Anyone who's finished a game of Civilization I or II by winning the Space Race is familiar with the tense final turns leading up to humanity's arrival in Alpha Centauri. In Civilization II, if you've played your cards right, you'll be rewarded with a short pre-rendered video of a space rover rollicking about some unnamed planet to a tinny, 2001-inspired rendition of Also Sprach Zarathustra. If you haven't, you could still very well win by sheer brute force. That the games gave you the option at all was a kind of thrill in itself, in a genre that usually took brutishness - war - as its only point of departure.
Video games had been evolving into complex story-telling engines in the late '90s, and with the arrival of StarCraft in 1998 (just under a year before our titular game), games started to adopt an air of cinematic respectability gamers had always hoped for. That same year would see the release of the celebrated first-person shooter Half-Life, further confirming the arrival of a new era of professional voice-acting, thoughtfully-written characters, and coherent plot progression for the medium. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (often abbreviated SMAC) upped the ante with a deep, challenging refinement of the 4X formula set against a thrilling - if occasionally morbid - dystopian sci-fi backdrop, written with an attention to detail usually reserved for novels or movie scripts.
Where Civilization paid homage to the grand arc of history, Alpha Centauri asked more penetrating questions about the nature of the human condition itself, hitting heavy with in-game references to complex real-world debates in theology, philosophy, bioethics, and political upheaval. And while Civilization may have popularised "non-violent" victory in a stereotypically violent genre, it wasn't until Alpha Centauri that players could also win by diplomatic vote of the planetary council. Or by cornering the global energy market. Or by simply researching, and achieving, transcendence beyond the corporeal plane (easier said than done). Today, a multiplicity of paths to victory is one of the most salient features of the Civilization franchise - and it all started with a game that didn't even take place on Earth.
Though it is now usually passed over for its more popular cousins, at the time Alpha Centauri was a major entry in the increasingly grandiose Civilization franchise, which for legal reasons was on hiatus until Activision, MicroProse, and Avalon Hill could agree on who owned the rights to the title. Nevertheless, while Alpha Centauri didn't carry the iconic Civilization name, it did carry Sid Meier's. Even though Meier had only a passing involvement by the time development for Alpha Centauri began - turning over instead to his protegé Brian Reynolds, principal designer of Civilization II and Colonization - his blessing confirmed a certain grandeur folks had come to expect. The game practically sold itself - and it was already being hailed as a hit when it was previewed at E3 the previous year.
However, despite discreetly introducing territorial boundaries, multiple victories, and the now-familiar "civics" system into the mainstream series, it is not merely its mechanics that make Alpha Centauri a good game. What led Gamespot to hail Alpha Centauri back in 1999 as "the new pinnacle of turn-based strategy games" and prompted PC Gameworld to reverently write that "the Holy Grail hath been found" was the whole package, as it were: an immersive sci-fi cautionary tale built on a genre that rebelled against the concept of linear storytelling in its very form. While Half-Life told its story through (largely in-game) cutscenes, and StarCraft through a set "campaign", Alpha Centauri had the unique challenge of trying to get the same feeling across within unstructured, open-ended, non-linear play on randomly generated maps, in which a single game could very well average days.
As such, Reynolds and his team worked tirelessly to imbue every inch of their game with the cool, atmospheric melancholy so dear to hard sci-fi. From the billowing, metallic synths of the game's intro music to the the recorded quotes and videos that play upon discovery of each new technology (a tradition which would eventually benefit from the iconic voice of Leonard Nimoy in Civilization IV), Alpha Centauri bleeds more atmosphere in its submenus than some games do in all their cutscenes combined. There is a trace, in every flourish, of an unfinished novella whose pages have scattered, hinting at whole chronicles and lifeworlds the player is only beginning to explore. The developers fed this illusion with an episodic backstory before release, and a 34-page chapter dubbed "A New Sun" in the manual (back when reading manuals was part of the game experience), complete with reading lists about the science and literature that influenced them.
But these are just the furtive details of a larger cosmology - and lore alone does not a story make. In the words of Richard Cobbett, "lore is background. Lore is additional information." Story, on the other hand, is the kinetic feeling of moving through the game world and observing meaningful change. And in Alpha Centauri, players are on the move from the very first turn - Planetfall.
Back in 1996, Civilization-time officially ended in 2020, leaving more than one fan wondering what else was in store for society once they reached the stars. After all, there is something a bit quaint about the idea that humanity's problems would somehow end with arrival in deep space. True to form, Alpha Centauri picks up where Civilization II left off, thrusting the player into factional rivalry and power politics on the distant planet Chiron (more commonly referred to simply as "Planet").
After an Old Testament God narrates the universe into existence, the introduction flashes stock footage of political violence and social turmoil back on Earth, setting the scene for the brave new world we are about to enter. Think Deep Space Nine more than TOS or The Next Generation - this is ain't your grandpa's Federation, and it ain't the halcyon days of the fictional United Nations valiantly leading humanity into the next glorious epoch.
It seems that for all mankind's utopian strivings back on Earth, there was trouble aboard the ironically-named Unity spacecraft: when a reactor malfunction wakes the would-be colonists from their slumber far into their flight, all communication with Earth is severed and tensions boil over. In the ensuing chaos, the captain of the ship is assassinated, and the most charismatic leaders of seven distinct factions convince their acolytes to follow them to Planet to re-found society and survive in a hostile new environment.
Each faction in Alpha Centauri represents a unique ideological strand geared towards a different aspect of survival. You can assume the role of Lady Deirdre Sky of Gaia's Stepdaughters, a group of hard-line eco-socialists committed to living in harmony with Planet, or the laissez-faire capitalists of Morgan Industries, unconcerned with anything but wealth accumulation and industry. You can even continue in the time-honored Civ tradition of playing thinly-veiled stereotypes in the form of the peace-oriented Commissioner Pravin Lal (an Indian ascetic) or the cold, calculating Dr Prokhor Zakharov (a dastardly Slavic amoralist) - but more on that later.
As per classic Civilization formula, you start with a handful of units and a colony pod (settlers) and must begin your ascent from there, gathering resources, researching new technologies, and expanding your empire. And, with some slight differences, many of the basic functions are the same, under new names - cities are "bases", Granaries are "Recycling Tanks", and you build "Secret Projects" rather than World Wonders. But the game diverges substantially from classic Civilization from this point on. For Planet is quite literally alive, as players will come to realise, and cannot be treated lightly.
At first, beyond the occasional native fauna that stumble onto the screen - the ominously-named 'Mindworms', a mass of creepy noodles that function like Barbarians - there is little contact with any other life on Planet, and even these are dispatched relatively easily. But spongey red "xenofungus" upholsters the land as far as the eye can see, impeding movement and requiring slow, unforgiving removal. Initially an unremarkable (if monotonous) obstacle, things take a literary turn as the player is contacted by a disembodied voice that appears to spring from the harsh crimson expanse and speak for the planet itself.
The planet feels pain - and from then on, its immune system kicks into overdrive. As your society grows and makes contact with other factions, the forces of Planet respond more vigorously to your ecological destruction, a fate which only the eco-conscious Gaians can avoid from the get-go. But even more interesting is that players are afforded a choice, whatever their alignment: will you unite with Chiron in a fragile symbiosis and learn to cultivate the Mindworms for yourself? Or will you bank on the benefits that mines and thermal boreholes afford your bases, and fight off this fifth column until the end?
The result is an overwhelming sense of presence and indeed, companionship in what is essentially a solitary game, consciously built as such in an era of growing demand for multiplayer. Here the landscape itself, and non-player characters, serve as persistent interlocutors, reflecting on the player's progress and feeding back new challenges in return. Reynolds experimented with this concept already in Colonization, in which the King serves as a sort of 'third factor' after the player and the A.I., keeping in active correspondence with the player over the course of the game. However, Alpha Centauri provides the exciting chance to make a go of it in a world whose story is still unwritten - "future history", in the designers' words - instead of playing genocidal white supremacists whose mistakes are already etched in real-world stone. Between these, there is a world of narrative difference.
It helps that Chiron is a joy to explore, far and beyond the glorified grid players were furnished with previously. The entire map, now generated through a procedural algorithm, has natural hills, valleys, and rivers, and can be further terraformed up or down to accommodate different improvements. What's more, "Landmarks" like the Monsoon Jungle and Sargasso Sea, alien monoliths, and even the remains of the Unity craft itself now pepper the landscape, providing benefits to all surrounding tiles, which makes the temptation to invade a nearby territory -- or rush to be the first to settle -- far more tantalising. Later on, controlled climate change can even raise or lower sea levels to create a land bridge or a canal where there once was none. Millions of years of Earth-time geology can be accomplished in mere seconds -- Bering strait, eat your heart out!
Another improvement on Civilization is the A.I.: while recent iterations of Civilization (like the initial release of Civilization V and the Alpha Centauri-inspired Beyond Earth) have been widely panned for their lazy, unstrategic A.I. opponents, Alpha Centauri still shines years later. In past Civilizations, other societies represented more of a robotic nuisance than protagonists in an unfolding drama, while in Alpha Centauri, A.I. factions are decidedly more believable -- and more importantly, intelligent. Perhaps it is because when competing with the A.I., we are really competing with Brian Reynolds himself, after whom many A.I. functions were modeled.
For example, the A.I. now recognises natural borders between factions (which would become "culture" from Civilization III onwards) and works to get around them - and not always through military means. Neither can you simply bribe your way to victory anymore: when factions contact you, they are much more concerned about your ideological leanings than your pocketbook. Certain actions, like nerve-stapling citizens to quell social revolt, or using weapons of mass destruction, are considered atrocities, and will draw the ire of your own citizens and rivals in equal measure. Even worse is being accused of being hypocritical - despite being delivered in pre-set text fragments, there is a verve and observant timeliness that keeps these strident accusations fresh, cynical, and amusing every time.
As always in Civilization-style games, your reaction to these developments is entirely up to you. You can be an aggressive peacekeeper or a merciful conqueror or anything in between - except these choices are now far more meaningful, and far less arbitrary, thanks to the unique "social engineering" framework which Reynolds pioneered in Alpha Centauri.
Previously in Civilization, players could enact one form of government at a time, ranging from Monarchy to Democracy. But in Alpha Centauri, your society's aforementioned ideals are organised according to four social metrics, which players can switch fluidly between throughout the game. Within each of these are four sub-categories that refine the differences in civilisations more sharply: though you may be Democratic, will your economy be "Green", or Free Market? Will your Police State emphasise Knowledge over Wealth? And will your future society be Eudaimonic or succumb to fascistic Thought Control?
The combinations are impressively balanced and create natural obstacles for the player to overcome: if you prefer the benefits of an egalitarian but non-militaristic society, you'll have to compensate with defense investments. And if the morale boost and enhanced espionage of a repressive model suits your fancy, you'll have to make up for rampant inefficiency in your diplomacy. Anything is possible, and sometimes the fun is in inventing novel or bizarre ways to balance your stubborn style of play.
Of course, every faction not only has its natural inclinations, but certain blindspots as well: playing as the nihilistic totalitarians of the Human Hive (whose leader appears to be a cyberpunk Mao Zedong) prevents you from selecting "Democracy" at all, and choosing Sister Miriam Godwinson of the sectarian Lord's Believers (an Irish Catholic separatist, perhaps?) blocks "Knowledge" from the societal values row. However, especially on the higher difficulties, Alpha Centauri rewards wholeheartedly embracing your character's shortcomings; well-balanced, "hybrid" play (in Civilization community lingo) is not only extraordinarily difficult, it can often be simply wasteful.
Bells and Whistles
Firaxis also experimented with customisation in the "Design Workshop", allowing players to fine-tune their units with specific armor and upgrades. In Alpha Centauri's tech-tree, advances rarely create distinctly 'new' units, but rather introduce new kinds of defensive & offensive capabilities, which you then tweak to your liking. This means that your armies tend to evolve much more realistically over time, and with twelve different weapons, nine armor types, and nine unit chassis - not to mention a plethora of special abilities - there is lots of potential for tactical considerations here. You can hold back on the latest armor and make weak shock troops for a quick invasion, or give your transport ships the ability to defend against air attacks. In the best of cases, this can lead to highly contextual and adaptive warfare -- but it is not without its weaknesses.
As your socety grows larger and more complex, it becomes increasingly tedious to design units in the midst of so many other pressing concerns. The constant attention and maintenance your units demand detracts from the flow of gameplay, and the initial euphoria of designing a great unit quickly wears off in repeated playthroughs. The counter-balance is an 'auto-suggest' feature, which simply designs a range of new units for you as new technology is discovered. However, while it is a welcome addition, if your technicians don't think you need ground units with air supremacy, you just won't get them - and you'll be sorry when the age of Needlejets and Copters comes indeed. Problems like this abound, and punish new players unnecessarily. All in all, however, it is a rare moment of deficiency in a well-designed labor of love; perhaps for this reason alone it is worth some patience on the part of modern players.
On the other hand, U.I. innovations help to streamline the less enjoyable aspects of micromanagement. Much lauded by critics on release, command automation frees players to focus on the macro game, allowing them to set everything from Formers to cities themselves on autopilot. And in one of the more jarring changes from previous Civilizations, players do not, by default, choose which technologies to research; rather, they choose between the Explore, Discover, Build, and Conquer categories at each stage. This option can easily be disabled for classic-style technology selection, but it does make the vanilla game an interesting exercise in luck-mitigation: knowing, via the Datalinks, what kinds of technologies you can research at each level of advancement is more important than gunning for a specific facility or Secret Project. Most advanced players do indeed play with "Blind Research" off - but Alpha Centauri is by no means unplayable with it on.
Ultimately, Alpha Centauri is a highly replayable, endlessly customisable 4X experience. It remains a cult classic, ranking highly on top lists and boasting an active community to this day. That's impressive almost twenty years later, and is a testament to the lasting design of a game that treated its players with intelligence. While it wasn't quite a commercial success in its day, it was, according to PC Gamer, “the rightful heir to the Civilization throne,” and one of only three games to ever score a 98% in the history of the magazine (the others are Half-Life and Crysis).
Equal parts visionary and accidentally prescient, it would predict gaming trends (and real-life ones) for decades to come. It is one the main reasons why Civilization stayed alive into the 2000s, and for this we owe it many wonderful, bleary-eyed, sleepless nights. And though it was built on Sid Meier's classic design, Alpha Centauri proved that it was much more than the sum of its parts - and much more than Civilization in space. It is No Exit on an interplanetary scale, where Hell is other factions.
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: Alien Crossfire
A few months after Alpha Centauri's release, Firaxis followed up with the Alien Crossfire expansion (often abbreviated SMAX), introducing five new human factions, two groups of warring aliens, and a host of gameplay tweaks and upgrades. As the "Progenitor races" compete to re-take Chiron (a planet they created and call the Manifold), humans find themselves "caught in the crossfire" in between. Now, it seems, the humans on Planet actually have an inconvenient reason to work together, even as they work at cross-purposes.
Booting up Alien Crossfire after groking the core game is a delight, at first. There is more of everything, and exactly where it needs to be: more native lifeforms that menace your settlements, more weapons and unit types to hold back the alien menace, more facilities to boost your economy, and more technology to research in the fight for survival. And of course, the five non-alien sects offer a range of new ideologies to inhabit, though they suffer from the same unevenness as the original. From a legion of renegade hackers to a futuristic Joe Hill right out of Martian Time-Slip, this demographically denser Planet is both clever and conventional, pulling out sci-fi standbys (Ghost in the Shell-style techno-supremacists) and tired racial tropes (esoteric, authoritarian Asians) in the usual fashion.
However, the gameplay leaves much to be desired. While having a whole spate of new factions to choose from is exciting, the Progenitors' arrival does not prove to make the gameplay any more tense or exciting. These Judoon look-alikes (called the "Manifold Caretakers" and "Manifold Usurpers" respectively) merely reveal two overpowered, game-breaking factions which unproductively disrupt the game's balance. No diplomatic victory is possible while any alien factions remain, and given their extreme strength, boosted infrastructure (Progenitors start with a Recycling Tank & Energy Grid in every base), and immunity to conventional espionage, the likelihood is that they very much will remain (and voraciously eat up space on Chiron). Neither do these beings forgive easily - side with one or the other and you will make an enemy for life.
Sounds nice and thematic - but part of the fun of Alpha Centauri is the long con. Your enemy today could be your friend tomorrow, and discovering just the right combination of gifts, treaties, and military boasting necessary to win someone over to your side is a huge component of diplomacy. Without that malleability, you simply have obstinate, unflappable A.I. that shows no growth or change throughout the game. And if change is indeed the heart of narrative, then Alien Crossfire goes stiff with endgame stalemates that force your hand into a Conquest victory against unreasonable odds. Alien Crossfire is probably best with its namesake disabled, and restricted to a decidedly human endeavor.
With its new technologies, unit types, and native lifeforms, Alien Crossfire does deepen the core game considerably - just don't play as the Progenitors, or you'll wipe the floor almost every time (unless you want to see their new victory condition). Some new features, like the ability to free eliminated faction leaders (who can then re-enter the game unshakeably loyal to you), actually defend against late-game missiles ("Planet Busters" being the friendly local term), and PSI-resistant armor (PSI was the "Ghost" Pokemon of Alpha Centauri), are welcome and fix many lasting issues. And though players could always create their own factions by editing the text files in the original, Alien Crossfire includes the handy Facedit.exe to streamline the process, adding to the fun of customisation and scenario-building.
But if Alpha Centauri cultivated the kind of brooding, foreboding atmosphere absent in its peers, then its expansion jumps ship for a Huntington-esque Clash of Civilizations, with all its overplayed and hyper-exaggerated, cinematic starkness. Chiron is no longer an eerily-empty planet with the vestiges of a previous civilization looming over its new inhabitants, as in Dune or Samuel Delany's The Einstein Intersection. It is noisy and busy with two forgettable alien menaces, one a shade less aggressive than the other. And though their origin story and ethical divergence builds admirably on Alpha Centauri's philosophical bent, they are cheapened by an uninspired attempt at alien speech patterns, which mostly results to awkward diplomacy rather than delightful banter.
For players looking for an added challenge, Alien Crossfire definitely delivers. But it dials down the most compelling aspect of Alpha Centauri - its narrative richness - and proves that it is merely about galactic intrigue, not Sartrean exile.
Conclusion Mk. II/Post-script
Civilization is a bit like Star Trek - full of bittersweet contradictions. Deeply metaphysical explorations of the human condition blend into campy Cold War-era stereotypes and white racial fantasies. The legacy of human history turns out, again and again, to be Eurocentric. And Deanna Troi is attracted to William Riker. The list goes on.
Though Alpha Centauri self-consciously parodies some of these failures, it is not immune to them either. You would think that Weberian 'types' would have been long since over-played by the late '90s, but even then, it seems, Firaxis couldn't resist some Slavic-Asiatic despots & authoritarian "Hispanic" guerillas. Given how prominent faction interaction features in the game, these oversights detract from the otherwise strong writing and turn the humor from dark to lazy. And yet in spite of these failures, like Star Trek, Civilization has always been in a class of its own.
Brian Reynolds inherited that DNA and made it into something new and even more original, being “less a designer's new take on Civilisation [sic] as a Civilisation [sic] designer exploring philosophy through its lens,” as Richard Cobbett has written. And as successive instalments have souped up the series for a modern audience, there still hasn't been anything quite like Alpha Centauri (Beyond Earth doesn't count). Reynolds may very well be, in Cobbett's rendering, "the only person who's been high up on the Civilization chain of command who appreciates what stepping away from the numbers can do."
And that's the crux of it: Alpha Centauri is a game that still works because of its vast, irrepressible vision. It is a romantic, fever dream; a love letter to a genre still beset by unimaginative rehashes. Old Sid had long ago taught his team the idea of "surrounding the fun"; Reynolds encircled his in tessellated layers of exquisite detail, and in so doing, managed to signal something larger - and far greater - than just a game.
"No longer mere earthbeings and planetbeings are we, but bright children of the stars," says Lady Deirdre, in her own riff on eternal return. "And together we shall dance in and out of ten billion years, celebrating the gift of consciousness until the stars themselves grow cold and weary, and our thoughts turn again to the beginning."