Every day I wake up in a universe that doesn’t contain an Alpha Centauri 2, and frankly it’s a wonder I don’t just fall asleep right away. In a just world, the direction Brian Reynolds and MicroProse took the 4X formula would have set a new standard for storytelling in strategy games, but it turned out to be more of an anomaly. I’ve conquered countless planets since then, but nothing has distracted me from the strange Civilization follow-up that popped up in the last days of the 20th century.
Most 4X try to manage their enormous size through abstraction, boiling war, politics and social problems, even math. You never really see or hear from your people in Civilization, and although you technically play with and against historical rulers, none of them have much humanity about them. But we really want it to be different. Even before the series began to assign the right qualities to executives, we did it ourselves.
(Photo credit: Firaxis)
“In some cases, the players read more into the game than what there was,” Sid Meier told me as I wrote the full history of civilization. Gandhi, Montezuma, and the gang were really empty slates at first, but we wanted opponents to hold a grudge against. We just had to use our imagination. However, in Civilization 6, they act completely differently, but they are still not humans. You are the personification of your kingdom. Alpha Centauri’s sister Miriam is definitely a person. And she sucks.
Like all Alpha Centuari leaders, Miriam reflects her faction, the extremely zealous believers, but she is still a person with a past, ambitions and a poor haircut. Her personality and story are worked out through brief diplomatic conversations and lore – much of it is centered rather than hidden in the background – and gives context to the way she and her faction act. She is a wonderful enemy, complacent and preaching, and these qualities make her a joy to play too. You’ll be the baddest bully in the playground if that’s your thing. Alpha Centauri won’t let you play as a faction. You can use it to role-play as an immortal dictator.
The leap from Civilization 2 – also designed by Reynolds – to Alpha Centauri is huge. It was the first real Civ sequel, even if technically not part of the series. It shows us the fate of humanity after it has left earth and ventured into the unknown. At that time it was also the next step for 4Xs, not only building and expanding, but forging a society with its own culture, ethics and political structure. Despite their different personalities, each faction in Alpha Centauri is up to you.
When I play in Civilization 6 as Scotland, I really play as a caricature. I can build golf courses and send highlanders into battle. Robert the Bruce is here. It’s less authentically Scottish than Braveheart or a postcard with a cartoon Nessie on it, and Firaxis never expects you to fall into the Scots mindset. It’s just skin lightly draped over a fraction that anyone can be. I still love Civs Scotland – it’s a beast when it comes to science, and golf courses, which are our unique improvement, are kind of cute. But it’s unlikely that I’ll remember it in 20 years.
(Photo credit: Firaxis)
Civilization will never satisfy anyone looking for that Alpha Centauri high, which was even more evident when Civilization: Beyond Earth came out. Instead of doing Alpha Centauri 2, Firaxis gave us Civ in space. It half-heartedly eliminates nations and lets you choose a broad ideological affinity, but it stumbles by making all of this incredibly boring. I couldn’t tell you a single identifiable feature of a faction right after the game – let alone years later – and I would have preferred not to bother exploring ideologies at all, as all the nuances of the airlock were thrown out.
Even if you have injections that turn you into immortal and psychic wars, Alpha Centauri is based on ambitions and drives that are extraordinarily familiar to you.
We had to look at other studios and games to pick up the torch. Sometimes we can take a look at Alpha Centauri in Amplitude’s Endless series, with its extraordinary faction design and love for a good yarn. The personality of Endless Legend and Endless Space 2 oozes out of every quest popup and lavish artwork, and its factions are defined by their ideologies and malleable political views as well as their species. Amplitude experimented with narrated and emerging narratives, building factions where the attraction was the possibilities of roleplaying rather than just the statistics.
However, I’m drawing a void now that I’m trying to remember a character – apart from Horatio, a man who thinks he’s good enough to create a civilization of clones – or a specific font from the series . The factions and broad lines of their unique stories are clear to me, but not much else. However, I can immediately highlight the face of Alpha Centauri’s academic Prokhor Zakharov with his long messy hair and stylish cybernetic additions. I will also never be able to forget the longevity vaccine advertisement, which gives us a glimpse of what the morganites see on television.
“I plan to live forever, of course, but if I don’t, it’ll take me a few thousand years. Even 500 would be pretty nice.” With just one line in an ad, Morgan gives us a pretty clear idea of who he is. And Alpha Centauri is full of such things that have a lot of lore, weird aside notes, and short stories throughout the campaign. The occasional kinematics and the precise voice output make such a big difference and increase the already sharp writing. Alpha Centauri is just great science fiction.
Maybe it’s something we can only have one of at a time – a unique thing that eludes replication – but probably not. It’s not magic and we have the ingredients; It’s only been a while since they got mixed up together. You could probably get a decent Alpha Centauri if you took the speculative fiction and all-human factions from Beyond Earth and combined them with the narrative focus and faction design of Endless Legend. But there’s one more thing that no other 4X could achieve: Chiron.
Usually referred to simply as the “Planet”, the world of Chiron also serves as a kind of NPC faction. It fights humans through both its flora and fauna, while humans try to conquer it by drilling it full of holes, spreading invasive species from the earth, and covering its surface in cities and mag-tubes. It is a sentient organism that communicates with human leaders during events. Humanity is practically a parasite that feeds on a massive beehive.
(Photo credit: Firaxis)
This revelation really underscores the ethically questionable goals of the 4X genre. It should be obvious how three of the four X’s command you to be terrible, but few games have really tried to grapple with the real cost of colonization and conquest. Though concepts like climate change and slavery were eventually introduced, Civilization has always been a fairly upbeat streak, but Alpha Centauri splits off on the facade of progress to reveal the kind of ethical concessions and atrocities that come with building an empire. It’s often grotesque and dystopian, and there’s no way you can get to the end without getting your hands dirty, even if you try to take the country road.
Few games have really tried to grapple with the real cost of colonization and conquest.
Villainy in 4X games usually takes the form of sentient swarms of insects and bellicose alien tyrants, but every leader in Alpha Centauri is – until expansion – just a boring old person who believes they are doing the right thing for the future of humanity to back up. Even if you have injections that turn you into immortal and psychic wars, Alpha Centauri is based on ambitions and drives that are extraordinarily familiar to you. It makes it easier to get in touch with these factions and their top dogs, and of course, easier to hate.
While not a sermon or judgment, it absolutely has shit to say, and it tries to do more than just evoke a desire to devour territory. All lore, leaders and parts of history are more than just taste – they represent the voice of Alpha Centauri. It is gifted with a clear identity that it never loses even when it entrusts you to juggle all of these competing factions and complex systems. I think that’s what was missing, what I was chasing. It is what connects all systems and high-concept science fiction and creates a coherent chronicle from Planetfall to Transcendence. This is a game that is absolutely sure of itself.
(Photo credit: Firaxis)
I’ve wanted a sequel for 20 years and the more 4Xs I play, the more the desire becomes. Now it feels like a perfect time for Alpha Centauri 2, although I accept that I absolutely would have said that five or ten years ago because it’s always the perfect time for a sequel to the best 4X game. This time around, however, it feels right because story and narrative design are finally getting the kind of notoriety they deserve and people are spicing up the good stuff. Even sports games have benefited massively from the soap drama injection. But which 4X game is currently satisfying this hunger? Stellaris maybe, but it’s too procedural, too unfocused – and it’s been around for five years.
Two of the most iconic 4X games on the horizon target Civ and come from studios whose previous games were firmly sci-fi. Imagine how big the flex would be if Firaxis just turned around and said, “OK, why don’t you do some historical games? We’re going back to space.” . “It’s not as if there seems to be a rush to introduce Civilization 7, but instead to extend the life of 6 with season tickets. There has to be something else the team wants to do. We really don’t need any more civilizations, so give Give us another Alpha Centauri instead.
Please, Firaxis. Do it for the drones.
In the meantime, if you haven’t played Alpha Centauri, do yourself a favor and grab hold of it. Conveniently, it’s available right now at GOG so you can pick it up for a few pounds. And check out our list of the best strategy games on PC while you’re at it.