Okay, fine, so this game is from the late 90s, has an interface designed by an engineer, and mechanics that only really make sense if you read the hulking manual. Whatever. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri features 7 distinctive civs each with artisanally crafted stories and personalities. The gameplay is superb in every sense of the word. You can raise sea levels and turn your cities into sea colonies! You can watch awesome videos when your projects are complete! You can create awesome tile improvements that will cause the local aliens to go apeshit and kill everyone! Alpha Centauri manages to pull off a 4X game that has a storyline behind it while retaining dynamic gameplay and world. It’s an achievement that hasn’t been replicated since.
The seven factions are extremely distinctive, and they intertwine well with the general storyline of exploring a very foreign world that’s populated with very different kinds of settlers. Each faction has at least one “enemy” that is diametrically opposed to all that they do: you’ll usually be warring with this faction. The Lord’s Believers, for instance, have a strong distaste for the University of Planet. The research is another high point, as most of the quotes and completion videos are drawn from the various fictional leaders. Finish researching a technology that gives you a new weapon? The Spartan Federation will give you a quote for that. Diplomacy is largely well-implemented. Each of the Civs has a very different way of speaking and acting while in the diplomacy screen, and it’s an interesting exercise in exploring how each reacts.
Alien Life is the 8th civilization in the game, although they play as a foil for most gameplay styles. As you explore and build, you are constantly attacked by the alien lifeform who are reacting to your new presence on their world. What makes the game fairly unique is that you can choose to build improvements that will cause ecological damage in return for increased resources. And I bet you know what that means: more aliens, and more of them. Planet reacts when you abuse it: you’ll pay for that borehole pressure mine.
Alpha Centauri has a world that can be bent to your will. You can build mountains by raising tile height, or create lakes by lowering them. Cities can be founded in the ocean, and if the World Council votes to raise the sea level, you better build a pressure module for your coastal cities before they flood!
Alpha Centauri isn’t all wonderful. The unit system allows you to build an awe-inspiring number of unit options, as you can custom-design the unit’s armor, speed, weapon, and special abilities. It can be difficult and overwhelming to have to be constantly designing and upgrading new units as technologies are developed. The interface is informative, but it can bury critical (yet technically optional) gameplay elements deep within menus. Finally, Alpha Centauri suffers from the curse of unlimited unit stacking. Is that one unit coming towards you, or an army of 20?
Technically speaking, Alpha Centauri has aged well. It plays on Windows 7 without fuss, and lets you install all content on your HDD so you can play without the CD. The resolution is 1024×768, but you don’t notice too much. The HUD can get cramped, but the graphics look fairly good.
Pick it up if you get a chance: you’ll quickly realize why Civilization: Beyond Earth is largely a disappointment to anyone who has played Alpha Centauri.