Every day I wake up in a universe that doesn't contain Alpha Centauri 2, and frankly it's a miracle I don't just go straight back to sleep. In a just world, the direction Brian Reynolds and MicroProse took the 4X formula would have set a new standard for storytelling in strategy games, but it proved to be more of an anomaly. I've conquered countless planets since, but nothing has been able to take my mind off the weird Civilization follow-up that appeared way back in the final days of the 20th century.
Most 4Xs try to manage their vast scale through abstraction, boiling war, politics and social issues down to maths. You never really see or hear from your people in Civilization, and though you're technically playing with and against historical rulers, none of them have much humanity. But we desperately want it to be otherwise. Even before the series started assigning leaders proper traits, we did it ourselves.
"Players would read more into the game than what was there in some cases," Sid Meier told me when I was writing the complete history of Civilization. Gandhi, Montezuma and the gang were really blank slates initially, but we wanted opponents we could hold grudges against. We had to just use our imagination. In Civilization 6, however, they absolutely do act in distinct ways, but they're still not people. They're the personification of their empire. Alpha Centauri's Sister Miriam, meanwhile, is definitely a person. And she sucks.
Like all of Alpha Centuari's leaders, Miriam reflects her faction, the extremely zealous Believers, but she's still a person with a past, ambitions and a bad haircut. Her personality and history are teased out through brief diplomatic conversations and lore—much of it put front and centre, rather than being hidden away in the background— giving context to the way she and her faction act. She's a wonderful enemy, smug and preachy, and these traits also make her a joy to play. You get to be the nastiest bully in the playground, if that's your thing. Alpha Centauri doesn't make you play as a faction; it lets you roleplay as an immortal dictator.
The leap from Civilization 2—also designed by Reynolds—to Alpha Centauri is massive. It was the first true Civ sequel, even if it's not technically part of the series, showing us the fate of humanity after it left Earth and ventured off into the unknown. At the time, it also felt like the next step for 4Xs, where you weren't just building and expanding, but forging a society with its own culture, ethics and political structure. Even with their distinct personalities, each faction in Alpha Centauri remains yours to shape.
When I play as Scotland in Civilization 6, I'm really playing as a caricature. I can build golf courses and send Highlanders into battle. Robert the Bruce is there. It's less authentically Scottish than Braveheart or a postcard with a cartoon Nessie on it, and at no point is Firaxis ever expecting you to get into the mindset of a Scot; it's just a skin, lightly draped over a faction that could be anyone. I still love Civ's Scotland—it's a beast when it comes to science, and golf courses being our unique improvement is kinda cute. But it's unlikely I'll remember any of this in 20 years.
Civilization is never going to satisfy anyone looking for that Alpha Centauri high, which became even more evident when Civilization: Beyond Earth appeared. Instead of making Alpha Centauri 2, Firaxis gave us Civ in space. It sort of half-heartedly does away with nations and lets you pick a broad ideological affinity, but it trips up by making all of this incredibly dull. I couldn't tell you a single identifiable feature of a faction right after I'd finished playing it—let alone years later—and I'd almost rather it hadn't bothered exploring ideologies at all, given that all nuance was tossed out of the airlock.
We've had to look to other studios and games to pick up the torch. Sometimes we can catch a glimpse of Alpha Centauri in Amplitude's Endless series, with its exceptional faction design and love of a good yarn. Endless Legend and Endless Space 2's personality seeps out of every quest pop-up and lavish piece of art, and its factions are just as defined by their ideologies and malleable political views as they are by their species. Amplitude experimented with narratives both scripted and emergent, and built factions where the attraction was the roleplaying possibilities, not just the stats.
I'm drawing a blank, however, now that I'm trying to remember a character—aside from Horatio, a guy who thinks he's so swell that he creates a civilisation of clones—or specific piece of writing from the series. The factions and broad strokes of their unique stories are clear in my mind, but not much else. I can, however, instantly bring up the face of Alpha Centauri's Academician Prokhor Zakharov, with his long, messy hair and stylish cybernetic augmentations. Nor will I ever be able to forget the advert for the Longevity Vaccine, which gives us a brief glimpse of what the Morganites watch on TV.
"I plan to live forever, of course, but barring that, I'll take a couple thousand years. Even 500 would be pretty nice." With just a line in an ad, Morgan gives us a pretty clear idea of who he is. And Alpha Centauri is absolutely full of stuff like this, littering nuggets of lore, comical asides and short stories throughout the campaign. The occasional cinematics and spot-on voice acting makes such a huge difference, elevating the already sharp writing. Alpha Centauri is simply great sci-fi.
Maybe it's something we can only ever have one of—a singular thing that defies replication—but probably not. It's not magic, and we've got the ingredients; it's just been a while since they've been mixed together. You could probably get a decent Alpha Centauri if you took the speculative fiction and exclusively human factions of Beyond Earth and combined them with the narrative focus and faction design of Endless Legend. But there's still one thing no other 4X has been able to match: Chiron.
Usually referred to simply as 'Planet', the world of Chiron also serves as a sort of NPC faction. It fights the humans both through its flora and fauna, while the humans try to conquer it by drilling it full of holes, spreading invasive species from Earth and covering its surface in cities and mag tubes. It's a sentient organism, which communicates with human leaders during story events. Humanity is effectively a parasite feeding on a massive hive.
This revelation really emphasises the ethically questionable goals of the 4X genre. It should be obvious, given how three of the four Xs command you to be awful, but few games have really tried to wrestle with the real cost of colonisation and conquest. Despite concepts like climate change and slavery eventually being introduced, Civilization has always been a pretty optimistic series, but Alpha Centauri chips away at the facade of progress to show the sort of ethical concessions and atrocities that come with empire building. It's frequently grotesque and dystopian, and there's no way to get to the end without getting your hands filthy, even if you try to take the highroad.
Villainy in 4X games usually takes the shape of sentient swarms of insects and warmongering alien tyrants, but every leader in Alpha Centauri—until the expansion—is just a boring old human who thinks they're doing the right thing to secure humanity's future. Even when you've got injections that make you immortal and psychic warfare, Alpha Centauri is grounded by ambitions and drives that are exceedingly familiar. It makes these factions and their top dogs easier to connect with and, of course, easier to hate.
Though not a sermon or judgemental, it absolutely has shit to say, and it tries to evoke more than just a desire to gobble up territory. All of the lore, leader personalities and bits of story are more than just flavour—they represent Alpha Centauri's voice. It's blessed with a clear identity that it never loses, even when it's tasking you with juggling all these competing factions and complex systems. That, I think, is the thing that's been missing, that I've been chasing. It's what ties together all the systems and high concept sci-fi, creating a cohesive chronicle from Planetfall to Transcendence. This is a game that's utterly sure of itself.
I've been pining for a sequel for 20 years, and the more 4Xs I play, the more the cravings grow. Now feels like a perfect time for Alpha Centauri 2, though I accept I would have absolutely said that five years ago, or ten years ago, because it's always the perfect time for a sequel to the best 4X game. This time, though, it feels right because story and narrative design are finally getting the sort of prominence they deserve, and people are lapping that good stuff up. Even sports games have massively benefited from the injection of soapy drama. But what 4X game is satisfying that hunger right now? Stellaris, maybe, but it's too procedural, too unfocussed—and it's been around for five years.
Two of the most prominent 4X games on the horizon are taking aim at Civ and come from studios who's previous games were firmly sci-fi. With Amplitude's Humankind and Mohawk's Old World squaring up to old Goliath, imagine how big a flex it would be if Firaxis just turned around and said, "OK, why don't you lot make some historical games; we'll head back into space." It's not like it seems to be in a rush to roll out Civilization 7, choosing instead to extend 6's life with season passes. There's got to be something else the team wants to create. We really don't need more Civs, so give us another Alpha Centauri instead.
Please, Firaxis. Do it for the drones.
In the meantime, if you haven't played Alpha Centauri, please do yourself a favour and grab it. Conveniently, it's on sale over at GOG right now, so you can pick it up for a couple of quid. And give our list of the best strategy games on PC a read while you're at it.