Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Make no mistake, this is the true sequel to Civilization, regardless of what Microprose did with the rights to the name. In the first and second Civilization games, you coax your feeble tribe from one lowly settlement to an empire and ultimately, take off for a joyride to the Alpha Centauri star system. This is where Alpha kicks in and we discover it was not a joyride after all. An unexpected reactor malfunction aboard the U.N. Unity damages the ship and wakes everyone from cryo-sleep. Worse, the accident damaged the communications equipment and contact with mother Earth is lost. The travelers splinter into 7 ideological factions and when Alpha Centauri is finally reached, each one grabs an escape pod and abandons the crippled ship.
The ideology of each of the factions is derived from the leader of the faction. The seven factions are as follows: environmental (Gaia's Stepdaughers), authoritarian (Human Hive), knowledge and research (University of Planet), business (Morgan Industries), survivalist/paramilitary (Spartan), religious (The Lord's Believers) and peacekeeping (U.N. Peacekeeping Forces). You can choose to lead any of the factions and each one has unique advantages and disadvantages which are enough to offer a little extra replayability. For example, if you play as Morgan Industries, your best strategy is to build your cities and avoid war in the early portion of the game until you've amassed your fortune and then buy your way to the top. As the leader of the Spartans, you want to attack early and often and avoid letting your neighbors build in peace.
You start off with one city and one scout and the Firaxis mantra of Explore, Discover, Build and Conquer. After establishing your first city, you begin to scout the terrain of the strange planet. The terrain is blacked out and the only ways to discover your surroundings are to either send your units on reconnaissance missions or by purchasing world maps from the other factions, once you meet them. It's a dangerous world out there and you'll end up fighting nasty mind worms (one of the Planet's native life forms), stumbling across parts of the U.N. Unity (which can contain anything from new units and technologies to more mind worms) and encountering strange alien monoliths which can have any number of effects on your units.
At the same time, you build your city into a thriving metropolis and establish new settlements. As your cities grow, you'll build buildings, new units and Secret Projects to enhance your cities and population. The buildings can expand /pacify the general population, allow the construction of new military units, speed general production and research, etc. You will order your cities to build military units to defend your empire and attack your neighbors if you so choose. You can build terraformers to transform the 3-dimensional land around your cities by building farms, mines, solar collectors and roads, or by raising and lowering the terrain around you. These enhancements can increase your food supply, mineral production and energy, which is the monetary unit of Alpha Centauri.
Your faction will also discover new and strange (at least to us in the 20th Century) technologies that give your faction's units new abilities and your cities new building options. You can influence the way your faction develops using social engineering to mold your society. You'll also negotiate treaties, exchange technologies, make allies and fight wars with the other factions as your empire grows. All this, and more, can be accomplished in good old-fashioned turn-based fun. If this all sounds familiar it's because it is. It's a new time and a new place, but this is the same winning formula of Civilization, which, of course, is not a bad thing.
The interface is very clean given there are an amazing number of unit options and data - Firaxis has done an excellent job of making it easy to get to the right menu items. A special mention must be made of the option to simplify the interface by reducing the number of choices available to the more basic ones. I recommend playing the first couple games with the simplified interface turned on until you're familiar with the game so you're not overwhelmed with choices. Another nice feature is you can let the computer take over some of the more menial tasks to allow you to concentrate on the big picture. The city governors do a pretty fair job of running your cities and you can even influence their governorship (to focus on building, exploration, conquest or science). Likewise, certain units like terraformers can be automated, although I thought they weren't nearly as efficient as when I ran them.
All of these options and more are presented in the manual. It's interesting that Firaxis does not recommend that you read the manual cover to cover before playing. There is a tutorial scenario and five menu tours that can get you up and playing fast. Since I'm a stickler on manuals, I have to praise Alpha's Centauri's documentation. In addition to the game options being explained in detail there is a whole appendices section with tables, option screens and game tips.
Like the old Civ brothers, you're going to research new technologies to stay competitive with the other factions. But unlike the older siblings, there is no historical technology basis, giving some mystery to the tech tree. To deepen this mystery, you can play so that you don't pick the next technology but instead just the general area of concentration. It's a little like a pot luck dinner - you're not quite sure what you're going to wind up with. The play balance of the tech tree is well thought-out, since it's possible that you and your opponents may be on different technology paths but neither one will have an advantage over the other. There are also Secret Projects (that come with the discovery of certain technologies) that you can build which will confer unique abilities on your cities or faction. Since only one faction can build any given Secret Project, it's often a contest of who can build the fastest on the more critical ones.
Finally, there is a Unit Design Workshop that allows you to customize your units. It's not as rewarding as the one in, say, Master of Orion due to the small number of really interesting technologies available, but it's still a nice touch. It can really be used to an advantage by experienced players, allowing them to custom design units to make them more cost effective and mission-specific. If you want to make a tank with a huge gun but weak defenses for attacking cities, throw that big barrel on that puppy and let it roll. The Unit Design Workshop also allows you to upgrade your existing and experienced units to incorporate new technologies (for a price) instead of building new ones. While you never have to design your own units - since the ones in the game are good - it's nice to have that option. A few more special and interesting technologies would have made this even better.
Sid Meier is widely known for programming very good AI, and Alpha Centauri is no exception. The other factions are smart and each one plays according to the characteristics of the faction. For example, if you start emitting large amounts of pollution from your cities, don't expect the Gaians to be your friends for very long. However, if you run a clean society, they seem much more likely to be your buddies. There are a large set of diplomatic options available to you (and them) to make use of when talking to the other factions. You can exchange technologies, declare a truce, treaty or become Pact Brothers. You can attempt to borrow energy (remember, energy = money) or they can attempt to borrow from you, coordinate battle plans or demand the gift of money, technology or even another faction's city! Needless to say, diplomacy is a well rounded and important part of the game. If you continually violate treaties and play ruthless and warlike, the other factions will too. If you stay honorable and true to your word, the other factions will play a little nicer as well.
There's a Planetary Council that will meet to elect a Planetary Governor, salvage parts of the Unity, raise/lower global temperature, repeal/reinstate the U.N. Charter (for atrocities like biological weapons or the dreaded planet-buster bomb) and initiate a global trade pact. The Council is a great idea, but I'd love to see increased options to make it more crucial to the game.
There are a number of winning conditions including by military conquest diplomacy (Supreme Leader of the Planet), economic (corner the energy market) and something called Transcendence, which is like a permanent out of body experience I suppose. A nice touch is that allies can share the winning conditions, a nice exception to the usual there can be only one mindset of computer games.
In an extremely clever touch, the Planet is really another faction! If you exploit the Planet and emit large amounts of pollution, expect Mother Nature to strike back with xenofungus blooms, mind worm attacks and plagues. If you keep your planetary disruption down to a minimum, this probably won't happen. I speak from experience that it is tough to win when the very planet you're living on wants to kick you off. While the Planet can attack you directly, sometimes you bring the misfortune on yourself. Remember emitting that pollution? Well, the global temperature might rise and flood out your cities, which can play havoc with your precious production and research.
Although turn-based games don't lend themselves to multiplayer as easily as real-time games, Alpha Centauri was designed with multiplayer from the ground up and it shows. Pretty much every type of multiplayer is supported and there are a lot of nice options to keep the game flowing. There are time controls, voice transmission, chat, as well as the best diplomacy screen around. You can tweak your cities and production schedules during the other player's turns to save time as well. It's all very well implemented.
Alpha Centauri is deeper than Civilization. If you want to disrupt your opponent's production without going to war, build a mountain at the West edge of his border and watch his/her cities dry up. Steal some technology and put the blame on someone else. Actually cooperate with semi-reasonable computer players! In addition, it's a joy to see a product this well tested, well balanced and bug-free. Alpha Centauri brings Civilization to a new plateau. Yet another masterful game by Sid Meier.