Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire – Great, Not Perfect

Over the course of a couple of days, I’ve finally played through a complete match/game/campaign/whatever of Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire, the expansion to Alpha Centauri. It’s truly an amazing game and I’ve held this opinion since the moment I first played it. It’s not perfect, though.

A report on the game

I played Alpha Centauri quite a lot, but I’ve had very little experience with the expansion up to this point. The reason for that is that I didn’t even know it existed until it was released on I bought it at the time of my last posting about Alpha Centauri. Back then, I played through the game as the University and then decided to give the expansion a try. I was a bit tired after the first session, so the second didn’t last for very long and resulted in my abandoning of it.

A sufficient amount of time has passed for me to get the urge again, so I decided to give one of the alien races a try – the Usurpers.

The Usurpers’ story in Alien Crossfire

As a disclaimer, I’ll say that this is all from my poor and flawed memory.

The Usurpers and the Caretakers belong to the same Progenitor race, engineers for the planet’s fungal ecosystem.  They two factions have different ideas about what to do with it. At some point, there’s a conflict between members of both factions and they end up crash-landing on the planet. This is something new that never happened before, so initially, the planet is hostile to them just as much as it is to the human colonist factions.

Throughout the game, the Usurpers learn about the human factions, defeat the Caretakers (these two factions have a permanent Vendetta against each other) and eventually build six subspace communication devices in their larger bases in order to contact their remaining forces. This is the special alien victory type the alien factions have access to.

So I played as the usurpers and I started out with the Caretakers on the same continent. With some blitz tactics, I managed to defeat them, but there’s a mechanic that allows survivors of a base escape in a colony pod, so I haven’t actually eliminated them.

Later on in the game, as I had control of my own continent, I entered into conflict with the Pirates faction, which is another addition to Alien Crossfire. These guys almost exclusively build naval bases, so they were challenging to fight against. They also get free colony pods every time I conquer one of their bases, provided it has more than 1 or 2 population, so I haven’t managed to completely eliminate them up until late into the game and kept getting into more conflicts with them.

Alpha Centauri - Game

Pictured: The rare occasion when there are no pop-ups obstructing the screen and you have actual control.

At some point, the Data Angels faction also started attacking me, so they were the first to get completely obliterated, some time during the end of the third quarter of the game. The Data Angels are a faction of hackers and they’re all about freeing information in the coolest way imaginable. They call it the jazz.

The Caretakers went down in the final quarter and were my next target after the Data Angels. While fighting them, I also managed to capture the last Pirate base and eliminate them from the game as well

The remaining two factions where the Cultists and the Free Drones. The Cultist seem to worship the two Progenitor factions, so I didn’t have much conflict with them. The Free Drones are basically freed slave workers, so they follow the stereotypical ideals you’d expect from a faction with such an origin story. They got destroyed by the Cultists without me having to actually deal with them

I ended the game with the alien victory while completely dominating the map in every aspect. In fairness, this was on the second-to-easiest difficulty, so it wasn’t really surprising.

During my conflict with the Pirates, I relied mostly on naval units, but once they were mostly gone and I shifted my sights towards the Data Angels and the Caretakers, I ended up strongly relying on units with air- and later orbital drop abilities. This made the logistics much simpler, since I didn’t have to rely on troop transports at all.

The amazing

Pandora: First Contact is the spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri. I haven’t played it. It’s out now, but it’s a bit above of what I’m willing to fork out for a game at the moment. I’ve been watching a few let’s plays though.

The female voice that guides you through the game sounds nice. The way she talks is not amazing, but it’s a pleasant sound and adds decent atmosphere to the game. I don’t love the graphics, but I love that they use hexes for the map. I think hexes were a great addition to Civilization and I think one unit per hex tile is an even better addition that makes the war part of 4X games less tedious and far more fun and interesting.

I’m not excited about the tech tree. Alpha Centauri did it better with the way research was implemented, with the expanding into a general direction approach.

Right of the bat, I think the interface in Pandora is less stylish, but far more functional and useful than in Alpha Centauri. There’s a troop designer to and that one also seems better made and easier to use, though I can’t be sure without trying it out for myself.

There’s also some stuff added to Pandora, on top of what Alpha Centauri had to offer, and it seems like something that would be fun to experiment with.

Overall, Pandora: First Contact seems like a pretty great game. It’s not going to succeed at spiritually succeeding Alpha Centauri, though, for one simple reason.

What was truly amazing about Alpha Centauri was the world it created. In part, this was done with the depth and complexity the map generation had, but mostly, it was done with amazing writing, voice acting and research that was put into the game. If you aren’t sure what exactly I’m talking about, a simple visit to the Alpha Centauri Wikiquote page, or TV Tropes will clear any confusion. The next step would be to go to YouTube and actually listen to the voices that delivered those quotes in the game. Prokhor Zakharov is my personal favorite, but really, they are all amazing.

Alpha Centauri - Research Completed

Pictured: My favorite screen, where you can hear the fantastic voice-overs.

You play on this alien world, your faction slowly grows in power and that’s great, but that’s what most 4X games have. It’s the Civipedia that makes you lose yourself in the game, really and Alpha Centauri’s implementation of the Civipedia – the Datalinks has yet to be beaten.

This is why Alpha Centauri is amazing and Pandora: First Contact will only ever get close to it.

Alpha Centauri - Unit Designer

Pictured: The unit designer screen.

This is also why I have zero hopes of Civilization: Beyond Earth truly beating Alpha Centauri in anything except maybe the user interface. From all I’ve seen about Brave New World, it looks like it will be mechanically fun enough, but they don’t seem to be even trying to get close to Alpha Centauri in world building and atmosphere.

The not perfect

So why is Alpha Centauri not perfect?

I may have revealed it on the previous section.

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is a game of the 90s and as much many would like the claim everything about older games is better, some aspects of game design have seen definite and objective improvement.

First is the user interface. Alpha Centauri has a lot of menus and a lot of popups and it’s not very fun to work around it.

Alpha Centauri - Improvement Built

Pictured: The improvement built pop-up. You can disable it, but it’s not recommended. There are also build queues, but they do not prevent the pop-ups.

On the one hand, the interface takes a big part of the screen and blocks off a lot of the map’s display. It shows a lot of information and this does add to the atmosphere with the way it’s shown, which is great, but the thing is, most of that information is not very useful most of the time. I don’t really need to see the faction dominance graph taking up about 5-10% of my screen.

On the other hand, with the interface taking up such a large amount of the screen, it’s weird that most of the controls and information I do need are either hidden behind layers upon layers of menus, or even not available to me at times.

Alpha Centauri - Improvement Selection

Pictured: The improvement selection screen. You build improvements and train units here.

That faction dominance chart I mentioned? Sometimes I do want to take a look at it. Thing is, I’m not really sure if it’s possible to call it up when I want it. Part of the bottom screen rotates between this chart and other displays, but I tried and couldn’t find a menu option to outright show it. I just have to wait for the game to decide to show it to me. It’s out of my control. Well, it might not be out of my control, but I sure as hell couldn’t find the option.

Alpha Centauri - Research Selection

Pictured: The Progenitor factions are special in that they are able to select a specific research goal. The human factions only select a branch.

I have a former (the equivalent of Civilization’s worker unit) and I want to build a farm. I have to right-click the unit, find the teraform option in the menu, then find the build farm option in the sub-menu. Alternatively, I could press the F key on the keyboard. However, the F key builds a farm and Shift+F plants a forest. Sounds great and if you take the time to learn the hotkeys, which I did, it works fine and you don’t really need an easily accessible button. Alpha Centauri did well, most would say. Except, then you accidentally press Caps Lock and don’t notice you did. Now pressing F plants forests and Shift+F builds farms. Was that really necessary? Why does the game have to take Caps Lock into account? I’m not writing an article here, I’m controlling a game.

So with both methods of control, Alpha Centauri messed up at least for a bit. For mouse controls, there’s too much wasted space and too many layers. For keyboard controls, there’s unnecessary uncertainty in some aspects.

And those are just the controls.

As I said, there’s a lot of pop-ups in Alpha Centauri. Almost everything is a pop-up. Almost every game event is a pop-up.

Alpha Centauri - Forest Expansion

Pictured: By far the most common pop-up is the one about forests (or kelp farms) expanding.

In my opinion, a system of notifications, which aren’t thrown in your face, but are easily accessible with the click of a button somewhere on the main screen at each turn are a much better option.

To a point, Alpha Centauri does have this. There’s a list of messages at the lower half of the screen. These track most game events and you can get to the location of the event through the message’s interface.  But, it’s not just the click of button. In most cases, you’ll have to switch from the Information tab to the Messages tab (the I and M buttons), then click once on the message and once more to select Zoom to Message. Again, there’s an unneeded layer or two that makes the thing clunkier than it has to be.

Even less perfect – larger maps

The whole tediousness of the interface really comes to the front when you play on larger maps. Even the standard map size gets extremely annoying during the second half of the game. Each turn means several minutes of clicking through pop-ups before you get actual control of the game. You have to get through all the base improvement built messages and set what to build next. Then you have to see what new research you got, select what to research next and answer yes or now to questions such as “Do you want to see the new unit designs?”, or  “Do you want to upgrade these units?” Finally, the game will take you from unit to unit so you can give them commands. In the end, if you haven’t messed with the default options, it won’t ever give you proper control. Instead, the turn will end automatically and the pop-ups will start all over again.

Alpha Centauri - Upgrades

Pictured: If you replace an obsolete unit design, you can pay to have your units upgraded.

Even though it’s not the optimal choice, I was really, really tempted just to give control of most of my bases to the AI governor in order to stop with the pop-ups. This was on standard map size to. I don’t think I could get through a huge map without automation.

There’s still no actual competition

And that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

Alpha Centauri is not a perfect game.

Alpha Centauri - Plan Upgrades

Pictured: You can also switch any current build plans to new designs, if some are active.

A game with the content and mechanics of Alpha Centauri, but with modern graphics and improvements that come with modern interface design would be several steps closer to perfection than Alpha Centauri is.

But Alpha Centauri is an amazing game. It’s by far the best 4X strategy game I’ve ever played, with only a couple of Civilizations getting close. None of the science fiction 4X games I played are even remotely close to it. Master of Magic is a close second in the amount of affection I have for it, but objectively speaking, it’s not very close to the top as far as 4X games go.

So I’ll keep have fond memories of Alpha Centauri. Every now and then, I’ll also get a strong urge to play it. Since I own it on, I’ll also be able to play it. I’ll start up a game, immerse myself in the atmosphere and sometime during the second half, I’ll get annoyed with the popups and the interface. I’ll still love it, though, and I’ll keep hoping there will one time be a worthy successor, just as I do with Master of Magic.