Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is commonly accepted as one of the best strategy games ever made. But, almost 15 years since its release there hasn’t been any new sci-fi turn-based 4X game set on a planetary scale. Well, Proxy Studios, a small indie game developer, saw this opportunity, this market gap, and the result was Pandora: First Contact.
Perhaps the first thing veteran 4X gamers will notice about Pandora is how familiar it all feels. The reason for this familiarity is that Pandora looks and plays similar to the Civilization game series, the eternal reference for planetary 4X games. And, that is not a bad thing, but the contrary. Proxy did well in borrowing some of the best stuff from Civilization 4 and Civilization 5, the most glaring things being the hexagon-styled map, the slick and intuitive user interface, the in-game encyclopedia and the military stacks.
Of course, Pandora: First Contact also plays very similar to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a title the devs say to have been “inspired by” when developing their own 4X game. And, it shows. So, you’ll find a host of borrowed concepts from SMAC in Pandora. The Human venture into a recently discovered Earth-like exoplanet, the different factions with their distinct ideologies, the hostile alien flora and fauna, the planetary terraforming (not as complex but more on that later), the sense of mystery, the exploration of an alien world, the struggle and the conflict. Basically, Pandora uses the same theme and many concepts from SMAC.
And now you may be thinking: “So, but if it plays similar to Civ and SMAC, why should I play Pandora?”.
Where Pandora stands out
I played all Civilization games to death. I also played a lot of SMAC back in the day. And now I play Pandora: First Contact and find it quite distinct and enjoyable in its own way. Why? Because it does many things differently from MicroProse’s and Firaxis’ 4X titles. The most glaring difference is perhaps the way the game’s economy works, in particular how the production system works.
In Pandora, production is not tile-based but job-based. What this means is that each map tile around your city does not generate all the yield shown in the tile but only the amount according to how you assign your workforce. Let me give you an example. Say there’s a map tile around your city that shows 2 food and 1 mineral. That tile will not generate 2 food and 1 mineral if you assign a worker there as it would in Civ games, or in any other typical 4X game. You either assign one population unit to be a miner there, and it will harvest the 1 mineral alone, or to be a farmer, and it will yield only the 2 food per turn. Combined with a global resource pool, Pandora’s job allocation system allows for a natural predisposition for city specialization in a scale I never experienced before. So, it’s common to end up with entire science cities, mining cities, resort high-tax cities, mixed production cities and other combinations, because each city does not need to feed their local population. That’s assured by the empire’s global food supply. So, Pandora’s economy system is unique, and that is definitely one of its stronger aspects.
Another distinct and strong feature, that makes Pandora stand apart from other 4X games, is the tech tree’s random nature. Research paths in Civilization and SMAC, as for almost any other 4X game for that matter, are fixed. And, so, the tech progression feels almost exactly the same in every game. In Pandora, the tech tree’s shape is randomly generated, so the progression feels significantly different in each game, and there’s also no guarantee that all the techs will be present, which is also a very nice twist. Though, this random nature comes with a price, unfortunately. You see, the connections between the techs, the tech requirements, are not very meaningful, if they make any sense at all. You could have researched a new type of farming method that boosts food production and that may lead you to research a… new boat hull next.
This was the price to pay for the randomization process, but I think the devs could have implemented the system a bit better. Many tech paths are plausible enough if you use your imagination a bit, but some don’t make any sense at all. I think they should have devised a way to disallow certain techs to precede others. That wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish, I guess, and immersion would gain with that. But, the tech tree is quite big and I find most of the techs to be quite interesting, especially at the later stages (e.g. Black Holes, Organic Tanks, EMP beams). However, it’s not uncommon to start breakthroughing techs every 2 to 4 turns after some point. So, while there are lots of techs to unlock, you can’t help not to feel that everything is happening a bit too quickly. You can decrease the game pace at game setup though, but that also affects production speed. So, overall tech progression is enjoyable and the tree’s random nature is a very welcome feature which helps achieve more replayability. But, some further balancing would be welcome, and it would be great if the tech progression could make just a little more sense.
Another strong innovation in Pandora is the possibility to use support actions anywhere in the map. These immediate actions, called operations, let you have a more direct and fast interaction with the battlefield. They are actually quite satisfying to use because they increase your options and really make you feel powerful, a very important aspect in 4X games. Examples of such operations include satellite bombardment, nukes, instant repair, satellite scanning and even controlled singularities (black holes). And this is a new thing gentleman. And a big one too. You may have seen this mechanic in other strategy games like Command & Conquer: Generals or Company of Heroes. But, to this date, and if my memory serves me well, I’ve never seen this “operations” feature in a 4X game before. And let me tell you that it works great and it’s a lot of fun to use these. Some operations require that you build a special building to unlock them, and they will get replenished from time to time. Other operations are directly unlockable via research and you can produce as many as you want from that point forward. Operations are one of Pandora’s most important innovations and fun features, and surely one of its stronger points.
One more innovation worth mentioning is the nice automatic migration feature, another rare system to find in 4X games. When your morale is low and you don’t have enough living space in your cities, your people will tend to migrate to more desirable locations. This simple but very nice mechanic helps with immersion, as a sort of feedback to the way you plan your cities. And, it’s also a useful mechanic sometimes when you want to divert population from one city to another, to say, generate more science or food faster in your newly founded and specialized cities. And to achieve that migration effect you just need to improve life conditions on the destination city and not improve them (or even make them worse) in the cities’ you want the migration to come from. The game could just allow you to move people around at will, but I find this simpler and automatic migration system to be much more plausible, fun and micromanagement-friendly.
But, if you’re a fan of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, you may still may be asking yourself (as one person actually already did in this site):” I have SMAC with the expansion pack Alien Crossfire – is Pandora distinct enough from that to warrant the price point?”.
What’s different from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
There’s no question that Pandora is a very similar product to SMAC. So, one may wonder why should they invest their time and money in Pandora? Why not just play SMAC with its expansion pack Alien Crossfire instead?
I played a lot of SMAC in the day, which I consider to be one of the best games I’ve played, but it’s been almost 15 years. So, to refresh my memory I dedicated a portion of this review time to play SMAC and to see how Pandora really stands out against Firaxis’ sci-fi strategy master piece.
The way this will work is that by no means I’ll be thorough in my comparison, as I will not do a review of SMAC here! :) So, I’ll just highlight what I think are the major differences between the two titles, my personal picks to understand what major feature one game does better than the other.
Let’s start with the obvious. Pandora’s graphics are better. Now, this isn’t too unexpected for a game produced 15 years later. But, graphics alone are hardly the point in a game like this. No, seriously, they aren’t the point at all. Graphics can help with immersion, and will certainly help capture the younger generation’s attention more, but above serviceable it’s not going to be the graphics alone the reason why you will prefer to play Pandora, at least not if you’re a veteran 4X gamer anyway. But, the point is made. Pandora’s graphics are nice and much better than SMAC’s overall.
Now, let’s talk about the factions, no doubt one of SMAC’s most memorable aspects. SMAC’s has 7 factions while Pandora offers 6. All Pandora’s ones are almost carbon copies of SMAC’s with different names, lore and other details. So, in essence you have the religious zealot, the militaristic mind, the industrious one, the green sisters, the mogul entrepreneur and the research guy. The only one left was SMAC’s Commissioner Pravin Lal of the Peacekeepers. I think part of Lal’s essence may have passed to the “green” faction. SMAC wins here. But, I think Proxy perceived that this was a winnable area anyway. So, and this is my personal feeling only, I think they decided to fully borrow SMAC’s factions and make a sort of parody to them. Pandora’s factions are not that bad but SMAC wins in this area any day. SMAC’s factions feel more real, are much more immersive (also due to the excellent voice over work, no doubt) and Pandora can only accept to come in second here. Worth of note also is that I think Pandora should have more factions. As it stands now, a huge game may feel a bit too big and too empty for just the six factions alone. So, SMAC clearly wins on the factions department.
Another glaring difference in scope is the terraforming feature. SMAC’s terraforming is much richer than Pandora’s. It’s like it has another complete dimension to it. SMAC not only allows you to have multiple improvements in a single tile, but it also offers an extra layer of exploitation (deeper mining, more energy extraction and even more food production). But, SMAC’s terraforming also offers a sensor facility and above all else allows for terrain leveling that can have a dramatic impact on the terrain’s yield. So, while Pandora does offer terraforming features, they’re still quite simplistic (e.g. you can’t even exploit the sea in any way at the moment). So, this is one area where Proxy has still a lot of work ahead to even think in coming close to SMAC. So, SMAC clearly wins on the terraforming department.
SMAC’s user interface isn’t bad but isn’t great either, at least for today’s standards of improved accessibility. For example, SMAC’s UI shows you the city size and what’s being built there but only in a crude way compared to Pandora. Of course, Pandora benefited from years of UI trial & error design. And Pandora also adopted many best practices from recent Civilization games, which are almost considered standard these days, like the population growth indicator (ETA for population growth) and the building progress indicator (ETA for building to finish). In Pandora, you can also see the garrisoned units standing in each city and also access these units quickly. In SMAC you can’t tell which cities have garrisons on them, what their strength is or how many they are, at least not in a quick way. These are all small things but they do help a lot in the game’s flow when they are all put together. Then, the way the map is shown in SMAC, the perspective, makes it much harder to differentiate troops sometimes. Also, the menus in Pandora are more accessible overall. In SMAC you can use hotkeys for almost anything but some functions are not so easily accessible, they are sometimes buried one or two levels deep and can be harder to access if you don’t use hotkeys. So, overall Pandora wins on the UI department.
Then there’s one aspect where SMAC really stands out. Social engineering, or government policies. In SMAC you can unlock new types of governments, or policies during the game, and make a series of defining choices about who you are as a faction, which has a profound effect in the game. These are a set of modifiers that change key parameters of the game, including efficiency, morale, growth, research, industry, espionage and others. Pandora has nothing of this. Your faction strengths and weaknesses are fixed in Pandora, they never change throughout the game, while in SMAC there’s an extra layer of faction behavior complexity which turns gameplay much more unpredictable, replayable and ultimately more fun. This is one aspect that I surely miss.
Then there are other aspects which I think are worth mentioning, like the diplomacy which I think is richer in SMAC, or at least feels more authentic and has more flavor than Pandora’s. Negotiations also feel much more immersive in SMAC, like you’re negotiating with real leaders. You can also trade techs in SMAC and coordinate efforts with an ally. Pandora’s diplomacy is Ok but I don’t think it can compete with SMAC’s, or at least not just yet (more on Pandora’s diplomacy later on the review).
There’s also espionage features in SMAC, something Pandora also lacks. And SMAC also has secret projects, equivalent to Civ games’ wonders, which are very production intensive, while Pandora does not.
I tend to prefer Pandora’s flora and fauna to Chiron’s (or just “Planet” in SMAC) though. I think Proxy really did a good job on creating some interesting alien creatures which are really intriguing. Some of them are even quite powerful, so, you’ll not want to mess with them too soon. Still on the alien fauna, I think Proxy did a good job on creating such a diverse variety of creatures. Some are airborne, others inhabit the seas while others roam across the land, and some of them are quite beautiful and formidable.
In conclusion, and to close this already long SMAC vs Pandora section, I think SMAC is perhaps a more immersive game overall. The atmosphere and the story are richer. The factions, the way they behave through diplomacy, the voice overs, the more alienesque map nature, all these elements contribute to perhaps a more intense and memorable experience. But, SMAC is a much less accessible game and it’s definitely a more demanding, complex and time-consuming experience. So, at the end of the day, and depending on your mood, you may be more inclined to play the quicker, easier to play and more fluid experience of Pandora, perhaps. You may also fancy its tech tree’s random nature more, the global production model where you tend to specialize your cities more or you may enjoy to play with the fun support actions/operations that SMAC lacks.
But, if you’re a SMAC fan and are still undecided if this is the right game for you or not, hopefully the next chapters will help clarify that for you.
Pandora’s Gameplay (cont.)
I already talked a good deal about the factions, UI and how the research and production work in Pandora. So, now I’ll concentrate on the other gameplay aspects, like exploration, expansion & exploitation, diplomacy, the unit design system and warfare.
Exploring the map is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of a 4X game, and Pandora does a fair job in this department. The sense of mystery when you explore and reveal territory, and first meet each of the different alien species, is quite absorbing. There are also ruins spread across the map in both land and sea. You can investigate these ruins, and contrary to SMAC, where sometimes the outcome is negative (many times in fact), in Pandora the outcome is always positive. Sometimes you’re given minerals, other times a stack of food, experience for your troops or perhaps some tech points. I wouldn’t mind an occasional negative outcome to spice things up, but overall I’m ok with the ruins discovery process. There are many of these spread across the map, so the exploration will not end completely until quite late in the game.
As I said above, Pandora’s aliens (the indigenous fauna) are quite interesting. You can set their aggression level at game setup by the way, which includes a random setting, so you’ll never known exactly when the aliens will become hostile. They’re not in the beginning. And, quite interesting also is the fact that the aliens react to your actions. If you’re closer to a hive, where the aliens breed, you’ll be attacked more. Or at least more often. And, if you destroy one of such hives the loot will be quite nice but you better prepare for a swift retaliation. The aliens also seem to stay away from well defended cities and will refrain from attacking much stronger units. So, the NPC’s AI feels quite right. There’s also a tech that lets you capture these creatures. Then there’s the flora, which is used in the game mainly as special resources found in the map that can boost food or production. But, the most interesting aspect of the flora is perhaps the “fungus”, which is helpful for the alien ecosystem, including the fauna, but toxic to Humans. Later on, this “fungus” can be exploited.
Expansion and exploitation in Pandora is about securing the most “special” resources you can find in the most reasonable way possible, since you’ll not dare venturing too much into the wild in the beginning, at least not until you have a better understanding of how to deal with the aliens that is, as some of them are quite powerful and can turn hostile any time soon. Special tiles found across the map will boost your mineral production, food yield, research, morale and credits generation. And, as the harvested resources accumulate in the global empire stockpile, you can, and will certainly want, to specialize your cities. So, you’ll want to found your cities next to these special tiles. Combined with technology that unlocks resource-boosting buildings it’s sometimes possible to have a single city feeding the entire empire, while you do all your research in another city and let the more production-heavy city build your units for you, usually the capital. Then there’s the morale, habitat, pollution, taxes and growth concepts to manage. You’ll want to maximize growth and morale for increased productivity and tax generation, and to achieve that you’ll want to minimize your pollution, keep the habitat high and the tax rate just right. It’s quite an elegant and micromanagement-friendly economy model that will surely keep you busy trying to figure out how to maximize your production.
Now, let’s talk about diplomacy. I have mixed feelings about Pandora’s diplomacy. I find the current system to be serviceable, but more should definitely be done to enrich it, and many aspects are perhaps a bit too predictable at the moment while others are perhaps too erratic. For example, the diplomacy praise/denounce system allows you to quickly gain/lose favor with an AI. This has the effect that all your friends will be friendlier to the AIs you praise while your rivals will hate them more. However, it’s not uncommon to find yourself locked in a situation of perpetual friendship where everyone praises each other over and over again, and everybody has non-aggression pacts and is happily cooperating with research and trading pacts. And, in these situations, unless you do anything about it, there’s a high chance that all the AIs will just keep cooperating and will try to keep their standings with each other, which is quite of a dull situation to be found in. On other occasions, relations can go sour very quickly and this escalates to a state of perpetual war (or at least very hostile relations). So, the totally opposite effect, but it still feels like you’re stuck on a locked situation again.
My theory for this predictable behavior is that I think the diplomacy system may be a bit too one-dimensional right now, relying too much on military power to decide when to go sour or nicer towards another player. And then the general diplomatic status will typically go either the all friends way or the all out war way. Each faction has its own personality, and you do feel that quite easily as some tend be more friendly while others are more trigger happy. But, more than once I noticed that as soon as my military standing drops, and I mean as fast as in a few turns elapsed, you will start to get tribute demands, non-aggression pacts cancelled and even declarations of war quite fast, even from your long time friends. But, if you start to create military units and manage to be on par with everyone else, or even have the military lead, usually nobody will bother you, and they’ll even flatter you constantly and give you repeated gifts. To fix this predictable diplomacy effect, Pandora should have a social engineering or political system of some kind, like the one found in SMAC for example. The nice thing about these dynamic political systems, like Civilization 5: Brave New World’s World Congress or SMAC’s Social Engineering system, is that the factions’ status quo is shacken at mid or late-game due to important decisions made which tend to break long-time friendships or approach factions who hated each other till then. I sincerely hope the devs plan on implementing some kind of governments, social policies or a council system in patches or in expansions, because right now, diplomacy is a bit too predictable and dull.
But, on a brighter side, diplomacy is quite dependable, so you can really tell who your friends are. Non-aggression pacts will not allow factions to attack each other until one of them cancels the pact and waits for 5 turns before being able to declare war. Trade and research pacts are quite straightforward and are fun ways to foment cooperation, trust or even nice instruments to “smuggle arms” and cash to an AI that you don’t wish to fall into enemy’s hands. A few more diplomatic options would be desirable though, to spice things up, like a warmongering penalty, or at least a penalty if you attack an AI which is friends with another AI. This would stop the more militaristic factions from bullying the others over and over again and perhaps make them think twice before declaring war on a faction that is friendly and cooperating with other factions. The possibility to coordinate efforts with an ally would also be nice. Right now alliances aren’t that useful and will only generate the occasional and fortuitous fight, more due to chance than to a real coalition that defends each other’s interests in case of attack from a third party or that coordinates where the allied factions should strike next.
Warfare is very satisfying in this game though. I mean, really satisfying. There are several types of units available, or hulls, which get upgraded with every new era of discovery, for a total of 3 eras. This means better ships, ATVs (which are kind of quads), infantry, tanks, airplanes and mechs in each research era, which level up through battle. Each hull comes with a default power, which is attack and defense strength combined (like in Civ5 for example), movement speed, sight range, upkeep cost and production cost. Then, you can use the Workshop, which is the game’s feature that allows you to equip and further customize your units with your armor, weapon and special device of choice. And while the armor just applies a strength multiplier (the bigger and more expensive the better), the weapons are quite diverse in the effect they offer which allows you to refine your troop’s role. For instance, some troops may be perfected to counter biological units while others may be stronger against mechanical units or airborne units. Then, there are even special weapon effects like splash damage (damage by area instead of single unit), useful to counter huge military stacks. And, sniper damage, which inflicts few damage but benefits from no retaliation. The unit’s device slot allows you to refine your troop’s role even further. Some devices are your usual +25% offense/+25% defense run-of-the-mill modifiers but others are actually quite cool allowing you to deny enemy retaliation completely, move more, have extra sight, a better healing effect or even capture aliens.
So, if you have nothing against military stacks, and each unit attacking in sequence always against the best defender of the defending pack (ala Civ4), then you’re up for a treat. I loved the system in Civ4 and I’m finding it very enjoyable in Pandora as well. You may say that the game may suffer from the “Stack of Doom” effect, enormous and unstoppable stacks of units sweeping the map. But, I didn’t feel that here at all, even in prolonged wars involving dozens of units in both the attacking and defending side. The splash effect helps counter entrenched cities or big stacks, and satellite bombardments and nuclear missiles will help you soften stacks to the point that you and the AIs should think twice before deciding to put all the eggs in one basket. Speaking of nukes, I never played a game where they felt so well done as in this game. Deciding to attack a strong AI is nerve wrecking, especially when you suspect (or know) that they may have nukes, satellite bombardment operations and possibly even controlled singularity weapons. Preparing for war really gets you pumped in this game, and you’re actually required to think when devising your war strategies in this game. In this respect this is clearly much more of a war game than other 4X games like Civilization or SMAC.
On the AI
Assessing a game AI’s strength is usually a though nut to crack, but after 8 games with different difficulty settings, and map sizes, I think I’m finally ready for an assessment.
With respect to warfare, I think the AI is quite challenging. Even very challenging at times. The game has 5 difficulty settings. I played all my games on Hard and Very Hard, the top two difficulty levels (by the way, the devs say that the AI isn’t smarter in the higher difficulty levels, they just receive morale bonuses, meaning more production overall, starting on the third difficulty level). I won 3 of my 8 games. A military victory with the Imperium, the “militaristic” faction, and two science victories, one with Terra Salvum (the “green” faction) and another with Togra University (the “research” faction). All my victories where on Hard. I lost my two Very Hard attempts, with quick military defeats. So, militarily-wise the AI is quite good. They bring good numbers, attack in more than one front and are usually quite competent with the troops they bring, except a few times where they tend to spam low-ranked troop units all over the place. But, usually, the AI does bring a good mix of units with different specializations (anti-tank, anti-infantry, anti-air, etc), and I never experienced any obvious suicidal missions. So, I’m really very impressed.
Concerning diplomacy, and considering the weaknesses outlined above, my impression is that the AI plays the diplomatic game very well. More than once I saw an AI asking for non-aggression pacts when it was suddenly declared war by another faction, so to limit the possible war fronts number. Other times you do feel that the AIs are more open for negotiations when their military strength is crippled and they are at war with another faction. They do sound reasonable most of the times, or at least inside the parameters of what you’d expect them to be, i.e. they’ll be aggressive if they covet your lands and have a stronger military than you and will be benevolent in the opposite scenario. But, it depends on the faction too, because some are definitely more warmongering than others.
Economically and regarding victory seeking I also think the AI plays quite well. When I conquer their cities they are usually well developed. I also noticed that they use terraforming quite effectively, as I usually don’t feel the need to change or improve what they did. The more peaceful factions tend to go after a research or economic victory more, while the more warlike ones will not lose a chance to prey on their weaker neighbors and will usually go for a military victory. But, the AIs adapt. In one of my games, where I was aiming for an economic victory, where you need to amass a huge amount of credits to buyout the other faction’s economies, I lost to the militaristic faction with a science defeat.
So, in conclusion, I think the AI in this game is quite good and will give you a nice challenge, especially if you go with the higher difficulty levels where the AIs receive morale bonuses which allows them to grow faster than the Human player in all aspects allowing them to produce more units. I beat the game three times but I also lost other three, in Hard. And, I didn’t manage to survive much time in my two Very Hard attempts.
A few more observations and some suggestions for improvement
The game is very stable and performance is very good. The load time, game initialization and turn time are very fast. Late game turns in a huge game can last only up to 3-4 seconds. The devs achieved this by letting the AI battle animations happen while you play your turn. However, there’s some kind of queuing system set for these actions, so, you can’t interfere with the on-going battles, and if you decide to take part in them you must get in line first.
Too bad that the alien threat tends to completely disappear around mid-game. It would be cool to have some sort of alien resurgence in late game or witness the return of the ancient civilization hinted by the mysterious ruins. Perhaps in an expansion pack.
Music overall is good (eight new tracks were introduced after I played the game for this review by the way). The music tracks skip sometimes though. Audio is appropriate. Nothing outstanding but it’s not bad either. Some effects, like laser beams and explosions are quite nice.
The game offers multiplayer via direct connection or through a lobby for which you need to register an account on Slitherine first. I only saw one game hosted on the lobby once. I tried to connect but could not. Well, in theory you can play against 5 friends but I didn’t try it, so I can’t pronounce about multiplayer.
The manual is essentially composed of lore but I found that the game is easy to learn just by playing it. The in-game tutorial events, the encyclopedia and the user-friendly UI will help you getting started. However, this isn’t the same to say that there shouldn’t be a proper manual. It should. Some concepts are not that easy to grasp at first. For example, the diplomacy screen is not very intuitive, so you’ll find it hard to understand who likes who at first, and you’ll probably scratch you head a couple of times trying to figure out what the progress indicators (how good you’re doing against the AIs) actually mean. The combat modifiers and the workshop’s bonuses are also a bit hard to crack, but you should get there through trial and error, eventually. And the hot keys should not be documented in a readme file but be present in a proper manual or in the game itself.
The victory conditions are a bit bland at the moment. There’s a military victory (75% of population), a science victory (75% of all techs points) and the economy victory (enough money to buy the other factions’ economies). The economy victory condition isn’t clear though and it should be better explained in the documentation. There’s no diplomatic victory. So, there’s much room for improvement in what the victory conditions are concerned. I suggest that the devs consider implementing a customizable victory condition where the player could tweak the victory parameters, or even special victory conditions for each faction. Now that would be a very interesting thing to have, in my opinion.
You can rename many things in the game including the city name, the new unit designs but also all the individual troops, an essential but many times neglected feature that allows the player to create his own story.
There’s no hall of fame in the game. Another missed opportunity. The player wants to see its past victories and defeats. The hall of fame is a simple and nice way to keep record of the player’s progress. It’s a small but important feature to allow the players to feel that their experiences, their game stories, meant something.
The different factions have no specific buildings, units or operations. Another missed opportunity but possible to accomplish via an expansion.
Pandora: First Contact was a very nice surprise. When I first tried it, roughly one year ago, I had hopes that it could become an enjoyable 4X title, but not to the extent that I found it to be now, at release. In other words, this is a much better game than I first expected and surely one of the games I’ve enjoyed playing the most in recent years. The version used for this review was v1.0.2, by the way.
Playing Pandora feels like experiencing some of the best features other 4X games and great strategy games before it had to offer combined into a single game, sprinkled with a few nice innovations. Borrowed aspects I can identify include the military stacks concept from Civ4, the hexagon shaped map style of Civ5, SMAC’s unit customization system (the workshop), the operations from Command & Conquer: Generals or Company of Heroes and a job allocation production system ala Master of Orion 2 (moving population around between science, production and food). Add to that a rare random tech tree and a very satisfying war experience and you get yourself quite a unique game that is both very replayable and fun.
I highly recommend this game to all fans of 4X games in general as I think this game is a safe bet to experience something fresh but that feels quite familiar at the same time, and I’m sure you’ll get much from this game, like I did. If you’re a Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri fanatic I think it can go both ways for you though. If you loved SMAC in the day but are now looking for something fresh and more accessible, perhaps not as complex and immersive but much more fluid and war-like, then Pandora is the right game for you to try. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an experience similar to SMAC in what complexity and immersion are concerned, then there’s a good chance that you’ll still prefer to play SMAC. However, I suspect that you still have a good chance to enjoy this game since it offers an interesting new take on the alien planet exploration theme that you love so much.
If you’re new to 4X games I think Pandora is a relatively safe game to enter the genre if you’re curious and willing to give 4X games a try, because it’s an attractive and easy game to enter that should allow you to experience the famous “just one more turn” feeling that you may have heard about 4X games. Also, I think this is a much easier game to get into than other 4X games like Civilization 5, and certainly an easier one to pickup than Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. So, chances are that if you like strategy games you’ll probably enjoy your time with Pandora.
But, there are some deficiencies to be found here still. Many lacking areas begging for improvement and many opportunities for new content. But, Pandora: First Contact’s foundation is already a very solid one. This game’s polish level is something unusual for a 4X game’s first release, where usually you’ll need at least one expansion pack to turn the game into an enjoyable experience. Now, if only the devs continue improving the game, and from what I’ve been reading so far that appears to be the case (with a nice big patch released in the day this review got published); if they keep improving the game with more content, then there’s no doubt in my mind that Pandora: First Contact may turn into one of the best 4X games ever, and possibly even top Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, if that is even possible. But, make no mistake, this is already a great game as it stands right now.
Space Sector score:
- Excellent stability and performance (very low turn-time)
- Easy to pick up due to low learning curve and user-friendly UI
- Fun and replayable tech progression due to tech tree’s random nature
- Good AI that is both competent in managing its cities as challenging in the battlefield
- Elegant and micromanagement-friendly economy allows for the specialization of cities
- Interesting and diverse fauna and flora provides a nice sense of discovery
- Very enjoyable warfare that really makes you think offering diverse customizable units
- Support actions/operations are very fun to use (e.g. nukes, sat scans and black holes)
- Diplomacy is too simple and too predictable
- The factions are not innovative or special enough, and are also too few
- Gameplay a bit light (e.g. no espionage, social policies and simple terraforming)
- Not as immersive as Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (similar game from the 90′s)
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