Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri – Review

Written by loothunter


Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is a turn-based 4X strategy. You colonize an alien planet orbiting around Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our Sun. This game was released in 1999 as sort of a sequel or a spin-off or spiritual successor to the famous Sid Meier’s Civilization series. Officially, a connection was never confirmed, but everyone who played Civilization knows that for a “scientific victory” you have to build a spaceship and fly it to Alpha Centauri. You don’t need to be a genius to connect the dots.

Of course, upon achieving scientific victory in Civilization you can have the world in all sorts of different situations. However, in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (or SMAC) backstory unambiguously says that upon Unity’s (that’s what the spaceship is called) departure Earth was in very poor condition. Pollution, wars, and exhaustion of resources. And during the journey, things had hardly improved.

What is even worse, short before arrival Unity’s captain was assassinated, and the crew split into factions. The ship itself has broken into many pieces that fell on the planet. Thus most resources and technologies were scattered at random locations.

Yet, leaders of the seven most powerful factions managed to get their hands on colonization pods. And now, after landing on the planet, they’ll have to survive. Armed with nothing more but basic technologies, a bare minimum of personnel, and unshaken belief in their ideals.

A New Kind Of Civilization

The core gameplay of SMAC is the same as in Civilization. You have colony bases instead of cities, energy instead of gold (in fact, it’s even produced by commerce), Secret Projects replace World Wonders, and alien lifeforms play the role of barbarians. Even most technologies and improvements are completely analogous to ones from the Civ series.

Regardless of what you call happy and unhappy citizens, the mechanics that lead to riots remain the same.

However, the devs attached quite a few ideas and improvements to the Civilization core. The most notable of them is the full customization of units. Essentially, you have a “workshop” that allows you to construct anything with equipment or weapon, shields, chassis, and two special abilities of your choice. Provided you have the technology for each component, including the reactor, which determines the unit’s health.

Yes, units in Alpha Centauri have “hit points,” just like in later Civ games. And also, like in later games, units receive experience and raise their morale (level). Attack/defense characteristics and morale determine the average damage ratio. This means that if you’re extremely unlucky, your powerful unit can suffer significant damage but not outright die at the dice roll against some puny scout.

There is also psy-combat where the damage ratio is determined only by morale and attack/defense is just ignored.

The native life, as well as mysterious monoliths, actually play an important role in the story. Through certain research, you can reveal how ancient aliens used the whole planet to facilitate their plans to reach a new level of existence. And one of the “victories” is to become part of the alien experiment.

Series of Interesting decisions

In general, SMAC always offers several solutions for any given problem. For example, when your citizen riot, you can do all the things you could in Civ – divert energy to improve life quality, build facilities for recreation, use military units as police, and make some citizens doctors to keep others in check. But also, you can resort to “Nerve stapling” which will deal with riot for free but lower your reputation for committing such an atrocity. And there are projects/wonders that deal with the issue too.

The government system is more flexible. You can choose separately your political system (democracy, police state, fundamentalism, frontier), economic system (free market, planned, green, simple), and social values (survival, wealth, knowledge, power). All social changes require certain research, and in the late game, you can even develop new types of social engineering (cybernetic, eudaimonic, and thought control) that have their own pros and cons.

A Former unit is a precursor to workers in later Civs, able to build various improvements on terrain to increase production or provide combat bonuses. But SMAC also added options for actual terraforming – like raising or lowering terrain. Tile altitude affects energy production and combat modifiers, and if you want, you can even raise the seafloor to create additional dry land or vice versa.

Interaction with the planet, in general, became more complex and important. Using weapons of mass destruction doesn’t just pollute the area, it creates actual craters. Pollution itself, if unattended long enough, leads to the entire sea level rising. And both also lead to the planet’s native life becoming more aggressive. However, if you try to care for the planet, it will respond in kind. You’ll even be able to have “natives” as your units.

Back in 1999

Obviously, the graphics in SMAC is quite dated. And in addition, many actions aren’t accompanied by flashy effects. Even exotic “alien lifeforms” are represented only by a few generic types. Mostly by mind worms that look like just a bunch of messy pixels. And there isn’t much animation for the units in general.

These kinds of visuals actually even create gameplay problems. One time during the enemy turn, some units appeared near my base. Then there was an explosion, and a message that said, “equipment is destroyed”. And when it was my turn, I had a hard time figuring out what had happened. Maybe if the “action log” wasn’t limited to a single turn… But there is no such thing among numerous interface options.

But probably the biggest obstacle for a new player would be the controls. Numerous menus, issuing movement commands by dragging a mouse from the unit to the designated target instead of a click.

On the plus side, however, is that due to being a “product of its time” SMAC doesn’t shy away from hard and complex topics, such as moral relativity, individual vs collective needs, the definition of humanity and even tackling the meaning of life itself. Yes, I understand that what I said sounds strange with all the talk about how “games evolved” to feature more complex topics and characters. But the problem is that modern “deeply philosophical” media usually depicts such topics in a very one-sided fashion. Corporate greed – is bad, a community where everyone is equal – good, pushing for change – is good, clinging to traditions – bad.

By the way, SMAC has a faction editor where you can create your own faction and its leader.

That’s not the case for SMAC factions. As each of them has pros and cons, even their ideology may not be what you call appealing.

Meet the Factions

At the start of the review, I said that each faction is “armed” with its beliefs and ideals. And that wasn’t just a metaphor. Each faction has a distinct set of morals and values, and their gameplay characteristics and abilities are tied to those. Morgan Industries, for example, is a profit-oriented corporation, that excels in energy production, especially through trade. But people there have an inherent taste for luxury, so the population wouldn’t grow as much as others, and their army has a greater maintenance cost.

Spartans, on the other hand, are all military. Their units even start at a higher rank. And they don’t need to spend extra resources while building the first unit of a newly invented type (for other factions “prototypes” cost 50% more). However, their industrial production, in general, isn’t as efficient as others.

This is Sparta!

Gaia’s Stepdaughters live in harmony with a planet and thus have a better chance to get native lifeforms on their side. Yet, their way of life makes their military weaker. They even can’t have a free market economy because the government must oversee everyone, not doing ecological damage.

Actually, for most factions, there is at least one type of economy, politics, or values that is incompatible with their beliefs. And speaking of Believers – that’s one of the factions that is highly religious. As expected, they have penalties in science development, but they are also fiercer fighters, and their infiltration teams fare better.

The University of Planet is the opposite. Huge research bonus but eggheads are less happy with their life and worse at infiltrating. And so on. Distinctions are significant enough to choose a different strategy and even strive for a different type of ending.

In addition to gameplay differences, each faction has its own backstory with a charismatic leader, whose quotes will even better highlight their principles and motives. And even the most unsavory ideologies, such as Hive are shown to have valid points in their philosophies, while even “enlightened” factions have flaws.

Past the Test of Time

There is indeed a reason why people still remember Sid Meier’s Alpha Centaury and still enjoy playing it. Despite the interface and controls that players have to spend much time studying, the core gameplay, vast customization options, as well as a large amount of lore and immersive atmosphere of mastering survival on another planet, make playing this game truly engaging and, even today still a largely unique experience.

The closest game to SMAC as of now is Civilization: Beyond Earth. And despite a more comfortable interface and way, way better visuals, it lacks SMAC’s depth and complexity. Interactions with the planet in a new Firaxis game no longer make native life a character in its story. And even the faction leaders in Beyond Earth lack charisma and memorable traits.

Also funny, how while I’m writing this review, Avatar: The Way of Water is released in theaters and is criticized for its cliché and generic story. While the 20-year-old game offers not one but seven (or more if you count factions from Alien Crossfire expansion) deep and complex perspectives on alien planet colonization and humanity’s way of life. Just food for thought.


29 thoughts on “Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri – Review”

  1. I can still hear the voices of each faction leader in my head after all these years. I played the original civ and civ 2’s videos for each wonder of the world and advisors kept me coming back. The Elvis Impersonator is one fave from way back.

    This game’s secret projects videos are all haunting and thought provoking. It made a science-fiction lover out of me. Thank you so much for this review. I’m very tempted to see if mods have updated the interface so I can set it up on my “office laptop”.



  2. Best Civilization game I’ve ever played. The faction characters are so memorable and I loved the backstory that developed.

  3. Great game, adequate review.
    I get that it’s not ‘cool’ to point out poor (let alone horrendous) grammar.
    I understand this is like probably “loothunter”‘s third or fourth language…
    However, if I had to write in French or Swahili and could ONLY do so in such poor form, I would simply not do so.
    So many times I had to stop and re-read what was written to make sure I had deciphered what was meant/intended…and it made the flow completely come to a halt.

    A great game like this deserves a better review.

  4. I think y’all should stick to the videos. This review is not well written, nor thought provoking, and doesn’t really feel necessary.

    • Many of us prefer the written word video reviews are way over done. This is extremely better and focusing on an older game makes the review thought provoking in and of itself.

  5. Still ranks in my all time favorite games, and definitely very high on the list of CIV games. The personalities and stark differences in faction ideologies made for very compelling game play and very hard to find that in a modern game. I loathed The Hive, and The Believers leaders and their ideologies. That always made for extremely fun game play and rivalry. Now I’m going to need to dust it off and play like it’s 1999.

      • No – recommend learning grammar rules yourself and applying them. Many great learning resources exist. However, I didn’t notice any glaring grammatical issues and I am a native English speaker who as a lawyer makes my living off of writing. *shrug*

  6. Loved this game. Jumped from civ2 to SMAC and it felt like a sequel. Discovered AoW:Planet fall recently and despite being heavily focused on tactic combat, it’s 4x experience reminds a lot of SMAC, more than CivBE imho.

  7. I’m sorry, but if we’re doing “reviews” of games that are nearly 25 years old, I would expect some kind of unique angle or insight beyond what PC Gamer would have printed in 1999.

    Yes, Alpha Centauri is absolutely an all-time great game and it’s frankly shocking it’s never gotten a proper follow-up, but this surface level “The mechanics are old!”, “There are factions!”, “New games have better graphics!” commentary is very thin.

    • Well, my rationale behind making this review was that Alpha Centauri is simply a great classic game, and not having its review on a site dedicated to turn-based strategies is a huge gap in coverage.

      What “unique angle” you would suggest?

      • As the author of one of the strategy guides to the game, I found your review after all these years to be a pleasant surprise. Thank you. 🙂

  8. I still play this and Civ 3 because I’m old. I got so good at using choppers and drop units to capture enemy bases that I have to handicap myself to make it interesting.
    Awesome replayability!

  9. Played the heck out of this game in 1999. Got a lot of milage out of that CD. Still to this day one of my favorite strategy games. Thanks for the Review

  10. Grew up with civ1, 2 and 3, and alpha centauri was such a revelation back then. The workshop in which you could design your own units was such a great idea. Especially the idea that you could choose to build cheap specialised units or expensive all rounders, could specialise in weapons and attack, or armour and defense, etc was awesome and added so much to the game. Pity it was never picked up again in following civ games. Would have loved to have been able to create units in civ like this with weapon types ranging from swords to spears to bows and such, and evolving in tech from stone to bronze to iron to steel to muskets, rifles and so on…
    For me civ 5 and especially civ 6 have been huge disappointments, and imho the game has lost so much by focussing on streamlining for online gameplay. And some new game mechanics implemented just for the sake of being new are outright idiotic, like the district system. It’s like the devs barely knew history and didn’t realise cities were compact entities locked inside their walls for thousands of years, and that suburbanisation is a modern phenomenon from the 20th century.

    But I digress…

    Love SMAC. Such a part of my youth.

  11. Civilization (the game) is dead. The devs attempted to go ‘next gen’ with Civilization: Beyond Earth but it was a dismal failure. Someone should tell them. Otherwise they’ll continue to put out more games in a futile attempt to regain the popularity they had before Civilization VI was released. I haven’t seen a decent Civ game release since Civ 5 and probably never will. How many times can you release a game before the public realizes that they’re being duped into buying the same thing over and over again?

  12. Good review to a great game. I agree it’s not unique and could be from a PC Gamer mag but most younger people probably have never heard of the title and a basic review serves as a good introduction to them. To those of a bit more advanced age it is a good reminder of one the best titles of the golden era of PC games.
    And I read through the review and did not find the grammar to be horrible (English is my third language though).

  13. Nice review! There are angles that weren’t even covered: for example, and game’s aesthetic is almost unparalleled in terms of driving immersion. The sound effects alone help drive the feeling of being on an alien world. Additionally, the way the game borrows all sorts of hypothetical technological developments for its tech tree makes it worthwhile just from a sci-fi perspective – for many people, I bet this was their first exposure to, say, quantum computing.

    The review also slightly (only slightly) undersells how much of a leap forward this game was in terms of driving 4x gaming. While Civ II was a major improvement over Civ I, it was still more incremental and obvious than anything. Yes, Alpha Centauri in many ways was just a super mod for Civ II, but that’s probably what made it so magnificent – beyond allowing the developers time to insert narrative and polished aesthetics into a 4x game, this also allowed them to focus all the more on quality of life and game concepts. The biggest leap forward easily was in faction customization – whereas prior Civ games offered little in this department, each faction here drove a halfway unique game experience.

  14. Read for the nostalgia value here; the review might not be anything particularly outstanding, but better that than nothing, yes. Definitely a game worth sharing with younger generations.

    Incidentally, though, there’s a canonical storyline to (non-expansion) Alpha Centauri if you read between the lines a bit on who says what for the various technologies, buildings, and secret projects (there’s a blog, “Paean to SMAC”, which covers this. Might be worth another review. Certainly worth a read.

  15. Loved the gane but had to stop playing when a repearable crash happened every game at a specific location on the map. It was never fixed to my knowledge. I still have the boxed game with the huge fold out of the tech tree.

  16. The unit customization is superb,
    I recall the best basic defensive unit —
    “trance police clean infantry”
    put 2~3 in each your city, you never worry about mindworms and riots , they are all taken care of, and no support needed!!!

    when doctorine: air power is researched, the world is almost at your disposal, since AI is not very good at using air units, nor countering air unit.

    AI cannot withstand the airstrike of 10 needle jet. I wonder if someone modernize the AI in this game, what kind of nightmare it will be when the player’s cities are bombarded by 10 needle jets sent by AI ….

  17. Wonderful review of the best civilization game ever made. Someone at firaxis needs to read this and see why Beyond Earth was such a terrible terrible thing. Sid has unfortunately lost his touch and focuses on mechanics above story and character waaay to much. Character and story make games.

    I would argue due to importance of character and story planet fall and endless legend are closer to Alpha Centauri than Beyond earth by miles.


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