We’ve gotten our hands on the beta, and this is one game that doesn’t disappoint!!
Yeah, she’s cute, but you’ll do well to remember that she likes the trees a lot more than you.
Ahhhh, Alpha Centauri. What strategy player hasn’t been sitting on the edge of their seat watching for the true sequel to Sid Meier’s classic, Civilization, to finally emerge? We’ve spent the last week playing the beta of Brian Reynolds’ creation, and we have to say that it’s definitely been worth the wait. Boasting improved gameplay, better graphics, and a science tree that will have your head spinning, Alpha Centauri seems to be everything that Civ fans have hoped for. Let’s take a quick look under the hood.
As we reported earlier, Alpha Centauri story revolves not around different cultures competing for a planet, but different philosophies. The crew of the ship (the Unity) that began its travels so long ago, eventually fell into conflict over the way they felt their new home should be colonized. Went the ship finally landed, each of the factions went their own separate ways to found their own cities.
Miriam Godwinson, the ship’s Psych Chaplain, saw a new world in which to expand the high moral code she was brought up with. Founding the city New Jerusalem, her followers began to call themselves the Lord’s Believers and seek to convert all to their deep fundamentalism. Godwinson’s charismatic personality and experience with psychology help her keep her people happy and calm.
Deirdre Skye places her faith in the planet itself. As the scientist in charge of researching xeno-biology and botany for the mission, Deirdre saw a new planet unscarred by the ravages of human hands. Determined to make sure that humans didn’t screw up another planet, her followers named themselves Gaia’s Stepdaughters and forged the green city Gaia’s High Garden. This faction has an unusually strong bond with the strange life forms found on this new world.
In direct contrast to these two visionaries, Nwabudike Morgan, Director of Morgan Industries sees an opportunity for profit. His ruthless business senses gives him substantial economic benefits over the other factions, but don’t expect to see this leader too concerned about pollution and morality until it affects his bottom line. As on Earth, he leads his company Morgan Industries with an iron fist, and named his first colony base after his successful business.
One leader believed, somewhat idealistically, that all of the new factions could be brought together in a peaceful harmony. As the ship’s Chief of Surgery, Pravin Lal was more accustomed to helping people that hurting them. Bringing together a group of like-minded diplomats, Lal forged the Peacekeeping Forces and called his first city the United Nations Headquarters after the Earth group responsible for keeping peace for so long. Naturally, this group has a real edge in diplomatic negotiations with other factions.
Corazon Santiago, a security officer on the Unity, sees diplomacy as a weakness. She forged a society of soldiers who called themselves the Spartan Federation after the exemplary warrior race of old. As well trained warriors, her Spartan followers can often win battles that would seem overwhelming to the soldiers of other factions. Using her first city, Spartan Command, as a base, Santiago seeks to spread her holdings over the face of this strange new planet.
Ignoring much of the politics that were going on around him, Prokhor Saratov only wanted to create a place where the research opportunities provided by the new world could be fully taken advantage of. His faction, the University of Planet built the University Base to act as a new Alexandria for their Centauri home. Due to its high emphasis on science and research, this faction is able to discover new technologies substantially faster than any other group.
Finally there’s the Human Hive, led by the ship’s Chief of Security Sheng-ji Yang. Yang has decided to forge a new more efficient society by creating more efficient citizens. Although most other factions are disturbed by Yang’s weird mind-control experiments and his lack of concern for human pain, even they have to admit that Yang’s group, the Human Hive is a force to be reckoned with. Their first city, The Hive, is a creepy example of how efficient a city can be if you take away the mind of the individual.
Okay, so now that you’ve met all the players, you’re probably wondering what kind of toys they have to fight with. The thing is, within the open design interface of Alpha Centauri that’s a pretty hard question to answer. Rather than having set units that the acquisition of technology allows you to build, Alpha Centauri allows you to build new units out of the different technologies advantages you earn. If you develop a new laser technology, you can upgrade all of the units you have with the new gun. If you come up with better engine technology, you can improve units in that way. Although the system may sound a little complex at first, it’s actually very easy to use, and creates a much more realistic feel of science and development.
As much as we’d love to give you the details on the science tree, it’s a pretty hard thing to do. There are a LOT of different technologies in the game, and they link together in a pretty complex web (we’re also pretty loath to give away all the secrets of the game). Still, writing about this game without even mentioning science would be a complete waste of time, so we pieced together a few of the basic technologies so that you can get an idea of what to expect.
Starting out as the University faction, you’re given the choice of six different technologies to research. The first tech, Doctrine: Mobility is a detailed study into what movement is really all about. Once this is researched, you’ll be given a new unit body type (the speeder), the ability to build the command center structure (which improves the morale of your land troops), and you can begin to research Doctrine: Loyalty and Doctrine Flexibility (if you have the other necessary prerequisites).
Your second choice is Centauri Ecology, a deep look into the basic form of life as it exists on this new planet you’ve discovered. Centauri Ecology is a really good choice, as it allows you to build Formers, the basic terraforming units that are roughly equivalent to the settlers in Civilization. This technology will also bring you the opportunity to begin construction of the Weather Paradigm, a major structure/philosophy that would fall under the ‘wonders’ category in Civ (here they’re called Secret Projects). With Ecology under your belt you’ll be able to move on towards Ecological Engineering and Centauri Empathy.
Behind door number three is Biogenetics, a basic (at least for Alpha Centauri) tech that will enable you to build Recycling Tanks (an advance that helps increase your mineral resources) and to work on the Human Genome Project, a particularly useful secret project. With this tech down, you can start work (once again, provided you have the other prerequisites) on Gene Splicing and The Secrets of the Human Brain technologies.
Another option is Information Networks, a detailed computer network research project that gives your faction access to Network Nodes, structures that can improve your science output substantially. The science tree branches out from here with Planetary Networks, Polymorphic Software (that sounds so cool), and Nonlinear Mathematics.
If you’re into getting your production up quickly, you’ll probably want to start with the Industrial Base technology, an advance that will immediately give you access to Synthmetal Armor (very nice for improving the defensive capabilities of your units) and the Merchant Exchange secret project. When you’re ready to continue your research in this area you can move on to Industrial Economics, Polymorphic Software (with Information Networks), High Energy Chemistry and Superconductor techs.
Finally there’s Social Psych, a research into the way your citizens will think as part of a larger society. With this technology you’ll be able to build Recreation Commons that are designed to help your workers relax and can go on to research Secrets of the Human Brain, Ethical Calculus, and Doctrine: Loyalty. Don’t get into the habit of just considering industrial and military upgrades. Keeping your citizens happy is a lot harder than it was in Civilization. As with everything else, balance is the key.
As you can see, research can get pretty complex (and this is just the first level of research!!), and as none of these technologies really exists in a functional form, it’s very important to keep checking out new technology options to find out what they can do for you immediately and what advances they can help lead you to. One of the most important ways that technology can help you is in the development of new strategies for social engineering, another feature new to Alpha Centauri.
The Social Engineering screen is an advanced decedent of Civilization’s government options. As the head of your faction, you’ll need to decide what form of government your people will live under, the goals that they’ll be working towards, and the economic structure they’ll labor under. Government type is covered under the Politics heading on the Social Engineering screen, and at the time I’m writing this piece offered me four different choices. The starting governmental system, Frontier, is a basic system designed to hold your people together as long as it can. This system offers no real benefits, and should be abandoned as soon as possible in favor of a more efficient governing style. One such system is the Police State, a heavy-handed rule that increases your police effectiveness and improves your ability to support units. Unfortunately, the oppressive nature of this iron rule also reduces worker efficiency. Your third option is the democracy, rule by the masses. Citizens of a democracy work with improved efficiency and their populations grow faster. On the down side, democratic societies have to pay a lot more to support their troops in the field. Last comes Fundamentalism, a religious based regime that increases your citizens resistance to mind control (er, other than your own) and increases their morale and the cost of a reduced scientific output.
Once you’ve decided on a government (keep in mind that all of these choices must be researched before they show up as selectable options), you’re ready to decide on your culture’s values. At the time of this preview I had only researched two choices, knowledge and wealth. Societies that value knowledge will research technologies more quickly and work more efficiently due to their logic-oriented lifestyles and love of things scientific. Unfortunately, these same logic-oriented minds are very susceptible to the psychic attacks of the planet’s alien creatures. Wealth oriented cultures use a love of money to drive them towards an improved economy and industry while doing amazing amounts of damage to the planet they live on.
Third comes the selection of your colonies’ economic structure. Here I had three choices, Free Market, Planned Economy, and Green. Free Market economies improve the energy production of each of your cities (in Alpha Centauri, energy is wealth), lowers your faction’s morale, and severely reduces the effectiveness of your police force. Planned Economy cultures will benefit from improved population growth and better industry scores, but don’t work as efficiently as their leaders would like. Lastly there’s the Green Economy that improves both efficiency of your workers and the amount of environmental impact they create, but reduces how fast their populations can grow.
The last column in the Social Planning window is for the selection of Future Societies. To get any option at all here requires some pretty advanced research and we’ve decided to just leave ’em out for now. Look for more information on these mysterious social advances in later posts.
Once you get past unit design, combat works pretty much in Alpha Centauri as it did in Civilization 2. You take your unit, move it into another unit and each of their damage bar go down until somebody dies. Units that perform well in combat may be upgrade to disciplined, hardened, veteran, elite, or commando status and will perform more effectively in future battles. Still, the game’s engineering options ensure that gameplay is a great deal more diverse than earlier Reynolds games as each player can make their own decisions about what type of units they wish to build. Expect multiplayer to get really ugly.
Okay, that’s probably enough for now. Keep checking back though � in the coming weeks we’re going to have an interview with Mr. Reynolds and more updates featuring Alpha Centauri’s amazing new design system. I’m going to go start an empire�
— Trent C. Ward
Sid Meier made Civilization, Brian Reynolds designed Civilization II, and now the two are working on Alpha Centauri, an unofficial continuation of one of the greatest series of all time.
And while Meier and Reynolds are no longer with MicroProse (publishers of the Civilization series and holders of the trademark), they may now be somewhere better–their own start-up development company, where they can take the time to make the game and finish it as they see fit.
Several major features make Alpha Centauri distinct from its predecessors and from its upcoming competition. First and foremost is the setting–Alpha Centauri takes place in the future, in a science fiction milieu based more on extrapolating from existing science fact rather than falling back onto genre cliches such as planet-busting spaceships and big-headed aliens. Information technology, medical advances, and psychological conditioning will all be as important developing the latest, greatest military unit.
Another new feature is the division of the sides into distinct factions. Unlike Civilization, where the main differences between the Romans and the Mongols were some starting technologies and a different list of city names, the seven different factions in Alpha Centauri each have differing abilities and different motivations. The scientific faction, for example, gets bonuses for research, while the business faction gains research on income and development. So the environmentalist faction might be more inclined towards peace and cooperation, while it’s likely that the militant faction will be far more aggressive.
But beyond the varying bonuses, another important element to the different factions is that each group has its own unique leader and personality. This is rather unusual for a strategy game, where most opponents tend to be bland representations of unit sides. But in Alpha Centauri each of the seven different leaders has a different agenda and personality, a personality fleshed out by each character’s unique philosophy and manner of speech, a facet of the game that is called into play during diplomacy and negotiations. Helping to create this sense of personality for the rival leaders is the game’s backstory, which is slowly unveiled as the game progresses.
The story behind Alpha Centauri involves the arrival of a colony ship from Earth on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our sun. Reynolds (the lead designer and programmer on the game), has worked out a storyline that tells how, during the long, extended journey across the light years, the occupants of this sub-light speed colony ship (who were recruited from most of the nation’s of Earth) divided along not national but philosophical divides, breaking into the groups described above.
One major advance that Reynolds has added to the game is the concept of borders, or territories. One annoying aspect of earlier Civilization games was that even if you had signed a peace treaty with a computer played, it would frequently move its units through what you perceived as your zone of control, including even settlers units, who would often found new cities in an area you yourself planned to expand into later. This would often force you into a pre-emptive war against a player you otherwise preferred to be allied with.
Reynolds is solving this problem by incorporating the concept of territories into the game. What this means in practical terms is that square of territory is calculated by the computer to belong to the player who’s city is nearest to it. So if the computer player has signed a treaty with a human opponent, it will not move its units through the human’s territory in violation of the treaty, thanks to the new pathfinding algorithms. Examples of borders can be seen in some of these new screen shots.
Other new concepts being worked into the artificial intelligence are more advanced and thoughtful military campaigns. For example, rather than sending out units to attack you piecemeal, one or two tanks per turn, the AI has a new routine that tells it to earmark a certain percentage of units for a full-scale assault, route them to a staging point city under its control as they are produced, and then attack en masse when a force of a reasonable size has been reached. Another tactic adapted for the AI is coastal raiding–a few units will land near a lightly defended city, raze it to the ground, and then withdraw, only to strike at another lightly held city somewhere else in the next turn.
With these and other features, including multiplayer options, Alpha Centauri is probably the most highly-anticipated strategy game on the horizon. Electronic Arts certainly thinks so–no less a luminary than Bing Gordon, the company’s executive vice president and chief creative officer–was at the last E3 trade show, giving hands on demonstrations of the game. Considering that you almost never see executives playing their own games at trade shows, this is a significant endorsement.