After several months in cryosleep, I finally landed on Pandora, a world teeming with life and ripe for exploitation. The setting and intro movie stirred memories of Alpha Centuari in the muddy pool of my mind, and while it would be unfair to expect any game to live up to that legacy, I was hoping that Pandora would scratch certain troublesome itches. I spent a few hours with the game just after release but only just found the time to plunge in for an entire weekend. Here's wot I think.
Pandora: First Contact is a game about escalation. All 4X games are in a sense, with players travelling across maps and swinging through the branches of tech trees to gain an upper hand. Buildings are usually improvements, as the very first Civ recognised, tiered buffs studded like barnacles across a city rather than independent structures with an impact outside the central crunch of numbers. Everything in a 4X tends to be replaceable, recyclable and upgradeable, until the end-point arrives and there simply aren’t any larger numbers to discover. An altar becomes a shrine becomes a temple becomes a cathedral. Culture is complete.
Thankfully, Pandora isn’t simply a sci-fi reskin of Civ or Age of Wonders. It’s also not quite the update of Alpha Centauri that many of its individual elements suggest. Yes, there are ideologically distinct factions attempting to colonise a new planet and, yes, that planet eventually turns against the newcomers. Pandora handles the growing hostility of alien life in its own way, however, and deviates subtly but significantly from the cycle of improvements described in the previous paragraph.
The most obvious and potentially divisive change from the usual 4X formula is a randomised tech tree. When a new game begins, the player can choose how many ‘steps’ along the tree are visible, with a default of two. It’s possible to go in entirely blind, so that it’s impossible to know which tech will be unlocked by current research, and it’s possible to have the entire tree exposed from the first turn. The default setting works well, allowing for short-term plans within a mysterious framework.
Tech itself isn’t randomised. Advances, whether they unlock units, buildings or operations (more on which later), are tiered, so early game research always entails the same selection of choices. You won’t discover planetary bombardment before you invent rocket launchers. It’s the connections between one tier and the next that are randomised so the discovery of heavy war machinery may only be possible if recycling plants have been researched, or nuclear weaponry may lead to extremely robust economic policies.
There are some seemingly nonsensical chains, as you’d expect when progression is jumbled in this way, but the way that technology is rediscovered on the new world provides a sufficient frame to justify the occasional oddity. The colonists are rediscovering concepts that were once known – not rediscovering the concepts themselves, in fact, but methods by which they can be applied using alien materials and atmosphere. I assume that many breakthroughs are accidental – a man standing in front of a radar with the stain of melted chocolate spreading from his trouser pocket.
In theory, I reckon the tech tree works. In practice, it’s too compact to provide a great deal of variety from one playthrough to the next. Exceptional circumstances might require a quick dash down one branch of the tree to reach a desirable or necessary goal, but it’s usually more efficient and sensible to progress steadily, sweeping each tier clean. The randomisation would be far more interesting if it were possible to lock off certain tech, thereby forcing factions to specialise if capabilities were lost.
As it is, apart from a smattering of lovely flavour text, each faction has a couple of positive and negative attributes that tweak their output. They interact more often than is usual in strategy games and there are frequent pop-up messages informing of agreements, alliances and wars. Diplomacy isn’t complex but the AI is at least active, occasionally throwing plans into disarray with its rather unpredictable offers and demands.
I haven’t explained how the aliens work yet. A cross between the wandering bears and giant spiders of a fantasy 4X and the barbarians of Civ, they are the main point of escalation. A cauldron of bubbling biomass, with chitinous croutons, that threatens to boil over at any moment.
They wander at first, showing no signs of hostility and only occasionally causing a nuisance of themselves when they block the route to a decent piece of land or a ‘goodie hut’ ruin. There are several varieties, from the xenomorphs that spawn in bubblegum-pink hives to the mountainous monstrosities that gallop across the land, causing cities to quake. There are flying critters and leviathans in the deep. None of them will bother you unless you bother them first, and they are not connected by a hivemind, so individual groups can be culled without causing the rest to descend in a flurry of teeth, claws and acid.
But there’s a doomsday clock. It’s hidden but it links to the factions’ pollution levels and exploitation of the planet’s natural resources. Eventually, the native fauna is going to fight back, when the planet suffers and their habitats are destroyed. Certain technologies unlock methods by which the uprising can be postponed, and others allow troops to tame and control aliens.
Tension rises as the threat approaches and the landscape swarms with critters, and the knowledge that the change is coming neatly separates the first act of the game from the rest, preventing each campaign from becoming a turn-ending exercise in patience. The factions aim to control the planet and move toward victory over one another, while ensuring that they are capable of resisting attacks, or clearing their home continent of native life altogether. I usually opt to utilise the aliens, as a living minefield that enemies must cross, rather than committing a horrible xenocide.
The threat of alien attack and the speed of research helps to accelerate the early game. Time is precious on Pandora and the spread of the colony is rapid. City-building and management is familiar - ‘formers’ add features to the landscape, such as farms and mines (no terraforming though), while new research is applied to improve cities. Oddly, most technology doesn’t provide immediate benefits, instead requiring further work be done in a city to apply the knowledge.
Advances affect the entire faction, however many cities are controlled, and all resources generated go into a nation-wide pool rather than being tied to individual settlements. This allows for greater specialisation but detracts from the positioning and geographic considerations that can make frontier cities an interesting problem. Cities lack character.
Sadly, the aliens and the planet lack character as well. The aquatic beasts are terrifying to behold but the rest are all a bit Starship Troopers, and they swiftly became counters of ‘strength’ tokens in my mind. A number that told me whether to squash or to avoid any particular stack of bugs.
And, of course, I have stacks of my own. Troops are customisable, with ‘body’ types ranging from footsoldiers to giant war machines, with a weapon, and optional slots for armour and gadgets . The number of components isn’t huge, and most tend toward being better at dispatching either biological or mechanical enemies, which means that in a war involving several factions and the aliens, balance must be sought. But still, I ended up looking at each stack as a number.
Operations can help in wartime and occasionally out of it as well. Unlocked through research and construction, they are one-use effects that can be manufactured by cities and stocked for future use. Some allow for rapid exploration of the planet surface, scanning distant areas and revealing their contents, but even those abilities are best used against enemies, to track troop deployments and locate cities. There are operations that strike directly at enemy/alien forces, like a warlock’s spell in a fantasy 4X, and there are others that boost various stats in their area of effect. Because operations are constructed from the same pool of resources used to create units and buildings, there’s a constant need to balance choices but Pandora’s greatest issue is that there are rarely enough choices.
Too often, campaigns play out the same way. I rarely felt like I was defining the character of my faction or shaping the planet through my presence. Instead, I was playing through Act One, before the aliens turned, and then enduring the onslaught while racing through research to find quicker ways to kill my neighbours.
Despite the good work in the game’s basics, the lack of personality and mystery makes repeat visits to Pandora a bit of a chore. Multiplayer improves things, as it usually does, but the pacing is still problematic. In my experience, the factions develop at roughly the same rate, which means their starting position and the decisions of their leaders start to seem arbitrary.
There are wonderful moments though. Finding a landmass crawling with aliens that are just about sick of human interference is horribly intimidating, and I once had an entire army trapped at sea because the nearby islands were teeming with angry wildlife. Right on cue, a city-sized monstrosity rose from the deep. It was the last of its kind and it was extremely irate.
I tend to categorise 4X games into one of three types, with obvious overlap. There are those that are solely about winning and perfecting the machine, those that are about exploring and experiencing with an imbalance that means every game cannot be won, and there are those that are about playing a role within a wider context. Pandora is somewhere between the first two, although the lack of real challenge places it closer to the pursuit of perfection. It's a solid example of the form but too simple in execution to live up to the more ambitious and unusual aspects of its design.
That’s a shame, because the theme - exploration and uprising of the unknown – would be incredible well-suited to the final 4X 'type', as SMAC proved all those years ago.