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Review: Alpha Centauri for Linux
(IDG) -- Life on a brand new planet isn't what you expected it to be. Humanity may have avoided Earth's destruction, but when the Starship Unity arrives in the Alpha Centauri system after millennia of human civilization on Earth, we bring our politics along so we can squabble over land, resources, and ideologies on a new planet (simply called Planet). This is the setting of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (SMAC), designed by the same mastermind behind Civilization and brought to the Linux community by powerhouse Loki Software.
The familiar elements of Civilization are brought to a new level in SMAC, published for Windows by Electronic Arts. The familiar turn-by-turn strategy game in which you transform a simple civilization of farmers into one of spacefaring adventurers is still present. However, there are totally new scientific advances, technologies, and secret projects that fit nicely into the new story line.
Loki's port of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri Planetary Pack includes both the original Alpha Centauri game and the special Alien Crossfire scenario addition. Unlike many other games' scenario option packs, which focus very little on plot and simply change unit types or add new factions, Alien Crossfire actually has a believable plot, as well as new technologies and goals. It does feel like you're getting two games in one package.
Installation and requirements
The beta version we tested ran without significant problems on my 350-MHz AMD K6-2 with 128 MB RAM. The only problem with the machine was a buggy audio driver for the Aureal Vortex2 card I had installed. That card will soon go away, since Aureal has gone bankrupt and is unlikely to improve its Linux audio drivers anytime soon. (I guess I should change my sound card.) The sound and music worked fine on a different system equipped with an ESS1880 sound chip.
The game is 16-bit 2D, although there are some rendered 3D images of the unit designs and MPEG video clips for the secret projects. SMAC has a pseudo-3D look, however, with land terrain squares angled at different heights and the overhead 45-degree-angle view made famous by the original Civilization game. None of these features require a 3D card or any such graphics library. The MPEG video clips run on a software player built into the game by Loki. The clips work fairly well, although they look better in a smaller window.
SMAC's saved game files are large, and each turn is saved in a separate file. Each file is about half a megabyte -- if you save often, which you should, you can use up your disk space rather quickly. Saving 300 turns -- about how long it takes to complete the harder levels -- takes up almost 150 MB for just one player. Be sure to delete old saved games often.
Within the game, Loki has changed the keyboard controls from the Ctrl-key-based ones in Windows to Alt-key ones in Linux. This move prevents conflict with common Linux user controls like Ctrl-Z and Ctrl-C. You can switch back to the original keyset if you want. Loki has even fixed a number of bugs present in the Windows version, none of which change the gameplay.
Plot and setting
SMAC continues where Civilization left off. Humankind has escaped Earth and reached Planet, a habitable alien world orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. Planet is mostly inhabited by simple wormlike aliens and a lot of bright red fungus. Or so the humans think. As you play the game, you realize the world is not as simple as it looks. Even the game's rules have evolved and become more interesting.
In SMAC, you represent one of the seven human factions: the purely academic University of Planet, the nature-loving Gaia's Stepdaughters, the economically motivated Morgan Industries, the socialist extremist Human Hive, the militant Spartan Federation, the bureaucratic Peacekeeping Forces, and the fanatically religious Lord's Believers.
Each faction has its own ideas about how humanity can avoid its past mistakes and thrive in this new world. Those ideas are usually at odds with each other. Based on its ideals, each faction also gets specific modifiers: base enhancements, additional resources, enhanced societal factors, and social status. For example, the University of Planet gets +2 Research, a free Network Node base enhancement, and a bonus technology; however, it also gains one extra drone for every four citizens and -2 Probe virtues, and may not practice fundamentalist politics.
Alien Crossfire incorporates seven new factions: the cyber-counterculture Data Angels, the fanatical Cult of Planet, the buccaneering Nautilus Pirates, the metahuman Cybernetic Consciousness, the labor-unionized Free Drones, and two alien factions (the Manifold Caretakers and the Manifold Usurpers).
Science and society
Depending on its ideals, each faction has positive or negative modifiers for some of its 10 different societal factors: Economy, Efficiency, Support, Morale, Police, Growth, Planet, Probe, Industry, and Research. A positive value in any of these improves a particular aspect of that faction's ability. For example, a higher Growth factor will increase the population's growth rate, while a higher Morale rating improves the resiliency of military units.
Each of these societal factors is affected by the faction's default enhancements, as well as other factors like Political, Economic, Values, and Future Society Socioeconomic. Politics are either Frontier, Police State, Democratic, or Fundamentalist. Economic systems include Simple, Free Market, Planned, and Green. Values are Survival, Power, Knowledge, and Wealth. Future Society Socioeconomic factors include Thought Control, Cybernetic, and Eudamonic. Factions at one end of the spectrum are usually unfriendly towards those at the other end. For example, Morgan Industries's Free Market economy usually makes them hostile towards the Gaians' Green economy.
Scientific advances are divided into four research groups: Explore, Discover, Build, and Conquer. Each group makes advances that help improve a certain aspect of your society. By default, the game is set to blind research, meaning you can only specify the research group you want to invest in, not a specific advance. This makes the game more complicated and realistic, since you don't know what technology you are actually researching until you get it.
Each city can construct different types of buildings, military and non-combat units, and secret projects. In fact, as you grow, you will probably need to build most of those. The secret projects can enhance your military units or research, or give the benefits of certain buildings to all of your cities.
The terrain varies across the planet, from flat and rocky to rainy with rolling hills. Depending on the terrain, you will get different amounts of nutrients, production, and energy. Nutrients define the city's growth, production indicates how long it takes to build anything, and energy contributes to the overall energy credits you generate from your cities.
In addition, some terrain squares get bonuses from nutrient-rich or energy-rich deposits. Building a forest on a nutrient-rich square will take that square from two nutrients to three nutrients, two production, and one energy. Additionally, some squares may have monoliths on them left behind by an alien culture. Monolith squares constantly generate two of each nutrient, production, and energy.
Much of the planet is also covered in a reddish fungus. Early in the game, fungus squares are basically nuisances and provide only one nutrient. Thus, you should send your terraformers to change them into forests or farms. Toward the end of the game, fungus squares start producing more combined nutrients, production, and energy than other squares. Fungus squares can also give rise to planetary alien creatures.
There are also landscape features such as Mount Planet, the Monsoon Jungle, and the New Sargasso Sea, which not only break up the general terrain, but can also provide terrain bonuses. The Monsoon Jungle, for example, gives an additional nutrient to any squares located within it, and is thus a good place to build cities for fast growth.
Charts that graph the various factions' relative strengths appear once you have progressed more than 10 turns (10 years) into the game, and have met at least one other faction. It is important to keep an eye on the bar chart -- it shows the other factions' attitude toward you. Usually, the weakest faction teams up with the strongest, while the second- and third-strongest are wary of the leader. Rarely does everyone rise in power at the same time. One of the most important contributors to the bar chart's value is your faction's overall population.
Population growth is determined by each city's nutrient total. Although building forests early in the game can help increase your production rate, forests reduce the nutrients you get from well-watered squares until you research Environmental Economics and Planetary Economics.
On the harder game settings, Thinker and Transcend, I usually focus on military research early in the game -- and I usually need it. Every faction is more bloodthirsty and arrogant at the harder levels. The only way to win is to rise to the top early and stay there. My strategy is to subjugate one of the weaker factions in the game as early as possible.
Probe teams, similar to the Spies from the earlier Civilization game, become very useful in the harder settings. They can bribe units, steal technologies, send biological agents, and even convince cities to switch factions. The only defense against a Probe team is another Probe team. If you manage to build the Hunter-Seeker Algorithm secret project, it will nullify the Probe teams' powers in the standard game. In Alien Crossfire, a new technology allows the Probe teams to increase their effectiveness as well.
There are nine basic types (chassis) of military units: Infantry, Speeder, Hovertank, Foil, Cruiser, Copter, Aircraft, Gravship, and Missile. Infantry, Speeder, and Hovertank are land units, Foil and Cruiser are sea units, and Copter, Aircraft, Gravship, and Missile are air units. Each chassis has different benefits and, by itself, does not have an attack or defense advantage over other units. The relative advantages depend on the shielding and equipment. There are eight different physical armor types, one Psi armor type, and in the Alien Crossfire games, four other alien armor types. There are 11 different weapon types of various power, one Psi attack weapon, and in Alien Crossfire, three additional weapons.
In conventional warfare, better weapons and armor normally prevail. However, some units may have anti-aircraft enhancements or electronic countermeasures that double their defensive strength against certain types of attacking units. In non-conventional psychic attacks from alien mindworms or Psi troops, a unit's defense is based upon its morale level, rather than its armament. The two dimensions of weaponry make the game even more interesting, since it is useless to send a heavily armed attack unit that is completely Green against an Elite Demon Boil mindworm.
The most devastating unit in the whole inventory is the Planet Buster missile. However, using this weapon counts as a major atrocity, and will set every faction against you, even your allies. It is still quite impressive to see a Planet Buster turn a city on a mountaintop -- and occupying three adjacent squares in all directions -- into a sunken puddle! Definitely the weapon for the megalomaniacal tyrant. Once you achieve Self-Aware Machines near the end of the game, you can build Orbital Defense Pods to protect against Planet Busters and even take out enemy satellites.
The planetary aliens appear as Mindworms, Isle's of the Deep, and Locusts of Chiron, psychic creatures that come out of fungal squares and attack the closest unit or city. Fighting against such creatures requires high morale levels, not deadly weaponry. In Alien Crossfire there are more planetary aliens, such as the Sealurk, the Spore Launcher, and the Fungal Tower.
Win yourself a planet
There are five different ways to win the game: Transcendence, Conquest, Diplomatic, Economic, and Cooperative. For the first, you must achieve all technology advances and build the Ascent to Transcendence secret projects before your opponents. For a conquest victory, you must take over all the cities of every faction. For a diplomatic victory, you need to get enough votes to be elected Supreme Leader of the world. For an economic victory, you have to corner the energy credits market by amassing wealth that far surpasses everyone. A cooperative victory comes mostly in multiplayer games, when your team defeats all the others. Alien Crossfire adds the Alien Victory condition if you play against one of the alien factions.
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri Planetary Pack is a mouthful of a title, but the game is worth its weight in gold for fans of strategy games. Loki delivers again with a Linux version nearly identical to the Windows version, and even fixes some problems in the original. With the Linux release, Loki also includes some scenarios developed by its beta testers, so you get even more bang for your buck. The game is priced at $49.95.
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