Pandora: First Contact
Published on 11/25/2013 by James Tanaleon.
Everyone worth their strategic mettle has heard of these classic four words: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. This is what we mean when we refer to 4X games and they have been a cornerstone of strategy games for as long as computers could run them. Everyone knows about Sid Meier's Civilization or Master of Orion as the classic examples with the latter especially for science fiction settings, but my personal favourites also include Star Trek: Birth of the Federation and the 4X RTS hybrid Imperium Galactica II. However, despite the enduring popularity of these games in the hearts of many gamers, few new offerings and products have been released in the science fiction 4X genre.
Enter Pandora: First Contact: a new sci-fi strategy game developed by Proxy Studios that gives the clarion call for the future space strategist to once more explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate on a fresh new world named Pandora. Set in the future where mankind has already used up the resources of Earth, different factions are traveling to a promising new world in order to lay their claim to this lush and wild planet. The setup is simple enough, and the whir of the opening graphics helps to place the player firmly in the seat of a highly futuristic but desperate struggle for supremacy not just over the other factions, but over the planet and its alien inhabitants itself. Fans of the classic Alpha Centauri might already be salivating as this should all sound very familiar to them.
The player is given the choice of several factions each with their own distinct personality and bonuses. I was surprised at the large pool of choices given since usually I was used to choosing from only three or four initial starting factions, but we are given a hefty set of six. You have every conceivable type of society ranging from the militarily mighty Imperium to the nature-embracing Terra Salvum complete with their own appropriate advantages and disadvantages. I always find it interesting whenever games choose to tap into the archetypal societal castes of most historical civilizations when designing each faction. There is a Brahmin faction of religious zealots known as the Divine Ascension; the Imperium is clearly of the Kshatriya caste; the Noxium Corporation of the merchants etc. This solid backbone of tried and true archetypes ensures that each player will find affinity with at least one depending on his or her personality.
After selecting a faction, the world creation and map customization are pretty straight forward, but are rewarding nonetheless. The ability to create worlds of different sizes and orientation help to make the gameplay experience unique with every playthrough. Once the initial parameters are set including difficulty and native alien aggression, the player is taken through the beautifully rendered introductory scenes. I found it rather amusing that it appears they used the same font from Babylon 5 which forced a nostalgic grin out of me.
Once the player enters the map, the polish of the graphics is immediately recognizable. The rendering of units, terrain, buildings, and map features are of an excellent quality surpassing my expectations right off the bat. Do not let the hexagons fool you; this is not a lazily rendered game. I was impressed at the way the cities affect the landscape and the way the map changes depending on the level of terraforming and colonization. Suburbs, roads, and mining colonies cropping up from forming different hexagons really ensure a feeling of true empire from the gameplay experience (which is a must for any budding megalomaniac). The giant cities slowly growing with every turn have a rich texture to them that makes a governor proud of his colonies and possessions. The units themselves are richly animated. Movement is crisp and offer quality that even rivals larger game titles with respect to unit detail. It was clear to see that the graphics of the game was handled excellently by the developers. The tooltips are easy to understand although the font can get a bit small at times.
The gameplay itself is focused around the usual staples of 4X turn based operations. Troop movements, economic management, unit production, building construction, etc are all relatively intuitive for the veteran and easy enough to pick up for someone new to the genre. Unlike other games which I had tried out for the first time which required massive amounts of tutorial playing to get used to, Pandora: First Contact makes micromanagement seem easy. I believe the greatest triumph with regard to keeping track of all of one's units, research, and production, is that it notifies the player of units and buildings that have not yet received orders right on the End Turn button itself.
I cannot reiterate how essential of a feature this is. Many times in previous games of this genre that I have played, I would have to keep a notebook just to keep track of which of my cities I have already looked into. This checklist type of micromanagement can be fun in its own way if one likes to keep long games, but with the game automatically undergoing a checklist for you, it is nearly impossible to lose actions to inefficiency. Hours over the course of the game can be saved rather than having to incessantly tab through all of one's colonies. This defect is not even localized just with this genre, but also includes other turned based games such as in the Total War series. Thankfully, Pandora: First Contact has dispensed with this disadvantage in its intuitive user interface.
While this feature is a triumph in itself, I will also say that there is a small annoyance in the way that the camera immediately moves to the next available unit after a unit's orders have been issued. Usually, I like to see where a unit has gone or what it has successfully done before being moved on to a new unit, but I did not find this to be a massively impossible problem to overcome. Nevertheless, the developers have made the game easy to handle with the well equipped user interface and hints.
Despite the ease of use of the user interface, it does not mean that the game itself is easy. This isn't some mobile game where the AI is notoriously incompetent and a pushover. One playthrough I had ended when the entire enemy faction sent air strikes to all of my cities simultaneously before landing with an epic amphibious assault. Let it be known: the strategy enthusiast will have his hands full with the computer player. I should also point out that part of the fun of the game is the neutral yet deadly alien creatures on the planet. Depending on how one affects their habitats and ecosystem, they could become such a threat that massive alien creatures could raze entire cities. This adds an almost Starship Trooper-esque type level of entertainment as settlements continually need to be protected from alien raids and massive roaming beasts. The gigantic and frankly scary monsters of Pandora's oceans also provide excellent sport for any player. They are not strictly necessary to fight, but it is just like anyone who has played Final Fantasy VII and took his time fighting Emerald Weapon and Ruby Weapon instead of following the main plot. There are certainly those kinds of challenges present in Pandora: First Contact.
The colonial settlements that one makes throughout the game project control (demarcated in hexes coloured in your faction hue) which in turn determine what resources are gathered for that city. The setup actually kind of reminds me of the board game Settlers of Catan where cities acquire the resources of the hexes around them. As cities grow in population, more and more people can be allocated to food production, construction, mining, or research which in turn help to provide the much needed food, units or buildings, ore, and research points that one needs in order to become a thriving empire. The player can choose which unit of population goes where and it is amazing to see that the game allows for populations to move from one city to the next. This mechanic helps to set Pandora: First Contact apart from other 4X titles and is certainly a more realistic model in a futuristic setting where mobility would be prized. This would mean that entire cities could be specialized more easily. A city well protected within one's empire could focus its energies on research whereas border towns might be industrial power houses that produce military units for territorial defense. This is one aspect of the game which will truly delight any gamer who happens to enjoy optimization.
Another unique aspect of the game is the way research is organized. The developers saw it fit to randomize the way the tech tree works. While I find that this does indeed add a kind of unpredictability to the game which helps to sprinkle it with a mist of mystery, I also find it a bit arbitrary. In fact, it is in the research department that I find myself the most disappointed. Because of the way it is randomized, there are many times where I feel as if I'm researching redundant or irrelevant upgrades merely to get to the upgrades that are further down the tech tree. I think the game would have been better off if tech trees were a bit more predictable so that one could more properly plan their strategy without waste.
Nonetheless, it's not as if the randomization makes researching unplayable and the way in which there is a great load of technologies to research as well as the types of upgrades they provide help to fully round out the game in its scope and development. The era system in the tech tree (almost reminding me of Age of Empires) also helps to add a level of immersion to the game environment. Still, one can't help but applaud the effort put in by the developers to try and spice up the 4X scene; however, I would say that the game stands up pretty well on its own. I think it would have been better to focus on making faction units a bit more unique from each other, although this isn't really a heavy complaint.
The units themselves engage in turn based combat on adjacent hexes. There are no big fully rendered battles like one would find in Sins of a Solar Empire although I don't really find this to be disappointing. I find the purity and simplicity of Pandora: First Contact to be one of its charms. Combat between units find their epic proportion in the sheer amount of strategic considerations when managing navies, air squadrons, infantry, and mechanized units (including, my personal favourite, the giant mechas). There is also a rather impressive customization menu which allows a player to customize units of that type that are to be produced. Current units are not affected by the modifications unless the player refits them at a city, but this means that different units can be specialized to do different things.
I find this to be an amazing tool. For example, I set up my mecha units to be armoured city-defenders so I customize their units with heavy defense armour and upgrades whereas my shock troopers eschew defense items for a vast array of offensive qualities which are available through research. The fact that one can refit and customize also means that units of the same type may not necessarily fill the same role. I had a group of infantry, for example, which sported flame throwers just for the sake of killing enemy aliens attempting to hurt my cities whereas I would have tank-busting infantry units when I would fight other factions. This level of customization is another feather in the game's cap.
All in all, I highly recommend Pandora: First Contact. It is a very well polished 4X game in the genre of science fiction which will be sure to delight fans of the genre while being easy enough to pick up and play that any casual player who is looking to expand his strategic repertoire will not be disappointed with this selection. Whether it's the Mass Effect like soundtrack, the rolling of tanks across Xenomorph hives, or the rich quotes from famous leaders and philosophers that provide the flavour texts for events, Pandora: First Contact shines with particular distinction and should not be underestimated as a strategy game worth playing over and over again.