Alpha is betta

A veteran gamer assesses competing sequels to an all-time best-seller.

TWO GAMING CLASSICS—Sid Meier's Civilization and its sequel, Sid Meier's Civilization II—have together sold over two million copies, racking up more than $60 million for their publisher, Microprose. The series is one of computer gaming's all-time best-sellers. With a steady succession of expansion packs, Civ II (as its legions of fans know it) has remained a strong seller since its initial release in 1996. And of course fans have long since been demanding a sequel.

Now they've got two, with one more in the offing.

Civilization: Call to Power, from Activision, and Alpha Centauri, from Firaxis Games (distributed by Electronic Arts), both lay claim to the title of unofficial sequel to Civilization II. Both make a strong effort to produce a game that embraces and extends the Civilization line, but only one comes close to success.

Civ and Civ II follow the history of a chosen civilization from 4000 B.C. to around 2100 A.D. The player builds and expands the civilization in competition with up to six other empires, researching and deploying new technologies (such as bronze-working, electricity, and space flight), trying to win the game by being the first to send colonists to Alpha Centauri. The games involve both resource management—founding cities, building infrastructure, etc.—and turn-based war-gaming. Civilization is a "just one more turn" game, where you can easily find yourself playing until the wee hours of the morning without realizing it. Civ II has been called the best computer game ever by a succession of computer gaming magazines, beating out such noteworthy titles as Myst and Doom.

Civilization: Call to Power (CTP to its players) has a somewhat rocky legal history. It was developed by Hasbro, through its Activision computer games division, in competition with Microprose. In mid-1998, Microprose successfully sued Hasbro over the game, winning a settlement and a license agreement. Hasbro then turned around and bought Microprose for $70 million and continued the development of Call to Power (a title, to judge from Hasbro's corporate power moves, that it is eminently qualified to develop).

Now it turns out that Hasbro's money would have been better spent on improving the game. Call to Power is beautiful to look at, but ultimately boring. Like the earlier Civilization games, it is history-focused, developing from the Neolithic age to a near future of nanotechnology and genetic engineering. While it improves some elements of Civilization game play—making resource management more empire-focused rather than city-focused, for example—it mangles the game with a miserable interface and unbalanced game structure. CTP is the least fun I've had playing a computer game in a long time.

The tragedy of Call to Power is that it appears on the surface to be the ultimate Civ game. The graphics are lush and colorful, the units and cities are interesting and detailed in design, and the technology tree—the path of technological development—extends well into the future, allowing for fusion-powered hovertanks and forcefield defenses. CTP also introduces the notion of "unconventional warfare," adding such units as corporate franchises, lawyers, and televangelists, all of whom can sap resources from your opponents without firing a shot.

The Call to Power interface, however, is nearly unusable. Obscure and counterintuitive, it is far too simple to mistakenly send a unit off across the map with a single accidental mouse click and far too difficult to find out what's going on in the world. Often the computer will play a sound indicating that something has happened, but there are no explanations or messages indicating what. Auto-centering—having the computer show you important events involving your empire—is simply broken. To cap it off, unlike the previous Civilization games, Call to Power does not let the player name his or her own empire. "King Jamey of the Geeks" is no longer an option.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri does allow me to pick my own faction name—one of the many little details that the design team got right. That Alpha Centauri gets so much right shouldn't be a surprise; Sid Meier (designer of Civ I) and Brian Reynolds (designer of Civ II) left Microprose to found Firaxis Games and worked together on the Alpha Centauri project. Alpha Centauri starts where Civ II leaves off, with the colonists heading for the star closest to our solar system. But a disaster en route leaves the colonists divided and squabbling; the ship crash-lands, so that the seven factions have to make their way in the new world with minimal resources. These factions—including Greens, Capitalists, Militarists, and the UN—have distinct "styles" and unique advantages and disadvantages. The stage is set for a classic Civ-style game, but with entirely new technologies and environment.

The game play is immediately familiar to Civ players, with the same process of expanding empires by building cities and competing with the neighbors. It improves upon Civ, however, by adding more sophisticated "social engineering" (you can choose from a variety of independent political, economic, and social models) and a better diplomatic AI for computer-driven players. Alliances are meaningful in Alpha Centauri, as one of the multiple victory conditions allows for group victory (conversely, diplomacy in Call to Power is a clumsy process, and approaching the single-victory condition seems to spark a Hobbesian all-against-all war).

Like Civ, Alpha Centauri is city-focused, with each city's resources devoted to supporting its own units. But city management is very flexible and includes a reasonable (if not perfect) automated city governor, which can be set to particular management strategies. The choice between manual fine-tuning and automation extends to the terraforming vehicles and even to unit design itself; Alpha Centauri works well for both micromanagers and hands-off strategic thinkers.

Alpha Centauri is not perfect. The graphics are often ugly, making it difficult to distinguish between different vehicle types. The alien world, covered in its red "xenofungus," is monotonous, and the isomorphic map—with elevated sections rather than images of hills and mountains—is clever but sometimes visually confusing. The game play is perhaps too close to Civ II—so much so that, despite the plethora of new features and ideas, Alpha Centauri doesn't really feel like the breakthrough it could have been.

Clearly, the ideal situation would have been the graphic sophistication and novel civilization management of Call to Power combined with the interface, story, and AI from Alpha Centauri.

Surprisingly, players may well get that wish. At the annual E3 computer gaming conference in late May, Hasbro and Firaxis announced that they were teaming up to produce the official Civilization sequel, Sid Meier's Civilization III, due out (hopefully) next year. What's more, Civ III, along with Alpha Centauri and an as-yet-unnamed third game, will make up the new "Sweep of Time" trilogy, allowing players to retain their technologies and empires as they progress through the series. I'm already saving my pennies.

For now, however, I'm playing Alpha Centauri. While it doesn't generate the same sort of awe that Civilization I and II did, it's great fun, easily customized, and very replayable. Call to Power, by contrast, has already been unceremoniously uninstalled.

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