14 January 2013

#2LR Civilization Retrospective Gala - "Alpha Centauri"

Continuing with the Civilization retrospective is the second game developed outside the Civilization series, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (hereafter, "SMAC").  Alpha Cen is pretty much the progenitor of the modern Civilization series, introducing more than a few of the game changes that have endured through the most recent title... much like the setting, the game feels very futuristic even now.  It also feels like they wanted to see what concepts would work in a turn-based setting and what concepts may not work, and to do it without the possibility of "ruining" one of the games of the Civilization series.

The biggest and best of the new concepts is the concept of country borders.  There was no such thing in Civilization 1 or 2, or Colonization, though the only concession they made to this was to set a minimum number of tiles that cities could be built from rival civilizations.  (I have SEEN games, even as recently as Civ 3, where the cities rub up against each other like a virus).  In Alpha Centauri, borders existed and were actually important.  If you crossed a border and were found, there's consequences if the other civ so chooses.  The borders are a set number of squares away from your city, unless of course you're coming up against another civ's borders.

While Colonization introduced the idea of giving different advantage bonuses to each different civ, Alpha Centauri is the game that took this principle and ran with it.  Each civilization has very personalized bonuses AND personalized weaknesses.  In some ways, it gives you a very good idea of the best pathway to winning, whether to go military quickly or if you should defend and lever up through technology.

The bonuses and the weaknesses are all in the form of pluses and minuses to specific levels, such as "Planet" (pollution), "Energy" (governing the amount gained that is spent on money/luxuries/knowledge), "Support" (how many units need to have shields spent from the home base) and many other levels.

The game's backstory has seven (fourteen in the expansion) 'factions' that were in stasis on a spaceship, but when the leader of the expedition passes, the factions all break away to become the rival civs in the game.  Since they are coming to an alien planet, this means that there are no barbarians that you would be used to in the Civ games to cause trouble mostly in the beginning.  The programmers had to think of something else, and that ended up being the planetary fungus and the mindworms.  On every map, there are pieces of map colored red that units may or may not be able to enter.  Randomly, if a unit tries to enter the red planetary fungus square and is denied, there's a chance that a mindworm unit will be spawned in that square as a result.  Some civs that have a good Planet score can attempt to capture the mindworm unit and therefore use it as one of their units (a new feature!) or if you kill them, they contain the currency of the planet.  Of course, if you had attempted to send a worker or settler unit in there, it's very possible that they may be toast (though not always).

The game treats the fog of battle far more realistically, and even has an option that you can use to turn on "fog of war" so that you know what areas of the map you once had information about but do not currently.  You can also have your worker units build sensors so that you can keep tabs on all of the goings-on of your empire... the sensors even add an extra 25% to your defensive units.

Another aspect that is very different is the technology tree.  This is a futuristic game, so you've already learned pottery and the wheel.  The game designers worked to figure out quite a few technologies that were far enough in the future to sound strange and unique.  The tech tree has another wrinkle too... you can't specifically direct research (unless you change the settings).  You can direct your scientists into specific paths, such as military, or building, or knowledge links, etc, but it's deliciously random as to what you'll get.

This brings me to the units, and one of the most revolutionary (yet sadly dropped) aspects of Alpha Centauri.  In this game, you have to pay 1.5 times the number of shields for a "new unit"... if you discovered Level 2 armor, the first unit off is more expensive because it's a prototype.  The good news is that it'll be leveled up two times (levels go "Green" -- "Experienced" -- "Veteran" -- "Commando" -- "Elite", with appropriate percentage bonuses and "Elite" units getting extra moves).  The more interesting part is that you can mix and match units in this game.  If you decide that you want a unit to have L3 armor and L6 offense, you can.  You can build this unit to be effective against vehicles or effective against airplanes.  You can decide that it's too expensive to keep the L3 armor and use L2 armor instead.  It's a whole vista of customization... granted, it's not needed in 85% of the situations, but devilishly fun to use if you find yourself getting pounded by specific units.  One of the aspects that this game introduced and kept for subsequent Civ games is the idea of "siege" units, where it's a unit that's incredibly weak on defense but can fire multiple squares distant to damage fortified units without taking damage on the firing.

There's so many other innovations in this game that didn't make it into subsequent games.  A player can decide to build ocean cities rather than on land, and you have worker units specifically used to improve ocean squares.  There are "satellite" units that add either food, commerce, or production to all cities as well as satellites that can knock them down out of the air.  The government types are also quite a bit like the unit workshop, in that you can mix and match the governments to get the level numbers you're looking for (supporting soldiers or technology, primarily).  You can use worker units to raise or lower land, one very fascinating way to either find new land for your own city building or to really screw up another civ (if you're willing to make war with worker units).  There are units that work like planes, others that work like helicopters, and at the end of the game one unit that works like a plane but does not need to "land" (end one of its next two turns in a airbase/city or be eliminated).  And, for the first time, there's another victory condition other than "beat everyone else" and "run out of time".  At the end of the game, it is a possibility to build a Wonder that is an automatic game ender and winner for the civ that builds it, but of course it can only come after all the technology is discovered.  Taking over a city can be accomplished conventionally or through the use of mindworms, where the defending unit's level rather than its armor rating is used.  And lastly, they have different "engines" for units, which up their hit points and make them harder to kill unless you're at the same technological level.

With all of this, it's still a Civ game, though with rules that are definitely different than any other Civ game.  There are concepts that are way out there, and some concepts that I wished they would have kept for newer Civ games (and frankly, there's still time).  They attempted to build a backstory and placed additional parts of the story within the game, so that there's a bit of a plot to the proceedings as well.  Alpha Centauri enjoyed a semi-regular rotation on my desktop until Microsoft screwed me over by not including backwards compatibility.  I found an online copy for $2.99 though, and I'm happily playing SMAC once again... I think that if you're a fan of the series and you haven't tried it, it's worth at least checking out.

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