Ah, SMAC, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is spoken of in hushed, reverent tones amongst a certain segment of the 4X gaming community, and for good reason: if you happen to like sci-fi, like I do, it is hands-down the best Civ-a-like game ever released. This isn’t down to how it plays, particularly, since if you suck away the sci-fi coating what you’ll find inside looks very much like Civilization 2 in terms of mechanics. Firaxis could have done much worse than base their game on Civ 2, but aside from a few bolted-on additions like the unit workshop and the social engineering interface replacing static forms of government, Alpha Centauri didn’t make any groundbreaking changes to the basic formula. What it did do was seamlessly weave that formula into a coherent sci-fi universe in a way that no other game has before or since.
The premise of the game is that a near-future humanity, locked in its final death throes, has built and launched a massive colonisation spaceship towards the Alpha Centauri trinary star system in the hopes of preserving something of the human race. Just as the ship – the ironically-named Unity — comes to the end of its decades long journey and approaches the Alpha Centauri system, factional infighting amongst the ship’s crew comes to a head and the Unity is sabotaged. Each faction escapes the ship in a landing craft and heads on down to the surface of the only inhabitable planet in the system. Displaying even less imagination than I do when it comes to naming things, the colonists dub their new home “Planet” and start scrabbling together the basic niceties required to start rebuilding human civilisation.
But not human civilisation as we know it. The different factions that formed on the Unity did not do so along national or organisational lines; instead they sprang up around charismatic leaders with their own personal ideologies about how future society should be run. This gives each of the seven factions a distinct thematic flavour in the way they play. Ironically for a big lefty like myself I’ve always been partial to Nwabudike Morgan’s ultra-capitalist settlements, where the enormous production outputs come at a cost of massive ecological damage and an increased upkeep cost due to pampered Morganite workers demanding the most opulent and wasteful settlements possible. The antithesis of the Morganites is Chairman Yang’s Human Hive, a totalitarian nightmare that combines the most extreme aspects of communism and fascism to great effect, where the population lives and works crammed into gigantic underground settlements that are basically massively upscaled versions of ant colonies. Then there’s Deidre Skye’s Gaian society, who aren’t your typical treehuggers because they have absolutely no qualms about siccing tame brain-devouring mindworms on you if you piss them off. Prokhor Zakharov’s University, Miriam Godwinson’s Believers, even Commissioner Pravin Lal’s wishy-washy remnant of the UN Peacekeeping forces – they all serve to give the opposing factions a level of personality above and beyond “Montuzema is a dick”.
The different factions are just one part of the rich background tapestry woven with loving care by Firaxis. They provide a political pretext for all the plotting and wars that take place before and after Planetfall, but the terraforming of Planet itself is also one of the key features of the game. Civilization games have always let you improve the areas around your cities, and the early ones hit you with nasty pollution penalties if you overexploited the land, but Alpha Centauri is the only one that I’m aware of that took it from being a major element of the gameplay to possibly the central tenet of the game. It’s to be expected given that the colonisation of an alien world would require a level of adaptation of the surrounding environment far above and beyond irrigating a few fields with water from a nearby river and calling it a day, but what strikes me about the terraforming in Alpha Centauri is the lengths Firaxis went to to create the illusion of an actual functioning ecology that you were disrupting with your “improvements”. Unless you take social engineering traits that reduce your ecological impact on Planet, screwing with it in a big way can have very unpleasant consequences because it is a living system and it will try to defend itself by zerging your bases with huge mindworm boils or reclaiming developed land by force-growing impenetrable fungus forests (thus incidentally providing a plausible rationale for the game’s barbarian units).
And of course because this is the future, and because you have magic future technology, the scale of the changes you can make dwarfs anything else seen in a 4X. The one thing that has always stuck with me are the Mohole mines; enormous holes bored all the way down to the bottom of Planet’s crust to extract valuable minerals that incidentally also happen to release vast amounts of heat from the planetary interior. Not only is this going to piss off the indigenous flora and fauna, but if you don’t want the sea levels to start rising you’ll have to counterbalance this extra heat with an artificial cooling mechanism like an enormous solar shade launched into space. It’s still all very simplified – mostly so that the player actually has a chance of understanding it – but it is nevertheless a system. It has domino effects that can lead to unintended consequences. Your ability to tamper with this system grows as you discover increasingly exotic future technology, as does the scale of the risk and the rewards.
Technology! I could genuinely write a short thesis just on how amazing Alpha Centauri’s technology tree is. Humanity starts out on Planet with only the most basic of resources, barely subsisting until you complete the first couple of tiers of the tech tree which focus on adapting to the new environment and recreating a functioning society out of nothing, as well as perfecting a few avenues of science that are works in progress today (string theory, anyone)? Researching these techs gives you the social engineering options, terraforming methods and base facilities to go beyond simple survival; improvement promotes growth and growth permits a larger industrial and scientific base, allowing you to tackle the near-future stuff like fusion power, mastering the quantum states problem inherent in photons and waves, and also the small matter of growing the industrial base to the point where you can start launching stuff back up into space again. And then after this intermediary stage comes the far-future stuff: stasis fields, unified field theory, controlled singularities and so on.
What I like about the Alpha Centauri tech tree isn’t just the way it flows smoothly from survival to prosperity to becoming a Kardashev Type I civilization, which is basically sci-fi catnip as far as I’m concerned. No, it’s the plausibility of the whole thing. Rather than somebody going “Right, we need a technology that will confer game ability X, let’s make something up,” this thing has instead been written by people who have at least a basic understanding of where science is likely to be going over the next few centuries. It gets rather speculative towards the end, and the timescale is rather compressed (if you ask me) in order to fit with the game’s one year per turn mechanic, but the underlying structure of it is perfectly sound. It first tackles the problems confronting scientists now, moves on to the things we think we might be able to do if we ever did solve those problems, and wisely leaves the hand-wavy space magic stuff towards the very end of the tree where it can’t concretely be ruled out because of all this other more believable tech that’s been researched. If you asked me for a roadmap of scientific progress over the next two centuries I’d probably just hand you Alpha Centauri’s tech tree. It’s like somebody managed to recreate the Civilization tech tree without the benefit of having actually had it happen so they know how it all turned out. Incredible.
Finally there’s the little atmosphere-building touches. The Secret Project (read World Wonder) movies have yet to be bettered, as far as I’m concerned. They’re not bombastic CGI experiences meant to reward the player for finishing the wonder; instead they’re far subtler pieces of work that, a lot of the time, actually give you second thoughts about whether or not the all-seeing AI policeman you just built was really a good idea. They rely on a lot of real-life camera footage that can occasionally make for genuinely uncomfortable viewing, and many of them focus on technological advance as a double-edged sword as we grow further apart from our squishy biological origins, in particular this one which is the only work of fiction I’m aware of to mention the probable downside of a “teleportation” device. The various quotes from faction leaders and other sources are scattered throughout the game, playing whenever you discover a technology or build a base facility for the first time, and these too tend towards being thought-provoking rather than the current trend of a cool/ironic one-liner about how awesome the thing you just researched is. As you play the game you’re getting this constant commentary that tells you about the world and also hints at the deeper sociological and ideological struggles that are going on behind the scenes as humanity struggles to adapt to an uncertain future on an alien planet.
I think limiting myself to just talking about Alpha Centauri’s world-building and atmosphere was a wise move, otherwise I could probably go on for ever. It’s a sci-fi 4X so it has to pay more attention to that side of things in order to get you invested in its universe, but what I really like about Alpha Centauri – and the thing that makes it unique, as far as I know – is how utterly the developers embraced the idea and wove it into the fundamental DNA of the gameplay. Galactic Civilizations 2 failed at building any sort of believable world whatsoever. Master of Orion 2 succeeded, which one of the reasons it’s so good, but it always treated it in a rather space opera-ish fashion as rather incidental to the actual process of playing the game. Alpha Centauri on the other hand doesn’t use a sci-fi universe to serve gameplay goals; rather, it is a sci-fi universe from top to bottom, and if you know nothing about planetary science and ecology you could do a hell of a lot worse for an education than playing a couple of games of SMAC on a medium difficulty setting. The base game is even on GoG now, look. Go and play it.
(Also you can occasionally throw out quotes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathrustra thanks to having heard them so many times in the datalinks. Your friends will be impressed to bits, I promise you.)