Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (with Alien Crossfire expansion) was a bit of a revelation for 4x gamers back in the day. On one hand, this was clearly a Civilization game. Alpha Centauri was the planet space colonizers sought in Civ 2; the mechanics and play style are almost identical; and it has Sid Meier's name plastered all over it, just to prove the game's lineage. Of course, SMAX (Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire, from here on, this is how I'll refer to Alpha Centauri overall just to make life easier) wouldn't exist at all without IP conflict. This is where Civilization: Call to Power emerged from. However, in the grand scheme of things, SMAX is clearly a Civilization game in all but title.
However, despite being a Civ game, SMAX is also something different. It does different things and has a somewhat different base of assumptions than the Civ games. Overall, it's quite amazing how just a few small changes can complete shift the entire experience of a game. There are mechanics and ideas in SMAX that I'd hate to see relegated to the dustbins of history. As a result, I'm writing this comparison point of SMAX and Civ 4. I want to give a sense of what Civ 3 and Civ 4 did right, what SMAX did right, and what SMAX did wrong.
JUST TO GET A BASELINE: HOW IS SMAX LIKE CIV 4
Before I begin, if you haven't played SMAX, I want to give some sense for the similarities. SMAX plays pretty much just how you'd expect a Civ game to play. You have workers (called formers); settlers (colony pods); nutrients (food); minerals (production); and energy (gold). You choose research priorities (although, for the most part, you choose general emphasis rather than specific tech); socially engineer your civ (just like Civics in Civ 4); set taxation/science/luxury priorities; interact with other civilizations; etc. etc. In a lot of respects, SMAX is a lot like Civ 4. In fact, it's probably more like Civ 4 than Civ 5 is....
SO WHAT DOES SMAX DO THAT CIV 4 DOESN'T
I want to discuss SMAX's unique aspects in three parts: 1. Look/feel/pacing, 2. Combat mechanics, 3. City mechanics.
SMAX does a lot to set itself apart from the Civ games visually and thematically. To put it lightly, you won't be confusing Alpha Centauri for Earth. The planet -looks- alien, and the fungus mechanics (fungus covers much of the landscape, making development and movement more difficult) add a twist to the standard Civ formula. The interface expands on this basic approach and, again, just emphasizes the alien nature of the game.
There is also quite a bit of story to SMAX. Factions have well detailed histories and proclivities. There is a lot of story introduced early on, and, occasionally, more bits of story will appear here and there. The various technologies are all built on science fiction and the pseudo-history of the setting. Honestly, it all comes together well. SMAX actually might do a better job of building a theme and following through with it than any other game in the series. Honestly.
However, in terms of actual gameplay, the pacing for SMAX is actually quite a bit different than in the Civ series. Unlike in Civ, there isn't the same emphasis placed on "eras." Also, since you start out with a relatively advanced society, the beginning parts of the game tend to feel a bit shorter than in, say, Civ 4. Meanwhile, you can engage in mechanics and strategies halfway through a campaign of SMAX that you wouldn't be able to do until nearly the end of Civ 4. The pacing is just all kinds of different, which has a rippling effect on the rest of the game. Combat feels quicker, larger, and more aggressive, for example. While it's actually pretty comparable to end-game Civ 4 combat, it hits that point much more quickly.
At the end of the day, I'm not sure there is anything about SMAX's look/feel/pacing that could be gainfully employed within a proper Civ game. The only possible exception is the expanded end-game, which I'll discuss more later. However, it's thematically rich and interesting on its own. This just begs for a revival....
2. Combat mechanics
There are several shifts in combat mechanics I want to talk about: a. longer end-game, b. focus on attack, c. creating your own units.
a. As noted above, SMAX certainly has a longer end-game than Civ 4. This directly affects the way combat feels and is employed. For example, you have missiles fairly early in the game. In my most recent game, my AI opponents were absolutely pounding me with missile attacks less than halfway through my campaign. In the Civ games, missiles are end-game only. This should give you some sense of the difference.
Air strikes are also introduced relatively early. Drop pods come a bit later but still earlier in the game than in the Civ series. Overall, the shift in end-game mechanics just brings out a whole different flavor of combat. There aren't 2000 years of mace-men and catapults here.
b. The longer end-game is just one element of SMAX that leads to a stronger focus on aggression in combat. Also notable is the complete lack of attack/defense balance. Basically, more so than in Civ, attack units tend to have more attack power than defense units have defense power. When combined with the narrowed early and mid-game and the longer end-game, you get a -much- more aggressive game. Cities can change hands with some ease, as taking cities is often easier than holding them. You tend to be more careful in your diplomacy and better prepared for things turning awry. There tends to be more combat units -generally speaking- than in the Civ games, as you constantly prepare to turn back an attack or engage in on yourself. As with the pacing and themes of SMAX, this isn't necessarily better than Civ. However, it is an interesting different approach.
c. The biggest difference, however, is that SMAX allows you to create your own units. You actually research different sub-components of units: weapon, armor, reactor, and special abilities. At any point, you can mix and match different sub-components and create new units. This allows you to create end-game units with beginning-game armor, drop pods, and naval attack, just as an example.
On one hand, I think this is a great example of the difference between macro-strategy and micro-tactics (Civ 4 vs. Civ 5), as I discussed in my last blog. This is definitely a mechanic that focuses on macro-mechanics.
However, on the other hand, I'm still not sure what the overall utility of this approach is. As a result of it, units tend to look generic and undifferentiated. Your workshop units are auto-upgraded when you research relevant new technologies, which takes away some of the need away. In the end-game, you have some flexibility in creating your own interesting combinations, but, overall, I wonder if it's really a necessary wrinkle in the Civ fabric. Still, it's an interesting experiment.
3. Development mechanics
This is where the game really sets itself apart: the development mechanics. Perhaps this will be easier to explain with an example than with words: in my most recent game of SMAX, I had a decent little land empire, but I was surrounded on two sides. So, I expanded onto the water. Not ACROSS the water, mind you. Onto it. And those are some of my best cities!
Simply enough, by the 75% stage of a SMAX campaign, you'll pretty much be able to do anything you want in terms of development and cities. You can terraform land up and down. You can expand sea and/or land. You can develop land and sea tiles with different sets of formers (aka workers). The sea is basically its own entirely self-sustaining battlefield in this game, as you can use naval units to seize sea-cities. In general, you just have so many damn options in SMAX. Again, the idea of an extended end-game comes to mind. The things you can do halfway through SMAX seem like things that you should be able to do with future tech in the Civ games. It's sad that these elements are relegated only to SMAX because they are interesting and fun.
WHAT DOES CIV 4 DO THAT SMAX DOESN'T
There are a lot of little differences. Civ 4 has leaders, which are nice but not central, IMO. It has a more advanced city defense system, which I do tend to see as an out-and-out improvement over SMAX. Civ 4 has religion, but, again, I don't think this is a central difference.
If there is one thing that really sets Civ 4 apart from SMAX.. it's culture. It's amazing how much you can miss a mechanic when it's gone, and culture is rather sorely missed in SMAX. Culture just makes sense, and it leads to sensical decisions in terms of expansion, foreign relations, etc.
Here, let me give you an example of why SMAX really misses culture: in all of my recent games, I've had friendly civs come up.. and build cities right next to my capital. Now keep in mind, I don't mean 7 or so tiles away. I mean they're close enough that they're seizing core tiles from my damn capital. And there's nothing I can do about it short of declaring war. Le sigh. I wasn't even given a warning or an indication that it was happening!
This may not seem so terribly bad.. until you realize that you can build sea cities. Guess what, pretty much all cities are vulnerable to having tiles stolen when sea cities are possible. As far as I can tell, the only real defense is to just continually expand in all directions. In fact, when combined with the combat mechanics and a few other design elements*, this seems like a central way to play SMAX, depending on your Civ.
While I understand why that could be a fun way to play, the lack of culture makes it almost a necessary way to play. You can't just concentrate on a small set of core-yet-gigantic cities while making friendly with neighbors because, well, they'll steal your GD land.
Oh culture.. I miss you so much/
*I won't get into the particulars here, but a lot of wonders/Civ abilities/etc. tend to encourage endless expansion as well. That seems to be a big strategy being pushed here.
ANY OTHER CRITICISMS FOR SMAX
There are a few other problems I have with SMAX: the game encourages micro-management, which makes the end-game unwieldy. You know how, towards the end of Civ 1/2/3/4, you have a million cities and a million things to do every turn? Remember, SMAX basically has an expanded end-game. You hit that point sooner, and it can become sort of brutal. The sea cities; the lack of culture; the ecological and alien mechanics; the aggressive, large-scale combat mechanics; and the openness of tile development all just exacerbate this sense. Overall, the end-game can take a -long- bloody time to play through.
SO WHAT SHOULD I TAKE AWAY
Here are a few take-away points from the above:
1. Culture mechanics are great. It's hard to remember what 4x life was before culture.
2. SMAX is paced differently than Civ 4, which leads to a different playstyle.
3. SMAX lets you build sea cities and change the terrain how ever you want. It feels sort of like an expanded Civ 4 end-game.
4. SMAX, despite very much being a Civ game, also feels like its own entity, thanks to the theme, the art style, the pseudo-history, and the shift in pacing. It's amazing how much it creates a "Civ for future colonists."
5. However, Civ 4 is probably the better game overall, if only because of culture mechanics and somewhat less micromanagement in the late game.
There you go.