Pandora: First Contact – Game Review
Passed Inspection: Glorious graphics, short learning curve, very short turn delays.
Failed Basic: Needs a “real” manual, difficulty settings need adjustment, fairly weak AI.
Pandora: First Contact is a great-looking and fun to play 4X (eXplore the environment; eXpand control; eXploit the resources; and eXterminate opponents) game, similar to the vaunted Sid Meier’s Civilization Series. In fact Pandora is, as the Matrix Games website proudly announces, “a spiritual successor to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.”
In Pandora the player assumes the role of the leader of one of six factions: Terra Salvum, ecological greens; Noxium Corporation, aggressive capitalists; Divine Ascension, religious fanatics; Solar Dynasty, authoritarian communists; Imperium, militaristic expansionists; Togra University; free-wheeling rationalists. Each of the factions has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, Togra University receives a research bonus but a negative to morale because of a lack of social disciple and motivation. Meanwhile, Imperium gets a bonus to its military units but the units cost 50% more, and so on with each different faction.
As with Civilization the basic production and control unit is the city. Cities are built by colonizer units (each faction starts with only one colonizer). Cities control the surrounding hexes and uses formers (terra-formers) to develop and exploit the surrounding resources. Pandora, being an earth-like alien planet, has some of the usual resources, like forests and gold, but also some new ones like the Gaia Forests and the Garden of Eden. Further, some terrain is actively hostile to humans, such a fungus that attacks human units passing through it. Also the native Pandoran wildlife can be antagonistic and will often attack human units and even cities.
Players may micro-manage their cities, down to assigning the population to specific jobs, such as farmer and miner, worker and scientists. They can also set a tax rate; higher taxes mean more money, but lower morale. Other things affect morale as well, pollution and lack of housing to name two. Lower morale means slower production and slower city growth. Resources produced by all the cities go into a general pool, so no one city will be starving for any resources while others are well supplied.
Of course, the planet is randomly generated with each game. The player may select a pangea (one large landmass), continents, or archipelago type planet. Scattered around the landscape are observation towers, which give the exploring units a greater line of sight. Also scattered around are ruins of an advanced civilization, which when explored gives the players resources such as research points or food. Also a player can take control of a unit of xenomorphs (fairly weak local wildlife unit) by exploring a ruin. There are also sunken ruins in the oceans, which provide similar bonuses.
The game interface is easy to learn and use. Orders are easy to issue, with none being more than three clicks from the main screen. The main screen displays the maps (a main map and a small strategic map) and has access to the diplomacy, military, economics, research and workshop menus as well. The hints and advice are really helpful. The advice has to be very helpful, because the game manual doesn’t give any instructions on how to actually play the game, but rather describes the universe of the game with lots of background information on the various factions. The manual is an interesting read that shows great imagination but does not help the player with the game mechanics at all.
The game graphics are simply great. The colors are bright and clear. The individual units are distinctive and the alien lifeforms are interesting, quirky—and vaguely dangerous looking. Hands down, this one of the best-looking games I have seen in a long time. The sound is good; the music is sometimes interesting and sometimes not, but it is never annoying.
In a really cool feature, the huge technology tree (over one hundred techs available) randomizes into a new configuration with every game. Also players may choose to limit their view of the tech tree so that they can only see up to three follow-on techs (or none at all). Also there are multiple paths through the tech-tree, which means the player doesn’t have to plod through every precursor technology to get to the more advanced ones. Sadly, there is a big drawback to this random tech tree, which is that technologies do not develop logically. Dismantling the colony ship is sometimes a second or third tier tech when one would think it should be the first thing the colonist would know how to do. Or why would better cultivation techniques really lead to better military training?
The military units are highly customizable. The player can select the basic unit type and then, based on his level of technology, change the armament (flamethrowers, missiles, gauss guns and lasers are all available at some point) and the armor. Further, a special device can also be added to the unit. These devices have functions such as adding to the defense or attack factors of the unit. One really neat device converts native life to the control of player, so a faction can grow its military roster by adding native forms. Also, older units can be upgraded making them far more effective in the mid and late game.
There are three ways to win the game: an outright military victory (the hardest one to achieve); a scientific victory (discover 75% of the total technologies in the game) and economic victory (the faction’s economy is simply overwhelming). The economic victory seems to be the easiest to achieve. In fact, my first three wins were almost inadvertent economic victories.
This leads me to the subject of the difficulty settings. The “easy” setting is just too darn easy. I played my first games on the “easy” setting, just to get a feel for the game and won an economic victory is less than thirty turns—because four of the other factions were wiped out on the third turn. Similar events took place in the other two games I played on that setting. Conversely, the “hard” setting is just too hard; in two games I played on that setting I was wiped out in about twenty turns.
The default setting is medium difficulty. On medium the game is well balanced, but I did notice that the AI seemed to be a bit weak. For example, when I went to war with a faction that had nuclear weapons and I did not, that faction didn’t use them, even though I could not retaliate in kind. Also I noted that in a solo game that the AI-controlled factions don’t seem to upgrade their military units.
The diplomacy in Pandora works really well. Non-aggression, trade, and shared research treaties are all available and are value-added to a faction. One thing I would like to see is direct trade in resources. For example there were times I had a shortage of minerals, but an excess of food. I would have liked to trade food to another faction in exchange for minerals but could not. Also, there seems to be a lot less backstabbing than in some versions of Civilization. In Pandora, factions who were not friendly trading partners on one turn might become deadly enemies on the next turn, but factions cannot and do not declare war with no warning.
Pandora is very stable. It has not locked up once in multiple games. Also, the turn delays are very short—just a few brief seconds for all the factions to play-out their moves before the game returns to the human player. This greatly speeds up play.
Pandora: First Contact is a very good but not (yet) great game. While Pandora is decidedly less in depth than Civilization V, it is still a solid 4X game. It is easy to learn, looks excellent and is very fun. A few improvements to the game would push it right into the “must have” category.
Armchair General Score: 89%
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee. He has degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He cut his war-gaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He has articles forthcoming in the Medieval Warfare Magazine and Ancient Warfare Magazine.