July 31, 2004

"For I Have Tasted the Fruit"

Well, today was the last day of July, and I spent 11 hours of it playing a game of Alpha Centauri. Don't worry, it wasn't all in one sitting . . . No, indeed. I played from 12:30-4:30 AM and then 12:30-7:30 PM. It was fun. I never get tired of this game.

The plot: In 2060, Earth launches the United Nations Spaceship Unity, bound for a habitable planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor (Alpha Centauri). The colonists on board are supposed to spend the 40-year voyage in cryostasis, but a reactor malfunction followed by the assassination of the captain at the hands of an unknown assailant throws everything into disarray and chaos. The travelers split into seven factions, uniting behind the seven most charismatic and influential figures on board, and each group boards a separate pod to the surface of Planet.

Upon arrival, they all set up primary bases and attempt to build an empire (through exploration, scientific discovery, conquest, economy, etc.) capable of securing the dominance of their own particular ideology. Almost immediately, they come into violent contact with the native flora and fauna, and as time goes on the faction leaders begin to experience the tentative mental advances of an awakening planetary consciousness. The planet they have colonized is in the process of achieving sentience, and whether its attitude towards the interlopers is hostile or friendly remains to be seen . . .

It's fairly standard science fiction material skillfully woven into an addictive turn-based strategy game (and sequel to Civilization II . . . another of my favorites).

As always, I played as Academician Prokhor Zakharov (formerly of the Russian Commonwealth), Provost of the "University of Planet" faction. For my money, you just can't beat technology bonuses . . .

All of the options, however, are fairly entertaining in their own way. The game features reasonably talented voice acting and a large collection of well-written key quotes from each leader which really lend personality to the key players. Each character has a reasonably extensive background biography and a collection of three or four published works which serve as the main source for the quotes. The title of this post is from one of Zakharov's books.

The rest of the cast:

-Lady Deirdre Skye (formerly of Free Scotland, author of "Planet Dreams" and "Our Secret War"), leader of Gaia's Stepdaughters (the "environmentalist wacko" faction, color green).

-Chairman Sheng-ji Yang (author of "Essays on Mind and Matter" and "Ethics for Tomorrow"), ruler of the Human Hive (an atheistic police state, loaded down with population and social bonuses, color blue).

-CEO Nwabudike Morgan (author of "The Ethics of Greed" and "The Centauri Monopoly"), head of Morgan Industries (ahhh, the capitalist pigs, color yellow).

-Colonel Corazon Santiago (author of "Planet: A Survivalist's Guide" and " The Spartan Battle Manual"), commander of the Spartan Federation (these people are nuts!, color black).

-Sister Miriam Godwinson (formerly of the Christian States of America, author of "The Blessed Struggle," "But for the Grace of God" and "We Must Dissent"), guider of the Lord's Believers (uhhh . . . yeah, I'd love to know who decided on a "crazy fundie" faction, color orange).

-Commissioner Pravin Lal (author of "The Science of Our Fathers" and "Our Next Journey"), in charge of the Peacekeeping Forces (I hate this guy . . . he's the humanitarian UN flunky, obviously, color purple).

There are four ways to win a game of Alpha Centauri. In a diplomatic victory, you finagle 3/4 of the Planetary Council to unite behind you as Supreme Leader. You can vote for yourself, and number of votes is decided by total size of each factions' bases. Late in the game I had something like 3300 votes as compared to 70 or 80 votes for each of my competitors, but I've never cared for the diplomatic route.

You can achieve economic victory by cornering the Global Energy Market. In order to do this you must accumulate enough money to mind control every single remaining base on the planet. I have never even tried this.

A conquest victory is fairly self-explanatory, and is by far the most satisfying. I usually go for this in combination with the fourth type of victory: transcendence victory. This last is achieved by advancing as rapidly as possible along the tech tree until you have the ability to complete the Ascent to Transcendence project. By this route, your faction is the first to advance to the next stage of sentient evolution, joining with the fully-developed planetary consciousness in "ageless immortality."

In other words, I prefer to win the game by crushing all opposition while evolving into a immortal, semi-omniscient superbeing.

Along the way it's always fun to watch how the technology develops. You can research temporal mechanics, frictionless surfaces, self-aware machines, industrial nanorobotics, and . . . ethical calculus? Yup. Ethical calculus.

These techs in turn lead to advances in weaponry and base facilities . . . and they enable you to work on "secret projects" which grant even more benefits. These are particularly fun (only one can be built of each, so you have to beat the other players to the punch, and they come with an in-game movie as each one is completed). They include things like The Theory of Everything, The Cloning Vats, Clinical Immortality, The Space Elevator, and The Bulk Matter Transmitter.

It is my usual practice to name my bases after Star Wars planets, and today was no exception. I had nearly 100 bases by the end (micromanagement gets to be a real pain at that level) and I was having a very difficult time coming up with names I hadn't already used. The Peacekeepers and the Morganites were wiped out before I ever even came into contact with them, and I destroyed the Spartans fairly early in the game. It's not a good idea to let the Spartans build up when they're sitting right next to you. I made some sort of eternal alliance with the Gaians, but they dropped it suddenly when we were close to eliminating the final two factions. I was most displeased . . . so I took out all three of them. I achieved transcendence just before I had conquered the map, but I played on for a few turns just to have the satisfaction of controlling every last base.

One of my favorite features at the end shows a time-lapse animation of the development of the game using a color-coded map that plots each factions' territorial progression through the game. The colors moved rapidly around the board for quite a while, but then there was a sudden outbreak of "University of Planet White" in three or four places all over the map which grew outwards fairly rapidly to consume the entirety of Planet . . . *sigh*

Time to find something else to do now . . .

Posted by Jared at July 31, 2004 11:38 PM | TrackBack