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The Alpha Centauri Legacy

Ah, Alpha Centauri, the continuation of the Civilization 2 storyline, yet the forgotten game in the Civilization series. Unlike the Civilization Call to Power games, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri ("SMAC" to its friends) is a product of Firaxis Games, with Brian Reynolds at the helm, and under the guidance of Sid himself.

Civilization 3, while a sequel to Civilization 2, also inherits many of its mechanics from Alpha Centauri. Here's a look at many of them, although this is by no means a comprehensive list. Hopefully this will provide some insights for the Civilization players who haven't experienced this particular dimension of the Civ universe.

Artillery. In Civ 1 and 2, there was no concept of bombardment. The catapult was a simple 6-1-1 unit. Alpha Centauri has, of course, the Unit Workshop, where you design your own units within the game by putting together a weapon for its attack value, an armor for its defense value, a chassis for land/sea/air movement, and special abilities. One of the specials is the Bombardment ability. A unit with this ability cannot attack normally, but it can damage units from a distance without risk of damage, and can destroy terrain improvements and city structures. Civ 3 borrows this concept, simplifies it a bit (artillery units don't have HP), assigns it to specific units since there's no workshop, and tames its power (a SMAC bombarding unit damages everything in the target stack unless there is a bombardment unit there to fight back). Also, in SMAC, all ships can bombard land units but not kill them, and Civ 3 copies that.

Air units. The de-emphasis of air units in Civilization 3 is more in reaction to their overwhelming power in Alpha Centauri than in previous editions of the Civ games. In SMAC, as in Civ 1 and 2, air units move around the map and are controlled just like land units. In SMAC, air power understandably comes much earlier on the tech tree than in the Civilization games; after all, they've already crossed interstellar space. Airplanes can come as soon as the eighth technology you research, and four more techs after that come the devastating Helicopters, with 10 movement points (12 after a few more techs) and multiple attacks per turn. A single 30-shield copter can run a suicide mission and wipe out over a hundred shields worth of terraformers, and a half-dozen copters can simply destroy an enemy that lacks the ability to counterpunch air units. Civilization 3 needed these toned down, way down, no, farther down than that, and succeeded.

Workers. SMAC was the first game in the Civ series to divorce the function of improving land ("terraformers") from the function of settling ("colony pods"). Settlers in Civ 1 and 2 did both these jobs. Civ 3 picked up on the sensible concept.

Governments. Like the Unit Workshop, SMAC provides multiple interlocking options for your government, called the Social Engineering (SE) matrix. For example, you can choose a capitalistic economy run under a police state government, which would give you none of the war unhappiness problems associated with capitalism, but at a great cost of corruption. Civ 3 did not adopt this model, but adopted some of its ideas in that the representative government forms no longer simply force you to make peace as they did in Civ 1/2.

Civilization traits. SMAC's factions had differing abilities, mostly consisting of modifications to a number or two in the governmental matrix (higher Economy, lower Research, and so on.) These ideas formed the basis of the civilization traits in Civ 3, with Unique Units added.

Specialists. Those who haven't played Alpha Centauri often wonder why the production of specialist civilizations in Civ 3 is so limited. Those who have played SMAC smile knowingly. SMAC allows many types of specialist citizens as you progress up the tech tree, the ultimate of which is the Transcend, which produces one happy face, two gold, AND four science every turn, and every one of those is affected by the multiplier buildings in the city (and there's more of those than in Civ 3.) You can easily get 20 or more total economic production out of a single citizen. This makes the most productive way to build cities to throw shields to the winds (especially since pollution is primarily based on shield production), pull in as much food as you possibly can (using the Soil Condensers which can make any square provide 6 food) to support the specialists, and use the phenomenal amounts of money generated by the specialists to simply rush-buy everything the city needs. Firaxis had to tone down this practice for Civ 3, and may have gone a bit too far in fact.

Rush-buying. In SMAC, it only costs two gold per shield to rush-buy, plus you can rush anything including Wonders ("Secret Projects") albeit at four gold per shield. This made a joke of the final victory goal, which is to build the Ascent to Transcendence, a single wonder that costs 2,000 shields. So all you need is 8,000 cash on hand (easy to accumulate with those specialists), and you win the game as soon as you complete the tech tree. Civ 3 toned down the power of rush-buying in several ways: first, all items cost four gold per shield; second, by disallowing the ability to partially rush an item; third, no rushing of wonders; and last, using population to rush in the early stages of the game so you can't get a settler several turns early for a few gold.

Forest clearing. The shield credit for clearing a forest originates in SMAC. The theme of the game involves carbon being very valuable to the alien biosphere, especially that contained within forests. Civ 3 picked up the shield bonus but rather ignored the logic behind same.

Borders. SMAC calculates and uses border lines between faction territories. A city can't work tiles outside the faction border - unlike Civ 1 where the first city to place a citizen working a disputed tile claimed it. Civ 3 incorporates this concept into its whole cultural model.

Diplomatic Victory. Alpha Centauri introduced this concept. It turned out to be a bit too easy to manipulate, since you can directly trade technologies or money for a faction's vote, so that aspect was taken out for Civ 3 but the idea remains sound.

Unit upgrading. Leonardo's Workshop in Civilization 2 as the only way to upgrade units to newer technology was ridiculously unbalanced. SMAC introduced the sensible idea of paying money for unit upgrades, and includes a wonder that halves the cost of upgrading.

Unit experience levels. Civ 1 and 2 had normal and veteran units. Alpha Centauri has very green, green, normal, hardened, veteran, commando, and elite units, and a dozen factors that temporarily and permanently modify morale at build time, upgrade time, and combat time. That's excessively complicated, and Civ 3 boils it down to a streamlined but still important system.

Firepower and Hit Points. This confusing system introduced in Civ 2 got a simplification attempt in SMAC, but it wasn't enough. Firepower was gone, but Hit Points remain: as you advance through the tech tree, you get the ability to equip units with new "reactors" which determine their HP. A faction with the 20-HP reactor can utterly destroy a faction that possesses only the 10-HP reactor, since its units are guaranteed to win almost every battle and can quickly heal between battles. This was a leading factor in the decision to drastically reduce the difference in combat ability of units in different places on the tech tree in Civ 3, mostly by eliminating HP differences between units.

Pact of Brotherhood: This treaty in Alpha Centauri allows both factions to freely move units through each other's territory, including occupied squares and even cities. Civ 3 expands this diplomatic model into Mutual Protection and Right of Passage agreements, and dispenses with the confusing situation of units from multiple teams in a single square (what happens if A attacks a B city, which contains a unit of C, with whom A is not at war?)

Concepts in Alpha Centauri not in Civ 3 at all: Unit Workshop, Social Engineering matrix, Economic Victory, terrain altitudes, advanced terraforming options including sea tiles, seaborne cities, the Planetary Council, Satellite production and wars, psychic warfare, probe teams (Civ 2's diplomats), planetary native life (although Civ 3 barbarians borrow a couple aspects of SMAC's Mind Worms.)

Concepts in Civ 3 not in SMAC at all: Great Leaders, Armies, Small Wonders, Luxury/Strategic Resources, Culture and Cultural Victory, Unique Units, many diplomatic options, Golden Age (SMAC has the term but it refers to Civ 3's "We Love The King Day").

Alpha Centauri is still one of the more overlooked treasures in PC gaming. Anyone who gets bored of Civ 3 would do well to check it out. It's missing many of Civ 3's innovations like culture and resources, and the AI is nowhere near up to Civ 3 standards, but it's got tremendously interesting and complex gameplay, and it's worth one trip through just for the remarkably well-done science fiction plot.

- T-hawk, 8/6/2002

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