Mankind’s Future Didn’t Sell Well

Merry Christmas everybody! It’s that time of year again, and as 2010 comes to a close we take two days to worship the gods of consumerism as parents spend thousands on hunks of plastics so their children will love them.

Okay, I’m probably being pessimistic about this. I mean hell, I love giving presents. This year I focused mainly on the little kids in my family because my mom is hard to shop for and I really don’t want to buy anything for anyone else. But when people are trampled to death by other people who want 20% off a Kirk action figure, it can shatter your faith in humanity. That’s why I try to avoid that crap, if a store is too crowded, I put it off for another day. I’m not that desperate for anything. Anyway, kids love books right? However, I need to remember for next year to do my online shopping earlier, like in November, so it get’s here before New Years.

There’s not really a Christmas tradition on this blog, primarily because it has only been around for about a year, so I figure I’ll just write about whatever the fuck I feel like. Which happens to be a video game.

I’m not really a fan of turn-based strategy games. I own a copy of Tom Clancy’s End War for the DS and I just cannot get into it. Believe me, I tried. It’s hard to take a vested interest in little tiny icons on a screen. More recently I bought a copy of Civilization Revolution for the DS. Again, cannot get into it. This could be because the DS version is scaled back, but I cannot get interested in what happens. It also blows my mind that my citizens only need to walk ten feet to meet another nation, when in reality it was likely the early humans had to build great ships before they encountered another nation.

But keeping this in mind, it’s kind of odd that one of my favourite games of all time is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. …I said “one of.”

Alpha Centauri is one of those games that few people have likely heard about. However, if you are a fan of the Civilization franchise, you’ve probably heard about it once or twice. Since it’s based on the Civ II engine and designed by the same guy, Sid Meier.

Alpha Centauri is a turn-based strategy game, so it’s kind of perplexing that I love it so much, when I hate so many other games of the same genre. Though this is likely because of its depth.

In Alpha Centauri one can customize a lot. You can choose what technology you units utilize, you can carefully save up your credits or continuously spend them, you can manually terraform your colonies to your specific needs and you can decide whether you want a democracy or a dictatorship, or whether you want a free market economy or a planned economy.

You can also choose how you want to win. Shall it be by saving up enough money to put all your opponents out of business? By conning them into electing you supreme leader? By being the first to discover something that I’m not going to give away because it’s spoiler-tastic? Or by bombing the shit out of everyone!? Any work. Or you can merely sign a Pact of brotherhood with the faction that does end up winning which means you win because the winner likes to share.

Of course the rules are customizable, but one of the cheapest rules, enabled by default, allows defeated players to simply hop in an escape pod and colonize another part of the map. That seems foolish and cheap. If I defeat an enemy, I don’t want to have to defeat them over and over again! What is this, a Saturday Morning cartoon? Also, if I’m defeated, it means I lose. End of story! I don’t get a second, third and fourth chance. Game Over Motherfucker!

The likely reason I like this game so much is because the story of Alpha Centauri is deep and immersive. I’ve never read anything like it, though I hear it’s indicative of the works of Issac Asimov, which I’m not too sure about because I haven’t gotten around to reading Foundation yet. It’s not that big of a book either, so I have no excuse, but anyway…

It begins when the UNS (United Nations Starship) Unity is on a voyage to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. A reactor malfunction and the assassination of the ship’s captain causes a schism between the colonists. Seven crew members each manage to get a group of colonists to the surface of the planet to begin colonizing, each representative of an ideology.

  • Academician Prokhor Zakharov – Leader of the University, pro-knowledge, anti-ethics.
  • Sister Miriam Godwinson – Leader of the Believers, pro-religion, anti-knowledge
  • CEO Nwabudike Morgan – Leader of Morgan Industries, pro-capitalism, anti-ecosystem
  • Lady Deirdre Skye – Leader of the Gaians, pro-environmentalism, anti-industry
  • Commissioner Pravin Lal – Leader of the Peacekeepers, pro-peace, anti-competence
  • Colonel Corazon Santiago – Leader of the Spartans, pro-war, anti…you
  • Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang – Leader of the Hive, pro-development, anti-freedom

That’s all of them, and as you can see, they all have their weaknesses and their strengths, making them balanced for gameplay, but it also offers insight into the human condition. Where people who subscribe so whole-heartedly to an ideal, can falter because of it.

Not only that, no matter who you play as, you get a great story, featuring interludes throughout. For example, there will come a point in the game where you will be able to breed and control mind worms, which are the native wildlife you have spent the majority of the game fighting. When you unleash your first unit of mind worms, an interlude pops up explaining your personal assistant is the one leading them. Then, when that unit dies, you get another interlude explaining your sadness at her death. Touching. So much so that whenever it happens, I reload my last save.

Then there are the quotes. Whenever you build a facility for the first time, or discover a new technology, or build a secret project. A quote plays from one of the faction leaders, which offers insight into their ideology, and the world they live in. You don’t often get that in a strategy game, the most information you typically get is: There are the bad guys…kill ’em! Not very deep.

There’s also the long-term nature of the game. You can play for hours before you remember to eat. Developing technology, designing units, expanding bases, attacking enemies, negotiating with allies, spying on both. It’s all a good time. I spent two days straight playing this game, though it got pretty boring when I grew too powerful and ended up pointing all my over-powered units to same point and said attack. So I started a new game.

It would be an understatement to say I recommend this game. I honestly think my life would be poorer without it. I spotted it purely by chance at a Blockbuster several years back. I remember playing it during the 2003 blackout on a laptop, and I barely noticed what happened, because I was on battery power playing Alpha Centauri.

Alpha Centauri is the definition of good sci-fi, and if you haven’t played it, change that. You can find a copy on eBay, Amazon, or if all else fails, pirate the damn thing, don’t worry, it’s worth the cost of your soul. If you’re really desperate, give me a buzz and I’ll send you my copy. Ripped directly from the CD so I could play it on my netbook, guaranteed virus and cracker-free. But please buy it with money, it’s certainly worth it. It’s available for $10 on Amazon, so you have no excuse! Or, if you’re still skeptical, play the demo, I assume it does the full game justice.

What blows my mind the most is the fact that Alpha Centauri sold very few copies, which makes little sense given it’s quality, and mounds of positive reviews. Which is probably why it still hasn’t got a sequel. Mr. Meier, please change that. I want to see this game with modern real-time graphics. Do it! Because I said so!

Now, there’s the expansion pack, Alien Crossfire. I’ve played it, and all I have to say is, not bad. It doesn’t add a lot and what it does add isn’t spectacular enough to warrant paying over $30 for. Which it costs because it’s so rare. The coolest thing in Alien Crossfire is the ability to play as an alien. Which is not bad. Though not worth the price. If you can get Alien Crossfire for $3 do so, but otherwise, don’t bother.

Now, something else I wanted to share: Strategy. If you are going to play this game, don’t go in until you read this advice.

First, look to place one of your early bases near a shore line, if only so you can get your navy going quickly when you get the opportunity, and always keep your bases guarded with some kind of unit. Otherwise a mind worm boil will appear out of no where and tear that base down.

Next, micromanage as much as you can. Especially your infantry. Disable the auto-design and create the things yourself, it’s not difficult. Keep the number of designs as low as possible, a few different roles which you will continually upgrade with the latest technology as it becomes available. You don’t want 50 different designs you don’t know what to do with.

Then the formers, micromanage them too, particularly in the early game. Well, let them build roads automatically, but beyond that, settlement improvements, you want to control them so the right ones get built. Also, build boreholes as soon as you can, they are a boon to energy and mineral production.

Then there the secret projects, don’t go after every one because you can. You’ll waste minerals that way. Instead focus on those that give you special abilities or make your life a little easier by offering free facilities. Pick and choose the ones you want, and let the rest go. Besides, if you really want them after an enemy builds them, develop your military, then attack and invade the base where the project you want was built, and you suddenly have the project.

Finally, be nice. It may not seem important, but diplomacy is a major element of this game. You declare war unprovoked or back out on your deals, suddenly people like you less and less and it becomes more difficult to get things done. If you are ahead, give your allies gifts randomly to show your goodwill. If someone offers a trade or needs a loan, you might not want to turn them down, unless people really like you anyways. However the loans are typically a rip-off. It’ll take 50 years before they manage to pay you back fully. They might give you more money after that point, but by then the game will likely be close to over or you end up making that much in energy in one turn so no one cares.

So, Alpha Centauri is a great game, and if you get a chance, play it. Don’t even hesitate. Also, if you’re up for it, I would love to play a game against another human. I’m getting bored with the PC. Yes, they have online multiplayer. Who knew that existed in the late ’90s? So let’s go!

Finally, if you’re interested, you can check YouTube for a lot of the media, including the quotes and videos from the game. The insight is worth the time.

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