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Alpha Centauri Revisited

May 8th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Firaxis

While working on a feature for Crispy Gamer, I reinstalled Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri so I could take some screenshots. (Fraps didn’t work, by the way. And neither did Print-Screen/Paste). It is really a great game that holds up so much better than other strategy games of its time.

I did not know, however, that there was an Alpha Centauri mod for Civilization IV. It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose. It’s called Planetfall and it does a decent job of capturing the factions and the civics/social engineering. It even introduces religions, though they were nowhere to be found in the original game.

It isn’t perfect, though, and is in no way a substitute for the original game. First, there isn’t the research track thing, where you pick a direction to focus in and hope for the best. Planetfall uses the traditional Civ “X turns to Ecological Magic Power” thing. Second, the planet seems a lot less hostile than it should be. I played last night and didn’t see a mindworm until I had already built five cities and cleared most of my nation of fungus. Third, it takes forever to learn the tech tree and which discoveries will let your formers do such simple things as farm; this is partly a legacy of the cumbersome scifi naming conventions that Planetfall keeps.

But the biggest thing missing is the chrome – the personality of the game that is so neatly conveyed in the leader dialog, the music and the Wonder movies. Where I would probably watch the Wonder movies in Civilization II only a few times, I tended to always sit through the SMAC ones because they were so integral to communicating what this distant future could look like.

I think the older I get the more I appreciate how important these “non-gameplay” things to enjoying a game. Though I’ve often tried to understand games through rules and systems – the pitfalls of a scientific mind – it’s become clearer to me that I only really appreciate those games that build an experience far beyond what is conventionally understood as gameplay. Part of this is graphics and art design, of course. But it’s also small things like the Demigod announcer yelling SMITER or seeing towns expand in Empire: Total War.

And that, I think, would be the hardest thing to recapture in an Alpha Centauri remake/sequel. It remains a wonderful game today, and is so timeless than any attempt to grab that experiential magic again would be tough. I’m not a big fan of nostalgia – I lived through the 80s and they weren’t funny – but sometimes a game works so well because it is singular and unique and rooted in an understanding of games as more than just a series of interesting decisions.

Planetfall shows you can take the factions and backstory and science fiction and make a decent homage to Alpha Centauri. But the original game is still so much better.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Eduardo Gabrieloff

    My friends who played this game and I would talk about the depth and quality of the story, and as “the hardcore gamer” of the lot, I was always surprised that a 4x strategy game would rank so high on my favorite game story list.

  • Morkilus

    Now if I could only get my copy to work in Vista.

  • Anonymous

    You should try SnagIt for screen captures. Works great.

  • Kevin H

    Just as an aside, you can actually add most of the “fluff” that is missing. You have to have access to the media files from the SMAC original, but the README for Planetfall tells you where to copy the assets in the Civ 4 mod folder so you get the dialogue/sound effects, etc.

  • jwiv

    You’ve nailed it down nicely Troy. Alpha Centauri is a magical blend of rock solid gameplay and deep strategy coupled with secret sauce. Trying to imagine Alpha Centauri without the quotes from Lady Deirdre Skye for instance, simply boggles the mind. The two are so entwined and both equally important to what made that game so fantastic.

  • Alan Au

    Oh, this is done? I guess I’ll have to go check it out, to see how they reworked the unit-design part of the game. I assume they did something with promotions?

  • Kevin H

    Unit design doesn’t really exist. You can ‘convert’ existing units though.

  • Thomas Kiley

    @Morkilus, does it not work for you? I have no issues on mine, except when it starts up you get two blank boxes. One of them is play, the other is quit, you just have to guess :P Have you tried running it in compatibility mode or whatever it is that it’s called?

  • Ginger Yellow

    I remember when PC Gamer US mentioned on their podcast their most embarrassing review scores, and SMAC was number 1 with its 98%. And I thought to myself: “Nothing wrong with that score.”

  • Justin Fletcher

    I’ve joked about this a couple of times, but instead of SMAC remake, I’d like to see a SMAC streamlining like Civilizations: Revolution. I think it would take the game somewhere new without having to be slavishly recreate the original, while retaining its unique “flavor.” Plus, the streamlining would make it a better candidate for handheld systems, which would be incredible.

    Of course, they’d have to develop a decent AI for SMAC: Revolution, or it would be just as disappointing as Civ: Rev.

  • M.S. Smith

    Alpha Centauri is the proof that fiction matters in games. Fundamentally, it the game would be no different if the flavor was taken away – yet the experience would not be the same. The different quotes made each side in the game feel unique and purposeful. And they also gave a feeling of credibility to a game-world which is, at its face, fairly hard to swallow.

  • Rob Zacny

    Yeah, SMAC definitely grew into that 98 it got from PC Gamer. The more time that has gone by, the more I’ve appreciated the game’s atmosphere, story, and intelligence.

    What I really found haunting about the game was that it was fundamentally subverting your experience. You approached it like a Civilization game, researching techs to unlock new units and make your faction wealthier, smarter, more productive, and all the other things we assume to be goods. In Civ, that may hold true. But not in Alpha Centauri.

    Somewhere along the line it dawns on you that while you’re making progress and winning the game, the society you are building is a nightmare. Dissidents are nerve-stapled. Science has broken all of its ethical boundaries. The bodies of the dead are a resource. Minds are routinely invaded and fused to machines. Your character, the faction leader, never dies and must go on existing for all time.

    And if you win, the chances are that you will ultimately lose as Planet rallies to eliminate the human plague. If you get the correct victory (transcendence), you complete the process that has been happening since Turn 1: humanity ceases to be human.

  • Krupo

    I call “Boorish Jerks” on the current fools at PCG-US who denigrate the smart call on the part of their predecessors.

    Excellent analysis by Rob there.

    I would’ve played the game for another year or two if not for a game-crashing bug when interceptors took off and took down the SMACx version of the game. :(

  • Jimmy Brown

    That is a good analysis, Rob. I love the game, but it was always unsettling. I would quibble slightly with your evaluation of the transcendence victory. *Possible Spoilers Ahead* The game takes the idea that a planetary ecosystem is a single entity and emphasizes that by having Planet approach sentience. When the leader transcends and becomes one with Planet, the society no longer has to live at odds with its environment. Effectively, Planet and the society live as one. This eliminates the need for most of the horrors that were routinely practiced before.

  • Nick Lance

    The one thing Planetfall and all Civ games lack that in my mind makes Alpha Centauri king of the series is the unit workshop. Customizing every unit for a particular purpose is awesome late game, you just don’t get that in the Civ games. Theoretically there are thousands of combinations, although, there are only a few dozen that actually make sense to use late game.
    Btw, most overpowered unit is a chopper with clean reactors, nerve gas (or blink displacer if you don’t want the negative effects of gas), and best conventional weapon. Mix them with psi choppers so the AI doesn’t counter easily, and with the clean reactors they have no support cost so you can get as many as you want. All you need is a lot of defensive satellites to counter their nukes, and its gg.
    Usually if I can survive early game I win as long as I can get my satellites up before everyone decides to nuke me.