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Pandora: First Contact – First Impressions

By on November 15th, 2013 2:33 pm

Pandora: First Contact | Turn-based sci-fi 4X strategy game by Proxy Studios, Slitherine and Matrix Games

Developer Proxy Studios and publishers Sitherine and Matrix Games, bring us Pandora: First Contact, a turn-based sci-fi 4X strategy game which is highly inspired by Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC). Clearly, the devs’ idea was to create a spiritual successor to the classic sci-fi 4X game.

Pandora entered beta in the end of 2012. I played the available beta build by February 2013. Here’s the early preview I produced back then. Now, almost one year after it entered beta, the game is finally released.

I played two games in the last few days, including a full playthrough which culminated with a science victory. So, I’m ready to tell you my first impressions. The review will follow in the next couple of weeks.

If you never played SMAC, and with Pandora it’s no different, the idea is that a group of distinct human factions (seven in SMAC’s case and six in Pandora’s) each with their own traits and beliefs, representing the typical social archetypes, travel to an Earth-like planet in order to explore and exploit it. Like in Civilization games, you start from a single small city, explore the vicinity, found new cities and exploit resources while you deal with the opposition. The typical 4X formula. But, in Pandora’s case, like in Civilization-type games, it’s a 4X game of the planetary kind. So, this game isn’t about building spaceships and travelling to different star systems, like in Master of Orion, for example. All planning and action takes place in a single planet, Pandora.

First the technical aspects. The UI is superb. Almost perfect I would say. Why? Because I don’t have much to say about it. It’s like it’s not even there, which is what an excellent UI has to be in the end. Not perfect because I find that the diplomacy screen could be a bit more intuitive. Let’s say that it’s not so immediate to understand what each faction thinks of each other as it could be, nor what the progress indicators (economy, military strength, etc) mean exactly, at least at first glance.

Pandora: First Contact | Diplomacy screen

But, I found everything else about the UI to be great. There’s plenty of tooltips and the event system handling is sublime, so, you never feel lost. And, what you don’t understand directly via the UI you can know more about via the in-game encyclopedia, or compendium. In fact, all that I felt the need to know about could be found either on the UI itself or on the in-game compendium. A note to the devs though, I only found out about the victory progress by accident when I understood that you’d need to hover the mouse on the economic/military/research buttons at the bottom. I think that that information should be inside each respective screen, or you must be more specific about it in the compendium.

Stability is flawless. Zero crashes in a complete game for about what, 10-15h? This should be the norm I know, but unfortunately it isn’t. Regarding bugs, I’m not sure. Well, at least I didn’t find any glaring ones so far. I got a tech twice in different games without having researched it (the same tech). But, since it had something to do with doing battle with the planet’s indigenous life I may have got it directly through the battle itself. So, I’m not sure if it was really a bug or feature. It was weird though. On another occasion I could swear that a public denouncement from a rival faction produced no effect, but I’m not positive on that one either (again, this relates to the less than optimal diplomacy screen). So, overall, stability and software quality seems great.

Regarding performance, it’s too soon to tell. My full playthrough was on a medium-sized map, and while performance was great during the entire game, with very quick turns, this could change on large or huge maps. So, I reserve more on performance for the review.

Aesthetically, I have no big complaints to report. The graphics are nice. There could be more animations, but I’m nitpicking I guess. The UI is very slick and clean. Readability is good (by the way, you can change the font from the standard futurist one to a normal or even normal-big if you want). Sounds are basic but get the job done. The music score is average to good, but sublime for a few tracks. Nothing spectacular music-wise I would say, but I never turned it off while playing. Although I did skip a few tracks which I found a bit poorer, and a bit annoying frankly.

Pandora: First Contact | Economy management screen

Now, on the gameplay itself. The learning curve is not very high. Though, I was already familiar with the basics as I did play before for the beta, but it was only for a few brief sessions in any case. The tutorial system is simple but quite effective. You get a set of not so intrusive pop-up messages once in a while every time you interact with something for the first time. What I mean is that the messages blend-in very well with the game’s flow, so, you actually feel comfortable reading them. And, frankly, you can learn all the game’s basics from those. So, you don’t really feel the need to read a manual. Actually, the manual, at the moment, is essentially lore, system requirements and some modding tips, but the good news is that you don’t really need to read anything else outside the game in order to play.

The game’s elements you’ll be interacting more, besides the game’s map itself, are the city management screen, research screen, diplomacy screen and, possibly to a less degree (depending on if you play more or less peacefully), the workshop, which is where you customize your units.

The game’s economy is based on allocating your population to four different types of production: farming, mining, manufacture and research. All four production duties generate pollution, some more than others. Pollution hinders morale and morale affects, well, almost everything. So, you’ll want to keep pollution under control and your population as happy as possible. Resources stockpile in a global depot. So, this means that resources are shared by all the cities. This leads to the natural specialization of cities, as, depending on resources nearby, some may specialize in minerals production while others may be more suitable for food production and others can devote their full population to research duties.

Pandora: First Contact | City management screen

I’m enjoying Pandora’s economy system. You can’t really say it’s that innovative or complex, but I find it elegant. It’s still your typical food, minerals, production, research management at the end of the day. But, throughout my entire game I did found myself often thinking what should I build and research next in each city in order to maximize my economy. The game is also micro-friendly, but I only had three cities to manage, so… I reserve more on that for the review.

Research is straightforward. Which is not the same as saying simplistic. Quite the opposite really. It’s also random by the way. So, you don’t seem to get the same tech tree each time you play. You can also choose how far on the tech tree you’re allowed to see at game setup. I haven’t toyed with this feature yet, but I found it to be a particularly interesting innovation. In my first playthrough I went with the default setting, which allows you to see two techs ahead. But, I suspect that seeing only one tech ahead can lead to a very different experience than from say, seeing three, all of them or none at all, since having more or less visibility on the tech tree can definitely have a big impact on your strategy. Combined with the random tech tree I think this tech visibility feature should allow for some nice replayability.

Pandora: First Contact | Research screen

There’s also a lot of techs to research. And I mean a lot. So many in fact that in my playthrough (medium-sized map against 5 factions) I only cared for about perhaps 50-75% of all the techs I researched. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they’re not meaningful techs, but in my game (hard difficulty with indigenous life aggression set to medium) I felt that I won the game at about half the time it was required for me to win. I went for a science victory, which requires that you research 75% of the entire tech tree. But, on the last quarter of the game I was just hitting end turn, turn after turn, going after every tech just to get to see the victory screen. Also, the tech trees don’t seem to make much sense. I mean, the techs themselves are interesting and are self explanatory enough, but the links between them are loosely coupled, at best.

Warfare is enjoyable. Units can stack. Terrain is a factor giving different bonus or malus depending on the type of unit. You can customize your units with different weapons, armor and devices for extra modifiers. There’s plenty of modifications that you can unlock via research and I feel that I’ve just scratched the surface regarding combat. The reason for that is that I chose to play (very) peacefully in my first game. So, I chose the race which gets a combat strength malus but more morale and better relations with the indigenous species. And, it worked quite well. On my second game however, I chose a more middle ground approach and found that there’s quite a lot of strategy involved in the way you can customize your units. The terrain is also an important factor, so, you can’t neglect your tactics either.

Pandora: First Contact | Workshop (unit customization)

Now, on immersion and fun. I think the devs did a great job in successfully transporting you to another world, which can feel familiar (since it’s Earth-like after all) but still look alien enough. The flora and fauna are diverse and interesting to watch and discover. The hints to a long gone highly advanced civilization is another interesting element, especially for the exploration part.

So, what I mean is that you do feel immersed in the game to a fair extent. The nice graphics, voice-overs, research quotes, and the diplomacy lines – different from faction to faction – all add up to create an interesting atmosphere which in a way, and it’s been a while, reminds me of SMAC’s own atmosphere, perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of that sci-fi classic. So, there’s some soul to be found here, no doubt. However, I feel that better music tracks, a few more animations, a more exciting art set for the factions portraits and advisors can go a long way in injecting more life and even more immersion into this game.

Pandora: First Contact | Alien fauna and flora

In conclusion, I had fun in my first full game of Pandora: First Contact. The type of fun that almost made me forget that I was reviewing a game. A feeling which does not happen as often as you might think. My game did suffer a bit from late game boredom. A curse in most 4X games. And, some times, I did feel the need to have a bit more to do and to feel more challenge. After all, I was playing in the Hard difficulty (level 4 of 5) and won on my first attempt. Of course, multiplayer can be a very different story. At least there’s tension throughout most of the game, as you actually don’t know when the indigenous life will strike you, which leads to a nice meta-game of trying to figure out what exactly pisses them off or not.

So, it was a very interesting first experience, for the most part. I’m not sure yet how well the game will scale in terms of difficulty increase and map size. I’ll try it in Very Hard with more alien aggression next time, and on bigger maps. But, while I still need to play much more to properly assess balance, AI strength, challenge and replayability, at this point I would say that if you’re a Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri fan or like Civilization games in general, you should probably enjoy playing Pandora, like I did.

The review should be up in the next couple of weeks.

Pandora: First Contact is available on the Matrix Games store and Slitherine store for $29.99/€23.99 (plus VAT depending on where you are).

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  1. BH says:

    Sounds awesome. I loved smac and smacx. I hope that it can stack up like you say in your review

  2. AstralWanderer says:

    Interesting first look – the repeated comparisons to SMAC do raise a couple of questions though:

    * Is there a unit designer? (one of SMAC’s pluses)
    * Do you have to build/manage large numbers of terraformers? (a SMAC minus)
    * Is combat limited to single unit-on-unit? (another SMAC minus)

    And is the game available DRM-free? (i.e. installable and playable without Internet access).

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, there’s unit customization. Chassis, weapons, armor and special device. It’s similar to SMAC but you only have one special/device slot in Pandora’s case.

      You don’t need many terraformers/formers. Actually, I only built one in my entire game, but I only had three cities. The interesting part is that there’s no real benefit in terraforming every map tile. So, the choice where and when to terraform does mean something.

      Units can stack but they attack one by one (or unit-on-unit as you say), like in Civilization 4, for example.

      The only form of DRM present is a serial code. You don’t need internet access in order to play, and I don’t think you need to be online to install either. Although the game always checks for updates if you’re online.

      • AstralWanderer says:

        (sorry for the delayed reply – third posting attempt).

        Thanks for the info – sounds like it should be worth a flutter. Though it seems they use Plimus (now named BlueSnap) for order payments, who have been an absolute PITA to deal with in my past experience.

        • Alfy says:

          For what it’s worth, I made a mistake upon purchase (I got he PC version instead of the Mac). Plimus told me they could not do anything, but Slithering just sent me a new link almost immediately. It’s really nice to know the original publisher has your back.

    • Happy Corner says:

      I haven’t played much yet, but there IS a unit designer (you select base unit type, weapon, armor, and a special), and combat IS limited to single unit on unit.

      I actually like the unit designer/combat more than Alpha Centauri. Now your weapon and armor both matter whether you’re attacking or defending! (It always annoyed me how in SMAC, your weapon or armor was completely useless if you weren’t on the right “side” of a battle.)

      EDIT: Doh! Mr. Solo ninjad me. I also forgot to say that he wrote a good piece… he said he has yet to write a full review, but what he’s already written here is more informative than some real reviews I’ve seen.

    • JiminyJickers says:

      DRM free is definitely one advantage of Matrix Games. You get a serial key to install the game, but you don’t need an internet connection at all.

      Once you have downloaded the installer, you never need a internet connection to install and play the game ever again.

  3. Laird says:

    Adam, thanks for the write-up. I have SMAC with the xpac–is Pandora distinct enough from that to warrant the price point?

    • Adam Solo says:

      That’s a great question Laird, but also a very subjective and complex one. Especially because you put it from a price point perspective, which naturally will depend a lot from person to person.

      As I say in the first impressions above, I think that if you’re a SMAC fan there’s a very good chance that you’ll enjoy playing Pandora, because after all the game’s theme is the same. Of course, the aliens, units, factions and their background stories are different, and for that reason alone Pandora offers a different experience, but the basic premise is the same.

      So, this leaves us with essentially mechanics, aesthetics, software quality and the overall experience aspects to discuss.

      Pandora’s software quality (performance, stability) seems excellent. So, that’s out of the equation for now. The aesthetics, and of course this will vary a lot from person to person, are not really an issue, at least for me personally. As I say above, Pandora’s graphics are nice, music and sound are average to good. And, I don’t think graphics or the music quality is really the reason people love SMAC anyway. Of course, the way everything is put together is a different story. The devil is always in the details.

      On mechanics, there would be a lot to talk about. Most of what you do seems to be essentially the same, but the economy is considerably different. In Pandora, resources stockpile and are shared globally, which naturally provides a different experience. And so far I’m enjoying it. Then there’s also a nice migration mechanic, which makes people want to move to happier cities (inside your empire). And that’s another nice little innovation right there.

      The tech tree is random, which theoretically should provide more replayability, although it comes with the cost that Pandora’s tech trees may probably not be as interesting as SMAC’s tech tree because due to the way the randomness is implemented makes them less rich from a logic point of view. So, although there’s a lot of techs (and they’re interesting to a good extent), the tech flow itself, the tech requirements, don’t have much meaning. Contrary to SMAC where the tech tree is fixed, and therefore is/can be much better thought out.

      Now, on the overall experience. It’s too soon for a verdict, but I suspect that SMAC may be more immersive than Pandora in the end. On the other hand, Pandora is more accessible (the UI is excellent) and is better graphics-wise, well at least it’s up to date with today’s standards/expectations anyway.

      So, again, if you love SMAC (or Civ/4X games in general) you should probably enjoy playing Pandora, and if the price is not an issue I’d say that it provides enough distinction to justify your time. But, I’ll be in a better position to tell you how good Pandora’s experience really is by the time I publish my review.

      • Laird says:

        Adam: Thanks for that detailed response. I realize it’s subjective, but that helps a lot. I’m interested in your full review. Also intrigued to see if they develop it further with additional content or if it is mod friendly…Very tempted to give it a spin.

  4. Fishy says:

    This is one I’ve been keeping an eye on for awhile, I was going to wait for a full review before buying… but after hearing your first impressions and been just a tad to curious on the weekend I bought it. (I claim it’s research for my project ;))

    So far I’ve enjoyed, I do understand what you mean it could use a few more animations… doesn’t seem like it would be hard to animate the weapons to hit a target your fighting? But that is just graphics and didn’t stop me from enjoying the game.

    I found the tech tree very detailed but not a lot of meaningful decisions, I just found myself researching everything in each tier before moving to the next. Maybe its just the way I play? I did end up lagging behind the AI’s tech during the game. though on a side note been behind a bit in tech didn’t seen to mean your useless just have to work just a little bit harder, I think they might have got a pretty good balance here.

    One other thing I noticed is how un-obtrusive the UI is usually this is a great thing and for most of the time and found really easy and simple to use. the only downside it thought of the devs trying to make it unobtrusive is that sometimes I’d miss diplomacy news (or maybe there just wasn’t that much?) because it doesn’t popup and I just didn’t notice much going on until someone was dead or declared war on me. I may also be effected by my playstyle sometime going through my turns a little to fast.

    One neat feature that did a little bit extra was the operations, building one off special effects gave you a bit more choice for a city that had all the buildings you wanted, not a revolutionizing feature but a nice addition.

    Only played one game so far (still not finished it yet), at one point i had lost all my cities by been a bit careless with my defending units but managed to take back my capital next turn and eventually take all of their cities and wipe that faction out. It’s been fun overall and when I finish my current game will definitely try a few more games and see how replayability goes :)

  5. lammaer says:

    Finally, not a news about an n+1 kickstarter, but a finalized and polished product. Hoooraaaaay :)

  6. Ivan says:

    Wow! Very interesting and as lammaer says, finally a finished product. You (mr. Solo) praised the game for being stabile piece of software, is it Alt + Tab friendly by any chance? Is there windowed mode? How does it behave with secondary monitor?

    An oddity that caught my eye on screenshots is a minimap. The map looks small. How does it fit 5-6 players on a such small map?

    • Adam Solo says:

      It’s very Alt + Tab friendly. Never crashed, which is something we know it’s not as common as it should be.

      There’s windowed mode, yes.

      I have a laptop and use a second monitor. No problem whatsoever.

      I think the mini-map serves its purpose well (played a medium and large game so far), but I have to say that I miss not having the political borders being shown there. I hope that they add that soon.

      This really is a brilliant piece of software. Stability appears to be flawless as I said above. And, as I’ve been playing since the first impressions, I can confirm that the performance is really good, even on a large map with the AI in Very Hard and late game. I mean, turns processing takes between 2 to 3 seconds on my quad-core 2.3Ghz CPU for the most part. Sometimes they take a bit more, but never as much as in most other turn-based games out there.

      By the way, got my ass kicked in my “Very Hard” AI attempt with “High” alien aggression. I’m currently playing a “Hard” AI game again, now with more alien aggression than the one I used for the first impressions, and I can say that I’m enjoying it a lot.

    • Ivan says:

      Thanks for info. It is and was unusual for a game to behave like an proper application. It was for certain reasons expected that a game would place it self above every other application and later it was normal for a game to crush here and there. Today both hardware and APIs are powerful enough to make full screen and predetermined resolutions (or window size in windowed mode) optional.

      By “map look small” I meant there are notably fewer tiles compared to what SMAC and early Civs call medium map. I didn’t complain about UI.

  7. Dan Horris says:

    Hello, great feedback on the game so far, I have been playing this game for awhile now and can’t complain about it too much. The music wasn’t bad at all(some of the tracks were really good) and I think you were way too harsh on it, maybe a few more excellent tracks(In an update) Overall this game is very promising!

  8. TimmY says:

    Too bad there is no demo. My paycheck is coming next month. Sigh.

    • Louis says:

      Timmy, it’s only $30. Just go spangeing for a while!

      “Spare any change this evening? I could really use a beer right now.”

      Stand on the right street corner, make sure you have a large, readable cardboard sign, and you’ll have $30 in about an hour.


      Actually, that was no negative reflection on you. I was homeless for about a year and that’s how I kept alive, so I know how it works.

      • TimmY says:

        Well, I’m not homeless, only on a tight budget till my paycheck gets here.

        I wish at least that the game was on steam, with the winter sale coming and all :)

  9. JohnR says:

    Two other reviewers seem to corroborate that Pandora is a pretty solid 4X game with no serious issues/bugs, and since I adored Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, I’m going to purchase from Slitherine presently. Also, I was really impressed by the short ‘history of the world’ vid of the game. Not only does it look gorgeous for an indie game, but I loved the nukes, singularity bombs, to say nothing of the uber cool monsters. I would also add that to my eye Pandora is much better looking than the other recent 4X game, Stardock’s Fallen Enchantress.

    BTW, as far as I know Pandora was not a Kickstarter project. Guess there’s something to be said for publishing a game the old-fashioned way. ;)

  10. JohnR says:

    Wow! Thus far I am impressed. It reminds me so much of an updated Alpha Centauri that I am giddy! Love the visuals, the interface, the music, the philosophy quotes just like AC, and many of the diplomatic messages are darkly humorous. I also love how the factions all have analogs from AC. The industrialist looks like Chairman Yang of the Hive, and there’s a female religious zealot like Sister Miriam Godwinson. Anyway, more than a few times in the past I’ve felt a lot of early enthusiasm for a game only to have it come down crashing and burning (the most recent example was the War Thunder mmo), but I am guardedly optimistic that this will not be the case for Pandora. Anyway, thanks Adam for your tentative thumbs up on the game. It definitely encouraged me to take a chance on it.

    • Adam Solo says:

      You’re welcome John. It really is a great game. I’m in the final stages of my review. I will just play one more game and then I’ll move on to the rating phase. But, there’s no doubt that this is a very solid 4X title.

  11. Bill says:

    So far I’m very impressed with the game. One of the most polished this year in the genre.

    It lacks just a couple quality of life items and a better diplomacy interface among several other very doable fixes.

    The random tech tree is a super cool part of the game. Since it’s moddable as well, we may see some really cool additions in the way of gear, tech trees and factions.

  12. Mario says:

    I am sorry that it isnt on steam too.
    I dont buy a game not on steam in addition to being at devs web pages….

    Please bring it to steam!!!

  13. Veers says:

    Hey Adam, Just wanted to say thanks for the review. I’ve never posted on here before but I’m very impressed with your site and tend to agree with your views on 4X and strategy gaming. I noticed Pandora elsewhere and looked for reviews on Amazon and Metacritic and got very little… but you’d already got a decent review right here. I know you said it’s just a first impression, but that’s still a lot more than the other sites I looked at. Anyway, thanks and keep up the great site here.

    Oh, btw, I saw where Matrix Games is having their holiday sale from November 25 to January 14th. Might be a good time for people interested in Matrix games… thinking about the Distant Worlds series myself.

  14. Blak says:

    Curious about this game as I was a SMAC addict sometime ago. On the multi-player, would my son and I have to buy 2 different licenses to play against each other?


  15. Buatha says:

    Yo, Adam! How about that review you were almost finishing four days ago? :)

  16. Sithuk says:

    Adam: please can you compare the AI to that of SMAC/X? I would like to pick a new title to play and would like to pick between Pandora and SMAC depending on which offers the most intelligent AI.

    I intend to pick the best of the mods for SMAC too, if that makes a difference.

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