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Pandora: First Contact review

Pandora: First Contact review

Review - posted by oscar on Thu 5 December 2013, 14:13:28

Tags: Matrix Games; Proxy Studios; Tacticular Cancer

Alpha Centauri. Despite being released fourteen years ago as a Civilization in space spin-off, these two words will instantly summon fond memories and reflections from its (still active) cult following. And with good reason – How many 4X games feature a functioning rainfall model (that needs to be kept in mind and can be cunningly exploited) when terraforming, continent-destroying super weapons and an intelligent, hard sci-fi setting that explores the (occasionally nightmarish) implications and potential of future technology upon human society and politics? With this mighty legacy in mind Proxy Studios will have many who have been long hoping for a sequel very excited. Does the game fulfil these expectations? Read on to find out.

One thing very novel and quite brilliant about Pandora is its economic system. Instead of every city having its own individual food supply that determines its growth (or if too small, starvation), food (and other resources) go to an empire-wide pool. This allows specialisation and is far more realistic (especially considering the advanced technology of the setting) than one town a few hexes away being unable to grow in population due to a lack of good farmland while another town has plenty of food production but lacks the terrain to manufacture anything, an idiotic situation that is seemingly universal in the genre even to this day. Food surpluses are stockpiled and as long as the empire-wide foodstuffs are positive, growth occurs in your cities. This seemingly obvious innovation finally allows us division of labour, instead of every city in your land having to be self-sufficient.

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My vast food reserves mean I can dedicate most of the populace of this city to science

It also provides a lot of the in-game strategy. Hordes of enemy beam tanks and flamer assault infantry bearing down upon your cities? Time to send some of those farmers to the factories to get your war economy churning and live off the food reserves you’ve built up over time until you’re in a more comfortable position. Conversely, is it a time of peace with nothing particularly worth building in a city? Then it’s a good time to put some of your farmers and miners in the labs researching for the future. Food and mineral production tend to become much more efficient in the late-game, allowing cities (such as my screenshot) heavily devoted to science.

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Currency is used to refit obsolete units, instantly construct units or buildings and gift (or bribe) other factions

Warfare is also intuitive and fun. While starting off with mere rifle-armed colonial infantry and rovers, before long you’ll be bringing tanks, warships and aircraft to the battle (alongside my personal favourite, mechs). Fighting is a hex-based affair with different terrains granting bonuses and penalties for different unit types with fungus terrain damaging any unit inside it (though later in the game it can become economically valuable). Much of the meat of fighting comes from choosing what gear you’ll assign your different units. For instance flamethrowers grant a solid bonus against infantry and the indigenous life of the planet but isn't much use if you’re defending from aircraft, while outfitting infantry with sniper rifles weakens their general combat strength but grants them retaliation-immune attacks. Of all the factions, the Blackwater-esque Imperium are the kings of fighting, possessing a faster healing rate and combat strength (though at the expense of 50% additional upkeep due to their mercenaries high pay rates) while the ecological Terra Salvum hippies receive a -25% attack penalty due to their pacifistic ways. ‘Operations’ also act as cooldown-based abilities such as a fog-of-war lifting satellite scan or a stack-damaging orbital bombardment.

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4chan: Masters of guerilla warfare

In what will be no surprise to the veterans of Alpha Centauri, Pandora’s wildlife also has a will of its own. While starting off as an annoyance similar to the barbarians in Civilization games (leaving colonists and formers unguarded is a bad idea) they become more hostile as the game progresses and the tougher creatures can even pose a threat to your cities. Researching certain technologies or belonging to the aforementioned Terra Salvum faction reduces alien aggression but I personally simply built more tanks and mechs to fry the bugs. One suggestion on this front is that enemies (both native and other factions) AI should, if they’re too weak to capture your cities outright, start destroying the improvements you’ve built upon your lands forcing the player to sally forth and deal with them rather than comfortably surviving suicide attacks upon your well-defended cities. I never quite worked out why the enemy AI kept sending hordes of wimpy colonial marines into my lands to do nothing more than hang around and get eaten for lunch by my gauss cannon mechs of death. This is not to say the AI is bad as it is actually fairly competent and capable of giving the player a run for their money without cheating. It goes without saying how important a good AI is for these sorts of games and thankfully Pandora’s one is adequate to the task.

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You're gonna need a bigger boat

While there is a solid range of diplomatic options to engage in, I was a little disappointed by the absence of a World Congress type event. This was a fun mechanism to use diplomacy to hamstring your enemies and competitors in the recent Civilization V while a Alpha Centauri player successful at the Planetary Council election could melt the ice caps and raise water levels (or use satellite shades to lower them), enforce (or repeal) global free trade (a particularly good idea for the ultra-capitalistic Morgan Industries) or even if the player was particularly malevolent lift global restrictions upon atrocities such as the use of chemical weaponry, mind control of citizens and the aptly-named planetbuster warheads. The three victory conditions of controlling 75% of the world’s population, researching 75% of the tech tree or holding enough credits to buy every other faction out also feel a little limited. This means that peace can get a bit dull at times and I found myself starting wars simply because I was sick of clicking end turn to reach the victory condition thresholds. With no rebels (as in the Paradox games) and even huge enemy capitals becoming productive members of your faction after a few turns of standstill there is much incentive for the would-be warmonger, a trend contrary to recent titles such as Crusader Kings II or Civilization 5, the latter of which I often found myself avoiding conquest due to the burden it placed upon my empire's happiness score. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se but if you always prefer to be a builder than a conqueror you might find yourself a bit short on things to do (there are no equivalents to ‘Wonders’ as in Civilisation or Alpha Centauri’s ‘Secret Projects’ to invest in).

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A research pact with the theocratic Divine Ascension is probably going to leave my science-oriented Togra University worse off

Ultimately though Pandora: First Contact is a solid and well-polished title. An expansion pack granting a bit more gameplay variation, additional terraforming options, new factions or even the addition of some random and dynamic events could help elevate this from a good title to a great one. Hopefully this won't be our last contact with Pandora.

Overview
- Economic system much more sensible than most other 4Xs
- Intuitive and smooth UI
- Competent AI
- Fun warfare
- But not as fun peace

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