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Endless Legend | Officially released. Available now on Steam

Pandora: First Contact Beta Preview

By on February 26th, 2013 2:20 pm

Pandora: First Contact | Intro Screen

Slitherine and Matrix Games announced Pandora: First Contact, their new sci-fi turn-based 4X strategy game, back in April of 2012.

We had very little news on this title for very long, and it was only recently that the publishers, and Proxy Studios – the developer – have announced they have reached beta. This was back in November of 2012. But, by then, it was more of a closed beta, with very limited access. Now, on February 2013 they launched a broader beta campaign, which I was allowed to participate on.

I tried the game and played it in two separate sessions. In the first session I played for about half an hour. On a second iteration I played for a couple of hours more. What follows are some details on what you can expect about this new sci-fi 4X game set in the Earth-like planet of Pandora.

So, what’s Pandora: First Contact?

In general, Pandora plays similar to the Civilization games (especially the 4th and 5th installments) and the sci-fi spin-off title Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It’s very clear that Pandora borrows many concepts from these 4X games, and then combines them on its own unique way. This was already more or less evident from the features list and screenshots, but it’s now confirmed to be so. So, it’s not a bad thing to start with, but the contrary.

In Pandora, your goal is to grow your influence from a single initial settlement, a tiny city on an alien planet in this case, into a powerful and dominant empire, as any game that follows the 4X formula usually allows you to. The surroundings are unknown, and bit by bit you start to explore and solve Pandora’s mysteries. Something interesting to explore there, some nice resources to exploit later there. And, very soon, you’ll bump into indigenous lifeforms. And they aren’t friendly, at least to start with they aren’t.

Pandora: First Contact | The aliens

The first alien creatures you’ll encounter are the Xenomorph Drones. Not quite the Xenomorph aliens from the Alien franchise I’m sure :) but it’s too soon to tell what exactly they have in common with those chest exploding monsters, besides the name that is. If they have any resemble at all.

In Pandora, the empire management unit is, without surprise for a planetary 4X game type: the city. So, everything in general – basically your entire economy – is tied to how well placed and how well developed your cities are. You can instruct your population to focus on four main areas of labor. Each population unit may be a farmer, miner, worker or scientist, and, you may re-allocate them according to your immediate needs.

The labor allocation mechanic is somewhat similar to the ones found in other 4X strategy games, but it’s also quite unique on its own way, since production is not only a function of potential resources present in a city but also the amount of resources you currently stock in a global depot. Therefore, there’s more interdependence between cities, as every city may benefit from the global stock to which every city may also contribute to.

So, Pandora’s economy is based on food, minerals, production, research and credits. On top of these basic elements, you also need to deal with pollution and morale. As explained above, production is not only derived from potential resources available but also about how much you currently have in stock, which makes the production mechanic more dynamic than usually found in other 4X games. So, while your base production, per turn, may be the same, your production ratio may be significantly faster or slower depending on how many people you allocate for the job and the amount of minerals you currently have in stock.

Pandora: First Contact | City Management

Basically, the more resources you have in stock, and the more workers you allocate to production, the faster production of units and buildings will be. This contrasts with other game’s solutions where production is a fixed (and local) function of resource potential and population allocation. Speaking of production, you can build only one project at a time (building or unit) but you can rush production through accumulated credits from day 1.

Research plays a bit differently from other games, namely from Civ games, as a tech tree is not explicitly presented to you (as of yet at least), and the outcome of each tech breakthrough is also not all revealed. But, in a way, research in Pandora works rather similar to Alpha Centauri’s research model, since there you also don’t have a clear idea of how to beeline towards a certain tech.

In Pandora, you do have an idea on what each tech purpose is, and what sort of outcome it may unlock. But, while each tech describes what future tech it leads to, it’s somewhat hard to have a sense of what needs to be researched in order to reach a certain more desired and more advanced tech. It’s not the same as going with Alpha Centauri’s blind tech progression, where you can only choose a research area but not the tech itself, but still a somewhat more mysterious way to unlock new techs.

Pandora: First Contact | Research

In a way, I do sympathize with what the devs are trying to do. To go with a somewhat more mysterious model for tech progression, as your gut feeling may lead you to think this is the best way to go. In real life you shouldn’t know exactly what you’d get when doing research on a particular field, right? I mean, the exact outcome. So, currently, the game gives you a glimpse on what you’ll get when you breakthrough a tech but not all the info. I guess some people may prefer it this way but probably a good amount may not (this mystery feeling applies more to the first couple of breakthroughs of course).

There are currently six factions to choose from. At first glance they look like your usual stereotyped factions: the green-nature fanatics, the religious zealots, the industrious, the creatives. You get the point. I played with the Scholars of Eden (the research ones). They get a substantial research boost but with a morale penalty for being free-minded (according to the game, due to being more susceptible to indiscipline and lack of motivation).

Pandora: First Contact | Factions

It’s too soon to tell how interesting and diverse the different factions really are. I only did a couple of interactions with them through diplomacy. Speaking of diplomacy, and this wouldn’t be a 4X game without it, Pandora offers the basic expected features, nothing innovative here, but the devs say they are thinking about expanding that further with tech trading and other interaction types. We’ll see.

The map style is very reminiscent of Civilization 4 but it’s organized in hexagons (like in Civ5). Your units can stack, move and attack as a stack. The units don’t have separate attributes for attack and defense but just one combined strength indicator called Power (like in Civ4 and Civ5). But, certain weapons and armors affect the unit’s base power, because in Pandora, like in Alpha Centauri (but not in Civ games), you can customize your own units.

Pandora: First Contact | Unit customization

This is done through the game mechanic called “Workshop”, and you can create and customize your own designs by choosing from a pre-defined set of classes and then choose your favorite weapon and armor configurations. Each weapon comes with its own modifiers, which makes some units more suitable to fight biological, mechanical or airborne enemies, the types of units I discovered so far.

So, what’s really different about Pandora?

At this point I can say that Pandora will feel very familiar to anyone who played Civilization games. And, it will feel particularly familiar to those who played Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. But, I already spot some differences that make Pandora a unique experience.

First of all, the economy works substantially different from other 4X games I’ve played. Well, at least in the particulars. The production model is more dynamic, more global, and will necessitate a bit more of micromanagement from your part, since now production is not only a function of potential resources, and population allocation (labor allocation), but also a great deal about stock management. And since the stock depot is global, it may have an effect on every cities’ production.

Having more research points and minerals in stock will breakthrough techs and produce new units more quickly, as long as you can also allocate more of your population accordingly. In other 4X games you can only change your population allocation in order to affect production, since resources don’t accumulate but are considered always to be available at the same rate. In Pandora, with the same population amount your production may still vary substantially as production will also depend on how filled your stocks are.

The ability to customize units is also a substantial departure from the Civ model, but not quite from the Alpha Centauri one.

Pandora’s look and feel is obviously different, and it does succeed in creating its own particular atmosphere. After a while you do feel immersed in Pandora and it doesn’t feel like you’re playing any other game but really a new experience.

The UI is also very slick and feedback friendly, so that’s also one very good thing I can say about the game at this stage.

Of course, more observations, and a deeper analysis will follow after I play much more and write my review when Pandora is officially released to the public.

Pandora: First Contact | Ruins

Further Words

I hope this preview was sufficient to help clarify what you can expect to find in Pandora: First Contact. The game is still in beta, and its release date unknown, which I’m sure will also depend on how well the beta goes.

I’ve encountered only one bug in around three hours of playtime, which is great news, so, the game seems to be quite stable. I could alt-tab to windows and get back perfectly, and I report no crashes or other technical annoyances whatsoever.

Of course, there are still some rough edges to clear out, as expected in a beta, and probably a few more content injections planned or already in the works. And Proxy Studios is being very pro-active, replying to beta testers feedback and implementing new things, and launching new versions very rapidly.

So, the prospect for Pandora: First Contact is promising. And, one thing is certain, at beta the game is already very playable, and looking good. Now, time will tell how rich, polished and interesting this sci-fi turn-based 4X game will be upon release. And, how well it will compete with other planetary 4X games. Not that there are many sci-fi ones available.

\Edit: November 14th 2013 – Pandora: First Contact is now available.

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39 Comments


  1. Kordanor says:

    Thanks for these first impressions.
    I wanted to ask something more about the science and combat in the game.
    Science: Can there be multiple outcomes of a research? I mean if you research “Mineral Refining” like in the screenshot and then either get Tech A or Tech B and then research “Mineral Refining” again to get the other one? Or is it fixed? Meaning that you basically just don’t see what you get?
    In both cases (but especially in the second) I don’t like this system much because it basically means that it only is something special for the first playthroughs. After that you either memorize it or look it up on some homepage. Especially with multiplayer. Speaking of Multiplayer: On the Page is listed 1-6 players. Any info on that?
    About Combat: You wrote that units are stackable and that they attack and defend as stack. Can you tell uns anything about combat calculations?
    In Civ4 for example, if you have a unit with 10 power against a unit with one power, the unit with one power would not do any damage and just die.
    If you have 10 units with 10 power against a unit with 10 power, each unit would fight separately. Meaning that there is a chance that you will lose in the first attack. If they are just combined and use the same system (100 vs 10 power), the 100 power would not lose anything again, making the stack of doom even more powerful.
    In addition to that: Were there any unitd doing damage to the whole stack? Any advantage of splitting units?

    • Adam Solo says:

      You’re welcome Kordanor.

      Yes, there’s multiplayer. You should be able to host and join game sessions through a dedicated lobby. Apparently you can also join a game by IP/LAN direct connect.

      As for your other questions, things are still changing in the beta, so, I would reserve deeper comments for when the game releases.

  2. Jeff P says:

    Great review (especially for a beta!) It is good to read that the game isn’t a crash-fest, meaning that the finished product hopefully won’t be a beta in disguise.

    Your review sure makes it seem that Pandora is an updated Alpha Centauri. That isn’t a bad thing, if they get the balance and details right.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Surely not a review Jeff :) I mainly describe the game mechanics, and the look and feel. Of course, there may be a few judgement sprinkles and superficial analysis here and there. But, the details, the how good gameplay really is, the why’s and why nots, and my overall opinion about the all thing will only come out in my review, when the game is officially released.

  3. larchy says:

    [This comment was deleted due to beta NDA by comment author request]

  4. sly ostinato says:

    When I saw the words “Matrix Games”, I cringed. As these eyes of mine get older, all I want to know is: How was the font size? The biggest reason I don’t recommend DW to anyone is because of the extremely small fonts and Matrix Games’ unwillingness to address that issue. If this game also has those same kind of super small, squint-requiring fonts, I won’t be able to recommend this game either.

    • SephiRok says:

      Well, Matrix Games aren’t the developers.

      This is how the font size is: http://i.imgur.com/ufnkQnE.png

      And if you really wanted to, you could increase the size to however much, through xml, or even put in comic sans. No promises you would enjoy it.

      • sly ostinato says:

        Hmmm, it’s hard to tell what it would actually look like on my screen. I’ll have to download the demo version once they decide to go public with it and make a determination from there. But thanks for trying to share a screenshot with me.

  5. caekdaemon says:

    Awwww.

    I signed up for the Beta but didn’t ever get a response :(

  6. Lens Flares Suck says:

    Looks like teeny-tiny fonts on the UI to me. They better fix that, it’s a deal breaker. Otherwise I’d be all over a Sci-fi Civ type game.

    • SephiRok says:

      Do you have your Windows and browser set to bigger than default font? Because it’s no more teeny-tiny than what you get by default on Windows.

  7. devildogff says:

    Woah, I want expecting much from this, but the impression sounds favorable and it looks deeper than I expected….

    Maybe the unofficial follow up to Alpha Centauri we’ve been hoping for?…

    • Adam Solo says:

      I can say that it’s deeper than I expected, mainly because of the old screenshots, which weren’t favorable at all. They didn’t show much, and there was very little details (if any) on the game. Now, there is a little bit more :)

      Now, the how deep analysis will be done only in my review, when the game is officially released.

  8. devildogff says:

    Also, thanks again for another fantastic write up. My only complaint is that I don’t see more of them…

    • Adam Solo says:

      Thanks :)

      The beginning of this year has been a bit slow, but it should catch more speed in the coming months. We have plenty to look for, so, expect an increase of the preview/review throughput :)

  9. SQW says:

    1. Wouldn’t combining offence/defence to one arbitrary number (Power) defeat the purpose of unit customization?

    2. How’s the AI?

    3. How does Pandora handle late-game micro management hassles?

    Apart from some interesting production mechanics, I’m not seeing anything that’s particularly outstanding or original. I’m betting the tech tree is also static and players will be bee-lining for those linchpin techs like all Civ inspired 4X games. I really wish there are more games adopting SOTS’s random tech tree approach.

    • Adam Solo says:

      1. Not necessarily. Unit customization allows you to equip your units with the most suitable gear according to your strategy or immediate needs. As I say in the preview, some equipment have modifiers that makes them more suitable to combat certain enemy units instead of others. So, there can be special attack and defense modifiers depending on the situation but not fixed ones.

      Moreover, splitting a unit’s strength into attack and defense attributes is a much more challenging feature than one might think. The game becomes several times more complex and harder to balance right, and sometimes leads to exploit tactics, where usually the attacker has the advantage (e.g. Heroes of Might & Magic, Master of Orion, etc …).

      So, strength split into attack and defense looks good in theory but it’s surely a hell to balance right. Look at how Civ4 and Civ5 got rid of it. But yes, Alpha Centauri has it, but there are ones who think the attackers almost always had the advantage. This is an interesting topic, one to discuss in detail in another time.

      2. Too soon to tell. It was not in my preview’s scope to cover that. AI is probably one of the hardest game elements to assess right, so I’ll only be in a position to evaluate it after many hours of play and only when I have the final product in my hands.

      3. Also too soon to tell. That’s on the review’s scope as well.

    • SephiRok says:

      We are considering a randomized tech tree, it might fit the design we’re going for more, but we haven’t fully decided yet.

  10. Martok says:

    Nice write-up, Adam. Thanks for doing it!

    This does look interesting. Here’s hoping I get into the second beta round (I didn’t get into the first one). :)

  11. csebal says:

    Nice article, Adam. PFC will have to fill some really big shoes if they want to follow in AC’s footsteps.

    On a related note:
    Sure its beta and all, but did we really fall so deep as to be “happy” when the game can handle one of the most basic windows functions (like task switching with alt-tab) properly or when you only encounter one bug in three hours? :)

    Sure with the history if recent failed releases, it might be worth noting that a game does not seem to be a badly nailed together piece of junk for a change, but apart from that.. having a working product should still be considered the baseline, even for a beta to be honest :)

    • Adam Solo says:

      Thanks csebal.

      As you say. With the recent record of failed launches, I think it’s pertinent to note that the beta build is quite stable. I only played it for about 3h but it was sufficient to assess that point. My “alt-tab” reference is figurative of how bad builds (and released games) can be sometimes. Even AAA games sometimes have trouble offering a smooth alt-tab experience (sometimes they crash, other times they lag severely). This does not seem to be the case with Pandora.

      So, in principle, stability should not be a problem.

  12. Sounds like the resource system is very similar to Star Ruler. Can’t wait to play this and find out what its like first hand. Good preview, thanks.

  13. Adam Solo says:

    By the way, to my knowledge, Slitherine is still accepting beta signups. If you’re interested go for it, maybe you’re lucky :)

    • caekdaemon says:

      I’ve signed up again, hopefully they’ll send me a message this time. I love beta testing games, I enjoyed doing it with SOTS2 and Star Ruler.

      • SephiRok says:

        Appearently you have to make sure you select that you want to receive newsletters in your Slitherine account settings, otherwise they can’t send you the mail.

      • sly ostinato says:

        @caekdaemon – Don’t hold your breath. I signed up for a beta and never heard from them again. So, I took it as a sign that they weren’t really serious about getting free beta testers.

        • Adam Solo says:

          Take it easy sly. There are people in there, I can confirm that :) So, you were unlucky. And, they never said how many would enter the beta. And, they seem to be doing it in rounds, maybe you’ll get a chance in a next wave. I have no idea what their criteria is.

        • Martok says:

          That’s odd. I signed up for the Pandora beta as well, and I did receive a notification from them. I didn’t get in, sadly (at least not for the first round), but I did at least get a reply. Strange.

  14. Hawawaa says:

    I’m eye balling this game for awhile and thanks for this preview. I hope it does well. Either AC2 or game like it is good in my books and its about time. :D

  15. Edward Ryan says:

    I am looking forward to this!any company that offers anything like Alpha Centuri or Civ has a good start in my book…..for me Alpha Centuri is one of the greatest games of all time.

  16. JayMon says:

    From you’ve mentioned in this article, it sounds like this game is going to be an updated Alpha Centauri… which is fine by me. AC was probably the best Sid Meier’s 4X game so far. It’s definitely time for a worthy successor, and it sounds like Pandora may be it.

    Hopefully they’ll bring back the terraforming features. Creating mountains to trap rainfall, blowing a city into a crater that becomes a lake… The malleability of the terrain was one of the most interesting features that I always wished had caught on.

  17. Edward Ryan says:

    Why oh why do all the games I am interested in come out in November? bloody hell I will need to rob a bank :(

  18. Gary says:

    According to the web site, http://pandora.proxy-studios.com/, Pandora is being released tomorrow, Nov 14, 2013. How soon will you have a review up? :)

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