Impressions: Pandora – First Contact

By Adam Smith on March 26th, 2013 at 8:00 pm.

The version of Pandora: First Contact that I’ve been playing since last week is far from complete – it’s stable and packed with potential but the tech tree and map generation are just two major features that are due to experience major overhauls. When the game in question is a strategic task of exploration and colonisation on an alien planet not a thousand light years from Alpha Centauri’s neck of the universe, those aspects are important, so I can’t provide an informed opinion as to what Pandora will achieve. But I can say that many of the pieces are in place and it is, at the very least, a pleasing echo of Firaxis’ finest.

We haven’t posted this video from the developers before. Perhaps you would like to watch it before reading the words, or perhaps you would like to read it afterwards or not at all. I’m good with whatever you decide.

Just to be clear, Alpha Centuari is as good as you remember it being; a complex and involving strategy game with a narrative throughline that delivers on both its hard science leanings, and its tales of human complexity and contrariness. It’s a horrific shadow to be in, like that cast by some void-dwelling space-hawk hovering over its quivering prey, but Pandora is happy to be there. The set up takes the notion of ‘spiritual successor’ and all but switches out ‘successor’ for ‘sibling’. There are factions with wildly different ideologies and they are attempting to set up new colonies and new societies on an alien planet, which becomes increasingly hostile to their existence as they exploit its resources and each others’ weaknesses.

Units can be customised and named, which meant that my troopers were soon dashing about with flamethrowers, rebranded as ‘Scourge Bastards’, burning intestinal drone-hives wherever they could find them. Each type of Pandorian terrain is more likely to spawn certain species of creature and in my first game, I found myself surrounded by pulsating purple sacs. Occasionally a group of monstrosities would emerge from within and assault my Scourge Bastards, or leather-winged giants would shriek overhead, ignoring the Bastards but objecting to any vehicles in sight. Objecting with talons and blade-beaks, and probably acid blood or corrosive urine. It’s a hostile world, is my basic point.

Initially, I thought staying ahead of the critter curve would be simplicity itself. I was researching new ways of killing and while they might have evolved with weapons instead of faces, science would counter such threats. Weapons, which attach to squads of people and vehicles alike, are generally strong against one or two basic enemy types: mechanical, biological and aerial. The First Battallion Flaming Hot Scourge Bastards may be able to melt flesh with ease but they’re not a great deal of use against a tank or a squadron of bomber jets.

The early game generally sees the first colony of the player’s chosen faction pitted against whatever inhabitants of Pandora happen to be caught in the landing zone but it doesn’t take long for the other humans to show up. I’ve found that I’m more inclined to experiment with units and combat than expansion, so I can’t give a particularly accurate assessment of how aggressively factions will defend their borders. Astonishingly, my attempts to secure peace across extreme ideological divides have been a success on the whole, although that may be almost entirely due to my own lack of power. Perhaps even the most rabid industrialist and nature-hater will ignore the tree-touching environmentalist if the latter is feeble enough. I’m probably not worth the effort and, besides, I may love the trees, the flowers and every blade of grass, but I am furiously melting anything that has more than two legs.

It’s when the planet starts to react angrily that the game really becomes interesting. A message about increasing alien presence is suggestive of a migratory event but it heralds something much darker. Yes, darker than relocation if you can imagine such a thing.

Tech trees are due for an overhaul and that’s a good thing. The flavour text, as in diplomacy and general descriptions, does a good job of conveying the weirdness of some of the tech and telling a story as it goes, but the process of discovery is far too predictable at the moment. The changes will, apparently, introduce more mystery and randomisation and that sounds ideal. Indeed, the beta as a whole is polished and performs well, but there’s a predictability to the way that each campaign plays out. When it hits the heights it’s already capable of, the game is the closest thing to Alpha Centuari I’ve played since I last played Alpha Centauri (and, my word, it’s been too long – I’m installing it as soon as I finish writing), and the similarities are in the quality of the construction as well as the more obvious mimicry.

Slitherine seem to be going about this the right way. The beta is functional and leaves a strong impression, but the work of the remaining weeks before the proposed mid-June launch will be vital. The writing is strong and unit customisation works well, particularly as new threats force changed tactics, leading to patchwork armies that limp from crisis to crisis. The changes to the tech tree should add more variety and that’s what Pandora needs – a greater sense of discovery and of more individual qualities in each faction, beyond their speech and appearance.

I’ve been expecting an Alpha Centauri crowdfunding campaign – most likely without the name – since Double Fine blew Kickstarter’s doors off. Pandora has been in development for a couple of years so it charted its course too early for Kickstarter to be a real consideration, but I do wonder if it’d be receiving much more attention if it were a concept, a video and a few screenshots on a campaign page rather than a fully functioning beta of a product from a company known for historical strategy games. It really does deserve more attention, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the ancestor it has adopted. As it stands, First Contact is an exciting prospect and in a few months, it could be something very special indeed.

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54 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    RedViv says:

    But where are the tall blue kitty people?

    • SominiTheCommenter says:

      They are probably afraid of lawsuits. Pussies.

    • Oculardissonance says:

      can’t help but imagine Werner Herzog narrating this trailer.

      • Premium User Badge

        Paraquat says:

        That is EXACTLY what I was thinking. Now I’m filled with existential dread.

  2. Arkh says:

    From the last time I saw, Pandora looked fine but lacking some polish (in the animations side, especially). I’d expect as much, since it’s in beta. I just hope they let you shape the world as AC let, rising oceans water level and all.

    Also, they have nice pollution effects, I hope it does more than just paint the screen.

    And yes, it does deserve more love and general public attention. Thanks for this, RPS!

  3. Blackseraph says:

    We must dissent!

    I so loved and love alpha centauri, such a great game. Still better and more interesting than any newer civ that game after it.

    Right but about this game, if it will be even half as good as Alpha centauri was, I’ll be happy for a while.

  4. Triplanetary says:

    When the game in question is a strategic task of exploration and colonisation on an alien planet not a thousand light years from Alpha Centauri’s neck of the universe

    I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re trying to say here. Are you trying to say it’s similar or completely different? I mean, a thousand light-years can be a lot or a little, depending on your frame of reference. Basically the way you’re using it it’s completely meaningless.

    • Koozer says:

      Read it the same as “not a million miles away.” It’s a cunningly space-based mutation of a common phrase by the devilish Adam.

    • Ironclad says:

      I agree it’s poor phrasing. I think he means “this is a lot like Alpha Centauri in gameplay, but because lawsuits it’s called something else and the lore sets it as far away from Alpha Centauri as it can. “

      • Ovno says:

        It’s not poor phrasing at all, as the previous poster said, its just a space version of ‘not a million miles away from’ which is a commonly used English phrase.

        Or broken down ‘it is not {a very long way} away from x’ which is equivalent to ‘It is quite close to x’

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      Metaphor police, coming through. OK, people, step back, nothing to see here, move along, move along. That’s right madam, keep moving, nothing to see here.

      My god, what a night. First Eurogamer referring to Bioshock: Infinite being “big, like 30 arcminutes big”, and now this. I’m too old for this shit. Too goddamn old.

  5. guygodbois00 says:

    I have high hopes for this game; if it turns out to be rubbish I shall be utterly disappointed. From here the game resembles Civilization IV somewhat. What does it looks like on your end Mr Smith? Is it “one unit per tile” or “stacking”? Please, write a follow-up of this article in the near future with more specifics. The public demands to be informed, etc.

    • BTAxis says:

      I’m afraid it’s stacking, which you’d know if you’d watched the video.

      • TheTuninator says:

        What’s wrong with stacking? SMAC did stacking just fine. If you lost a unit in a stack, every other unit in the stack immediately took 30% collateral damage. As long as they follow a system like that and not Civ IV, stacking will work just fine.

        Plus, one of the great things about SMAC was that you could pump out absolutely gigantic armies and tremendous battalions of terraforming support units, and that simply would not work with one unit per tile. Maneuvering them would be nigh-impossible.

    • Arkh says:

      Stacking. They said they are trying to balance the stacking system. I hope they get it right, since no stacking was one of the few good features of Civ V.

      • killias2 says:

        Thank God for stacking.

        My interest in this has gained one level.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I shall indeed follow up – either when the next big update hits or closer to release depending on how much is changing as time goes by.

  6. Gwilym says:

    Long have I dreamed of a world where every single fictional place, item or general concept would be named after Pandora. I never thought I might see it in my lifetime, but the past five or so years have proven me wondrously wrong. We’re almost there. I can feel it.

  7. AngoraFish says:

    Grid map instead of hexes is so last century, pass.

    • Chris D says:

      Please. I played my first wargame in 1984 and it used hexes and I’m pretty sure they were in use a lot further back than that. It’s not like the technology could only handle four sides in the past but recent advances mean we can now go all the way up to six.

      The choice to use grid or hex depends entirely on what type of game you want to make. Neither is inherently better or more modern than the other.

    • Highstorm says:

      If you bother to watch the video, they show some hexed screenshots at the end that say, “Latest graphics after the transition to hexes and terrain overhaul”.

      But hey, be hasty.

    • Premium User Badge

      JiminyJickers says:

      Those screenshots are old. They have changed to hexes. Check out the Matrix Games website.

  8. Brun says:

    “Pandora” has to be one of the most unoriginal, overused names for a planet/science fiction setting in history.

    • Blackseraph says:

      Pandora might be apt name for this game/planet however.

      “It’s when the planet starts to react angrily that the game really becomes interesting. A message about increasing alien presence is suggestive of a migratory event but it heralds something much darker.”

      Or perhaps that was your point, however tropes are not bad.

    • SighmanSays says:

      Especially since we already named a moon of Saturn after her. Must make the elementary school lessons a pain.

      “So uh, there’s Pandora the moon of Saturn. There’s Pandora the exomoon of some blue giant out in AC. There’s Pandora the planet with psycho midgets. There’s Pandora the AC knockoff…”

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      Agreed. Aren’t there any mythological figures from other cultures that might convey the same/similar idea? If there’s a backlash against the player for improperly exploiting the planet, perhaps something evoking the concept of karma? GOOGLE EXISTS FOR A REASON DEVELOPERS!

    • Premium User Badge

      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      I hereby declare that the next thing to be named Pandora shall be renamed to Priapus.

  9. TWChristine says:

    At first I read that as “Pandaria” and all I could think was that it was some new Warcraft expansion. And then I looked at the screenshot and when I figured out it was a bunch of little mens standing around I then thought “OH! A new Warcraft RTS!” And only then did I realize my mistake, which brings us to: I’m cautiously optimistic. I never got far with Alpha Centauri (or any Civ game honestly..) but I really did enjoy the depth and options.

  10. cptgone says:

    i’d like a boxed copy.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Matrix Games usually produces boxed copies of all the games they publish, so I expect you will be able to order one.

  11. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    How is the interface? I bought Alpha Centauri not long ago from GOG and was put off by the UI.

    I’m not opposed to a UI that’s more complex than “rick-click to move,” but I prefer when games try to utilize pop-up and/or sub menus to keep things simple. See also: Anno 1404 (aka Dawn of Discovery), Master of Orion 2, Civilization IV and V.

    • TheTuninator says:

      What specifically didn’t you like about the UI? I find the SMAC UI to overall be fantastic.

      If you’re talking about needing to right-click to build former improvements, the hotkeys are easy to learn and will make your life much easier.

      • Premium User Badge

        Gap Gen says:

        The SMAC UI is a bit convoluted (in terms of menus, etc), but it’s not terrible once you’re used to it. I agree that it’s difficult to get into – took me a couple of games to find the Social Engineering panel, which is the heart of the game.

  12. TheTuninator says:

    This game looks great! I can’t imagine that anything will ever dethrone SMAC for me as the game’s atmosphere and writing are just so meticulously crafted, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on First Contact.

    They need to do something about that unit UI, though. Unit stats covering one-fourth of the screen in a TBS game is a real big no-no. Perhaps you might mention that to them if you get a chance?

  13. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    Did anyone else not bother customizing units in SMAC? I know of people who did and swear by it, but it felt so pointless much of the time. I’d spend a few minutes customizing a cool new speeder, and then it would be obsolete after I built the prototype due to research advances. Maybe if tech gain were slowed or if upgrades were sparser it would seem more worthwhile.

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      I tended to use the defaults offered to me unless I had a specific goal in mind, like one time on an ocean map I used drop formers. Probe teams with upgraded reactors are also essential as the game doesn’t seem to do it by default.

    • TheTuninator says:

      I don’t know why you wouldn’t customize at least a little; most offensive units don’t need the upgraded armor that they are given by default, and the surfeit of special abilities just begs for mix and matching.

      The complete control a player is given over his units is one of my favorite things about SMAC as opposed to most other TBS games, particularly Civilization.

    • JuJuCam says:

      There are a few unit types that the auto designer just doesn’t bother making, how useful they would be depends on your specific circumstances and strategy. Notably, it doesn’t bother with anything but the most basic probe teams, IIRC. Considering with enough money you can use probe teams to simply buy not only enemy units but even enemy bases, having a variety of unit types with that ability can be decisive if you’re playing a strong economy game.

  14. Apocalypse says:

    Searching for alpha centauri right now

    • Sidewinder says:

      It’s available on GOG- with the otherwise-heinously-expensive expansion, no less.

  15. Commander Gun says:

    Yes, this inspires me to install AC again.
    Imho the game that came as close to art as games can be.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Skeletor68 says:

    MIRIAM!

    God I love Alpha Centauri so much. I hadn’t played any of the other Civs until 5 very recently and even with all the new prettiness I just don’t find it as compelling.

    What do you guys make of the expansion pack? Never really put a whole lot of time into it.

  17. SanguineAngel says:

    I’ll take it!

  18. Chris says:

    The downside?

    It’s published by Matrix, so it will cost an arm and a leg.

  19. MrBillwulf says:

    I hope this is good, but it seems to have the same map scale as Civ 4 and 5, which I never got used to. I want my 4X games to be pulled back from the map such that I can see several cities at once in the classic Civ 2/Alpha Centauri style.

  20. Iain at Slitherine says:

    In case you hadn’t noticed Pandora is now available on PC, Mac and Linux!

    http://www.slitherine.com/games/PandoraPC

    The download edition is only $29.99.