The AI is also capable of doing this, and will adapt its units accordingly. In my last game I bred a Mind Worm army, with the intention of overrunning the Peacekeepers with psychic warfare, only to discover bases defended by psychically hardened Trance Infantry; the bastards. As a game progresses the choices for defeating the other factions widen and, for those times when diplomacy breaks down, there are always Planet Buster missiles.

But where can one get it from? Digital distribution was my first thought, but it wasn’t on GameTap, Steam, or even Good Old Games. The only answer seemed to be Ebay. Then, by yet another magical coincidence, I looked on Play.com and discovered that a complete edition (including the Alien Crossfire expansion) is being released at the end of the month. Rejoice!

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4 Comments

  1. Ah, Alpha Centauri! I still play Civ II every so often and I played quite a bit of AC, but I was never very enthusiastic for Civ III or Civ IV. What I really wanted was something that was more like Civ 2.5, which a few of the AC features, like real borders so the CPU couldn’t plunk down a city in the middle of your territory.

    Maybe I should give AC another try.

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