sid meier’s alpha centauri

Steam-y Reflections

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Valve Corporation’s Steam has undoubtedly affected my PC gaming experience much as it has for many other people. It’s been in service for over a decade now, and my first encounter with it several years ago occurred when I purchased Half Life 2, which required Steam in order to play it.

I remember begrudgingly acquiescing to this demand, which at the time seemed rather draconian. In fact, I was unable to play Half Life 2 for a while because for the first couple of years I lived on my own, I didn’t have internet. I was so Spartan.

Nowadays, Steam makes a common appearance on my PC desktop, where I can peruse the latest patch notes and updates, sort through random statistics (I’ve played that game for 200 hours!?), and sometimes I even get roped into buying a new game because of some special sale that happens every time someone breathes or something.

For better or worse, Steam has wedged itself into my PC habits. iTunes did the same years ago, but with streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, I rarely open that mess of mp3s anymore. Maybe something will come along in a few more years to replace it, but until then Steam looks to be a constant companion.

Having said all that, there are some things regarding my gaming habits that gave changed with my adoption of Steam and others (gog.com is another of my favorites). Here’s a rose tinted look at some aspects of PC gaming that have changed for me.

1. Shopping!

Well, I still shop for games. In fact, nowadays I can peruse more games than ever with my mouse.  I can view gameplay videos, cinematic trailers, and screenshots. I can read customer reviews. But there was something about walking into the store and looking at all the boxes lined up for you to feel and weigh and otherwise drool over. You could feel the discs and manual sliding around inside (Oh, that one feels heavy). Which leads to…

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2. Boxes.

PC games still come in boxes, but they’re usually the flimsy, cheap, DVD case kind. Before that they came in smallish boxes that where about the same size as DVD cases except thicker. And before that PC game boxes whee big and sometimes different shapes (I fondly remember Tomb Raider’s trapezoidal box). Sometimes cover flaps would open exposing more screenshots and features. Then there were the special edition boxes that were usually huge and contained all kind of collectible things. Long story short, PC game boxes used to set themselves apart, whereas now they attempt to blend in.

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3. Instruction Manuals.

I considered it a badge of pride when game companies would include decent manuals with their products. More than just installation instructions, good manuals included backstory for characters and setting, detailed explanations for in game features, and all that jazz. Great manuals were fun to read like magazines or something, and they always gave you a bit more to experience even when you weren’t playing the game.

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Nowadays, the digital days, these things are a rarity. Sure you can still go to the store and pick up a hard copy of a game, but it’s easier to get the same thing at home, and often for less money if there’s a sale.

Boxes are a thing of the past, even for consoles which are also providing non-physical options for purchase. Plus, they tend to take up space. When I moved last year, it was a pain to lug around boxes of old CDs and games and boxes. Boxes of boxes. Such a first world problem. You may not be able to make me get rid of my big box for Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but there’s a certain kind of relief in knowing that I don’t have to make room for boxes as I impulsively purchase games.

As far as manuals are concerned, I do miss them, but plenty more games are better about offering tutorials in lieu of physical instructions. When a game came with a great manual, I would skip any tutorial that was also available, but it’s nice to know I that they are more common now, and the internet is such a good place to get useless info anyway.

Times have changed for PC gaming, but I’ve changed as well. Perhaps I have rationalized my acceptance in order to better cope with the changes. I’m less interested in having physical things in favor of experiencing things instead, so holding onto discs and CDs and boxes and books and all that stuff is more of a hassle for me now. It is sad that young gamers don’t get to experience what I did years ago, but that makes those memories more special to me.

Besides, isn’t purchasing a game at home from your PC and then playing it just a few minutes later the future that we all dreamed when we were kids?

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Civilization: Beyond Earth, Alpha Centauri’s Successor?

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Released just last week, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is the newest addition to the Civilization game series. For over two decades the series has brought us world domination realness in the form of turn-based gameplay that has evolved as much as we have throughout history. Now Beyond Earth (BE) presents us a vision of the future, like we’ve never seen it before. Kind of.

BE takes place in our future after an ominous tragedy, The Great Mistake, of ambiguous nature. Regardless of its causes or circumstances, the result is that humanity is reaching out through interstellar space to colonize a new home for humanity, and you get to choose your faction, your roots, your hopes, your plans for humanity’s future, and your ultimate method of victory.

The options are numerous upon start up, with each faction based on a different backstory and culture/nation/region/philosophy. You get to customize your game bonuses to suit your style, or in true pioneering fashion randomize the bonuses and deal with the randomness like a pro. From there, you choose your technologic research from a web which gives you flexibility in your path. Focus one direction and reap the benefits of advanced tech, but miss out on other benefits if you research more broadly. Research too broadly and you may miss out on technological wonders that provide bonuses to your factions.
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Engage in trade and espionage to reap more income and production bonuses for your colony, or steal research, techonology, or even sabotage with your spies. These additions were added via expansion to Civ 5, and I’m glad that they were added to the base game instead of being withheld.

As you play random events occur that are actually quests which give you choices that will affect you for the rest of the game. I really enjoyed this feature. Random events always provide a nice meta-challege to strategy games, and the choices you’re given really give you a chance to roleplay your faction or tweak your stats.

There are numerous paths to victory, some of them based on your “affinities” which are essentially philosophical paths you determine as you play. You don’t have to choose one, but you won’t get the best bonuses if you diversify too much (like with the tech web), and reaching a certain level with them opens up more victory conditions.

The game’s factions are pretty interesting as well, though many of their bonuses are left to the player upon startup. I enjoyed the international diversity they presented, but it wasn’t until late game that any motivations game to the forefront as each colony ventures farther into their affinities which can upset other faction leaders. For instance, in my game some were horrified at my attempt at harmony with the planet, and despite my eventual victory via transcendence, I can imagine watching my people evolve into some alien-human hybrid species was disturbing.

Lastly, the game’s environment was sufficiently alien and while I eventually “decoded” the tiles to see forests and deserts and plains, it retained its foreign-ness. On the other hand, the color palette was a bit too terrestrial and “pretty”.

Overall, there are so many options and configurations that replay value is tremendous, perhaps one of the best in the series.

Having said all that, it is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is one of my favorite games. Ever.

In fact, every Civilization game since has let me down in some way, with Civ 4 and Civ 5 each getting close to the mark in different ways. Beyond Earth gets the closest, but there is something about SMAC that just hasn’t yet been reiterated in a superior way.

Here are some notes:

  • The factions are richer, more detailed, more motivated. It was easier to love and/or hate them.
  • Wonder movies! The FMVs that played upon completion of the secret projects were almost more rewarding than the gameplay bonuses provided. They were well produced and featured in game lore that really fleshed out the experience by exploring the philosophical depths that the factions were faced with while colonizing a new world and dictating our future.
  • Immersion, immersion, immersion. From the numerous data windows, graphs, faction leader profiles that always scrolled throughout the interfaces, to the interludes that narrated developments in the game world, SMAC really drew you in. Beyond Earth came close with its voiceovers and quests, but SMAC still takes the cake on this one.
  • Unit designer! I’m sure the Civ 5 engine Beyond Earth isn’t suited for this kind of thing, and upgrades are implemented cleanly if a bit too simply, but the ability to design almost every component of a unit from armor and chassis, to weapon and special ability was amazing. Customizing your troop to engage against alien lifeform units or breaking international law by equipping nerve gas pods hasn’t been matched in the Civ series by a long shot.
  • Planetary Council! While I appreciate the developers for integrating so many features into the base game, you know that an expansion is inevitable, and I can just see that being voted Supreme Leader of the council will be added in a future pack. The planetary council was an amazing asset to SMAC that has actually been added in other (inferior) ways in the Civ games. What was great about SMAC’s version wasn’t just the diplomacy, it was also being able to vote on world policy such as banning or allowing atrocities, or even melting polar ice caps! Such a dastardly thing to do if you manage to protect your bases with domes that repel the rising seas while everyone else in the world drowns. I hope this makes a triumphant return to Beyond Earth.
  • Numerous gameplay options such as Blind Research (don’t choose specific techs, just broad categories and deal with the future tech realness!), though the randomizing of Beyond Earth’s options does shake up things quite well.

Beyond Earth does feature virtues, similar to Civ 5’s trees of culture-based bonuses. These fleshed out the values of your culture and gave you bonuses, but nothing has ever come close to the give-and-take that was involved in SMAC’s social engineering. While you could customize your society to be a Cybernetic Democracy with Green economics, there were drawbacks with each option.

Playing with different combinations to get the right balance of bonuses and penalties was much more fun that choosing from straight up bonuses. While helpful to gameplay, the trees reminded me too much of an MMORPG, and just reinforced the depth present in SMAC that developers seem to have been shying away from for the past decade.

Overall, SMAC was a deeply engrossing experience with so much packed into it that it took me years to peel away the layers of complexity. An expansion was also released for that game which added a few new improvements and new factions, but overall SMAC stood on its own without the X Pac, but that was a time when expansions, though common, were never a promise. Now it is all but a given, with only the most terrible of games missing that opportunity. How times change.
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While SMAC remains a treasure in my heart that will likely never be replaced, Beyond Earth is one of the most promising efforts to live up to such a magnificent legacy. In these days of neverending expansion packs, I look forward to my adventures beyond earth to be enriched with more sci-fi strategy goodness, but until then I have one hell of a base game to play, and that is more that can be said for many top tier titles nowadays.

By the way, get Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri at Gog.com.