Tuesday, 26 June, 2001

Game Review: Alpha Centuari

I discovered the addictive quality of turn-based strategy games in 1981 with a game called Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio on the TRS-80.  Not much of a game compared to today's standards, back then it was captivating and I spent almost an entire week of my 3-week summer vacation playing it with a friend.  You can find a free Windows version of that game at http://www.jeffrey.henning.com/app/paravia/default.htm.  A couple of years ago I found a TRS-80 emulator for Windows, and was able to download the BASIC version of the game.  You can find anything on the Internet.

I avoided resource management games for the next 15 years, until I was hired by Microprose to work on their Civilization III project.  Figuring I'd better learn something about the genre, I immersed myself in Civilization II.  Fascinated at first, I quickly became bored with the game's limitations.  I played Railroad Tycoon II for a while when it came out, but I prefer turn-based rather than real-time strategy games.  I burned out on gaming, and didn't play much of anything for a couple of years.

I saw Sid Meier's Alpha Centuari in the bargain bin ($9.99) at Best Buy last week, and picked up a copy.  This was being developed about the same time Microprose was killing Civilization III, and I remember looking forward to its release.  It looked like my dream game:  a follow-up to Civilization II with more unit types; unique personalities, strengths, and weaknesses for the different factions; and some automation to help relieve the drudgery.  I spent a few evenings last week and most of the weekend playing the game.

The game is beautiful.  The terrain is nicely rendered, the units look great, bases actually expand as their population grows, the menus look great, and the music and sound effects are wonderful.  Beyond that, though, there's not much to differentiate it from Civilization II.  Each faction has strengths and weaknesses, but they're not anything that other factions can't acquire.  The game A.I. is still entirely too apt to start a war, and the automated city managers are mindless automatons that rarely guess correctly which improvement should be built next.  Automated transformer units seem to randomly transform terrain rather than take into account the needs of a base, and they often start transforming squares that aren't even within any base's perimeter.  Very little has been done to relieve the tedium of having to micro-manage bases.

In the late stages of a game, it's not unreasonable to have dozens of cities, many of which will build new improvements or military units at any given turn.  If you're waging a military campaign, you'll want to move those new units to a base that has a transport so you can get the units across the ocean.  With dozens of bases, it's difficult to remember where the new units are and where the transport is.  Rather than present you with a list of new or active units and their associated locations so you can batch select and order them to the transport base, the game activates each unit in turn and expects you to tell it where to go.  The result is a tedious and frustrating game.  I can understand micro-managing a handful of bases and units, but the game's automation facilities should grow as your civilization grows and becomes more advanced.  I want to manage an empire, not single-handedly construct every building and fight every battle.

It's as if they took the core Civilization II code (a nightmare, believe me--I've seen it), wrapped it in a new user interface, added some units and other cool stuff (build your own unit types, big freaking deal), and called it a new game.  They concentrated on flash rather than game play.  SOSBNB (same old shit in a brand new box).  Don't waste your money on this turkey, even if you find it in the bargain bin.