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Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

By: Bill Stiteler

 

Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Format: CD
Developer: Firaxis
Mac Port By: Westlake Interactive
Publisher: Aspyr
Minimum Requirements: 150Mhz 603e, MacOS 7.5.3, 16MB RAM, colors monitor, QuickTime 4.0 (included on CD)
Network Feature: Yes
3Dfx Support: No
Retail Price: $44.89
Availability: Out Now

 

Finally, Sid Meier has come back to Macintosh!

I can't recall the first time I played a Sid Meier game; not because it was so long ago, but because I spent so much time playing that my time sense is skewed. I started on a Friday and stopped on a Sunday--which day counts? I've never left the States, but I've logged enough time on Pirates! Gold I could sail through the Gulf of Mexico without a map or sexton, especially if I was hunting for my long-lost sister or the Spanish silver train. My roommate let me play Civilization on his PC resulting in my last two years of college being kind of a blur. I was in a superstore with my fiancee when I saw Civilization II for Mac. She married me anyway.

Meier's games have quirks, to be sure. I remember more than once watching primitive spearmen defending a town against battleships in the original Civ. Playing Pirates, I wished I could climb into the crow's nest and throttle the idiot watchman who wanted to attack ships as we tried to limp back to port for repairs. But there's so much more right about a Sid Meier's game than wrong, you don't even notice these flaws until he fixes them in the next version. The biggest flaw with his games is that they end.

And now, following Activision's Sid-less attempt with Civilization 3: Season of the Witch, the master has returned to give the greatest turn-based strategy game of all time a true successor: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (SMAC).

Civ and Civ II ended with pioneers being sent off to colonize our neighboring system. SMAC picks up just as that ship, the UNS Unity, is set to land. But, surprise, surprise, Something Has Gone Wrong. Splinter factions have formed on the voyage, and when Unity is forced to crash-land, everybody starts staking their own claim.

You play the leader of one of those factions, each of which has its own outlook and advantages. The University, for example, prizes research and knowledge over all else which can leave them open to military attacks by the Spartan Federation. One faction tries to uphold the original UN charter, while another turns to the Bible for guidance. The Gaians try to understand this new world they've come to, while the Morganites seek profit at any cost. And the sinister Hive wants security for its bases and absolute control of its citizenry.

After the crash, you start with one base and precious little else. You begin exploring and expanding this brave new world, trying to protect yourself from the alien life forms and your former shipmates while you discover new technologies. Sound a lot like Civilization? It is, but taken to another level (this is one time I'm glad the "look and feel" lawsuit failed). For example, you can actually win(!) a diplomatic victory in SMAC, as opposed to Civ, where you had to run out the clock while avoiding a war (difficult, to say the least). And diplomacy plays a much bigger role in SMAC, especially in the choices you make in running your faction. Democratic and tyrannical governments both have advantages and disadvantages, and if you let your people have a say in how their cities are run, you'll gain the respect of the UN Peacekeepers but the ire of the Hive. "Green" economic policies are the goal of the Gaians, but the Morganites see it as a serious threat to their Free Market system. And you'll want to have as many friends as possible, because the planetary council can make decisions which affect the entire planet. ("Melt the Polar Ice Caps: Yeah or Nay?")

The biggest thing to get used to is the new technologies, simply because there's no real point of reference. I mean, I know that riflemen are superior to legionnaires, but when it's chaos guns versus singularity cannons, who's got the advantage? You'll spend a lot of time (initially) consulting your datalinks about what the heck Polymorphic Software does, but when it does come down to combat, the interface is a godsend. In addition to telling you the strength of the units' weapons and armors, it also tells you the advantages they have due to experience, terrain, and cover, so you'll know the likelihood of victory.

And finally, so many details of this game are right. Details won't save a bad game, but in a great game they're the chocolate chunks in a hot cookie. The vehicles and soldiers have that funky modular look that's a mix of real space technology and Space:1999, and you can modify them to your own specifications. You want a tank with lighter armor or a soldier with heavier weapons? All you have to do is click. Voice-overs in a game are usually the first thing I turn off, but the voice actors in SMAC are--hey!--actually acting! When the dialogue for the discovery of the retrovirus is a professor denying research of the retrovirus, it shows that someone's paying attention. If you think good voice-overs don't matter, just wait until you hear System Shock 2. ("Zee monsters are coming! Sacred Blue!")

When Brian Reynolds (the game's designer), Meier, and the other creators retire, I hope they publish a book on how they design a game. They seem to have an intuitive sense of which elements of the game to automate and which to leave in the player's control. I complained in my Call to Power review about the wonky automap function, so of course SMAC gets it exactly right--you just pick the unit up and drop it at the destination, and it figures out the quickest route. As new technologies are discovered, units are upgraded and the old ones eliminated, unless you say otherwise. You can automate terraforming, exploring, or production at your bases, and they all made sense--if emergency resource pods from the Unity crash showed up, auto-exploring units would head straight for them.

I did experience problems with installation. The game says it will install Apple Gamesprockets 1.7, but failed to do so on either of the two computers I tried (you can get it at Apple's website). Also, the game intially started up with a window too wide for my monitor and I was unable to resize it to fit, but a patch came out a day later which fixed that.

In a market dominated by first-person shooters, there's been a sudden renaissance of turn-based strategy games. This is largely due to the games of Sid Meier, which always sell well despite the current trend. In Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Firaxis has released the most electifying game on the entertainment market today, and if you listen closely you'll hear the millions... and millions of fans chanting Meier's name.

Mei-er!

Mei-er!

Mei-er!

Mei-er!

 

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October 31, 2014

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