While Civilization: Beyond Earth may not have been the snazziest game on display at this year’s E3, it’s easily one of the most anticipated by both myself and people who are actually able to play strategy games properly. It’s the spiritual sequel to Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, who of course became dead to us after selling his soul to Zynga, before repenting and quitting to make a new game I don’t think anyone’s seen yet. Why does that matter? Because Alpha Centauri is arguably the greatest strategy game ever, and by that I mean I will hear no arguments. Unless you want to argue X-Com, in which case you have a point as long as you call it “UFO Enemy Unknown”.
But for now, there’s a planet to conquer. Imaginatively named “Planet”. The story so far…
The basic gist of Alpha Centauri is that it’s Civilisation, only with an alien world, a far more detailed ecosystem, and factions split in terms of philosophy rather than Earth culture – seven in the basic game, mostly splinter groups in the expansion. Their faces should be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre, but just to be sure, here’s a quick run-down of the main players we’ll be dealing with in the course of the game.
And that’s the whole gang, a different flavour for every-
Yeah, I never liked the Alien Crossfire expansion. We won’t be playing with or speaking of it again. Instead, we’ll be taking charge of the Gaians for what I’m almost positive will be a good all-human game of world conquest. Don’t expect any great play here, it’s been years since I played Alpha Centauri and I’ve forgotten almost all of the ‘good’ strategies. On the other hand, the AI is pretty dreadful and only even vaguely able to keep up with even a horrible human player on most difficulty levels, so I’m still in with at least something of a chance.
So, let’s begin! Random Planet, all default options, except that when a faction is out, it’s out. No escape pods, no second chances. Unless you have access to the ability to save/restore the game, which of course I do. Ahem. I’m also going to be playing on Librarian difficulty, because it’s been so long and I’d rather this piece wasn’t just 200 words long. Which it could quite easily be if I let the game have its way. Really.
Okay, first things first. Your first base in Alpha Centauri is a case of pot-luck, established where your escape pod hits. This one is okay. Water on one side, some grasslands for farming – though as Gaians, I have a bit of an edge there even when it’s the purple fungus that covers much of the planet – and lots of scattered pods from the Irony. By default my city is called Gaia’s Landing, but that’s a boring name, so I change it – with humility and care – to Deidropolis, home of the Fighting Awesomes. Having just one city isn’t enough though, so the first job is scouting out this land, seeing if there are any neighbours, and establishing a couple of others so that we can rev up both production and research. Information is power, even if actual power is more effective.
Though in this case, I soon realise I have a bit of a problem. Two of them. My start location ends up being just a tiny island… which at least will be relatively easy to defend… with both the University and the Hive right on my doorstep. Diplomatic relations do not exactly start off well, when Zakharov decides not to bother.
I’ll tell you what they are. Mindworms.
The Gaians’ starting trick in Alpha Centauri, and why I like them, is beginning already able to tame the native species of Planet – not always, but more often than not – and turn them right against their enemies. In short, Deidre begins with the ability to harness seething boils of psychic rage worms that normally harass your bases, and turn them into her personal army. It’s not the highest tier ability, and it gets less useful later on in the game when both other factions can research the same trick and advanced technology makes them less than amazing, but it’s by far the funniest and the most satisfying, as well as allowing for one of Alpha Centauri’s most evil tricks that I’m sure I’ll be doing a bit later on. Their ability to do psychic damage is also quite handy, even if you’re at a bit of a disadvantage, and since they’re ‘free’ units, you don’t have to care if they die.
In short: Mindworms! You’re what’s for breakfast.
I could quite easily crush them, since at the moment they only have the one base, but I figure that for the moment at least, they may as well be my secondary research team. I sign a Treaty of Friendship with the University, which is really more a Treaty Of Get Out Of Our Territory And Don’t Try Anything, rather than a Pact of Brotherhood. But I think he knows he’s on thin ice here, and while normally it would take a while to build up that faith after a Vendetta, he quickly agrees to team up for real. That means we can both go through each others’ territory, share some key information, and otherwise postpone an inevitable fight. I’m happy with that, especially as their regular deliveries of map information mean I’ll be able to keep an eye on them and maybe keep them contained.
That just leaves Yang to deal with. Bit of a problem, as I’ve been focusing mostly on defense and scouting so far rather than on good aggressive troops. I really don’t want him to get too bedded down though, as he’s a real nuisance when he walls up. Even now, he keeps making sorties against my bases all the time. I’d consider making a Blood Truce with him, but a bit like Miriam, I find he’s usually better dealt with early. Decisions, decisions. Normally I’d hold back and bide my time a little, but the University is falling over itself to upgrade my gear right now…
No. I want to set a good example for the rest of Planet.
Yep, that actually works. It’s random whether or not the mindworms will take the bait, but they can really screw over another player and the AI isn’t smart enough to realise what you did. How sad for people who are not me.
With the home continent now pacified or at least temporarily occupied with the natives, I can finally turn my attention to the rest of Planet. I essentially own this one, for now, thanks to several bases of operations that are well garrisoned and connected up for quick transport – the University has the edge in size, but I’m pretty sure I can still take them if it comes down to it. The next job pretty obviously has to be finding everyone else. In particular, one message steps up the game in a hurry – the Spartans have conquered the Morganites.
But that just begs the big question… Where In The World Is Corazon Santiago?
Declaring Vendetta on Yang, I swoop in with my troops and instantly seize his first, undefended city, “Huddling Of The People” and rename it “Deidre’s Victory”. Yang immediately calls up to beg for mercy, and I throw it back in his face in favour of taking his capital and renaming it “Deidre’s Other Victory”. This then starts feeling awkward when I repeat the process on his third city, but there are some things that just have to be done.
Speaking of, I’m more than a little worried about the Spartans. Santiago currently leads the game in military, population and territory, though I have the edge in both tech and wealth – closely followed by the University, which chooses this moment to send an espionage Probe Team into my city to raid my knowledge of mindworm taming. Now that’s just rude. If he wanted to see the latest innovations in mindworm combat, he only had to ask.
Unfortunately every turn sees the Spartans just increasing their advantage, and while we’re currently on great terms, it’s hard not to get just a little bit worried by some of their moves. When the most powerful political entity on the planet has already called a meeting to repeal the UN Charter for instance, which only exists to prevent factions from carrying out Atrocities… well, let’s just say, that’s cause for a little nervousness.
But with the Morganites and Hive both already knocked out and their leaders trapped forever in punishment spheres and the Peacekeepers completely irrelevant at this stage in the game, who is left to perhaps broker a deal for when Santiago almost inevitably goes crazy and decides to take over the whole world?
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.
Maybe Commissioner Lal is worth a call, just to be on the-
Forget it. He thinks he can get me to declare war on the planet’s dominant power with whatever energy credits fell down the back of his sofa? Please, sweetie, that’s like if in World War 2 the United States got a call asking if they’d be okay partnering with the Seychelles against everyone else. Sadly there’s no ‘do not dignify with a response’ button in the game, which leads to deep laughter when Lal replies to my refusal by trying to shake me down for technology. It’s like being threatened by a toothless bunny. So, again, pretty accurate for the UN faction.
One thing though is clear. I can’t afford to have the University around any more. We’re now about equal in terms of strength, but if they should turn for any reason… or Santiago decide that she’s going to call in a favour in a later campaign… that would get Messy. Luckily, I have an idea that will help thin their abilities a little…
I dispatch some spies with two goals in mind – to steal any remaining technology the University might have, and to leave as much evidence that it was actually the Peacekeepers as possible. It goes flawlessly, and immediately the University is at war with the Peacekeepers, who now have to satisfying themselves with just keeping a little piece of what they thought they had. To the University, I pledge full support, and then somehow forget.
Time to get serious. With another couple of Probe Teams I cut off Miriam’s diplomatic support on her behalf – it was probably going to happen anyway, so no big loss – and then call her up for a little pre-humous gloating. I figure it’s the best time, before the inevitable maelstrom of devastation makes it too late.
And then what’s left of Miriam’s forces get to experience what looks like being covered with a million tons of spaghetti, only it’s not spaghetti, it’s psychic rage worms who torture their victims from afar before tearing them into little pieces. I almost feel sorry for her, since technically in this game she hasn’t done anything to get in my way. But then, I’ve played a lot of games of this since it came out, and this is a rare exception, so screw it. And it’s Santiago who actually gets the victory by seizing their last city anyway, so if anyone asks, blame her.
There’s a bit of a lull at this point, with all three of us remaining factions having signed Pacts – Zakharov is “Magnanimous” and practically falling over himself to give me technologies, while Santiago is “Belligerant” and thus a little bit Worrying. But there’s some quiet time to simply set up bases and do/swap research that’s a great moment to remember one of the best things about Alpha Centauri – how its tone evolves over the game. It starts off brutally cynical with the different sides fracturing, but the overall impression is that people will be able to move beyond that and create something better – a utopian future where second chances can be seized.
This rarely ends up happening. At this point in the game an increasing number of technologies and decisions have gone from being aspirational things to absolutely nightmarish, like putting down rebellion with “nerve stapling”, the invention of devices like the “punishment sphere”, and even things that seem like they might be okay in theory having a fairly painful downside. “Clinical Immortality” for instance looks like this:
And lest we forget the fate that awaits most of the faction leaders in the average game – their immortal bodies being locked into at best prisons and at worst outright torture devices for literally centuries. As Gaians, it’s not really been that big of a problem in this game, but the planet also fights back at regular intervals, with the general terraforming of the purple slime covering its surface leading to a slightly more Earth-like environment, but also causing assaults from mindworms and other monsters at regular intervals, which get super-charged every few decades. This is handy for the Gaians – free troops! – but still. On the home-front, you get policies like Democracy, sure, but it’s a simple click to create a soul-crushing police state instead.
Even the potentially ‘nice’ stuff is tinged with horror. When you first learn the ability to create your own mindworms for instance, rather than simply capturing them, you get one of many little text-driven interludes that goes behind the scenes. It’s a fairly long chunk of text, but essentially has (in this case Deidre) recruiting a promising telepath to bond with the worms and train up the broods for war. It ends with this. I quote:
“As you wish, Lady,” Lindly says, steeling herself to the mission. As she retreats from the dais, you are troubled by a vision of Lindly clawing at her face, mottled worms spilling from her eye sockets. You hope you have not signed Lindly’s death warrant, for she has been a most promising Talent.
Alpha Centauri is in short a truly terrible, terrible place to live. (And fun fact, Lindly actually ended up getting her own comic book, one of a few spin-offs that were made of Alpha Centauri)
But occasionally, you get something that makes it totally worthwhile.
What? No, not that! I mean:
The University has now officially outstayed its welcome. I can’t beat Santiago at a military victory, but I can push for the “Transcendence” one – this is where you essentially join with the planet as one harmonious entity. I’m close enough that I can just close my borders and weather any storm. But the University can out-research me with no trouble, and it’s still far, far too close. So, it’s time for a little dirty play. And time to use some of that Wealth I’ve been building up over the last few turns to make a few big purchases…
Now, normally this would mean every other faction instantly declaring Vendetta. But since Santiago cancelled the UN Treaty, nobody cares! There is a massive knock in terms of environmental impact, but my side is so clean that I’m sure Planet will forgive. Besides, right now it can’t do a lot against me. If it spawns fungus, that just means free roads. More mindworms? Free troops! I also take a moment to dispatch some Probe Teams to outright conquer a couple of University towns without firing a shot. Zakharov is less than pleased when he finds out.
Really, the hardest part of the conquest is thinking up what names to call the captured bases. I gets through Deidric Ruins, Deidry Deirdry Me and a couple of others, before just switching to the inevitable and having three bases called PROKHORED! They can work out which one they are for themselves. I don’t care.
With the University’s main bases nuked so hard that there’s literally just a pool of water where they were – god bless games with terraforming, where nukes reshape the landscape – Zakharov is still in the game, but reduced to just a few bases in the ocean that survive only because they’re a nuisance to get to. He’s not a player any more though, meaning that it’s just me and Santiago, and Santiago is quickly deciding that whole ‘pact’ thing doesn’t make a lot of sense when she has the biggest military and there’s nobody else of note to defend against.
She doesn’t have that much bigger a military though, with her territorial advantage mostly being in a lot of small bases that are perpetually on the edge of revolt. My bases are all happy, because they know every man woman and child within them will be nerve stapled to a wall if that situation ever changes.
Which means it’s time for a choice – to roll the dice and fight Santiago, or go for the scientific victory after all. Or at least, I think it’s time for a choice, before Santiago phones up to say “I have warned you, Lady Deidre, that I cannot abide the covert weapons research that you have undertaken in the name of ‘knowledge’.”
Unfortunately this is very much Alpha Centauri at its worst – two more or less evenly matched factions in a complete stalemate. It’s next to impossible to raise a big enough army to actually conquer the opposition, especially if it means going overseas, meaning a lot of pushing and pulling in part of the map.
I have a clear advantage here because my main base now stretches an entire continent that Santiago hasn’t even gotten a foothold on yet, while my units have already snagged bases from our earlier teamwork. But progress is slow and boring, and we’re at the point of the game where no big technologies are going to make that much of a difference. Though they’re still worth collecting just for the flavour text. Like the “Probability” powered units, described by Yang as: “Einstein would turn over in his grave. No only does God play dice, the dice are loaded.”
Or for Matter Transmission, Zakharov’s lovingly understated “The first living thing to go through the device was a small white rat. I still have him, in fact. As you can see, the damage was not so great as they say.”
I absolutely adore the writing in this game. While the characters obviously don’t banter as much as in the dialogues here, and what they do say is transparently based on filling in blanks with little more than Mad Libs, the way they look, talk and play all contributes to making them feel like real people and real opponents – from the snark of people accusing Deidre of the aforementioned naked running through the trees through to talking of Miriam as anything from ‘pious’ to all out ‘bible thumping’ depending on how they like her. I’d argue that no other 4X game has even gotten close to the effect, simple as its individual elements are, and I include the likes of GalCiv 2 there. I really hope Beyond Earth can pull it off. Having spoken to the creators personally, I at least know that they’re aware of how important this stuff is, and are aiming to produce something equally worthy.
But where was I?
That’s my last Planet Buster, though at this point in the game I have enough gold to pull at least one more out of my ass and shove it down Santiago’s throat, as well as deploy nerve gas against most of her people and use spies to rip her support out from under her. So I find it particularly hilarious when I get this warning out of nowhere.
The stalemate continues for a long, long time, before finally my literal army of scientists and stolen university bases invent something with the power to completely shake up the entire world. A way of speaking directly to the planet, and unlocking a far more interesting future than spending millennia trading blows with Santiago. And how do you do this? Well, the thing is that Planet is alive, and regularly speaks to you during interludes, like the one with Lindly earlier. And one of the final things you do is essentially crack it open without so much as telling it the plan, stick a funnel directly into its planet brain, and dump in the entire internet.
And then a satellite at orbit gets to be the first to record “An Entire Planet Reacts To 2 Girls 1 Cup”.
And so the race is on, to see who will become the mistress of Alpha Centauri.
And it is a race. Once one faction has unlocked the ability to transcend, everyone can start racing to actually pull it off and become Planet’s bestie. You’ve got production to speed it up, you might have money to spend on it, but whoever gets there first outright wins the game – as well as potentially getting to turn the planet against their enemies in ways that would make AM from I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream say “Now, now, steady on there…” It’s also of course possible to send troops to the city that’s currently working on it and either capture it or take it over. In short, it’s all to play for, and with everything to lose, as the excitement reaches fever pitch and-
It’s been over a decade since I’ve last played Alpha Centauri, and it’s wonderful to find out that it’s every bit as good as I remember – with the exception of some weak AI, and some at least mentally brushed over bits like the units never really getting much beyond ‘tank with tier 1 gun, tank with tier 2 gun’ and so on even as the technologies allowing for them claim that you’re tangling with the fundamental forces of the universe. Even the Planet Buster is just a glorified nuke. Some really funky units and late-game crazy experimental technologies wouldn’t have gone amiss. (And the same goes for Beyond Earth from the little slivers I’ve seen so far. Though the only thing harder than imagining we won’t have better than tanks in a few centuries is trying to imagine how to make them work in a game. Nanite clouds that just kill off all the enemies or dropping asteroids from orbit for instance might be cool, but I’m sure a bit of a game balance nightmare…)
But the wrapping? Just so well done. The characters, the flavour text, the narrative interludes and increasingly creepy cut-scenes all mesh to both ground the fantasy and prop up the weirder bits with really well handled philosophical musings from both the faction leaders and the likes of Plato and Nietzsche. Alpha Centauri doesn’t try to be realistic, but it does try to be plausible, succeeding even when trying to sell a literal living, sentient planet.
It’s simply my favourite 4X game of all time, and while I’d really like Beyond Earth to finally succeed it, to do so would be an incredible achievement. Fingers crossed though, because the guys working on it both appreciate the original game and fully aware of what people want, even if they are very much focused on their own ideas and their own game rather than specifically trying to make Alpha Centauri 2. (Read my preview on Eurogamer here.) And I think that’s the right approach. While it may or may not work out, Alpha Centauri would never have been Alpha Centauri if everything about it wasn’t so rooted in Brian Reynolds’ interests and design philosophies, and trying to outright copy that would only ever lead to a bad imitation that everyone would only buy to have a DVD case to throw up into and return to the store. Or, maybe, just gives it a really bad score on Metacritic.
Whatever happens though, we’ll always have the original. If you’re interested in checking it out, both it and the Alien Crossfire expansion are available in one pack from GOG.COM (Affiliate Link) Well worth checking out if you missed it first time. Well worth replaying if it’s been a while. Well worth killing Miriam because Miriam.
But definitely, play the original before throwing the aliens into the mix.