You're speeding toward the Alpha Centauri star system, part of a 22nd Century United Nations expedition to colonize another world and ensure the survival of humankind.
Suddenly, a wayward meteor broadsides your ship, sending it spiraling to the surface of a nearby planet. As you and the other colonists emerge from the wreckage, you face the prospect of rebuilding human civilization on this strange and hostile new world.
So begins Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (Win95/98; $49.95), an epic strategy game designed by Hunt Valley-based Firaxis Games. Two years in the making, this exquisitely detailed and addictive sci-fi adventure has all the hallmarks of a classic.
It's hardly a surprise. Firaxis is home to Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds, two of the most talented computer game makers in the industry. Meier's landmark Civilization, which casts players as the ruler of an infant Earth civilization, has been called one of the best computer games of all time. Reynolds, meanwhile, crafted the best-selling Civilization II.
Alpha Centauri picks up where Civ II leaves off and is built on the same basic themes: explore, discover, build and conquer. Starting with a base colony, you scrounge for food and energy, build and manage new colonies, and deal with the other colonists, who are no longer one big happy family.
The crash splinters not only the ship, but also the colonists themselves, into seven factions, each with its own goals and agendas. Among them are Bible-thumping fundamentalists, tree-hugging conservationists, filthy capitalists and jack-booted militarists.
In addition to these human adversaries, you contend with native hazards, such as the dreaded xenofungus and mind worms - two nettlesome creatures that love nothing better than making life miserable for you in your new home.
The complexity of Alpha Centauri is mind-boggling, as are its subtleties (One key indicator: the player's manual runs to 247 pages).
If Brian Reynolds learned anything from his apprenticeship with Sid Meier, it's how to layer detail upon detail until this fantasy no longer feels like fiction. And the 3-D planet map is rendered so beautifully you feel as if you can reach forward and scoop up a handful of loamy, pixilated soil.
Mercifully, the game's designers have created a powerful artificial intelligence to help beginning players manage Alpha Centauri's nearly overwhelming complexity. Beginners can elect to have a "governor" manage their bases, deciding what machinery to build or which technology to research.
And, as with the best strategy games, every decision a player makes in Alpha Centauri has consequence - either now or much, much later. If you elect to form a police state, your progress in scientific research will suffer.
And in the future (no surprise) technology is important. To grow your civilization, your scientists have to master the game's myriad technologies - from "planetary networks" to "quantum machinery" and "nanometallurgy" (all outlined on a poster accompanying the game).
Designer Reynolds also worked hard to make the game's artificial intelligence cutting-edge. Your rival colonists will lie, cheat and steal their way to victory if you let them. Rather than attacking you one at a time, computer-controlled attack squads will wait until they number four or five strong. Instead of approaching you clumped together like a traveling bulls-eye, they fan out so they can't easily be swatted.
But winning is not simply a matter of rolling across the planet and crushing your enemies underfoot - although you can do it that way (and let's face it, most of us want to be Napoleon at least once).
Players can also win by uniting the planet in peace with their diplomatic prowess or owning the planet's riches by cornering a global market. But the most satisfying victory of all is something called "transcendance," the next step in human evolution. Heavy.
Alpha Centauri is not a real-time action thriller. Players take turns, which won't push everyone's fun button. If hard jolts of adrenalin are your thing, get Quake II.
Also, some Ciivilization fans may miss the connection to history class at first. The original Civilization, after all, gave players the feeling they were learning something fundamental about the way the world - our world - really works. (Need to quell a little rabble-rousing among the hoi polloi? Just throw up a church). Alpha Centauri's imaginary planet of Chiron works according to its own rules, only some of which carry over from Earth. But those who spend a few turns trying to figure them out and will soon find themselves trapped in the game's own, unbreakable spell.
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri requires a 133 Mhz or higher Pentium processor, 16 MB of RAM and 60 MB of free hard drive space. For more information, visit www.firaxis.com.