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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Greatest Strategy Games EVER!

Alpha Centauri
Rise Of Nations
Civilization 4

Alpha Centauri:

Only one other strategy has ever come close to Alpha Centauri (AC) for me and that is Rise of Nations (RoN). Alpha Centauri has dated graphics now, and sometimes has issues running on newer machines, but the game play is the greatest! It has a sci-fi theme which I always prefer to any other. It has an awesome technology tree that is complex and multivariate. And winning by transcendence is great – it makes you feel so smart! With a good economy, you can research a level of transcendental thought per turn while you wait to build the transcendence “project”. These technologies give you bonus points. I have played this game on many different difficulty settings and with different leaders, including ones I’ve designed myself using the Faction Editor (in the Alien Crossfire expansion), and always this game is a joy! Tricks to getting a high score include: playing on medium difficulty settings, don’t dial the alien creatures down to “rare”, build all the secret projects, and have as many transcendent thoughts as possible. This will ensure an AC score of at least 80%, although I have gotten scores of 100% even at the easiest setting of “Citizen” and with rare alien life-forms. Of course there are other ways to win as well: by co-op, domination, etc. The trick to diplomacy is to know when to answer with what response, while taking into account the “bioscan” which shows the “happiness” level of the AI leaders, and to watch out for bogus trading and outright lies. Don’t be a push over, but don’t be a hard-nose either (just like real life – how cute!).

Rise of Nations: Rise of Nations is a riotous real-time strategy game, whereas AC is turn-based (in multiplayer mode, this leaves lots of time for snacking and catching up on work that you were supposed to have done instead of playing games). AC does have a “simultaneous moves” option, but it doesn’t seem to be designed to actually work. Every game of RoN is new and exciting; the combinations of nations (and their corresponding special units and abilities) and maps are almost endless. Multiplayer is especially fun, but the AI in this game is a bit more challenging than AC (and even the new Civ 4). I’ve found playing on anything besides “easy” means that you will be forever at war, frantically trying to create a dribble of military units to fend off the computer attackers. This game is best won by territory victory, especially when teaming up with another player. Wonder victories in this game, I think, are too easy, although, at least the AI is generally smart enough to try to destroy some of your wonders if you get close to victory. The best part about this game is its fast pace and the great variety of civilizations you can play. Each civ gets special units and abilities, and the units for each civilization actually look different from each other (unlike Civ 4 where everybody’s mounted archers look like Mongols). Seriously, what’s the point of playing different civs if you don’t get to experience the uniqueness of the people?

Civilization 4: Civilization 4 (Civ 4) is also a fun game for the most part, though my impression after playing a few games was that it lacked a certain something, and I find myself craving a game of AC or RoN when I’m done playing Civ 4. I was, however, immediately impressed by Civ 4’s welcome screen (I’m a sucker for pretty graphics and catchy Lion King-like music), and after the black-fog was lifted from my view (which was fixed when I downloaded a new graphics driver), I was impressed by the in-game world view. I especially love how you can zoom all the way out to Finger-Of-God. The lacking je ne sais quoi may derive from the AI’s live-and-let-live philosophy (especially at the easier difficulty settings). At first I liked the diplomacy screen point system where it clearly displays how happy or annoyed the opposing AI leaders are with you (for example, +1 happiness for sharing technology and -2 happiness for building a city on their doorstep, etc.). It takes all guesswork out of diplomacy, which I thought at first was a great improvement. However, as I continued to play, it made diplomacy a little “too easy” and less like I’m dealing with an actual personality and more like I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Also, why are all the women leaders really girly and into “Creative” things, often paired with other weak attributes like “Financial”? My first though when choosing a civ was, “What happened to Catherine the Great [Russian]? She’s gone all soft!” In Civ 3 she was a powerful leader, but now she merely dabbles in creative and financial affairs. Also, the number of civilizations has decreased – I hope there’s going to be an expansion pack. I miss the Byzantines. I think the most powerful civ would be Expansive and Philosophical, but that combo wasn’t even included (it must be too powerful – it might blow the game’s mind!!) I’ve played as Bismark of the Germans and that was great! The Greeks (Alexander) were weak, French (pick one) weaker, English (both Victoria and Elizabeth) boring, Romans (Julius Cesear) OK, Mongolians (Kublai) pretty good, and Russians (Catherine, although I would like to try Peter next time) lame.

The task of picking a specific leader is unnecessary. I’d prefer one leader to a civ if it meant that more civs would be included. I think that the internet community generally agrees with me on this one because fans have created add-on civs (e.g., Canada, Poland, etc.). One neat thing about this game, however, is the extensive online community and abundant mods -- nerds everywhere have donated their free time in order to make my gaming more enjoyable. The best multiplayer add-on in my opinion is the one that allows in-game movies, making the multiplayer more like the single player game, and each time you complete a wonder you get treated to a little movie clip showing how great you are. The biggest disappointment (in my humble opinion) is the lack of the “build-your-own-palace” feature. This was a great little pastime to while-a-way dull moments waiting for your multiplayer gaming friends to finish their interminably long turns. Furthermore, I think that AC and RoN are superior games (in part) because Civ 4 tends to put you at a disadvantage toward stacked units. I hate stacked units! That’s why I love RoN – no stacking units, plus the ability to create military control groups by clicking and dragging (RoN) is always superior to having to manually move each unit separately (like Civ 4). I’ll never understand why game designers think we like to move each military unit separately – it makes creating 100 unit armies tedious and time-consuming. In AC the power of your air units makes up for a lot, but in Civ 4 air units don’t always hit their target to my great annoyance. Furthermore, I am endlessly annoyed by games that aren’t playable out of the box, ones that require endless patching and mods to make them fun. It is, however, fun to customize the game to your personal tastes by downlowding all the fan-created mods, but this can make multiplayer difficult unless your game matches that of all your human opponents.

Oh yeah, and my final gripe about Civ 4 is the meaningless tech tree. In trying to simplify the game, they removed the most fun aspect – researching technologies. Researching technologies is the one advantage that games like Civ 4 and AC have over RoN. Due to the fast pace of RoN, technologies fly-by before you can enjoy them, whereas in Civ 4 and AC, you actually build a civilization and nurture it through the ages. RoN is great if you want to bonk-heads with some pansy AI in less than 4 hours. But if you want that addictive up-all-night nail-bitting strategic-planning feeling you can only get from epic gaming, then AC or Civ 4 is the way to go. One benefit of a short game like RoN is that if it’s not going well for you, don’t worry it will be over soon. Whereas in Civ 4, your torture can be drawn out into days-long sessions, while online friends mock you mercilessly.

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